1. INTERVIEWS with Roddy Bogawa
INTERVIEW BY REA TAJIRI
Where did you study film?
I didnÕt attend a traditional Ôfilm schoolÕ but more of an art program with a film component, University of California at San Diego. UCSD was a great place to study in a horrible town. It was a well funded program full of Ô70Õs New York art world exiles like Allan Kaprow and David and Eleanor Antin. I studied primarily with Jean-Pierre Gorin (Jean Luc Godard collaborator), filmmaker/cinematographer Babette Mangolte (Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer) and film critic turned painter Manny Farber. Totally eclectic mix of American B-movies and avant-garde cinema! The program over the years has turned out some great artists and filmmakers - photographer Lorna Simpson, Frank Grow who made the feature LOVE GOD.
Can you talk a bit about your earlier shorts and feature films that preceded JUNK?
Before this film, JUNK, IÕd made four short films (A SMALL ROOM IN THE BIG HOUSE, FOUR OR FIVE ACCIDENTS, ONE JUNE..., IF ANDY WARHOLÕS SUPER 8 CAMERA COULD TALK, THE IMAGINED, THE LONGED-FOR, THE CONQUERED, AND THE SUBLIME) and one feature (SOME DIVINE WIND). I like making short films. You can make something with a few good ideas, a couple of months and ten bucks. You can try out a few experiments and see what works and doesnÕt - then go on to something else. Filmmaking in many ways has gotten extremely easy. Ten years ago when I made my first feature, there were only handfuls of low budget features being made and now you can go see hundreds at any festival or film market. Film schools have become the locus of many university programs for what used to be pre-med. ItÕs crazy. I have really clear memories of telling people that I made films ten years ago and getting puzzled disinterested looks. My first two shorts were preparing me to do a longer project. They seem now to be parts of a bigger puzzle that IÕd try and work through with SOME DIVINE WIND. IÕd also made two or three other short films that I never finished and found their way into the dumpster.
Where they were shown etc?
While IÕd had several screenings in San Diego at art galleries and events like that, the Asian American Film Festival in New York was the first festival to screen my work which is one reason why IÕve supported that festival so much throughout the years. I feel a strong commitment to them. Daryl Chin, one of the founders who is from a avant-garde background in theater and the arts, literally jumped out of his skin in 1987 when he saw my film and those of Jon Moritsugu and Gregg Araki. For the first time, he saw a young experimental group of Asian American Filmmakers that was making work apart from the older documentary genre filmmakers or experimental filmmakers from the seventies avant-garde scene. Daryl brought us to New York and we three met, saw each otherÕs films, and became friends. This was a wild moment - I was screening my second short, Jon was showing DER ELVIS and Gregg was at the festival with THREE BEWILDERED PEOPLE IN THE NIGHT, his first super low budget feature. We felt kind of ambushed, attacked by the audience. ItÕs kind of amazing to think back on the dialogue after our screenings - why are we in this festival when we donÕt make work about ÔAsian AmericanÕ topics? What do our parents think about us being filmmakers? Where in the hell did we come from? In retrospect I think there were tons of hidden issues behind all these questions (Asian Americans should be quiet and respectful, not make art about being gay, etc.). ItÕs very funny because those questions ten years later seem to not have gone away and now Gregg, Jon and I are the old farts.
SOME DIVINE WIND was a project that I think came at the right time for me both developmentally as a filmmaker and with the developing ÔindependentÕ film scene that was exploding at the time. As it were, it is a film with Asian American subject matter but its main protagonist is an Amerasian man who is completely assimilated into American culture (in fact loves it). It has some tough very formally rigorous moments in it but also some real cliched narrative devices that I was trying to experiment with. SOME DIVINE WIND has had an incredible life – it screened in the dramatic competition at Sundance in 1991 as well as in competitions at Mannheim and Fukuoka, the Visual Communications and NAATA film festivals, Hawaii International Film Festivals, AFI Filmfest, and of course the Asian Cinevision festival to which I gave the New York premiere. It also screened at the Whitney Biennial, Museum of Modern Art in New York and Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and was bought by German Television and broadcast on WNET. The Sundance competition in 1991 was filled with over half of the features made for $35,000 or less including my film and GreggÕs THE LIVING END. There were some fantastic low budget films there that year including Chris MunchÕs THE HOURS AND TIMES. In signs of what were to come though, it was also the year of RESERVOIR DOGS.
How do you make decisions about casting and how do you work with actors? Do you do a lot of rehearsals?
IÕve always been interested in casting non-actors with trained actors. My early shorts had pure documentary scenes along with completely fictional ones - one of my first shorts had my cinematographerÕs mother just answering questions on camera. With JUNK, Tara Milutis who plays Christina graduated from NYU in acting and William Schefferine who plays the male lead is an old friend of mine whoÕs an artist. They were both great for what I wanted. I think part of the directorÕs job is to create contexts for building on the actorsÕ strengths and weaknesses in relation to the script - not quite as cold as Robert Bresson (of course, only Bresson can do Bresson) nor as loose as something that would be completely improvised. I do tend to rehearse a bit for what I think will be more nuanced scenes. With JUNK, Ben Speth (Director of Photography) and I rehearsed with Tara and Bill quite a bit, often blocking scenes with a video camera and also improvising segments of dialogue. From that I watched the tapes with Ben to figure out more technical elements and then by myself to re-write and edit dialogue. I try and not be so dedicated to my words as most of the time, dialogue is overwritten. One should trust your images.
Do you make up things on the set?
I try and not do too much of that unless I realize IÕve made a horrible mistake - either with visualizing the location or with the physical action thatÕs happening. My films have been so tightly scheduled that we really donÕt have the time to do that. Hopefully IÕve done my homework and when we show up on location, I know where the camera is going and what I want from the scene.
Can you describe how you came to make this film, how you came up with the story, developed the script, financed it, shot it etc?
ThatÕs a huge question. I guess JUNK came from several key things – a friend whoÕs a Vietnam veteran turned artist who had given me a bunch of texts about randomness and chaos theory, George Bush proclaiming yearÕs ago in his re-election campaign that he could promise if elected Ôfour more years of the sameÕ, and thinking somewhat about my own mortality. I think the main premise was always that my vision of the future would be banal and the problem was how to make a film about banality without it being banal. How do you make an interesting film about boredom? One thing that anchored JUNK the entire way through probably was very strong images I had in my mind - either with the characters or specific locations (this was the first location heavy project I would make after moving to New York). I think Amy Taubin from the Village Voice has picked up on this idea the most concisely. Probably my vision of New York is rooted in it as an outsider - that I was fascinated with things about New York as a newcomer - sounds of neighborhoods, the trash in the streets, even something like the light. Amy Taubin has sensed this in writing about the film - that I was capturing images of New York that were disappearing as I was shooting. ItÕs true, there was a desperation to find locations that werenÕt in every low budget film or music video shot in the city or completely gentrified with Starbucks or Barnes and Nobles and to try and find the old flavorful, dangerous New York.
The financing and shooting of JUNK was a long process. The money initially came from grant organizations like the New York State Council on the Arts and the Jerome Foundation. TheyÕve both been incredibly supportive of my past and present work. After awhile, however, the money ran out, and I funded the rest through my month to month paychecks. This meant that the shooting was wildly extended (production went over two years) and the post was much slower than I would have preferred. I wasnÕt able to work on the movie seven days a week which makes everything a little difficult. You end up having to spend several hours just watching things to remember what it was you were working on. One positive thing about working like this was the possibility of making adjustments as we went along. I could re-write scenes, add elements that we realized were missing, ditch things that were unnecessary.
I know you mentioned that the film changed a lot from the script through the shooting and then even more in the editing process. Having come from an experimental film background myself, I know this isn't an uncommon way of working to almost re-write the film in the editing room. Can you describe the process of how the form of the film evolved and your particular process?
JUNK started from a fifth draft of a fairly traditional 100 page script. I had thought that I would make this film in a straightforward manner. In fact we scheduled it out to do just that. The only problem was funding that kind of shoot, being able to have the whole crew only work on my film, etc. You have to realize that this is a 16mm color feature made for under fifty thousand dollars and everyone working for free. We just didnÕt have the money. In many ways, IÕm glad we didnÕt. I donÕt like the idea of barreling through production to meet a festival deadline. I also got bored with that type of production. I donÕt know how people can do it. It turns into such an ugly unproductive and silly macho thing. ÒOh making this great film is so hard so I can act like an asshole to everyoneÓ. I donÕt think people who are helping you should be treated like that nor should there be an atmosphere like that around you. IÕve seen it so much on other peopleÕs film shoots that I just wonÕt tolerate it. So I guess these two things made the shoot much more fragmented which is difficult for things like continuity and scheduling but in the long run, worked better for JUNK. Ultimately, it was probably twenty-two or twenty-three days of shooting total with five consecutive days being the longest stretch at one time we could afford. Like I mentioned, I was able to be more fluid with the script, change things along the way, turn a shortcoming into a strategy for making the film better. As to Òre-writingÓ the film in the editing room, this was something that I think resulted from the fragmented nature of what we shot. Basically, the structure in the script was no longer in the film dailies. There wasnÕt the dialogue to move the film along in a traditional narrative manner. There wasnÕt the ÒdramaÓ to make the film work on a simplistic level. Over the course of cutting the film then, there was a lot of re-shaping, retrofitting the thing to make a new creature out of it. ThereÕs probably only about a fourth of the script structurally in the finished film though I think a much higher percentage of the sensibility of the script is still in the film.
