Travis Wilkerson’s latest experimental feature film, Machine Gun or Typewriter?, screens as part of the new Essential Independents Film Festival across Australia. As we put it in our review, the film “at once a landscape essay film, a fractious collage piece and an abstract confessional, restlessly serving the film noir narrative trope of a missing woman.” During the festival run we spoke to Wilkerson about his filmmaking process, the political climate in America today, and the joys of the Korg Kaptivator.
It’s exciting that your film has been screening around Australia.
Yeah, it’s been really nice. It’s been a strange film because it’s shown a lot internationally but it’s shown very, very little in the US. One screening, actually.
That’s really strange. To some extent, the film has its roots in American landscape cinema and the essay film. It seems strange that it hasn’t been more widely screened, particularly when considering its political approach to America today. Why do you think the Southern Hemisphere has embraced your film?
I’m not sure. I think there’s an impression people have that they already know my work here. So I think that there’s a lack of interest in discovery or newness to it, because I’ve kind of being doing it for a long time. My sense is that people hear “oh, it’s another essay film and it’s got political stuff and it’s got his found footage.” I think if they were to watch it with a certain openness they’d realise that I was trying to move in new territory.
I think that the US is also extremely uncomfortable with discussions of terrorism in any kind of way, if they have any kind of romantic quality to them or any kind of nostalgic quality. I don’t know… I’m having a very strange time with screenings in the US, I just am not showing here at all and yet I feel really, really good about the way I am showing in other places and the ways the films are being engaged with, which I feel like is deeper than in the past. The things that you wrote, for example, I really felt you engaging with the film in an intense way and wrestling with it and that’s happening in a variety of places – in Latin America, it’s happening a great deal as well. But for some reason here it is very much not happening and I can’t really account for it.
Maybe it’s some fear of an abstract political cinema, a political cinema beyond documentary polemics or rose-tinted narrative films, that does challenge viewers. That romanticism associated with acts of terrorism that’s especially present in the ending of your film reminded me of Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan.
Oh wow, I haven’t read that.
It opens on this brilliant sentence – “Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin.” – and then takes that sentence and unpacks it, who is this man? Why was he driven to the act? It ends up being this strangely romantic story of friendship and misunderstanding.
That sounds really cool. In the US right now, and I don’t even mean this in an overly aggressive way, but there’s a cautiousness to the avant-garde right now in the US that is a very strong presence. Often times, I’ll see works that are very highly regarded within the US avant-garde right now and they have a feeling to me of a certain kind of slightness, almost. It feels like there’s a failure of audacity, in a certain way. It seems like that is a peculiar thing that’s happening within the US avant-garde. My sense over and over again is that the political dynamics that are unfolding in the world that indicate the US is losing its pre-eminence is being reflected culturally as well. I’m not saying I’m magically resisting that, by the way, I don’t mean that at all. I do feel, though, that there’s something, there’s a cautiousness and a withdrawal and a kind of closed-minded quality that I’m encountering right now in the avant-garde world that I haven’t in twenty years.
That’s really distressing, particularly now with digital culture and a greater access… the fact that anyone can pick up a GoPro and turn in something interesting. You only have to look at the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s film Leviathan to see this creativity. We have a similar problem over here in Australia, in that there is no popular avant-garde in Australian cinema. I can’t recall a local feature film of that nature screening at one of our major film festivals in the last five years.
There’s video art, we have a strong video art culture here but that’s gallery-based and there’s no crossover in the same way as there has been in Europe and the US over the last fifty years or so.
That’s really interesting.
One of the things I find really interesting about the head space that Machine Gun or Typewriter? puts you in is that when get to the end, you can’t trust anything you’ve been told and it’s almost conspiratorial. I love that you open the film with ‘1878’ flashing on the screen and then wait around 40 minutes before you tell us what that means. This sense of mystery even carries over when trying to research your work. I was looking it up, there’s no definitive date anywhere as to when you met Santiago Álvarez. I’m guessing 1996, based on your documentary Accelerated Under-Development.
Yes. It was ’95 or ’96. I think the trip was 1995 and I assembled in film in 1996. I might be off by one year but it was in that range. I went to Cuba a number of times between 1993 or ’94 and 1997. I went a bunch of times. But that one was one long trip, that was like six months on.
The other date query I have is that Accelerated Under-Development is listed in various places as being released in 1999, making it your first film, and 2003, making it your second.
I always say that you give up a lot to work digitally because obviously there’s this beautiful tactality and materiality from film blah blah blah. But when you’re working on tape and you’re working digitally, especially when no one purchases the films per se, you have this ability to kind of continue to manipulate them and re-imagine them and reconvert them to find different ways for them to have relevance in a given moment.
