Year in and year out, one of the most interesting screenings at Melbourne International Film Festival is the Experimental Shorts program. An eclectic mix — local and international fare, film and digital projection — bombards the viewer, though some of the films’ potency is felt much later, in post-screening arguments between audience members. One of the shorts that most impressed me in this year’s program was Fern Silva’s 16mm work Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder, which had its world premiere in the Forum Expanded strand of this year’s Berlinale.
Like much of Silva’s ethnographically-focused work, Ride Like Lightning situates humanity as oppositional to nature, though here in particular the relationship is more ambiguous; as a group of artists depict the Hudson River region in upstate New York (though celebratory sketches, film, painting), an ominous force rising up from the water (think Creature from the Black Lagoon) stalks the suburban area around them. We spoke to Silva a few days after the first Experimental Shorts screening to talk Ride Like Lightning, his approach to music and collage cinema.
Note: Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder is screening at New York Film Festival in early October.
After watching a few of your shorts back-to-back yesterday I realised how different they play in that context, as opposed to the Experimental Shorts program here at MIFF. Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder stood out to me in that program because of how eclectic it was; its use of music and found footage. Viewing it in the context of your body of work, though, it becomes something very different: a continuing interrogation of the way we contain natural worlds, questioning the very nature of ethnography in all its forms. How do you see your work and its reception in terms of how it plays at festivals and in galleries?
At this point, I think a lot of the work is in conversation with each other, it is taking from these very particular histories; one of them being, for lack of a better word, ethnography and ethnographic film and it’s also dealing with these histories of representation in Hollywood and in cinema and dealing with these formulaic strategies that imply these very particular emotions and certain moods. There’s a lot that’s going on in them. When it’s a short in a short film program, personally it’s difficult because… I don’t know, going to festivals there’s just so much happening in each film so it’s hard to take all of that in.
In a solo show situation, I feel like there’s this thread and you can run it a little bit longer and hold onto it, rather than it being a footnote or a punchline or something, which ends up happening no matter what in a film festival. I just finished this film [The Watchmen] and it’s gonna have its North American premiere at TIFF and just thinking about it… it’s so difficult to get on the stage with five other people and have enough time to talk about the work, you know. You make a piece, it could be ten minutes long, but you can talk about it for hours.
When you’re shooting a film, you’re thinking about cinema. In a solo context, you’re thinking within the context of an art gallery. Maybe it’s shown on a small monitor and it’s like a transient space and there’s a lot of movement and the sound isn’t always there. You know, making that film you’re thinking about cinema, being in that captive space, and so you’re framing for scale. I want to think about that and it certainly makes a difference. Hopefully that made a difference in Melbourne. You see some of these images and you want to think about it on a much larger scale, so definitely I am thinking about cinema.
I think, too, there’s a difference not necessarily in terms of scale but in terms of how much time you spend with the work. I’ve been able to watch Ride Like Lightning several times following the initial cinema screening, which has led me down research rabbitholes; I was able to figure out that your epigraph is a reference to another work with the same epigraph, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. I was also able to look up work from the Hudson River School… in that information and context dense environment, the film changes quite considerably. When it is screened in a festival environment, the film flies by and you latch onto immediate things rather than reading too deep into it.
Especially if we’re thinking about avant-garde films or films that are more conceptual, or dealing with ideas. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, in general. I feel that way. You can dig into them that much more. But maybe it’s good, to just watch films. You don’t have to see them again. I think a part of the drive to make work is that you want to make work that people might want to see again, especially if it’s a short film. I think that’s a part of that interest.
With Ride Like Lightning, there’s the Hudson River School but also at the time it was being made, in the United States, the election was coming up and there were all these climate change deniers and so a lot of it was thinking like, ‘a landscape film in 2017’ and whether that’s all of a sudden radical because we’re dealing with all of these political issues. Is fucking landscape filmmaking or landscape painting radical because it’s just like not gonna exist in this situation, in what’s being threatened? There’s so many ways to wrap [your head] around it, even these ideas of horror and these signifiers: something as simple as a hand and what that means. I think about John Carpenter and his sound and his framing.