I remember from a few years ago we had a conversation and you talked about your point of view about narrative which is almost anti-story? Can you talk a bit about that, because its a challenging format and it can try the patience of an audience, yet for myself I really enjoy sitting through a film like this because it has its own terms and its own language that I find satisfying in the end.
ThatÕs good. I hope that happens to people. If I didnÕt want the audience to watch my film or get something from it, I wouldnÕt make it. IÕd do something else for sure. Although when someone does see one of my films, I wouldnÕt want them to just leave and go have dinner and drinks and never think about it again for five seconds. What happened to the old days of seeing movies and then arguing and discussing them for hours? Did we change? Have the films changed? ItÕs funny that I donÕt remember describing my idea about narrative as Òanti-storyÓ though I trust your memory more than mine so I guess I have to try and think back to that moment. I would amend that though and say that everything has a ÒstoryÓ and really nothing can be Òanti-storyÓ. ThereÕs stories in Michael SnowÕs film WAVELENGTH or KITCHEN by Warhol. Is James Joyce anti-story? I am interested in formal devices in film that can be used to interrupt the narrative flow and complexify the story which many people think as being anti-story. Film audiences are much smarter than filmmakers tend to want to believe and narrative can take many shapes and forms. Narratives can be elliptical, layered, non-linear, poetic. ItÕs just that the dominant model of narrative filmmaking is so narrow and simple and reduced to familiar tropes so much that most audiences want movies to replicate these tropes. That is the power of genre filmmaking but the best genre films are always the ones that cross signals and add to the genre.
Can you talk about the choices you made? For instance you use language and intertitles, repeating poetic riffs in the voiceover which goes against the grain of whatÕs happening on the screen.
IÕm still interested in filmmaking as a formal experimentation of all its elements, that is sound and its relation to image. That music videos and commercials have appropriated experimental technique without any of its reason is a big problem. You see it all over - style without substance. With JUNK, I found myself wanting to make the film tougher, to make these gestures more apparent. At one point, JUNK was going to be three hours long with really long segments of literally nothing happening. I chickened out though in the end. ItÕs one of my regrets about the film. All these elements you mention, I wanted to add other levels to the story - that there cold be a dislodged voiceover commenting on what we seen onscreen or an intertitle that refers to another intertitle that popped onscreen twenty minutes prior creating another strand of narration. Honestly, some of it works and some of it doesnÕt in the film but IÕm willing to stand by the decisions I made and try and continue working through these ideas in the next film.
Also, can you tell me about how you came to the decision to have sound take such a strong element and presence in your film? I can't think of a film that I've seen recently that has used sound in such an aggressive way. How did you work with your composer and sound designer?
I had a great sound designer, Vin Tese, whom I pretty much trusted all the way through the post for the audio. HeÕs someone whoÕd be the audio equivalent to a motorcycle Ôgear headÕ. He loves sound. He can hear frequencies and distinctions between things that are amazing. When I met with him about working on the project, I told him my ideas about the soundtrack to the film and I think thatÕs what interested him in the project. Soundscapes would dominate in certain scenes, tone over clarity, voiceovers with many dialects reading texts, rock music motivating action. As an active element in the film, I think the sound (even if its ambience), sometimes conveys more to the viewer than the dialogue. I always have loved how David Lynch would use sound effects and ambience in say ERASERHEAD or BLUE VELVET as shifting markers of interior/exterior character development. Also the way Godard uses hard cuts in music and dialogue or ambiences that creep in and out of the soundtrack. Sound is so under-used in films. Almost all films, partially because of digital systems, are completely compressed, loud, with no nuance. Vin and I talked a lot about this and were really on the same page. We wanted the audio tracks to have colors, change throughout the film, mixed more like music tracks of a song. I also worked with Ward Shelley who actually ÒbuiltÓ some of the ambient tracks in the film and some effects. HeÕs an artist who works with sound a lot in his installation work and I would meet with him with two sentence descriptions of what I wanted, something like Òa printing press thatÕs mis-firing along with a distant high pitched whirrÓ and he would actually record certain sounds and then manipulate them in a computer. Then weÕd meet and heÕd play them to me and IÕd say Òthe printing press is still too regular, make it sound like more gears have stripped teethÓ and then heÕd work on them more. I would also go back and say that I think this idea of sound is a remembrance of when I first moved to New York and was overcome by all the sounds from the streets. I would constantly be overwhelmed by the white noise of cars, sirens, foreign languages, distant planes. I had never experienced a ÒsoundtrackÓ like this before coming from California. There you constantly create your own soundtrack by what music you play in your car.
As an Asian-American or more specifically a Japanese American filmmaker, how do you feel about working with "non-Asian" material, actors, etc? Does working from the point of view of your experiences as a Japanese American interest you or define your practice? Some programmers in Asian American festivals have a problem with an Asian American filmmaker not choosing to work with Asian American themes. I think ItÕs a really interesting question because I still think of you as an Asian American filmmaker regardless.
Yes, I would probably agree with your opinion. You are always defined by your experience even if you donÕt want to be. What is an Asian American filmmaker if not a filmmaker whoÕs Asian American? I think the notion of working with material thatÕs strictly ÒAsian AmericanÓ would be for me just as fictional or experimental or whatever as any other material. I make films that are about what I perceive to be slips and slides in culture from my perspective. If IÕm Japanese-American or Asian-American, isnÕt that informed by my experience? There are really important issues within the Asian American community that have to be explored but they have been by people much more close to that material than I am but this shouldnÕt invalidate any other type of work made by Asian American filmmakers though. That would be an extremely conservative position that could only blow up in the face of those who believe in it. Interesting things come from the least expected places so I wouldnÕt always look to the center. All that being said, I think our collective experiences as Asian-American (which already wipes out all the differences in each of the Asian cultures) is an ongoing project that can only be written and thought about entirely when we have some perspective on it. The problem is to not believe that the present is the shit. WeÕve got to document the moment and then let others theorize and build upon it. ItÕs up to the filmmakers though, now, to do some work. Asian American films are pretty codified, uninventive. Too many young filmmakers are worrying about how to get a career in the movie business before making a body of work.
There aren't too many Asian American experimental filmmakers working in feature length films-Jon Moritsugu, Shu Lea Cheang can you think of anyone else?
There really arenÕt very many although I really donÕt know about the younger filmmakers coming up. IÕm sure there are some. I think the biggest issue in terms of experimental film, in general, is the lack of historical perspective. ItÕs back to the style versus substance problem. Experimental film had a project at one time or another, whether it was to create films that explored time, how film could be similar to painting, philosophy, writing, politics, etc. This is why you should make experimental work, not because you want to get a job directing car commercials.
Edited version of this discussion appeared in CINEVUE magazine
INTERVIEW BY LINA LAM, SHIRLEY XU, NIKKI HUNG
We want to know a little bit about your background. What drove you into filmmaking, especially experimental filmmaking?
I took a history of film class at UC San Diego with this crazy French guy, Jean- Pierre Gorin. He came in about twenty minutes late to a class that was like 350 students and put on this movie, PEEPING TOM by Michael Powell about a serial killer who kills people with a knife in one of the tripod legs and he actually has a camera with a mirror and he films the people while heÕs killing these women. Gorin shows this movie and the lights come on after an hour and a half and he says, Òthis is where the history of film startsÓ and then he just walked out.
I started taking film classes from then on. And then from that I ended up in photography and art classes. I did photography for about two years and the photo pieces I started doing first, they were just single images, then photos with text and then installations that were series of photos with text underneath them and I thought well, I should just make a movie instead of making these pieces that were more and more like films.
So why did you move from California to New York?
When I finished graduate school, I got accepted into a one year long program called the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Then you decided to stay?
Yeah, in Los Angeles, there was no independent filmmaking at all. New York has an independent film scene that probably dates from the 60s, media organizations like Asian Cinevision which Angel is a part of, has been around for I think twenty five years now, first as a community based video workshop place, and then a festival which is pretty amazing. Third World Newsreel has been around for a long time, and the Anthology Film Archives, so thereÕs this whole history of independent and experimental filmmaking.
Throughout your films, the theme of identity weaves through them. How does that contribute to your films?
IÕm working on a project right now thatÕs going to be my third feature length 16 mm movie called, I WAS BORN, BUTÉ, a title from a Japanese film by Ozu who made all of these films about the family changing—like either the daughter leaves the home to move to Tokyo, or the grandfather diesÉ something about the family structure changing. And I took the title because the film IÕm working on is about my memories of being in bands and things when I was younger. The whole idea is based on becoming a punk. Growing up in L.A. was so homogenous and it was this weird thing of making myself different to hide my difference. I dyed my hair blue and did all this stuff to make myself even more different. And the punk scene in Los Angeles then, in the late 70s, was very interesting. It was the first time I met queer kids, Mexican American kids, a real mix in this kind of scene. I used to take photographs of all these bands, went to all these clubs all the time. So I think on two levels, music has been a really big influence on me.