I made an early version of that film, which would have been 1999 and then the second date would be when I released it on the DVD – I tried to create a DVD label, it was a kind of failed venture called Extreme Low Frequency – that was when I released the Álvarez films, a handful of them, then my own film and John Gianvito’s film The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein. The idea was that we were going to continue to release things but for a variety of reasons – there was economic calamity – and we shut down within two months. And so the films were never available at all but for that release I reworked the film (Accelerated) and added a coda to it because it was after he had passed away and so forth and then I couldn’t help myself and I ended up working on it a bunch and remaking it. So, it was one of those things where I had an urgent deadline to finish another film and so, naturally, I went back into an older film and worked instead of finishing my deadline. I do things like that all the time. So that’s why there’s this gap in dates. I probably should just list it as the original date.
That all means that you started your feature filmography with a title-card that says “in the idiom of Santiago Álvarez”. Would you say that all of the films that followed your first were also, in some way, made in this idiom?
You know there was a period when I think I really worked against it and I went in a very different direction. I feel like that I’ve kinda re-embraced it and that is interesting to me for a number of reasons because it indicates something about my own way of working. I mean, I could tell you a little bit about the origins of this film and then I think it really plays into that question, which is that I had made this feature film called Who Killed Cock Robin? after I made a film called An Injury to One. Who Killed Cock Robin? premiered at Sundance in January of 2005, I believe. The film was very, very poorly received. It did very badly in the US and it did a little bit ok abroad. It sort of found its own strange home in places like the former Yugoslavia, it did very well there for some reason. It had a big tour. It did quite well in the Philippines, I mean, strange places like that but in the US it was kind of a disaster. I more or less gave up on the idea that I’d ever be able to make fiction again because the tiny little window of opportunity seemed to have just closed in a dramatic way for me.
So over the course of the next several years I explored a number of different types of ways of working, I did a performance art piece and then I did a few fairly static and quiet documentaries that moved in a slightly different direction in terms of rhetoric and a style of discourse. They were a bit quieter and a bit more reflective of where I was at in that moment. I also think they tended a bit too much towards a certain kind of lecturing quality, which I think is also reflective of the fact that I was lecturing a lot because I was working as a professor. I finally reached a point where I really knew this whole period, nearly a decade, where I really wanted to make another fiction film but it just seemed impossible. I applied for the Sundance lab with a couple of screenplays, I applied to the Sundance Episodic Lab with a television series, I applied to various other producers and, you know, nothing. I applied to FIDLab with a project based on a Guatemalan immigrant day-laborer who was murdered in the neighbourhood where I lived in Los Angeles, so a whole bunch of different things. Nothing came up.
I had finished a previous film, The Los Angeles Red Squad movie and I kind of hit a wall with it. The discourse clearly… I still have a lot of fondness for that movie but I could see the discourse wasn’t working and I could see the ways in which ideas I had weren’t being communicated to the audience. I could see things which, to me seemed very obvious, which were structural issues then I would screen it and they clearly weren’t obvious because really smart viewers weren’t understanding me so it was a moment of ‘ok, I need to take a break’. Then I thought, well, why don’t I just try to make a narrative film the way that I had been doing the documentaries, where I’m working with something very simple, where I’m using things around me, where I’m taking the subway or the train to get to them and a backpack with my gear and I’m working by myself. Why is that uniquely something that would be associated with non-fiction instead of with fiction? So I started to imagine an idea that I could develop, that I could work on in exactly the same way.
So it was interesting that then, as I actually began to work with it, I found myself again confronting this issue of absence of material, absence of things, an inability to articulate certain things and then finding other material that I could jam in there in interesting ways and loop and create and all of a sudden, what I’m saying is, all of the same sort of improvisational techniques that I used in that very first film, that were so shaped by watching Álvarez’s work, started coming back to me when I was trying to find a way to express fiction and narrative in a way that was still beautiful and compelling but with no resources whatsoever. So, I think it really had to do, more with anything, with returning to a way of working and then it led me back into the same set of ideas.
I feel like Machine Gun is the most like that early work of anything that I have done in a long time but I think it’s very deeply tied to the fact that when I made it I was almost restored to the place where I was when I made that original film, which is that I was in the process of losing my job, being a stay-at-home dad, so I wasn’t a professional teacher or artist and I had a very tiny amount of resources. I had a camera that my parents gave me as a gift a few years earlier and I had this incredibly interesting city and all these stories that were really fascinating to me and I had the train, which I lived a very short distance from, which is the goldmine. It probably doesn’t seem that weird to other people but the fact that Los Angeles now has this really dynamic public transport system has really altered the landscape too. I really love to shoot things where I can bring my gear in the backpack, walk to the train station, get the train and then shoot. 90% of the film was made that way. It’s interesting how the ideas became interesting to me again and compelling to me again and dynamic to me again simply because I had to improvise. So, I don’t know what lesson to draw from that for my future work but it seems that I create some of the more compelling things that I do when I have absolutely nothing to work with and when I am not working professionally.