There was definitely a sense of The Fog at points in your film.
Exactly! So The Fog is a great example, I was thinking about that a lot.
There’s a shot about midway through where it’s almost all black save for the moon in the top left of frame and then you see these figures with flashlights move across the bottom right but they’re moving at a really odd speed…
Well, you know, what that image is is I went to a drive-in and they were showing Evil Dead II and that image [in the bottom right] is from Evil Dead II.
I did not cotton onto that at all!
As a total nerd, I remember that exact scene and I thought ‘whoa, this would look insane if I shot it at 8 frames per second’. The movie was right there and I knew they were going to be walking through the woods with those flashlights at that moment… it’s so dorky, I’ve seen that movie a million times. I just started shooting the camera at that time and it kinda popped in.
But The Fog for sure. At the end when we’re dealing with these figures, in a sense they’re like these pirates, coming up from the sea and a lot of what happens in the Washington Irving story is he falls asleep for 20 years and comes back and a revolution took place. The United States has independence, he’s up in the mountains in the Catskills, bowling with Henry Hudson and his crew, the ghost of Henry Hudson, who explored and discovered the Hudson. So there’s this weird thing that comes into play. Nobody would ever get that but it’s funny you say The Fog. There’s an essence there.
You were talking about landscape film and how it functions in 2017 and I watched your newest film last night, The Watchmen, and there’s a stretch in there that is very typical of the landscape film; the stillness of those images seem to more pointedly make a case for the decay of the American carceral state. That was all shot on 35mm, I believe. Why that over your usual 16mm Bolex?
I shot that movie on 16mm and blew it up to 35mm.
The reason why I did that is because there are some shots that are digital composites and I had to make a digital intermediate so I thought, if I have to a make a digital intermediate of that, I may as well blow it up to 35mm and have the opportunity to do that. I just did it and it seems to be working. Also because the sound is heavier. You didn’t get to see The Watchmen in a movie theatre but the mono track on a 16mm print wasn’t gonna do it for me. I wanted it to feel more immersive, captive. Because you’re captive in this cinematic space I wanted it to be in stereo, a bit more dynamic.
The thing with that film is that it was very much a Midwestern-based film. I was living in Chicago at the time and the prison that I used is called Stateville Penitentiary and it’s in Chicago and it’s a panopticon that is still functioning. It’s made up of a bunch of F-houses. The prison that you see in that — well you do see Stateville for a moment — it’s being used, there are people in front of it but the actual building that you see it a remake, a prison in Cuba that was modeled after Stateville. It’s totally derelict, it’s not functioning and it’s funny to think about, literally an island in the middle of the ocean, with its particular history… it doesn’t function anymore, it’s a relic. I wanted to think about that being in some other dimension, and its relationship to space, outer space and alien abduction, this idea of missing time.
So these two spaces had me thinking about landscape and vernacular architecture in relation to Chicago because there’s this idea of urban renewal and pulling culture and moving it to spaces and it’s very problematic in this sense… it’s a marker, of the cultural landscape of the United States. With The Watchmen I’m looking at Chicago, which being in Illinois is known certainly for over-relying on incarceration; private prison systems are such a big part of the economy. To dig even deeper into it, I’m thinking about people who are incarcerated and these alien abductions that you hear about, both have this notion of missing time. Clearly one of these things is very real and the other is up for question.
A lot of your films are about… not necessarily decay but landscape shifts over time. Some of your work deals directly with natural disaster but it felt more to me like these disasters were more temporal than physical. You’ve got Ride Like Lightning, which acts a precursor to disaster; Wayward Fronds is set in the aftermath of an uprising; In the Absence of Light, Darkness Prevails and Perils of the Antilles feel like they are occurring during disaster and they reflect changes to landscape in real-time, through changes of colour or overlaid images, which suggests something more tangible in terms of the world shifting in front of your eyes. When you start to make these films, do you know how you will approach landscapes in terms of depicting them temporally?