But its also that idea of punk rock--even if
you donÕt know how to play an instrument, donÕt know how to sing, whatever, you
just start a band so thatÕs what I did. And the thing is, when I started making
films-- film is thought of such a technological medium, and itÕs like, you
canÕt do it, you need a fifty person crew. When I started making movies, I just
did the same thing, a couple of friends just started making films. ItÕs all
about the idea, itÕs not really about how well done it is or anything like
that, itÕs all about the energy and the emotion. Music was always this parallel
track that I had-- being an Asian American born in L.A., going to schools where
I was one of five kids of colorÉ and not being able to process that-- music
became a way to escape that and also to process it on another level.
Somebody asked me once, what are my identity politics? And I said, I donÕt like those words anymore. But I think identity is definitely always there for me and I always think of myself dealing with identity as a reflection of culture. So itÕs like, examining culture and trying to figure out your own identity in relationship to that. I never understood the whole debate around political correctness and identity politics because identity to me was always shifting, you were never one thing. So I never understood this idea that you were always going to be one type of person or that you canÕt be several levels or layers at the same time.
Are those categories, like Òindependent,Ó ÒAsian American,Ó and Òexperimental,Ó interrelated or are they mutually exclusive?
I think theyÕre always a part of one facet of yourself, whatÕs interesting is how youÕre labeled, go into that arena and they say youÕre not that. For instance, IÕve never gotten funding from any Asian American funding sources. And even though IÕve shown in their festivals, and they ask me to be on panels, itÕs kind of interesting because they think, Ôoh, your work is not appropriate for funding because itÕs not specifically dealing with Asian American subject matterÕ. But to me, all my work is about Asian American subject matter, all of it is about culture so I donÕt understand those kinds of regiments. And then, IÕve been supported in the art world, IÕve shown at MOMA three or four times, the Whitney Biennial twice, the Guggenheim, and recently IÕve been funded by an arts foundation, Creative Capital, so I have a lot of support from there, but then in a certain way the history of experimental film sees my work as too narrative. Like even though Andy Warhol movies may be a big influence on my work, people wonÕt necessarily make those connections.
Do you think the definitions of experimental, Asian American filmmakerÉ the people who make those definitions, you donÕt necessarily agree with them?
Yes. ItÕs always in flux and bound up in also what is going on in the cultural moment. People ultimately, in the end, theyÕll have your films to look at. And in the end, youÕve either made good films or bad films.
I also think things have gotten more essentialist. When I came to your class, and I was telling you about the 90s and how there was so much going on with AIDS activism, African American film, and you could see everybody at every event, there werenÕt separate little communities. It was kind of an amazing moment fueled by certain urgencies, and itÕs sad to say ten years later itÕs fractured again. ThereÕs really not that much interconnectedness on a lot of levels, and I think itÕs cultural, like society is shifting again, whatever, for better or worse, I donÕt know.
How important is a personÕs history to their identity? Do you stumble upon your identity or does your history define your identity? In SOME DIVINE WIND, Ben seemed to be haunted by his history, and it seemed as though while he was being defined by history he was trying to run away from it and make his own identity.
ThatÕs interesting. I mean that character is sort of based on me. The premise of the story is true but the idea of Ben as this completely assimilated character was based on a lot of my memories of growing up in L.A. Basically you have this love story, and then the history of the charactersÕ lives start invading their present day even if they donÕt want that. Once that door gets opened, you canÕt stop it.
I think in this country, weÕre taught to repress our family history or to assimilate into American culture. ThatÕs what IÕm sort of interested in, I donÕt even know what that means. To me itÕs this eight-headed creature. But everybody I know looks at me and they say, youÕre totally assimilated—you were in punk bands, you skateboarded and in a certain way I think if that means I was assimilated, I was. ThatÕs the paradox of America,-- youÕre always an insider until difference comes up and then youÕre an outsider. I think that this country was built on those principles, those contradicting principles—freedom but racism. I think itÕs something thatÕs still not worked out. I think itÕs because we always try and repress the past and sort of hide it that so what happens is it explodes back out, instead of talking about it.
I screened SOME DIVINE WIND once in Germany. And it was a pretty intense screening because it was in Mannheim which was bombed like mad in World War II, so half the city is completely new, half the city is incredibly old. And at the question and answer afterwards, this journalist asked me, is the idea in SOME DIVINE WIND that multiculturalism in America doesnÕt work? And I sat there, and I didnÕt know what to say, because coming from their history, going through all these wars, to say that was such an intense question. I didnÕt know how to answer it.
So in general, when your audience leaves the theater after screening one of your films, what sort of feelings do you want them to take away with them? Is there a message in every one of your films.
I hate the idea that people go to see films and then they go eat dinner afterwards and thatÕs it. When I was in film school we would see movies with groups of friends and sit there and talk about them for two hours afterwards. And that was how I learned to watch movies. I hate the fact that films have become so simple, and itÕs for a lot of reasons, but I hate that. When I make a film, I always try out different things and if I try out seven things and four work out, IÕm pretty happy. The three that fall apart I try and deal with that in the next movie. IÕve never tried to make the perfect film. I donÕt know if I could. I guess it was coming out of this art background, studying sculpture, it was always about changing things, reworking ideas. Why canÕt you make a narrative film that has all these experimental things in them? Have a story with all these digressions where the movie can fall apart? Or have five minutes of screen black with sound, an out of focus shot, anything can go? So that is fascinating for me as a filmmaker, and that is something that really drives me.
Maybe the reason why experimental, independent films arenÕt reaching a larger audience is because the audience is afraid that they wonÕt understand. Before I took this class, there was an intangibility around independent/experimental films. Is there a problem there we should address?
Well I think itÕs always context, right? If youÕre not exposed toÉ the thing is, most independent films are bad. ThatÕs one thing. I mean you guys go see independent films, read about themÉMost of them arenÕt interesting. And I think itÕs because that project failed on certain levels--the idea of making a film outside of the industry-- because thereÕs always been a commercial industry.
I used to go to a place called The Collective for Living Cinema where they would show really important historical films and the curator, really interesting guy Mark McElhatten would show a young filmmaker with these films. So you have this built in audience that is going to see these old films but then they would be exposed to this younger filmmaker making work that was similar. Before that place closed, I was going there three or four times a week and every show was sold out and it was really interesting because there was some sort of context to talk about the film, to look at it in a historical trajectory and I think that broadened the audience.
The thing is, most theaters show films in a one or two week run and the time people start hearing about it, like at the quad or Cinema Village whatever, itÕs gone, right? ItÕs moved somewhere else or itÕs gone totally. So distribution is a big problem. How do you create a context so that people can see these films? But you also have to look at the way the film industry has always operated on a blockbuster or a surprise hit, thatÕs where they make money. They donÕt really think about it in trying to create a better context to look at more difficult work. They donÕt really care. ItÕs all about how we can find the independent film thatÕs going to be the surprise hitÉ you know BLAIR WITCH 5 or whatever. ThatÕs how they approach the economics of it.
Are you bored with the state of filmmaking now? What are your next steps, what are your plans?
ThereÕs filmmakers that I admire a lot. I love seeing their movies and IÕm friends with them, but by in large, I am bored with how the film world is now. ItÕs really not that interesting. A lot of it is because experimentation ended. And thatÕs kind of sad so I donÕt see that many films anymore. Ten years ago, I would go to some festivals, try to see every movie. Now the situation is the same thing over and over again.
You personally want to do something about that? Say, hey guys, lets revive this!
Well itÕs sort of changing I think. I teach film production, and I try not to be too cynical to the students because theyÕre excited about learning to make films and I donÕt want to be a downer. I always say to them, well, it could be the worst time right to be a young filmmaker but that also means it could be the best time. Because now, with all the DV stuff, people are saying DV feature, etc etcÉ all that stuff is kind of bogged down already and people are sick of all that stuff which means if you make a good film, it could do better than your wildest expectations now. You can do phenomenal things if you learn your craft, be a good filmmaker. For me itÕs like, be ethical. Trying to be ethical in a completely sick industry. Totally opportunistic and sexist and racist, but stillÉ
I also have problem with, what is mainstream, what is American? Is McDonalds, the Gap American? Do you think we should assimilate or should we seperate from mainstream culture or have our own identity and coexist?
Well, I think we are assimilated. ArenÕt we part of culture just being a participant in the culture? I mean, I teach. I have thirty or forty students that graduate every year that take classes with me so I think, IÕm participating in cultureÉ they take my cynical views with them.
Do you make it a point that you are an Asian American filmmaker to them?
2.WRITING ON FILM by Roddy Bogawa
LESLIE THORNTON: THE (PROCESS) ART OF FILMMAKING
Technologically speaking, the triumph over gravity (the steadicam system) and filmic lag time (video playback) in a relatively short time, has radically changed relationships between subject and filmmaker. These two ÔinnovationsÕ are the first baby steps towards a new seamless, digitalized age. Theoretically speaking, the destruction of screen space (the steadicam shot) allows the ÔactionÕ to be centered at all times—substituting the possibilities of gyroscopic innovation (adaptation) for what formerly was accomplished with camera placement and editing (not to mention dynamic). As a one-trick pony, the steadicam shot amounts to little more than a visual ÔeffectÕ (a roving point of view shot, a Ôyou are thereÕ follow the action shot, etc.) that foreshadows a primitive imaging of what moving through virtual reality promises (without the interactive possibilities). Overused and underthought, the phenomenon in a perverse reverberation has made the handheld shaky camera image exoticized. The development of new viewing systems such as video tap (the process by which a film camera can simultaneously record or monitor onto video what is being filmed) has realized what speed can be harnessed. The concept of Ôfilm dailiesÕ now seems to have an unimpressive ring to it, and one wonders what translation happens when framing a shot can be done by group0 vote in front of a television screen as opposed to the director of photography peering into the viewfinder. Perhaps it is too early to see how non-linear digital video editing machines (AVID and optical disc systems) will affect post production work (though someone I met recently told me he finished a rough cut of a feature length film in under one week!).