One of the big things that comes from the film is that it does feel very free, it feels not improvised per se because there’s a clear structure – that’s what is exciting. This idea of a direct-to-camera address almost being misdirection, alongside scope shots of the Los Angeles landscape, then Vietnam news footage. I think that structural idea of placing political commentary within a work of fiction of which you don’t exactly know where the ground is, that’s what’s really exciting as a viewer. I presume it was a freeing experience for you as a filmmaker?
It was, it was this sense again of this kind of rupture with the lecture. Because obviously in this sense one could argue that it’s another lecture. It’s an hour long, and I’m talking and it’s my voice droning on and on. When I first started thinking about trying to do this I had just watched this film called It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve by Philippe Grandrieux, it’s a documentary about Masao Adachi and it was made in I think 2006 or 2007. I knew about it because I know Nicole Brenez, the French writer, and she was involved in the production of it and approached me actually about potentially working on this series of films about radical artists and so I got the copy of that film just through her. The opening twenty minutes or so, and I might have the duration of this wrong, are just this really intense intimate voiceover [of Adachi] that’s obviously recorded in a different context – maybe a studio or a really intimate space and it’s almost like a whisper and he’s repeating these ideas to himself over and over again and he’s kind of contradicting himself and it’s funny because, watching this documentary, that was a moment where I was like ‘oh, I could make fiction this way’.
It’s weird that I came to this not from a fiction film but from a documentary but it had this quality, this literary intimacy of fiction to me and I thought ‘oh, that’s the way to do it’ – it’s got to be this movement from ‘I’m at a lectern and I’m issuing forth my professorial knowledge of Los Angeles history’ and instead ‘I’m whispering in your ear, I’m sharing something with you that I probably shouldn’t be sharing with you’. You know, for me this whole idea, because I keep thinking about this over and over and over again because when we’re in this period where we’re trying to cultivate some intimacy where everything is mass, this kind of notion of mass intimacy is just really interesting to me. Like where you have this sense of things that seem almost as if they are created for a single individual or for a small number of individuals and then somehow end up having this broader poetic resonance because of their specificity.
It’s all part of this fascinating multi-disciplinary nature of the essay film, that it can be documentary, fiction, can tie these concerns in. It’s a confounding and exciting type of cinema. I think there’s an interesting clash between the collage and the essay and in Machine Gun you venture through both but from what I have seen from Santiago Álvarez, it’s essayistic but more heavily aligned with collage, a visual assault.
I guess it’s this funny thing where, and this becomes something that isn’t even strictly political and maybe it just sounds like the French New Wave or something but authorship is a very interesting question to me recently because I have a sense of the medium in which there is so little individuality in the medium and there is this tremendous continuity that is very boring and numbing and disappointing and finding ways in which you really have a strong sense of an individual’s hand creating something becomes something really interesting for a lot of different reasons including, for example, issues of discourse over politics, which I find extremely annoying. This is that there’s always this notion that people talk about – “well, aren’t you concerned that people will respond that you’re telling them what to think or that you’re speaking in the voice of God?” – I think about both these things and I think, first of all, can you think of an example in which someone told you what to think and you thought it in your entire life? It’s never the case, right? It already presumes a kind of arrogance, that the viewer who asks that question of me can say “well it didn’t work on me but a stupid person it might work on”. To me, this whole thing… you just treat your audience always, you presume they are precisely as thoughtful and intelligent as you, if not more so. Then we get into the question of the voice of God. I personally don’t hear a voice inside my head that’s the voice of God.
That’s probably healthy.
You know what I mean? So every time I hear that notion I don’t know who people are hearing in their heads but they have something going on in their heads that I don’t have going on. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think making arguments in which one is clear about, in a sense, their arguments, is a sincere and open and direct form of discourse that allows people then to respond. It allows people to position themselves in relation to it. I find it an extremely democratic gesture as opposed to a kind of oppressive gesture, which is always implied by all those forms of discourse, that you’re asserting your views on something with such strength that you are going to obliterate anybody’s individual ability to conclude what they think, to criticise it, to stay away from it, to respond to it negatively and in my experience none of that is true. The more clear someone like Álvarez was, they really activate a kind of opposition, activate a kind of confrontation, activate a kind of critique because of their audacity and I just think that that’s a form of argumentation that’s rooted in a really individual vision that’s very interesting to me and which I want to continue to explore.