That’s tricky. Clearly that is something that is very important to me. Part of the interest for me in going into those films is dealing with current events or some contemporary issue, whether they are social or geographical. There’s a whole idea around culture and globalism and what that does and how that is interpreted and commodified and how that changes and warps and shifts as if it were travelling through some black hole or something because sometimes it feels that way, that idea of re-appropriation… it blows my mind, I’m really interested in that, especially in the United States. There are a lot of different people with different ideas but it’s surprising how segregated that can be.
It’s temporal in thinking about… like in Wayward Fronds, these restorations [discussions in the Florida legislature about dispersing billions of dollars in restoration funds] … things are happening in the present but of course we’re dealing with the past in a way that seems repetitive. We think about how things get worse or could get better but it’s always shifting against human nature and how absurd that might be, how absurd our behaviours and actions might be. Sometimes I go into a space and I do have these ideas already and it could be very particular and very directed but it really depends on what’s unfolding around me. In the Absence was meant to be a whole other film but it came together because of what I was dealt with. These kids that I was babysitting were a big part of it. Those influences that come from that.
Literature is a part of it, to a certain degree. It’s important to me that we’re dealing with these mythologies and thinking about them as temporal, being regurgitated in various forms, where they basically come around to the same place. I don’t think of anything as being utopian or dystopic. I think, to a certain degree, everything is dystopic.
I’m optimistic, though, which is so contradictory. Maybe it ends up happening in the films where it’s like there’s this idea of trust, wanting to trust how a situation might unfold because it has these sort of narrative qualities to it, or has this degree of realism to it because it also has these documentary qualities.
It seems like Ride Like Lightning is being pulled between two ideas: the depictions of the Hudson area and its history, as well as a showcase of artists and collaborators of yours. There’s Ben Russell, Henry Hills, Brigid McCaffrey… when those shots appear suddenly the film feels very personal. Also they’re all doing work to some extent, too.
The thing is… I don’t know if you know the filmmaker Peter Hutton?
Yeah, I know of his work but haven’t seen any.
He has been up there and he was a mentor of mine and he passed away in May or June and I thought afterwards, like ‘Oh God, I’ve been up here, living upstate part-time, going to school up here’ and I always wanted to make this film because it’s so inspired by Peter’s films. I was like ‘I’m not gonna make a landscape film, who am I to do that?’. The history of the Hudson River Valley is pretty much solely based on the images from the painters of the Hudson River School, which is a very particular vision, a romantic vision and that’s sort of denying the fact that there’s a whole history that was there beforehand. The opening shot [in Ride Like Lightning] is of this Thomas Cole painting, Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, which is very much this voyeuristic shot and it’s slightly out of focus. In the shot, you see this half circle of Native Americans and the only image you see of their whole history is that, like this thing of the past is in the distance, it’s a blur. There’s this whole idea of playing with a certain history, tongue in cheek, to critique that sense of beauty.
There’s a shot where you see this shot of trees and it’s red, there’s a filter over it. Those trees are gorgeous, if I didn’t use the filter… the leaves are red, just beautiful, blood red and it looked outrageous and the whole idea of doing the filter over it so the entirety of the whole frame is that red.
That sequence with the red trees really stuck out because of the playful music loop you use, taken from a Velvet Underground song. I only realised later, reading up on your work, that you take your music from your own recordings, as in you record in a room as a record plays, rather than ripping it. Is that what was happening in the Prince sequence in Ride Like Lightning?
You know what, it is. When I was shooting that filmmaker, Ephie [Ephraim Asili], he put on a record. And then I needed to get a recording so I could finish the film and I was over at another friend’s house and the only record that was there was this Prince record and they put it on and I started recording and that was it.
I bolted upright when that came on. It was so unexpected, even after the Velvet Underground loop.