How boring it is to make movies! How exciting it must be for Leslie Thornton to make her work! Paradoxically, ThorntonÕs films seem to exist in two dramatic technological moments. One feels as if she could not make her films at any other time than now (at the meeting point of virtual reality sensorium, the physical body in revolutionary urgency, and the reinvigoration of adapting human life to outer space) while the films themselves speak of the wonder and newness of film as a technological invention. This ever present tension in her work makes one feel at times that each edit amounts to another tooth pulled (sheer precision) and the beauty of every image submerges the viewer in a world that is familiar yet bewildering, alien yet desirious.
In her most well known piece, PEGGY AND FRED IN HELL (1985-?), Thornton documents a brother and sister exploring, ransacking, and storytelling with artifacts in a supposed underground post-nuclear bunker (in fact an old apartment of ThorntonÕs). Like a futuristic Ôwild childÕ, Fred sings songs of old (country western tunes) for an unknown audience (perhaps us or the witnesses to the opening of the time capsule). Amidst cascading plants, debris, spectacular backdrops (is that a Jack Goldstein painting?), Peggy jerks and recites ÔBilly JeanÕ by Michael Jackson word for word but sans melody – testament to the immortality of pop music. Peggy and Fred are brilliant sifters of culture, sophisticates with a glorious naivete. The appropriate, they quote, they cannibalize. They perform but within a hermetic environment that resembles more a dump site than a stage.
Filmically speaking, the PEGGY AND FRED series (that is what it must be called as to this date after some five entries that not only include film but video and film/video simultaneously projected, it remains ÔuncompletedÕ, is significant for its retrenching of avant-garde strategies within contemporary cinema (can it be called that without an end point?). Is this a documentary? Is this an anthropological film? Is this a science project? Are bits and pieces of an experimental film (yes, that is itÉthat must be it)? I am struck by the anti-technological look of the film camera burns within shots, ÔamateurishÕ )read stylized) camera work that frames like a crude robotic eye, recycled footage that makes the entire film seem as if it were made either at the dawn of cinema or its demise.
STRANGE SPACE (1993), a video work co-produced with the actor Ron Vawter, is a three minute geometric puzzle about interior and exterior knowledge (read unknowable) narrated by Vawter reciting passages from Rilke while a woman conducts a medical examination. The image track is primarily composed of shots of Vawter embedded within some type of grid filling the screen. Other boxes appear (boxes within boxes) showing NASA space footage shot on the moon and other amorphic shapes. The images often flip, Vawter in the tiny box, the space footage within the larger, obscuring and revealing. While appearing to be of the future (one cannot help but think of the internet grid, jacking in to leave the corporeal behind), Vawter has a curious handle-bar mustache that recalls another period. The words and delivery of Rilke by Vawter also contradicts (read parallels) this time slip. To ponder death, oneÕs own or that of a friend is to move into the future or recall the past simultaneously. It is an intensely heavy visual image (the moon and beyond and inside encompassed by the grid) bereft by Rilke and VawterÕs presence/absence.
These two works, PEGGY AND FRED IN HELL and STRANGE SPACE are curiosities; one an unfinished piece of indeterminate length, the other a mere three minutes. Both are intricate examinations of the seen and not seen, both inherently structured by a deliberate shifting relationship to time – cinematic and cultural and technological. From somewhere within the rhyzomatic maze of complexities and contradictions, a new film by Thornton has emerged – THE GREAT INVISIBLE, that provides another facet to her project. Described byt the filmmaker as an Ôexploded biographyÕ of Isabelle Eberhardt, a European woman who eventually moved to North Africa and lived among the people there disguised as an Arab man. THE GREAT INVISIBLE has as its core – four different Isabelle Eberhardts. Each woman plays different aspects or periods of her character, though at points in the film, two may be in a scene at the same time. Deliberately confounding, this gesture is successful at visually constructing a relentless push-pull effect between the filmmaker, subject, and viewer. ÔThis film is beautiful and you want to know about this woman, but no matter how you try, you can truly not understand her pain, her thoughts, her death. And this is true for all of cinemaÕ, it seems to scream. The camera work and editing in THE GREAT INVISIBLE also add to this ÔexplosionÕ of desire (read biography) Soundtracks start and stop, rewind compete with each other (a North African song and a piano piece) switching from traditional mood accompaniment to Brechtian punctuation. The camera frame crops to the point that the viewer must almost imagine what is there outside just beyond our sight. Things in the foreground (shadows, ornate partitions) obscure, while other things are obscure, foreign.
Speaking of Isabelle Eberhardt, she has been described by Thornton as a Ôwayward child of the Victorian ageÕ, a woman in the late 1800Õs who learned six languages and was versed in history, philosophy, literature, and the sciences. Giving up Europe for the life of that of a Nomad among the Sufi Brotherhood, Eberhardt drowned at age twenty-seven in a flash flood in the desert where there had been no rain for forty years. She was an exotic in search of exoticism. A woman masquerading as a man, living at the turn of the century. A nomad killed by modernism.
To attempt some kind of summary of Leslie ThorntonÕs films would be a betrayal. I donÕt imagine she would want that, nor do each readily provide clues to their taxonomy. Each is radically different and to follow a particular path from bits of fragments could lead to a cul-de-sac as well as a vantage point. If anything, PEGGY AND FRED IN HELL, STRANGE SPACE, and THE GREAT INVISIBLE, share a precise and studious look at the familiar, the beautiful, the incomprehensible. That which is around us, located deep within desire, and the imaginary is the terrain of the films of Leslie Thornton. And for that, they should be looked at and will be timeless.
Essay written for PURPLE PROSE (published, issue no. 6)
ÒPretentious and self indulgent. Viewers will be as bored as the characters.Ó Variety
ÒA victim of its own devicesÓ. The Hollywood Reporter
IMITATION OF LIFE
Jon Moritsugu and co-director Jacques Boyreau have made the unspeakable – a 95 minute film about love, death, cinema, and the boring state of life in the post Reagan/post punk/post modern nineties. Filmed in 16mm black and white that is as contrasty and washed out as its characters, HIPPY PORN mirrors the generation of its existence – at any moment an existence for its makers, characters, and viewere, that seems likely to fall apart, but goes on for lack of anything better. HIPPY PORN is too close for comfort, a machine sputtering and wheezing, resigned to its eventual breakdown and demise.
The poster proclaiming the film as Ôemptier than kisses better than deathÕ (later re-worked on a flyer as Ôemptier than kisses, betterÕn meth), sums up the plot/life of M, L, and Mick, three ÔprotagonistsÕ attending an Ivy League college. Self consciously apathetic, each of the characters live out distant versions of their desires – M studies the ÔAesthetics of CrimeÕ hoping to learn about titillating murders but finds itÕs Ôanother boring majorÕ, L isnÕt interested in sex but steals nude and mutilation pictures from the one hour photo shop where he works, Mick wants to be in a rock band but only writes school papers on what it would be like to be in a rock band. In an early scene of the film, L asks M for a cigarette. As L is smoking, M picks up her bags to leave, walks three steps, drops her bags, and then lights a cigarette of her own. The camera stays in the same position; denying the ÔactionÕ, as if knowing M has no where to go but two feet to the right within the frame. In a later scene, which is both funny and visually beautiful, L and M go on a shoplifting spree to cheer themselves up. L and M massage their breasts as a distraction (handheld camera by Boyreau, with graphics flashing ÔSTEAL YEAHÕ_ then, after their escape (filmed in slow motion), L comments Ômost of what we stole was junk, but thatÕs the point.Õ This momentary spurt of energy in the film (resembling a bizarre updated GUN CRAZY compressed into two minutes and made HIPPY PORN) is immediately offset by the next scene – slow, shot from far away, asynchronized sound, washed out. Life, as one character acknowledges in the film is Ôlong stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of funÕ.
Mick and M begin their love affair while hunting rats in the sewers, and at first it seems their relationship might change things. But terminal boredom (Ôsex is highly overratedÕ) and their inability to communicate (Ôwhat do you say to each other when itÕs over? Nothing. I left before he work up.Õ) dooms the affair. M, L, and Mick canÕt look outside themselves because there is no longer any inside or outside. They are their own subject and absolutely unimpressed.
GRAMMAR OF HELL / APPROPRIATION AND PASTICHE
Jon Moritsugu is Dennis Hopper (of the EASY RIDER and THE LAST MOVIE period) gone post punk. He cannibalizes HopperÕs flash frame techniques and non-linear interventions to energize the dead weight of the narrative lulls, thereby substituting a sixties hippie sensibility with punk abandon. Moritsugu explores the emptiness of the Ôrealm of the cinematic deadÕ while simultaneously being enthralled with the details of its decomposition. In the opening of the film, M runs over a cat on the way to school. While the camera holds on the dead cat, the buzzing of flies going in and out of the catÕs mouth gets louder and louder. M speaks her first line of dialogue. Simply, ÔsorryÕ. HIPPY PORN is GodardÕs WEEKEND remade by WarholÕs factory, a road movie about the End of the Road. The Pure Beauty of Decay.