I guess that’s tied up into what you were saying earlier, this idea of a strong political vision that you don’t actually see that much in American film today. In your film I really like that when you have your radio host character talk about these horrific acts of police brutality and systemic racism, there’s this space in the frame. I’m thinking particularly of a shot of a building’s foyer, and the narration is about the massacre of Chinese immigrants – there’s a distance between the horrific story in audio and the seemingly placid but vaguely sinister locked off shot. It’s a way of forcing the viewer to reckon with what you are saying whilst also giving them space to think that out.
That’s great. That would be my dream, for sure. That’s the aspiration.
In some landscape theory there’s this idea of the landscape as its own medium, an expression of its own self. In making a film about it, as you have here and in sections of An Injury to One, you seem to be aware of this – you’re projecting onto the landscape but never actively altering it.
I think that the reason that part of that works is that the landscapes that I’m generally drawn to are deeply influenced by human behaviour. They’re profoundly altered in some way and I think that they generally tend to… if you look at them in a certain sort of way they can obliterate any thought about what created them, if you can find a different strategy to create some kind of rupture. Maybe if we think of it in an old Brechtian alienation sense but use new tactics to achieve that same effect and suddenly you ask yourself questions about that landscape. Understanding the extent to which we construct the world that we live in is something that I would say is really profoundly important through all of the work that I’ve ever done. So many of the people who I encounter seem to feel as if human volition doesn’t really exist and I find that very peculiar.
Maybe the best on-screen text in Machine Gun is the first line of the closing credits, which is just your name and then this array of titles: Story/Camera/Sound/Voice Edit. It’s a one-man band kind of thing. What is your approach, then, in terms of making these films outside of just shooting them?
For me, it’s always been a really hand-crafted, just super hands-on thing and I’m always just working in my own home. I was able to, 20 years ago, have access to editing stuff in my home, very early on in the part of my learning as to how to be a filmmaker. I’ve always worked very simply but I had the ability to be able to learn to edit at home because I had the access to the little bit of resources to get just editing gear. So for me the process is a really organic one, which is that I don’t think I… well, for example, whenever I hear someone say “oh, we just picture locked on our edit” I’m always baffled by that. It doesn’t operate that way to me. I think of it more in terms of the way I hear people describe writing, where they write a draft and then they might show it to an editor and then they might have a conversation and maybe propose some changes and then come back. It’s just that the only person that I’m showing it to is my wife, and she plays an extremely important role but not a formal role precisely.
So I’m doing and creating these things in a certain way and here I grab moments and I grab opportunity and I grab time. I work a lot at night and, I’m always discouraged from sharing the detail, but in the recording of the voiceover and the performance [in Machine Gun] my wife and baby were sleeping in the next room, so it’s like a funny alienation effect of that. In fact, on the original recording there was one moment when the baby started crying and I had to stop. When you watch it, it has this claustrophobic intensity and it’s funny to think about how in reality it’s a very domestic set-up. I’m working in these ways where I’m grabbing time to work and then I’m developing, I don’t know, more the way a poet would work? In the sense that I’m creating a series of stanzas and finding a way for those stanzas to interact with each other and then I’m showing it to my wife and occasionally showing it to my brother and occasionally to my teenage daughter and a handful of other people who are not playing formal roles but whose opinions I value and they know what I’m thinking. The other thing is my wife, Erin, she’s a professional designer, she’s a very good designer, so she has a very strong aesthetic sensibility and a sense of structure, organisation and she’s also the only person who just pulls no punches with me, ever. So it’s actually a source of frustration but it’s also a source of, like, I’ll get something to a place where I think it’s ready and then she’s just like “no” and I’m always frustrated and she’s always right. I feel like my process is more like writing, that’s the way that it’s unfolding. In this case, I’m trying to remember the order…
I accumulated a few of the images and then I wrote the full text, then I accumulated more of the images, then I began to assemble those, then I delivered the text and then I kind of assembled it all. The found footage stuff came from something very practical: I had been doing a performance art piece and in fact, the Machine Gun or Typewriter? opening stanza part is actually from this performance art piece called Proving Ground that I had done a few years earlier. So I had gradually assembled that and I had this thing called… well, have you ever seen a Korg Kaptivator?
It was an old standard-definition video mixer that has a series of buttons, it looks like a sound controller for a DJ but it’s for VJs and you can upload something like up to 800 clips and the you hit a button and, based on what you told it to do, it will basically loop that clip over and over again. Then you have another set of banks which you can then have a second clip and then you can slowly transition between those two clips. I was using that as part of this performance art piece and this was the material I had begun to accumulate in this piece. So when I started doing it [the character] in my head, this person had done this piece and they are seeing these clips, like loops on that Kaptivator.
