Thursday, April 16, 2015

BOOK EXCERPT—THE NOIR WESTERN: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 by David Meuel

Timing is everything. No less than a week after Joel Shepard gave a heads-up that he had scheduled a series of western noir double-bills during the month of April ("Dark Horse: Film Noir Westerns"), I received word from McFarland & Company, Inc. of the upcoming release of David Meuel's The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962. An email introduction later, and Shepard invited Meuel to introduce two of the programs during the series, which has added considerable value.

As noted by McFarland: "Beginning in the mid–1940s, the bleak, brooding mood of film noir began seeping into that most optimistic of film genres, the western. Story lines took on a darker tone and western films adopted classic noir elements of moral ambiguity, complex anti-heroes and explicit violence.

"The noir western helped set the standard for the darker science fiction, action and superhero films of today, as well as for acclaimed TV series such as HBO's Deadwood and AMC's Breaking Bad. This book covers the stylistic shift in westerns in mid–20th century Hollywood, offering close readings of the first noir westerns, along with revealing portraits of the eccentric and talented directors who brought the films to life."

A lifelong student of films, David Meuel has also published more than 100 poems, numerous short stories, and hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from theater to U.S. national parks, to writing and speaking for business. He lives in Menlo Park, California. He is also the author of Women in the Films of John Ford, likewise published by McFarland.

The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, "The Tyranny of Troubled Pasts: Escape and the Futility of It in Raoul Walsh's Pursued and Colorado Territory" (footnotes omitted) from The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 © David Meuel by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through Barnes & Noble, or 

* * *

Every life has its defining moments, and for filmmaker Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) one of these was the death of his mother from cancer. It was 1902, she was 42, and he was just 15. "I was quite unprepared for the sudden blow that left me motherless…," he wrote more than seven decades later. "Mother passed away in the big master bedroom into which I used to steal and beg for one of her stories about an earlier America…. Where before I had loved it, the place became unbearable….”

To cope with his grief, Walsh's father encouraged his son to find escape and solace in travel. The teen took the advice and spent the next several years having adventures that ranged from crisscrossing the U.S. to herding cattle from Mexico to Texas, to transporting rum between Cuba and Florida. Soon he had exotic stories of his own to tell, and soon his rapidly developing storytelling skills led him into the newly created medium of the movies.

Despite a long and largely successful directing career, however, this sense of sadness stayed with Walsh. As his biographer Marilyn Ann Moss has put it: "These two—grief and adventure—locked themselves together in his mind. It would be ironic that the grief he felt at the loss of his mother gave his art great range; he escaped repeatedly because he had to." Echoing Moss's sentiments, film scholar Tag Gallagher has noted: "Living is adventure in Walsh's movies, and usually begins as escape—from shame, crime, or life…. Walsh's heroes incarnate the dreams and miseries of first-generation Irish-Americans like himself, parvenus, with something to escape from."

It's also fascinating that one subject we see again and again in Walsh's films is the noir-ish tension between their heroes' burning desire to escape from a harsh reality and the flawed strategies they use in trying to do it—strategies that often doom their efforts and ultimately them. In fact, even before film noir emerged on the Hollywood scene in the early 1940s, this tension plays out in such Walsh efforts as the hard-hitting gangster film, The Roaring Twenties (1939). Here, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), is lured from a meager existence working in a car shop to the glamorous, easy-money world of Prohibition-era bootlegging only to be killed in a gangland-style shootout and eulogized with the words, "He used to be a big-shot."

When the noir sensibility and filmmaking style became more pervasive, Walsh—whose style always tended to be stark and hard-edged—became a leading pioneer and practitioner of noir films. His efforts They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941) are often cited as two of the earliest full-blooded noir crime dramas, and his film Pursued (1947) is widely considered to be the first honest-to-goodness, no-doubt-about-it noir western. In addition, Walsh directed several other fine examples in each genre from the noir crime drama White Heat (1949) to the noir westerns Colorado Territory (also 1949)—a remake of High Sierra that in some ways surpasses the original—and The Lawless Breed (1953). As well as being instrumental in creating and defining both the noir crime drama and noir western, Walsh also enriched both genres with films that combine a keen understanding of psychology; an empathy for human aspirations (and sometimes delusions) in a harsh, sad, and often hostile world; and an excellent sense of the noir filmmaking style. A film veteran who had been directing features for 25 years by the time noir hit Hollywood with full force, Walsh proved to be a noir natural.