In a short scene Mick spray paints his clothes, snorts the fumes and between the last gasps of his high, gives a pseudo-academic lecture on the genealogy of punk from Johnny Rotten to Iggy Pop to Richard Hell to Marlon Brando to Errol Flynn, etcÉIn another segment, Mick reads his sophomore paper titled ÔI Sing the Body Divided. Dismemberment as Universal Signifier in Rock MusicÕ. These arenÕt anti-intellectual jokes but poignant moments that underscore the division of experience from cultural readings of the events (or non-events). In Andy WarholÕs film, VINYL, an ÔadaptationÕ of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the relationship of Gerard Malanga, Edie Sedgewick, or any of the other characters to the story or narrative is fleeting at best. The disjuncture between Malanga, Sedgewick, and the others as actors in the film or playing themselves is inseparable. Similarly, there is a compelling dialogue between the characters, M, L, and Mick and their real life counterparts Liz Canning, Victor E. of Aquitane, and Marek Waldorf, that speaks with lucidity and honesty. This is artifice but then again, it isnÕt. To their filmmaking credit, Jon Moritsugu and Jacques Boyreau capture truly great performances – Liz Canning and Victor E. of Aquitane perform a surreal cabaret number, Marek Waldorf brushes his teeth while doing a ÔprimitiveÕ dance to a punk song (a la EL SPECTRO ROJO). To their nihilistic credit, Moritsugu and Boyreau structure their cinematic forms and experiments to imitate life – confused, bizarre, and often banal. At one point, L says, ÔI wish there was a way to fast forward to the good partsÕ. Thing is, you canÕt. If Andy Warhol once revealed the glamour of fifteen minutes of fame, Moritsugu reveals the humdrum life after that brief bliss.
ÒAs I said, I want a show of my own-called Nothing Special.Ó Andy Warhol.
THE WORLDÕS A MESS, ITÕS IN MY KISS
There is no nostalgia in HIPPY PORN for failed utopian visions. Art, learning, writing, sex and punk have become symptomatic rather than redemptive. ItÕs hard to label the film cynical as to do so would imply there is something better to aspire to. The last line of dialogue, ÔI never found out why heÉÕ isnÕt even allowed to finish. When M gets kicked out of school for slashing paintings in an art show and Mick kills himself to Ôget attentionÕ, one gets the sense that these events are all part of the entropy. No drama, no emotional shifts, no climax. George Bush was elected president with a platform that guaranteed Ôfour more years of the sameÕ. At the time, no one questioned what the ÔsameÕ was or meant. HIPPY PORN dives headfirst into the reality of BushÕs vision, revealing the horror of the ÔsameÕ – a world without transcendence, a world of steadfast parameters
CITIZEN K: NEW YORK SURVEY
It's an incredibly depressing moment when you come to realize how much of art and filmmaking is about business. One shouldn't have ever been surprised (remembering the origins of cinema - the circus as theaters, magicians and charlatans as director and producer), but one dreams and desires for something else beyond the 'crossover hit', 'box office smash', 'indie success'. Perhaps this has never been the case (dead and buried with THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA). Still there is something interesting in the "journey", one that is peripheral to the five or so well traveled routes Hollywood prescribes must be taken. This is where I search for tracks from my tribe.
Making films is like having your teeth pulled
(at least the type of filmmaking my friends and I make). There's a lot of
unnecessary torture and masochistic pleasure involved. For what? To make
something that takes up two years of your life and five christians in a cave
will see? Filmmaking is the most wasteful art form created by the modern world
and you should acknowledge this at every moment. Your filmmaking should be
motivated from guilt and you should try and make something that isn't a piece
of shit. And there's an awful lot of shit out there.
Written for citizen k (French fashion and art magazine). 7/95
"My favorite film set in New York has got to be a recently released film shot over twenty-years ago called DOWNTOWN 81 written by Glenn OÕBrien, produced by Maripol, the art director and stylist, and directed by photographer Edo Bertoglio. It's a film that features a young Jean Michel Basquiat playing a character pretty much like himself - that is selling paintings for a few hundred bucks to pay his rent, cruising downtown clubs, and doing street graffiti (the shot of him doing the samo tag is worth the price of admission!), and just of the cusp of hitting it big as an artist. It's a gem of a time capsule - the shots of the abandoned lots on the lower east side, performances by DNA, James White and other bands, the hip hop scene in a basement apartment, and of course, Deborah Harry as a homeless woman / fairy godmother who ends up granting Basquiat's wish of making some hard cash. He stuffs homeless peoples' pockets with bills as he heads towards Houston street where he buys a cadillac, tags it with his graffiti, and spends the last moments of the film driving around New York as the morning breaks. Fucking brilliant! It's hard to imagine this film was lost for so long but to emerge just a few years ago is like uncovering some tomb of cave paintings. It's a movie that really speaks to why I wanted to move to New York, where danger and adventure lurk in any back alley and you could turn water into wine...."
Written for a survey of New York based independent filmmakers on their Ôfavorite movieÕ shot in New York. 5/04
I WISH I HAD CHANTAL AKERMANÕS CAJONES
When my students talk about wanting to become filmmakers, I always ask them why? Is it that you canÕt stop making films, you shoot even when youÕve got no ideas or money, you love being around an editing room? If you make film so you can get invited to all the parties at Sundance, then thatÕs cool. So be it, everyone likes a good party, but for fuckÕs sake, put in some work first. How do you develop respect or a set of ethics working in an industry dead set on destroying these aspirations (how many distributors does it take to ruin a filmmakerÕs career?).
I feel out of step, out of sync with a moment that bears little interest to my concerns as a filmmaker. Between the cracks, fallen off the truck (the self imposed moniker of my film company, FallenCinema). Culture has quickened and filmmakers are slow to the punch. The notion of oppositional cinema of form and content has devolved into a simple replacement of content or the cannibalization of surface style. ItÕs a rejection of the past, a lightweight attempt to insert yourself into the present so you can get invited to the right parties. There are so little thrills in filmmaking now that I grasp for any glimmer of excitement, long for something thatÕs not there.
If this sounds like a dirge, itÕs not. ItÕs a call to arms, a sounding of the alarm. Look out, I and a ragtag handful of others are going to steamroll you motherfuckers. Get ready, the funÕs about to begin.
This piece appeared in Cinevue as part of a survey on ÔIndependent FilmmakingÕ from various directors with films in the festival. 6/02
BETWEEN NIRVANA (heaven) AND PAVEMENT (earth)
"Usually, all I need is tracing paper and a good light."
Long before andy warhol began making his 'films', his art manipulated public opinion. In a an interview by cavalier magazine from september 1966, his paintings were endearingly described as "cruel, unsentimental, machine-like, mass produced, tedium-induced, purposefully banal, nasty (?)...unsigned, clich carved, stereo-typed, dehumanized, mass mediaized...carefully contrived exact, disciplined..." One of my favorite series of paintings were the ones he 'did' quite later, in 1978; the oxidation paintings. They're rarely reproduced in survey catalogues, either a buried page or one small image, perhaps because they literalized the phrase 'taking the piss' out of someone. By that time, he had stopped making films. The year andy warhol died, 1987, I finished my first-a small room in the big house. It was also the year, I broke up the last band I was in.
I loved warhol's movies like I loved punk rock as a sixteen year old. I liked the fact his movies could be summed up by a title and a still image-eat, sleep, kiss, etc. I heard about his films before I saw them and seeing them in a way wasn't half as fun as describing them or having them described to you. david james has written that in warhol's films "the spectator is revealed as being as much a function of the camera as are the actors". Images of friends climbing onto four foot high stages at particular points in songs and dancing madly only to launch themselves back into the crowd at another point in the music bring back warm feelings. After seeing most of warhol's films, I feel very similar to how I did initially---you can pin them down (as much as they do so to themselves) but there is an inexplicable elusiveness embedded within them as well. That is a guy sleeping, but is that it?
kiss, sleep, haircut, eat, empire, couch, blow-job, shoulder, harlot, apple, pause, lips, suicide, drunk, horse, vinyl, bitch, restaurant, kitchen, prison, face, afternoon, space, camp, hedy, lupe, bufferin, courtroom, sausalito, rollerskate.
NOTES FROM THE (POP) UNDERGROUND
In 1966, warhol was asked, "do you want a lot of people to see your films?", to which he replied, "I don't know. If they're paying to see them." That year, at the tender age of minus one, kurt cobain of nirvana couldn't possibly remember warhol's ambivalent answer- but twenty six years later, he writes, "I don't feel the least bit guilty for commercially exploiting a completely exhausted rock youth culture because, at this point in rock history, punk rock (while still sacred to some) is, to me, dead and gone. We just wanted to pay tribute to something that helped us to feel as though we had crawled out of the dung heap of conformity. To pay tribute like and elvis or jimi hendrix impersonator in the tradition of a bar band. I'll be the first to admit that we're the 90's version of cheap trick or the knack but the last to admit that it hasn't been rewarding." warhol couldn't have been more prophetic when he wrote "business art is a much better thing to be making than art art". I bought nevermind along with most of my friends. It was edgy and strange pop (?) music that made me desperate to buy records again. It made me want to go to club shows and be in a band again.
the next year, pavement put out their record, slanted and enchanted.