I kept thinking that I should eventually shoot a shot of the Kaptivator because it looks like a Star Trek device – it’s kind of amazing looking – but I didn’t. I think I’ll end up using it in something else as a result. It’s just a funny thing that I got like ten or fifteen years ago and they sold two of them in the United States and then they shut them down. I’ve met the guy who owns the other one here and they sold a few in Japan and because everyone started doing VJ-ing on computers it just died because it’s like a separate device. It’s actually just a super neat device and I want to do pieces just with that at some point because it’s just so weird and so interesting. It actually works extremely well, it never hangs up, it never freezes, you never have to reboot it. It’s super rock solid but it’s just a standard definition image and it’s got very limited effects. It actually has quite a few effects that are cheesy as hell that I’ve never gotten into but it has very limited effects that I would use – just basically straight cuts and then also being able to dissolve between two shots or have them both on-screen at the same time. Then you see things in a way you’d never see because of the weird loop. Say one clip is five seconds long and one clip is like eight seconds long, as they are looping they begin to loop in different places and they start to become this incredibly strange thing. That was like a basis of a lot of the visual language for it.
I know this is an extremely long way of explaining the non-organisational way that I organise these films. For me, once I have the text, then I can really record it and begin to plug everything into it, find where there are spaces and gaps. One of the things I love about the web and working lately is that I can discover that I’m missing an image and then go jump on the train and go get another image. You know, shooting a film in Cuba, then you come back and you can’t… there’s something really interesting about being able to go and immediately create that thing that you know that you need. It’s one of the wonderful things about working near your home.
The last year I’ve been working on a film about Alabama. My family is from Alabama, although I didn’t grow up there. So I’ve been going down to Alabama and that’s a whole other situation. It’s definitely returning more to this feeling of being in Cuba because I feel like, first of all, when I’m in Alabama it’s like I’m in a foreign country even though I’ve been going there my whole life. I feel very, very disconnected from Alabama. Second of all, when I leave and I realise ‘oh damn, I should have talked to this guy’ or ‘I should have grabbed that shot’ or whatever, then if I’m going to have to do that I need to go back. That’s an interesting dynamic too. I guess I’ve been making films for twenty years and I’ve come to realise that if I don’t have something that never hurts me. I have to find a different way to solve that problem. So often I feel filmmakers are convinced ‘I have to have that shot or that shot or this exact sound’ and I just find that when you have those moments where you’re convinced of that and then you fail to get those things that’s when you find creative solutions every single time. I try to find a point where I push for what I think I need but at a certain point I don’t push too hard and then if I don’t have it I just to figure out another solution.
A lot of your other films are connected, in some way, to news reportage and history. When you were composing the story for Machine Gun, were you looking to rip elements from headlines?
Not exactly. What I did is I put myself in a headspace for ‘Who would this character be? Who did this, this and this and ended up in this place?’. What are the things that are happening in the world that would have shaped that consciousness? What are those things that were connected to me personally that I could then draw on in an interesting way and then also, honestly, there are elements of the story that I heard from other people, where I heard someone mention something over a beer and thought ‘oh, that’s an interesting little detail.’
So, for example, to sort of pull back the curtain, all of that footage at Occupy, I shot all of that, I was present at the eviction. But I didn’t get arrested, Erin again said “look, the fine’s are gonna be at least $800 and we’re super broke right now, you can go down there and do all your stuff but please, please just don’t get arrested.” So I went down there with my brother, we thought we got arrested – we got surrounded and pinned into the park and I thought ‘oh great, I’m gonna be in so much trouble when I finally get home’ but then they let us out but I then strapped the camera that I was using on someone who got arrested, which is when that point of view shot of the arrest in the film took place.
Now, at the time, that was more conceived of as activist stuff. We were just gonna accumulate this material and then, honestly, I didn’t really use it for anything. Occupy kind of went ‘poof’, like smoke, and everybody disappeared and it seemed like it never existed. So I didn’t really use it but I kept thinking that there’s something in these images, there’s something kind of strong and I’ll find a way to use it down the road. Then, of course, it’s one of those things where when you wait enough years later then it becomes much more interesting to have these images than it would have been six months after the events when you’re trying to be topical, in a sense. It becomes this reflection on the passage of time, I think.
Well you are tying this footage to the disappearance of a woman. When that section starts it is the start of the process of disappearing and by the end of the film there is almost a complete shift, you don’t really know what has happened. In that shift there’s almost this political performativity on the part of those characters, the mindset through which the film shows the Occupy movement blurs into that idea of performed political consciousness.