The thing is that I love music and I feel like I have a pretty good knowledge of obscure music, whether it’s obscure R&B or folk or whatever and I don’t think it’s about that necessarily. I think pop music is interesting because, for example, I think something like the Prince track takes you to a very specific individual place as a viewer and I think there’s some power to that and how there could be some reminiscence or some sort of personal attachment to that song in this very absurd moment. I mean, we go to these little golden Buddhas [as the song plays] and it’s like ‘what the fuck’, you know?
Well you alter the music the whole way through, whether through looping, cutting a song off after its intro, and slowing down. The Big Youth track that gives your film its name (the phrase is said at the start of the song “S-90 Skank”) is stretched out under the opening credit cards.
Oh my god, yeah. I mean you know that cover, right? Not the music, Big Youth, but what you’re looking at is a Metallica record. Big Youth is underneath the cover of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning.
In that title card alone there’s so much packed in. You have the song called “Ride Like Lightning,” the album art for Ride the Lightning and also the reference to the Derek Cianfrance film a few years back, The Place Beyond the Pines, which has the line of dialogue: “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.” That film’s set in upstate New York too, I believe.
What? I didn’t know that.
Ah, ok. I was a bit thrown by that because at first I thought that was your intention, before I heard the song the second time I watched it.
I’d only heard about this in an interview I did at the Berlinale. Someone asked me if it was a reference to The Place Beyond the Pines and I was like “what?”. I thought I saw that film but I don’t even remember it. I didn’t know it was set in upstate New York.
The sound in the film is pulled from your own field recording archive. Do you have a similar archive for images? I know some landscape filmmakers who do.
No, actually. That’s one of those things that I am very specific about. When I go into making a film I have to use images from that very particular period of time. So all those movies that seem like they’re shot all over the place, they are shot at that moment that I am making the film, everything is within those couple of months. I want to think of it as being an encapsulation of that very specific period of time, even if it’s just for me, but that’s something that I am thinking about and I find that the limitation, as a maker, is important.
So no, I don’t have an archive. For example, Ride Like Lightning, that’s about eight-and-a-half minutes and I shot about 400ft, so about 11 minutes, for that film. I don’t shoot very much. A lot of these films, I’m already thinking about the framing, and I go into something where I am thinking about it a lot and then I go and shoot it. A lot of the time there could be in-camera edits or these ideas where I take notes and then I build them.
Are you editing the films mentally as you are shooting?
Image-wise, I am. Even if it isn’t being edited in-camera, I’m editing it in my head; I know where they’re gonna be placed. Post-production, for me, is mostly sound. I spend all of my time on sound. I’m not shooting sync and there’s a lot of foley work in there. I shoot a lot of field recordings and I also have this massive library that I’ve built up that I take from. The thing is, with Ride Like Lightning, I did sound design but the score, the musical score rather than the moments with music —
The score was great. It made that shot with the train feel particularly sinister.
All of that is original music by Bunny Brains, who lived up the street [from me] in Hudson and it was important to me… there’s a very particular feeling to that region, to upstate New York and I feel like we know what Dan Seward [Bunny Brains] was doing was very much a part of that, it had this weirdness to it. He had a few different passes and he had this very weird noisy pass for an edit I gave him and then he had another, kinda poppy one, which is what I used, the techno-poppy one. The Velvet Underground loop is something that he did.
Yeah, I was like “This is brilliant and you’re crazy.”
There’s a film that played here at MIFF last year, also in the Experimental Shorts strand, Nightlife by Cyprien Gaillard, which also had a music loop. The central loop in that was of Alton Ellis’ “Black Man’s Word” but Gaillard looped only the first part of the chorus, cutting off the point of the song. But it added so much in omission, because the unspoken thing forces you to research, which leads you into a very different meaning of the short, about race and transplantation in hostile environments.
That’s incredible. I’d like to see it. I remember seeing a film he made a while ago and thinking that maybe we shared some similar interests, it was a film he made in Cancun or something [Cities of Gold and Mirrors, 2009] and I remember thinking that it was just so wild.