I was dressed for success
but success it never comes
and I'm the only one who laughs
at your jokes when they're so bad
and your jokes are always bad
but they're not as bad as this.
(lyric to here, pavement)
I love to walk but I can't
I love to swim but I can't
I love to sit in the sun but I can't
I love to smell the flowers but I can't
I love to play tennis but I can't
I love to water-ski but I can't
(quote from warhol)
I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying...
(lyric to conduit for sale!, pavement)
slanted and enchanted had a cover that looked like the title was painted with liquid paper solution and scrawled by scratching into it with pennies. You could be puzzled by it and sing along to it. I cannibalized my bank account in search of every out of print sonic youth record (realizing the great music they were still putting out) and starting reading fanzines again. I bought records and cd's of bands that were on labels like sub pop, matador, drag city, caroline... (remember slash, posh boy, twin tone, sst...) without knowing what they sounded like.
RAPE ME (1993)
teenage angst has paid off well
now I'm bored and old
(lyric to serve the servants, nirvana)
In late november, as an homage and a dirge, I made a short film- if andy warhol's super-8 camera could talk?. A single image 'film' of warhol's super-8 camera sitting on a window shelf. 100 ft. 16mm roll, unedited. Shot silent with a sound track added later (a phone solicitor repeating 'hello, hello' for 3 minutes).
THE YEAR OF THE DOG (1994)
'career, career, career, career, career, career!'
(lyric from cut your hair, pavement)
I go into massive pre-production on a new film, junk, which my producer and I pitch as a version of stalker by tarkovsky as re-made by andy warhol. The description is met with absolute delight or absolute puzzlement. We smile, knowing we're on to something. I finish the third draft of the script listening to codeine's frigid stars lp on headphones (the cd player programmed to repeat and volume so high I often find myself delirious).
I start seeing warhol everywhere. Not the weekly world news incarnate vision, but the real thing. It seems the world at large has finally caught up with the bits and pieces warhol discarded in the factory trash. Some absorb, inhale, or ingest. Some mimic and get it wrong. One day after a night of binging that ends up in the bathroom of save the robots, I wake to find myself on the couch of a friend's apartment. I flip on mtv which happens to be broadcasting the entire series of 'episodes' of the real world show. I lay transfixed for some six hours engrossed in something that's kind of like real time but not really (an odd feeling considering I am also locked in his apartment and can't leave and teetering on vomiting every half hour or so). Later, I think about warhol and how he wanted to keep the video cameras on all the time in the factory to capture the banal and the ordinary (who knows what it will get?). I hear that in fact the kids in the real world show answered wanted ads (cast?) and were interviewed for the parts (benetton uber alles). Even one of the girls wants the guy behind the camera. This is the real world, I guess.
LAST FILMS (WITH MORRISSEY)
fuck (blue movie), flesh, trash, heat, l'amour
pond, ride, sugar, plywood, codeine, seam, come, superchunk, swell, hole, cell, bum, olivelawn, ween, suede, fudge, wool, unrest, unsane, belly, quicksand, milk, dustdevils, paw, lush, fur, lunachicks, morphine, acetone, mudhoney, crust, smudge...
ROOTING AROUND FOR THE FEW SECRETS PUNK STILL HOLDS 
It's been how long since
Andy Warhol died? Does it matter? In america, the ghost often returns. Like
elvis or michael landon, the guy who played a ghost when alive. elvis, okay, I
understand the guns, cars, karate, taboo. But michael landon? I thought about
why warhol has never been spotted...in the back corner of some dingy club...or
dean and deluca...or the fourth floor of pearl paint. A silly image, I agree.
Every other year or so, though, it becomes clear andy never left. His art is
debated. His persona deconstructed. His savvy emulated. We sucked his blood
until his skin turned a pale white. andy was consumed by us all and shit out of
popular culture's collective ass.
If the warhol phenomenon (read also the philosophy of warhol) exists anywhere, it has sprouted in 'alternative' music that is no longer alternative, sub pop that is now pop, the symptom that can now be identified as a slacker or a generation x'er. In a recent article, pavement was described as "drone, accident as structure, lo-fi as strategy, self-indulgence as both indifference and dedication..." Go Lo-fi. Aim below radio's technical standards. Embrace the rough edges of the silk screens. Record an album for five hundred dollars. Dress down, be true to your label. Piss on your canvas. On the last page of the nirvana biography, kurt cobain says he'd like to re-release all of their material on vinyl but remastered lo-fi like a bootleg recording or punk rock record. I return from stockholm where an art critic has played me every lou reed and velvet underground album he has collected. The last one we listen to is a live bootleg of v.u. playing in front of one of warhol's films. I close my eyes and imagine it's empire...
Complete essay written for FRIEZE for the Andy Warhol Special Issue (extremely edited version published)
Joey Ramone died on my birthday, April 15th, a few years back. I turned thirty-nine that day, an age for most of my life, I couldnÕt imagine reaching (let alone in fact being). I grew up on the west coast, born and raised in Los Angeles but now I live a block and a half away from CBGBÕs in New York. I had seen The Ramones once in the early eighties but wasnÕt a rabid fan though I would run into Joey around the East Village every few months or so and sometimes pop into the holiday shows he would promote. Almost immediately, punks had begun leaving gifts, notes, graffiti, mementos, beer, photos and records, converse tennis shoes, flowers, lunch boxes, candles, and assorted bric-a-brac under a big ÔJoey LivesÕ sign in front of the gates of CBGBÕs and I decided to document this totem one morning (at least IÕd have this on 16mm I remember thinking). Lying on the sidewalk at seven in the morning, I started shooting close ups of all the objects and though I was quite sleepy moving from shot to shot, I was struck by the pungent smells - weekend upon weekend, decade upon decade – of piss, blood, and vomit embedded into the concrete inches from my face. It seemed fitting but didnÕt make for any Proustian moment I had ever envisioned. On one of the last shots, I framed up a handwritten note, drawn in blue and red crayon on a ripped out sheet from a notepad. Focusing the lens, I began reading it while I rolled the camera. ÒDear JoeyÓ, it began, ÒI grew up in Columbus, Ohio and my life was empty. Then I discovered The Ramones and Rock and Roll High School and everything changedÓ. I couldnÕt see the rest of the note but I had already found myself crying uncontrollably. Moments later, I still couldnÕt grasp what had happened. Filming that morning had been a very spontaneous decision and this twenty second shot that had affected me so deeply written by a fan from Columbus, Ohio would be a prophetic one - twenty seconds that would fold back to more than twenty years.
Recently I spoke in a class about Asian American studies, and talked at length about being nostalgic for the moment of the late eighties and early nineties art world and its swirling ambition driven flame out (ÔHey. YouÕre coolÕ) and how key this whirlpool was to what I thought art and filmmaking could be. I had one foot in the art world (working during the last gasps of the Ôstudio assistantÕ employment boom) and one in the film world (at this point, people still made films without a career planner) and there was no codified language yet of how to visualize the explosion of theory and conceptual work. It was precisely the crossing of boundaries, analyzing and misunderstanding texts, riffing and jamming which led to such interesting stews of experimentation. I had always talked about my films as sculptures, in some interviews discussing scenes as Donald Judd boxes and with my film friends talking about Chantal Akerman and Michael Snow films as muscular wall constructions. Through the enveloping discourse of identity politics and cultural critique, I pushed minimalist conceits a la WarholÕs strategic ÔboredomÕ and conceptual interests via narratives teetering on falling apart with open-ended structures. Co-incidentally as the film projects became more and more elaborate, time consuming and more difficult to fund, I began making small sculptures and drawings and bought another electric guitar.
I started playing in a version of a band with Michael Joo, Mike Minelli, and Laura Nordman, all art world friends and weÕd meet once a week with a six pack of beer and just improvise non-stop for three hours. ÒNo songsÓ weÕd say and usually Laura would start a bass line and weÕd all just follow whatever loud or soft rhythms would develop. Eventually the group fizzled out once we started learning songs and first Laura then Mike moved away.
THE REBEL WALTZ
At Damien HirstÕs show at Gagosian in 2000 amongst the Martha Stewarts, Steve Martins and so on, appeared Joe Strummer with rolling travel bag in tow and I made as they say a b-line to meet him (this some twenty years later after seeing The Clash in 1979 and 1980). Damien and Joe had become close friends and he would be the DJ at the party later and it turned out the rolling bag was filled to the brim with CDs. Joe was a bit apprehensive or perhaps still reeling from the plane trip and sensing this I simply said hello and shook his hand and he disappeared into the crowded room. For the rest of the opening and continuing into the party, all I could talk about was meeting Joe Strummer to my friends who were infinitely more star struck by the movie and art world celebrities. I moved my friends closer to the table from where Joe was manning the music and in the midst of a song, heard a loud call several times of my name. Looking over, Joe was waving and signaling me to come behind the table. I moved through the crowd and he handed me a lit joint and though I hadnÕt smoked weed in years, I of course, had to. This was Joe Strummer after all offering me his joint. He smiled as I awkwardly took a drag and said ÔEh, Roddy, what shall we play then?Õ as I coughed and answered back ÔLetÕs play some old reggaeÕ and he dug up some old rock steady beats that had the crowd dancing like mad.