I think you’re right and, in fact, it was. Part of what was interesting about this particular liquidation, I wasn’t in Zuccotti [Park], I wasn’t in San Francisco where it got violent and people actually got killed. In Los Angeles it had this extremely performative quality to it, which is that there were multiple warnings that it was going to take place and this went on over the course of several days. So I was down there one night and then another night and then finally it unfolds: the park is surrounded by, I believe it would have been about 1000 of them, the most heavily armed riot police I have ever seen. They just swarmed into the park – this is why I almost got arrested because they came in with such suddenness, they came out of City Hall and out of the edges of the park – very rapidly. But then they simply surrounded everyone and became basically fixed and immobile and they weren’t actually that aggressive and they then organised people to make a choice: “Do you wanna walk out and leave or do you wanna walk down this way and get arrested?”.
Each of them were exactly the same, it’s not as if people who got arrested were being hauled off and dragged to the ground, it wasn’t any of that kind of experience. It was this very orderly, ritualised thing in which the police ritualistically come down as this performance to indicate what they are capable of, to show you physically what they could do… don’t fuck with us because look at our force and power – it worked. Then everyone kind of chants and then decides whether to walk down that one or this one – ‘am I gonna get arrested or am I gonna go home so that my wife won’t be angry with me for days to come?’
It actually had this quality of performance and then people get arrested, then they pay $800 fines, and then it’s gone. That’s one of the strangest things about Occupy to me, is that all that it took was an $800 fine to destroy the movement. That’s how it, in a sense, how weak it was. I would never have guessed that. If you’d been there, leading up to it, it had this wonderful dynamic energy, it felt like you were witnessing something from the ’60s, it felt like there was this explosion of something you’d never… I’ve been political my whole life and I thought ‘oh my god, the ’60s are happening suddenly’ and the extent to which it just… I can’t even articulate what a strange thing that was… it’s as gone as that woman is, that’s part of the reason the film is drawn to that vision. It wasn’t even gone in the sense of being shot in the head and dragged off, I mean, it was gone in the sense of a balloon. It was a very strange experience. I still feel like it has unfulfilled potential. In other words, I don’t think that that is gone, in a sense, but it certainly feels that it’s gone in Los Angeles.
Looking from afar at the political situation America is in right now, I think it will be a pretty interesting next six months and then in a half decade to look back and see what has been happening today with rallies, with this really fractured political psyche in America. The ghosts of Occupy are back, in some respects, in the Sanders campaign.
Absolutely. I think that the seemingly unexpected explosion of the Sanders movement is definitely an indication of that, it’s definitely an articulation of that and it’s the same milieu, and in fact it’s a lot of the same people, who were at least supportive of Occupy, if not active in it. One of the things that this fracture you’re talking about, to me, I’ve sort of withdrawn from the Democratic party for 30 years. You probably could guess that about me. I still participate in elections but I have voted for third party candidates for decades. Which is a form of abstention, of course. It still makes you feel like you have your, I don’t know, Christian ethics in place for participating in the system. But the animosity between wings of the Democratic party is something new in my experience. I mean, it’s also true on the Republican side, but within the Democratic party the primary fight that’s unfolding in social media that I see is between Sanders and Clinton people, who are just at each others’ throats and despise each other and it’s hard to imagine.
Up until this moment there’s always this moment of reunification, so no matter how antagonistic the process has been by the time you get to the convention everybody who is from, like, a conservative to liberal all the way over to a left liberal tends to come into line on this stuff. I’m not sure this time. I think the only thing that may allow that to happen is that they’re going to be running against Trump. I think that if it had just been a normal Republican I don’t that it ever would have resolved itself. I have a feeling that Trump is so abhorrent to people that most people are going to hold their nose and vote. It’s a peculiar moment. When Sanders announced his candidacy, even though I don’t actively participate in the electoral system I’m very aware of it. I worked as a political campaign staffer when I was a teenager in Colorado back in the ’80s, so I have a lot of experience with that stuff and when I heard the announcement from Sanders it, to me, felt like… every four years there’s some outlying candidate who makes an announcement and no one really notices and then they have maybe an unexpectedly good performance in the Iowa caucus but then they disappear afterwards or something, right? This sustained energy is just insane, I’m so taken aback by it, and especially my teenage daughter, who’s not quite fourteen and all of the milieu of her classmates and so forth, they all love Sanders. It’s this generational gap. You hit like 35 and then it starts to shift over or something.
I think in many respects it’s a sins of the past thing. You look at the political disasters in American policy, both domestic and abroad, over the last twenty years and I think young people want just a fresh slate. Which is interesting that to do that they’re using a 74-year-old senator from Vermont.