So that one is so particular because I felt like the film I was making with Phil… he was, at that time, 88 years old and I was a big fan, I’m such a fucking huge fan of those early records and what he recorded with Sun Ra… Fate in a Pleasant Mood and Angels and Demons at Play are incredible, and what he did with the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. He’s been this incredible figure and his music has been amazing. I was talking to him when I was living in Chicago — that film was a commission from the Chicago Film Archive — and the decisions that I was making were based on him. I thought about him and rhythm and editing, this was a lot of our discussions. The film turned out the way it did for that reason, you know? I feel like it’s a lot different from my other work because it’s more direct.
It was different with Dan because I feel like he was more of a contemporary of mine and I could talk to him in whichever way and I think with Phil Cohran, maybe it was just me being nervous, but I feel like he’s a wizard now, he’s an oracle of sorts, who’s lived through all these lives and phases… the decisions I was making were based on our conversations and the things he was saying about his relationship to Chicago. I knew that I had to make a different type of edit that was more musical, that was maybe a bit more coherent than, for example, Ride Like Lightning. In Scales there is a throughline… it can be followed.
As far as I am aware, that’s your only fully found footage work.
Yeah, totally. Technically, I would say it’s the only found footage film because the other films that do have found footage are… I’m on location and I am shooting them off the television set, so they’re broadcasts. Actually that’s a lie. In The Watchmen, my most recent film, there are a couple of shots that are in it that are deliberately transferred over and not shot on location.
The Blues Brothers, right?
Right. There’s a weird connection there where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd… Dan Aykroyd is a UFO aficionado, he’s so into it. [In the scene] he’s picking up John Belushi at Joliet Correctional Center and behind him it’s almost like he’s coming out of a fucking space ship, and I was just thinking about those brothers and vernacular architecture and these hot dog stands and these prisons as this identifier of very particular geographical location, as it has maybe to a certain degree in the history of cinema. Certainly in Blues Brothers, there’s those two prisons… they’ve been featured in so many films and films that are dealing with Chicago, they have their own personalities.
[The Watchmen] is the only other time where I’m deliberately trying to fake it into a film, where I am taking something for the edit rather than from a location.
Do you have any interest in revisiting collage cinema? Or making another fully found footage film?
Yeah, I think Scales was a one-off. Part of the joy in making a film is being away and shooting. It’s not just about making the film, I think it’s about witnessing and learning and making friends and all of these things and having these experiences and gaining perspective, which I think is always beneficial for the next piece. Understanding why, what the point is in making a film, having discussions about it.
That’s not to say you can’t learn anything from working with found footage. I could certainly say that with Scales in the Spectrum of Space I dug into a whole archive and I watched hours and hours of these films that we’ve never been able to see because they’re not in circulation, films dealing with very important issues, social issues in the Midwest… even things like the Democratic National Convention in the late ’60s. If we were all able to look at it often, at least in the United States, we would learn about what’s going on now and how this has already happened. There’s ways to problem solve and have these realisations. I learned a lot from working on that film. There’s something to be said, though, about being behind a lens and being somewhere.
Clearly making films and making avant-garde films isn’t about having answers, it’s always about the question and the more questions the better. It’s provoking and sometimes these questions are cobbled on one another and they reference one another and it’s constantly that. These questions are derived from very specific references and so if you don’t get them all, that’s fine, but hopefully the point is to try and create a dialogue.
I was looking at the program you curated at Visions Montreal and it’s interesting to see how the films you selected are referenced in your work. Like George Kuchar’s Wild Night in El Reno. You can see elements from an experimental history filter through into your work.
There’s humour in all of those films. Some of them are hard and I think it’s a difficult thing to do, especially in avant-garde film where it’s like there’s this degree of seriousness and thinking about form… but you can’t have radical content without radical form and you can’t have radical form without radical content. Like George Kuchar or Peggy Ahwesh, any of those filmmakers who were super progressive… there was humour in all of them. I feel like that’s such a challenge, trying to negotiate that potential friction.