Much later in the early morning on the patio of DamienÕs hotel room, Joe started a bonfire on the rooftop with some broken up chairs and after others took control of the burning heap of furniture and trash, Joe walked over to me and we shared a cigarette in silence looking down West Broadway. I remember an old film teacher of mine had once told me that making films was like sending smoke signals to your tribe and as I watched Joe smiling at the chaos he had orchestrated, his face lit by the morning sun and glowing fire, I couldnÕt help but think he too was still sending smoke signals out into the world.
Excerpt from an essay written for YARD magazine, issue no. 2.
3. ART REVIEWS by Roddy Bogawa
JASON SIMON / PAT HEARN GALLERY / SEPTEMBER 1998
Jason SimonÕs work has always in some way addressed paradoxical interests in scale, format, and medium to that of content. Previously, he has exhibited a 16mm film on art ÒrestorationÓ (or mutilation as revealed by his co-director Mark Dion) of paintings freely traded and auctioned, large format polaroid images of various knick knacks and personal items, and an installation filled with photos of patterns of smoke, plaster cast bones re-fitted and painted to resemble cigarette butts, and an antique stereo broadcasting the sound of the artistÕs enthusiastic inhale and exhales. His most recent exhibition continues this investigation while ironically redefining the term Ôsound sculptureÕ. Indeed what better description fits a work whose main components include two large stadium size speaker elements emanating ambient sounds of some unknown place/event? Whereas many sound sculptures utilize hidden speakers, multitrack audio tracks, and sophisticated quadrophonic or other audio placement systems, SimonÕs installation, ÒPublic Address - CollapsedÓ, inverts the notion of sound/image - visually foregrounding the means by which we hear the magnification of sound only to create an extremely clever minimalist sculpture of sound. The speaker elements are gigantic, showing attachments of their once secure riggings alongside broken and scattered chairs, drink containers, a lone shoe, pieces of drywall . As massive forms, they are technological caricatures, abstract sculptures reminiscent of Dr. Seuss horns (images which Simon further elaborates in a series of drawings and collages in the show attaching these forms as body parts and making reference to the openings of the Lincoln Tunnel as perhaps projectors of commuters and culture). From where have they been imported? A Van Halen concert? The Million Man March? An art auction? Whether literal or metaphorical, the speaker elements deliberately draw the viewerÕs attention away from patiently listening to the sounds projecting from each - a faint sound of footsteps, some odd p.a. feedback, reverb of nothing. It is here where the crass joke within the piece is embedded - that whatever it was, weÕve missed the party. WhatÕs left is rubbish, emptiness, the sound of empty space around. ItÕs time to hit the road and head home.
In a smaller untitled piece, Simon exhibits a tiny portable monitor atop a smaller set of damaged and worn speaker horns of a strange honeycombed design. The images are barely visible due to the size of the monitor and even upon examination they seem relatively insignificant - images of the artist making a pot of coffee, chopping some vegetables, a flea market or swap meet, some trees blowing in the wind, a walk through knee high grass, for instance. In trying to make a connection between these images, one comes to the realization that the seduction of the piece occurs in the listening. The viewer (or listener as it may be) is lulled into the rhythm of the sounds of these places - blips of conversations and deal makings at the swap meet, the rustle of the grass by oneÕs feet, the repetitive creak of a large fan rotating. Though they are sounds of the everyday, when edited next to one another, they become musical, evoking other senses of smell, memory, colors, texture.
Though the human eye is a relatively sophisticated piece of equipment, it is scientifically known that the ear can distinguish thousands of sounds in an instant. Both these sculptures are subtle pieces and while Simon flaunts the Trojan Horse in the front room of the Hearn Gallery, as viewers in an art gallery, we are not accustomed to privileging our ears to our eyes, listening rather than looking at art. If installation art is to progress in any fashion perhaps it is this facet of sculpture which needs to be developed, and while upon first glance this show by Jason Simon seems subtle, if you stop and listen, itÕs Proustian world is released.
Review written for Flash Art (not published)
ASHLEY BICKERTON / SONNABEND GALLERY / JUNE 1999
Much has been made about the potential disasters - both technological and biogeneered - that will come with the new millenium. As we desperately restructure the world around us, we have also returned to the primal - a schizophrenic in a log cabin obsessively writing and creating wood carved bombs, eleven year olds hunting their own at school, taboo sex in hallways of the White House. In a way, Ashley Bickerton has prefigured all of this and in his newest show at Sonnabend, makes it horrifically crystalline. Throughout his career, Bickerton has mixed metaphors, crossed wires, layered signage in attempts to perhaps create his own Dolly clone or at least send smoke signals to the others of his mutant tribe. His earliest ÔboxesÕ, glossy and cryptic, were though we have all forgotten - at their essence, text pieces. Strange conductors, lightning rods, or some forms of automatons connected to utter ÒKUKÓ, ÒGOHÓ, and ÒUGHÓ. Like some low tech preservation of futuristic cave paintings, the boxes were mounted with machined brackets and delicately protected with armoured sides and corners. As a wacky joke to the workers who installed the pieces, Bickerton often filled the boxes with studio garbage, marbles and such to make them think they had broken in shipping. Upon inspection, the handlers would discover the crude jokes painted on the backside (only for their eyes).
While the work moved to more elaborate boxes and suspension systems, the text became modern - company logos (even Bickerton created his own - Susie Culturelux), toxic warnings, declarations (as ÔlandscapesÕ, Ôstill lifeÕ, Ôself portraitÕ). The titles became grander and more fantastc - ÒMINIMALISMÕS EVIL ORTHODOXY MONOCULTUREÕS TOTALITARIAN ESTHETICÓ, ÒTHE BIG SCREWED UP CYCLE OF WOOD, SHIT, AND HUMAN TINKERINGÓ. Of this body of work that was to become BickertonÕs signature (at least for the moment of the explosion of the art market in the eighties), he describes it as a Ôperverse literalismÕ - if itÕs valuable, it should be protected and also covered, a work should thrust out into the viewerÕs space so it needs to be somehow supported. Beneath all the armatures, cables, and mountaneering gear, however, was the same hand and mind that painted dirty jokes on the backs of his earliest work. Having escaped the tag of Neo Geo, Bickerton now found himself an ÒEcoÓ artist. While the work did inform of ecological issues confronting humankind, he didnÕt leave behind any of his reflections upon language or self. One can still see these containers as anthropomorphised bodies. Among the pebbles and coral in ÒCATALOGUE: TERRA FIRMA NINETEEN HUNDRED AND EIGHTY NINEÓ, are Cheese Doodle potato chips. These works were never simply one note pieces - humans are bad, nature is good - but rather plundered this friction. One could consider the Ôperverse literalismÕ of ÒFLOATING TRANSPORTER CONTAINING THE WASTE PRODUCTS OF ITS MAKINGÓ a timely masterpiece of BickertonÕs consciousness of himself (perhaps an updated high tech Manzoni can of shit - later he would create a floater for an Elvis suit to be set free).
Several shows later, Bickerton had moved from abstract containers to the figurative. Grotesque monstrous bodies in flourescent orange, black rubber sharks, a blue clear rubber cast of his own head, photographs of dirty male and female genetalia populated his cosmos. Whereas in much of the earlier work, painting had been relegated to frisket masking for logo work, Bickerton now painted in unmixed black and white on aluminum, shapes of atolls and small islands, naming them as if a Rorshach test. As a painter moving to sculpture and slowly making his way back to painting, this body of work is key. In this work, boxes lie alongside bodies, painting upon sculpture, ecological concerns merge with abstraction. Amongst it all once again, Bickerton somehow is able to maintain equilibrium along with his sense of humor - high tech tubes attached with nets of images of genetalia are labled with the latest cuisine, from his Buddha-like rubber cast protrudes two large palm trees woven from human hair. If one were to decode these shows as the segue to his latest painting shows, one could see them as the moment of his shedding of skin, and the work, the remnants. All the references to inebriation, classification, and of course, the South Pacific are notification that Bickerton is indeed becoming Cat Stevens.
Of the two painting shows at Sonnabend, the latest body of work shows Bickerton has rehatched as a beautiful creature to everyoneÕs squeals and delight. Whereas the first show relied on grotesque charicatures (most notably in three versions of himself - as biker, transexual, aged), ÒGoing Dutch: One ManÕs Odyssey Into the Depths of Anal RetentionÓ demonstrates Bickerton hasnÕt lost an ounce of obsessive technique nor complexity of thought. With a technique closer to his earliest text boxes, the hyperreal surface of the paintings mask their depth. All painted on treated wood and mounted to what appear to be large blocks and then hung on the walls of Sonnabend, the work almost entirely features extremely detailed air brushed characters and/or heads floating on backgrounds of washes of varnish, water patterns, and blotches of quickly applied paint. Moving from simple character studies (the earlier show reminds one of August SandersÕ portraits gone beserk), this new work reintegrates all of BickertonÕs past technique and vocabulary. Once again, there is the word play (the daughter featured in THE VLAMINKOÕS among her cigarettes, walkman and gameboy and encased in a placenta-like shape perhaps one day to emerge in violent eruption is curiously named ÔLaxmiÕ), self portraiture (THE FIVE SAGES includes five Bickerton heads spouting not only Òmotherfucker, cock sucker, etcÓ but also Òpoo-poo, pee-peeÓ in perhaps an vague attempt at communication not only with his collectors but his two year old son), and classification (the painting THEM shows two figures contorted, gawking, pointing outward at the viewer). It would be amazing to see one of the early boxes like ÒKUKÓ or ÒGUHÓ hung next to one the paintings like a balloon of dialogue in a cartoon strip.