One of the things that’s been interesting through my teaching is that the Cold War’s weight has finally fallen. This is a generation of people who don’t have that association anymore. I just think that within American society, the Cold War was a religious kind of fervor. I try to explain to people that on my first day of first grade, I go into the classroom and Mrs. Scott, my first grade teacher, sits us all down in a circle, we all sit cross-legged, and she tells us about a terrible place that’s called Russia, where no one believes in God. I mean, I’m telling you that’s the first day of first grade. That’s what it was like in the ’70s and ’80s and that’s what it what it was like up until the late ’80s. It took enough time to have passed so that the people who can remember it all are as least as old as me and this younger generation just doesn’t care. They don’t have a stake in it and I think that is so healthy.
I think whatever happens in this election, long-term, to begin to redefine these terms – ‘socialism’, ‘democracy’ – that’s so important. I really think that these kids, for all the shit that people give them about their generation, that they’re so mad and grumpy and lazy and they need protected spaces and they’re whiny – I think that they’re incredibly strong and brave and assertive with an independence. My 18 to 22-year old students in the last three or four years are the most interesting independent people that I have ever taught since I’ve been a teacher. So I feel very optimistic about this generation and then, even younger. My daughter has never really had an interest in politics. She’s just grown up with me as her dad and kind of had to tolerate that and get dragged to a pro-Palestine demonstration or an anti-war demonstration all these years and now she’s really passionate about it, she’s following the election, she has an opinion, she’s asserting herself and arguing with people, she’s having fallings out with people that she disagrees with on these issues. It’s fascinating, it’s like a whole new thing.
Speaking of new things and this idea of necessity that you spoke about earlier, would you ever consider making a film without a voiceover?
Yeah, definitely, and I have actually. A couple of different times. The short that I did for Far From Afghanistan, that doesn’t have a voiceover. That’s a simple short film, it’s got four sections and it interweaves two narratives of women, one of whose husband and one of whose son have committed suicide after returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. Then there are two other women who are talking about how family members died in fires when the utilities were shut off in Detroit. They tried to stay warm in the middle of the night and their families died in these fires. So when I was approached for that particular film, Far From Afghanistan, I had just finished a film on my dad and the Vietnam War called Distinguished Flying Cross which is literally an hour straight of three of us talking, so three dudes talking for an hour straight. I thought, ‘well, ok, if I do another film on war it definitely has to be women talking instead of men talking’. I also thought, you know, ‘I bet there will virtually be no women speaking in this documentary, with the group of people assembled I bet it’s going to be all men’ and my impulse was correct.
The film is quite interesting and quite useful in a lot of ways but definitely overwhelmingly dominated by a kind of male discourse, even in the shorts by the two female filmmakers who worked on the film themselves are engaged by a certain masculine discourse, one of them about drone operators and the other about Soviet propaganda films in Afghanistan. So, then once I started working on it I thought, well, not only did the women need to do the talking but if I were to engage in voiceover it would have this extremely jarring and inappropriate power relationship with these women who were finally getting to speak and then me somehow mediating it. So I was like, I can’t be involved [in that way]. Then it became this new thing of just having completely female voices the whole way through, though granted there are still probably six or eight brief intertitles which, in a way, is a voice. I tried to keep it as minimal as possible. I want to do more like that. I ended up doing Machine Gun the way that I did because of what I had available to me and I thought that I could do a sort of performance that would work but I definitely would love to make a narrative film in the near future that I simply wrote and directed, for once. That would be a whole other deal for me and there are ways that I’m ambivalent about it, obviously, but I would like that challenge, I would like to see what that means exactly and let someone I respect shoot it and let someone I respect edit it.
I really want to work more collaboratively and there have been times when I’ve had an opportunity. The main reason I don’t is really basic: I am living very modestly, my wife and I are carving out a way to basically survive month-to-month, I’m able to work with tremendous freedom and I don’t want to ask people to work for me without paying them. I used to do that, back when you’re coming right out of school and that makes sense, everybody does that. But when you’ve been doing it for 20 years it just feels like an evasion and I feel like even if people at some level understand that you don’t have a lot of money, they think that you’re fucking them over, even if you’re not. So, for example, let’s say you work on a film and you have two friends work for you and you don’t make any money from the film but then a year and a half later it wins a $5000 prize. Well, then, they’re thinking ‘wait, do I get any of that?’ and yet that $5000, for me, is literally my ability to pay rent for the next few months. There are so many people that I have developed relationships with over the years whose work I really respect and admire and I would love to work with them but I just need to be able to pay them properly. My hope is that that’s gonna be feasible in the next couple of years but, who knows? I’ve been saying that for eleven years.
Yeah, the arts industry worldwide needs more eccentric billionaires who aren’t evil.