WhatÕs interesting about the figures that Bickerton has presented in this show is the move from a flat representation to a more pictoral distortion achieved in a seamless collage fashion. Not only are we to stare in awe of our own species (the horror, the horror), but we are witness to a strange universality of body parts. Bickerton has painted the figures from various distortions then joined the elements perspectively for the finished character (one wonders if like Frankenstein, theyÕre even matching parts). The push pull of this distortion of foreshortening with elongation makes one at unease not only with our self consciousness at looking but also its physical effect. If one stares long enough, like a circus mirror, the distortion gives way to a bit of dizziness. ItÕs a calculated subtle move, one to great effect that we havenÕt seen before in any of BickertonÕs paintings. The symbols, be they Donald Duck masks or game boys, jail tattoos or Hawaiian shirts, adorning the VLAMINKOÕS, HERR SCHOENDORFF or the two characters in THEM, also reflect this unease - the recognizable iconography of Manahlo Blahnik heels donÕt jive with the Nazi arm band. It is this quality which gives the paintings their power. While we hope Bickerton isnÕt pointing the finger at us (thank god, a lot of the time it is at himself), we are all implicit, we are all part of the same repugnant species, glorified hungry chimps.
While many thought BickertonÕs self imposed exile to Bali some kind of Gaugin move, in fact, heÕs reversed it. Rather than paint the peaceful natives, heÕs created his own village of misfits. Like the famous image in BunuelÕs film, Viridiana, in which the homeless having taken over the villa recreate the Last Supper, Bickerton has brought his midgets, jugglers, fire eaters, and lion tamers to town and come home to roost.
Review of show (not published)
MOYRA DAVEY / AMERICAN FINE ARTS
When you examine a body of work like that of Moyra Davey, you sense a larger conceptual project than the actual 'objects', in her case, photographs, and now collage. In previous exhibitions, she has presented dozens of extreme close ups of worn, scarred, and discolored pennies (essentially useless currency in this country, a nuisance), large scale landscapes and still life scenarios magnified from the back sides of twenty, fifty, and hundred dollar bills (the banal and the everyday), dozens of newspaper and magazine kiosks (open/closed displays of design, efficiency, texture, and language), South African ant hills and mining debris (markers of work). Several words immediately come into one's mind - obsession, traces, remnants, collections, elusiveness. But what they lead to is something far more reaching and abstract, far less personal than what the viewer immediately perceives - notions of loss, nostalgia, joy, the melancholia of inescapable death.
In the latest series of work, Ms. Davey creates literal frames - frames that encase fragmented assemblages of photographs, cards with painted on emulsions ('liquid light'), and objects - hackneyed Hockneys of bookshelves, record collections, domestic junk that speak not so much of space but their content. The edges of the joined images sometimes match perfectly, other times leaving gaps of photo paper white negative space. Most of the time, the exposures show no change, rarely do the seams call loud attention to themselves. These larger images seem to make up the spine of each piece. Put together, they show details of bookshelves filled with 50 cent dime store pulp novels, high brow cinema and art theory journals, and eclectic record collections hinting at excess - the moment when you've bought one too many books and to fit them onto the shelf, you begin stacking them horizontally atop of the others .
Alongside, above, or next to these constructions, there are glued, sometimes thumbtacked, smaller images - a summer ice cream shack, people by the sea at outdoor food stands - in a washed out desaturated color scheme that betrays outdated Ektachrome. In some of these, we see the sprocket holes subtlety cueing us that they are still frames from Super-8 film. It is then we realize the repetition of these images are in fact different moments of a continuing sequence. We go back and look at them again and now see the silhouette of a person moving across the frame, in another the blur of a car. Other small stills show people eating ice cream by the sea, solitary acts seen from afar as if Ms. Davey's voyeuristic curiosity got the better of her rather than pick up a double scoop and sit to join them. Almost as if a backdrop to these assemblages, are unfolded paper napkins, marked by notations in delicate ink or spotted with shit-like coffee stains.
Not quite the mystical constructions of Robert Frank or In its most brutal, they show a psyche flayed and laid bare. In their most humane, it is an act of love. Perhaps this push pull is what makes the constructions so aesthetically and emotionally engaging. It is as if for the first time, one can see the montage theory of cinema component by component, shot by shot. A worktable. A sketch in progress. A rough cut. Think of in cinema the work of Robert Bresson who beat detail to death so one could live his protagonist's experience, be it the despair of a little girl's loss of innocence or the technical execution of a pickpocket, or that of the more recent Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai who with five films to date has captured in minutia what loneliness means and what it is to follow one's distant love like a detective searching for any clue left behind.
"An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blues beside a green, a yellow, a red."
-Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer
The following interview with Moyra Davey was conducted over a two week period via fax. It was re-entered into the computer, re-arranged and re-worked.
In your latest show at American Fine Arts in New York, you seem to be moving to a more complex set of arrangements - within each piece and then one in relation to another. Do you think other people's obsessions become your own?
Photography in general is about arranging things within a frame, about creating order and meaning where in reality none exists. Then there was another level of fastidious choices within the collages themselves. And finally the installation is like a giant collage. I think photography is by nature aquisitive and obsessive.
I like the idea of the show as a big collage. This is appealing in terms of the work becoming expansive, both formally and content-wise. An open endedness. Usually photography shows are about distillation, recognizable name brands.
Can you talk about the different forms within the show? The use of slightly matching separate images, painted emulsions on different types of paper (depicting matchbook 1-800 numbers), actual objects (movie ticket stubs).
The original concept for this series was the bulletin board, a blank space to contain various photographs, small objects, bits of paper, etc. I also had in mind storyboards, a series of empty frames to be filled in. The fractured photographs echo this idea of disparate, unrelated parts adding up to a whole, or telling a story. In terms of the mediums and materials used, I wanted to contrast different types of photographic surfaces and resolutions. I painted a light-sensitive emulsion onto index cards and exposed them with images of things that are flat and made of paper such as ticket stubbs, empty matchbooks, cash register receipts etc. I was interested in ideas of realism, naturalism, and trompe l'oeil, how it is that realism (in the novel, in painting and in photographs) is often conveyed through attention to mundane detail.
It's intriguing you mention storyboards.There is a cinematic feel to the series. I think in some way it is inextricably bound up in texture and detail. Also in filmmaking when you make a paper edit (index cards color coded describing scenes and shots), in some way it resembles a textual equivalent to what you've done visually. The titles of the work seem to have a certain conceptual element to them as touchstones for looking. Most always it's a buried book title among hundreds, "The Octopus", a newspaper heading, "The City", or a record, "Bitches Brew". Are these clues to your organization of all the elements of the pieces?
All of the titles can be found within the frame--I've always liked the idea of a title that chooses you. Some titles refer to naturalist/realist novels such as "The Octapus" by Frank Norris (called the American Balzac). Several others refer to money, gambling, and indirectly to shit.
It makes me wonder if it is then an organization built around chance? One of my favorite pieces is "Eisenstein", the large photograph of the rear of an overstuffed bookshelf. It seems to speak in a way not so much about the content of the books (what titles etc. like in some of the other photographs) but really of the enormous space and weight for storing the goddamn things. Like a minimalist block.
It's interesting that you mention a minimalist block. I began to think of these bookshelves as sculptural, free-standing slabs...tombstones.
The lighting is also quite different in that one. Could you talk about how you use natural or artificial light?
The light in this particular photograph is early morning window light--very fleeting. I am a traditionalist in that I stalk natural light. Window light illuminates selectively, often spotlights a scene. When it's not available, I use a strobe which gives the opposite look: the hyper clarity and illumination of a catalogue shot.
-That would suggest at least two types of moments - the snapshot and the portrait. The photographs have distinctive looks to them. Not different styles perhaps, but maybe hijacked functions. There rarely are actual people within the photographs, yet one really gets a strong sense of a person represented by what the image reveals through objects, framing, even lighting.
There are no people within the photographs except in the movie frames--and these have an abstracted, distanced quality which contrasts with the clarity and detail of the interior arrangements.
Do you see them in some sense as portraiture?
Funnily enough, the bookshelves began to take on an anthropomorphic quality--I thought of these photographs as portraits.
There is the physical mass of the things. As well as the "knowledge" contained within-what a person consumes on an intellectual or really practical level-how they spend their time. In a way, these newer works take on elements of still life constructions. That you sit with the photographs, glue them together, add another, rather than your previous work, though one could make the observation that all the pieces have been about looking, finding details that speak of larger systems - collecting, transaction, work. Do you see this new assemblage as another direction in your conceptual project? Do you take pictures all the time?
I'd like to pursue the theme of people eating.
This discussion followed a solo exhibition of work by Moyra Davey at American Fine Arts, Inc. NY (not published).
andy warhol, the philosophy of andy warhol, 1975.
nat finkelstein (introduction), 'inside', cavalier , september 1966,
david james, allegories of cinema, p 68.
kurt cobain, record liner notes, in utero. Released in 1991, nevermind, nirvana's first major label lp, ending up selling something like 300,00 copies a week at its peak, and making $50 million USD.
andy warhol, the philosophy of andy warhol, 1975. p. 144.
ibid, andy warhol.
joe levy, village voice, do you want to know a secret?, feb. 22, 1994.
ibid, joe levy.
michael azerrad, come as you are-the story of nirvana, 1993.