Well, I think part of what intrigues me is when I looked at this most recent film versus the previous film, in a sense a lot of the landscapes were in common with each other and a lot of the material was in common but it was two really different forms of discourse. One form had, again, this quality of authorship and a lecture, and the other had this quality of a confession and I was really intrigued by what that does to the viewer. Do they process that information differently? Do they respond to that information differently? God, I mean the answer is obviously yes.
In one film you have people feeling frustrated that they’re besieged with information like they’re supposed to prepare for an exam versus a film in which it’s almost like they’re overhearing a story in the apartment next door and they’re fascinated and they can’t stop listening. So the narrative itself becomes this form of invitation, which has been very intriguing to me. So I want to explore this more and more, of how to find tactics to go over the same kinds of interests and issues that have always concerned my work but which are more of an invitation or an inducement into viewing as opposed to a punitive relationship, which I think sometimes people feel when they’re watching my films. I don’t intend that, by the way. That’s what people explain to me sometimes. People said that about this film!
Yeah, multiple times people said “it feels very punitive because it’s so brutal at times” and I don’t mean to dismiss that in any way, because I think that that’s an important point and I want to be respectful of it but I don’t, as the creator of it, I don’t experience that at all. To me it has this kind of dark pleasure, there’s still a pleasure in it somehow. It doesn’t feel punitive to me.
The climactic text in Machine Gun really is darkly, not comic, but almost gleeful. It’s this relief but also a confusing relief.
I think there’s a hint of dark comedy. The section of the film that deals with that Yiddish writer, Lamed Shapiro, from the graveyard in East L.A., his work is just savage and it’s absolutely funny at times but it’s a terrible kind of humour. I just think humour – and I’m not saying that’s something I’ve done well in my films but it’s something I want to do more of – but I think humour is this other incredibly sharp weapon that can open up discourse in really interesting ways but very rarely is used that way.
When you say Machine Gun has this confessional tone, I want to suggest almost the opposite to the no voiceover concept, which is only voiceover. When I was watching your film, as happens with many essay films, it felt like parts of it could be in a piece of experimental radio.
I think the film works that way structurally. To me, the whole notion of using a genre and finding a way to articulate something different with that genre… you know, so often people will say “well I was using the genre to reinvigorate the genre” and I have no illusions about that but I think that it allows there to be a certain familiarity of device that can allow me to digress in other radical ways because there is something to grab onto that feels vaguely familiar to people when they’re extremely confused.
There was a guy, and I enjoyed this very much, someone sent me a link to a blog review of this film when it showed the one time it showed in the US and the blog review was “this is the most abstract film by far I’ve ever seen in my life and I have no idea what it’s about and I have no idea what happened and it’s just completely baffling to me” and there was something so sincere about that, it wasn’t even written meanly, clearly this is the way they encountered it and that sort of moment is a funny sort of moment of rupture for me, because that is almost precisely the opposite of what I had thought about the film but it also tells you that even within that sort of structure of familiarity, for some people it is just too abstract and there is too much distance between the voice and the image.
Maybe because I have to do so much on my films, they need to have a long-term interest for me, they need to keep me engaged, so that puzzle element of the films ends up becoming a big part of how I work and partly because I’m trying to sustain my own passion to complete something when I know I’m going to have to work on it exclusively for a number of years…
I do think that this viewpoint that your film is somehow the “most abstract” thing is a familiarity issue rather than your film not being coherent enough. You were saying when we started this conversation that certain films aren’t getting released or aren’t getting festival runs in the US yet bafflingly are over here playing in independent festivals. Because the essay film or experimental documentary has been sidelined, for the most part, in popular American culture, any time something moves outside the sort of authorial Michael Moore documentary suddenly it’s too abstract.
It is a funny thing, I think it’s also funny to me because I’ve thought that one of the strengths my work had is that within a program of avant-garde work that mine generally is the fun one, you know? Because I agree with, you know, if he thought my film was abstract what would he think of David Gatten’s The Extravagant Shadows or something like that? It’s many, many hours long and moves at a completely different pace and is more or less legitimately abstract. To me, it seems very concrete.
I taught at the University of Colorado, which is the Stan Brakhage school, you know what I mean? So for me my work feels at quite a distance… I think they tend to think that it isn’t avant-garde enough because it is too narrative, because it does have this genre. The presence of a narrative at all, for a lot of avant-garde filmmakers, is a kind of betrayal. For me, that’s a peculiar thing to stake yourself to, like why fight over that? I think storytelling is such an innately human thing. I don’t mean all films need to tell stories, I don’t mean that at all but I think that to lash out against those that do, that I find confusing.
The innately human nature of storytelling seems a good place to end this chat. Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk about your work.
All good, thank you.
Machine Gun or Typewriter screens in Sydney and Melbourne on the 31st of May and in Adelaide on the 6th of June. Tickets and more information cab be found on the Essential Independents festival website.