Between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, Walsh also directed about a dozen westerns ranging from traditional adventure dramas to the decidedly dark and downbeat. Among these dark efforts, two standouts are Pursued and Colorado Territory. Like some of Walsh's crime noirs, both focus on heroes with a great deal of personal baggage, two outsiders determined to free themselves from troubled pasts. But, in each film, we have very different heroes and situations. In Pursued, the psychologically wounded young rancher Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) struggles desperately with both repressed childhood trauma and hostility from others he can't understand. Yet, while he and others carry deep emotional scars with them at the end of the story, the resolution is somewhat hopeful. By finally coming to terms with his past, Jeb has managed to break free from the hold that terrible past events have had over him—to escape it. Like the main character in Hitchcock's noir psychodrama, Spellbound (1945), the truth enables him to begin the healing process. In Colorado Territory, however, Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is a criminal on the run who naively longs for a good, proper woman and dreams about a second chance at life without fully seeing (or wanting to see) that his end is only a matter of time. The hard truths of his life and current situation are simply beyond his grasp. He can never escape on his terms, except by dying. In this film, noir fatalism oozes out of every frame.

One of Classic Hollywood’s Best-Kept Secrets

"People should know Raoul Walsh," film historian and writer Courtney Joyner has said, "because he is a significant American filmmaker who, quite honestly, has not gotten his due."

Documentary filmmaker and film historian Michael Henry Wilson has taken the issue a step farther, calling Walsh "probably the most underrated" major American filmmaker.

Both points are worth noting.

At a time when we've come to lionize such Walsh contemporaries as Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks, many people—including some who pride themselves on their knowledge of Hollywood's Golden Age—know little or nothing about a director, who, in many ways, rivaled them all. Walsh's output was Herculean. During more than a half-century, from the 1910s to the 1960s, he directed more than 140 films. His versatility was equally impressive. Like many of his contemporaries, he was adept at moving from genre to genre. While he was most in demand for crime dramas, westerns, and other adventure stories, he also directed fine adaptations of a Maxwell Anderson / Laurence Stallings stage play (1926's What Price Glory) and a Somerset Maugham short story (1928's Sadie Thompson) along with a Mae West comedy (1936's Klondike Annie). He was known mainly as an "action director," which to some suggests that his films lacked psychological and emotional depth. But his heroes are often deceptively complex and shaded, and his stories can be filled with tragic irony and intense feeling. Most important, his work has proven durable. Many of his films—especially the ones he made during his tenure at Warner Brothers from 1939 to 1953—continue to find enthusiastic audiences. In addition to The Roaring Twenties, They Drive by Night, High Sierra, Pursued, Colorado Territory, and White Heat, these include, among others, The Strawberry Blonde (1941), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), and Operation, Burma! (1945).

Throughout his career, Walsh worked with some of the most powerful and influential people in Hollywood, quite simply because they wanted to work with him. His mentor was the "Father of Film," D. W. Griffith, who used Walsh as an assistant director, editor, and actor in his epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) and paved the way for Walsh to direct that same year. During his career, Walsh also returned the favor to others, mentoring people who went on to become major stars. He gave John Wayne his first leading role in the epic western The Big Trail (1930), for example. A decade later, he helped Humphrey Bogart finally break through to stardom in High Sierra. At various times, Walsh also had very productive ongoing collaborations with such major Hollywood players as James Cagney, Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable.

Like the colorful characters in some of his films, there was also a lot of flash and dash about Walsh. Born Albert Edward Walsh to Irish born immigrants in New York, he changed his name to Raoul about the time he entered show business as a stage actor in 1907. There are different versions of the story, but the most plausible is that he wanted to have a more exotic, romantic-sounding name. He was an actor now, after all. He was a roustabout, too, his numerous infidelities effectively ending his first two marriages. And, he reveled in male bravado, loving to tell exciting, larger-than-life stories about himself—stories that kept listeners guessing which details were fact and which were made up.

There are many theories about why Walsh isn't better known today. One is that, during his time, he didn't receive the Academy Award notoriety that many of his contemporaries did. While Ford received a record four directing Oscars and Frank Capra and William Wyler received three each, Walsh was never even nominated. This was at least partly due to a longstanding prejudice the Academy has had against crime, western, and other "action" genre films, and this certainly kept him in the shadows compared to many of his contemporaries. Another theory is that during one of filmmaking's greatest decades, the 1930s, Walsh was—instead of moving his career forward—reeling from the huge financial and critical setback he had experienced with The Big Trail. (It literally took him the entire decade to recover his reputation as a reliable, bankable director.) Still another theory is that he was a casualty of the "auteur" school of film criticism, which insists that—for directors to be considered true artists—they have to be the primary authors of their films, leaving, say, a distinctive "Capra-esque" or "Hitchcockian" stamp on them. When we look at the great variety of Walsh's films, that uniquely personal stamp is difficult to find. Walsh isn't the only fine director to suffer at the hands of the auteur school. As noted in the last chapter, the reputations of other major classic-era talents have met similar fates. It's a shame, though, that the auteurists have treated so much of the work of these and other directors so dismissively.

Whatever the reason (or reasons), it's also a shame that Walsh remains one of classic Hollywood's best-kept secrets. Yet, despite his low profile today, the growing interest both in noir crime dramas and the darker post-war westerns is leading more people to learn about the "under-rated" master who excelled in these genres, particularly during the 1940s. With their stark, gritty takes on the world, these films are a far cry from the genteel Victorian sensibility of Walsh's mentor, D. W. Griffith, and many of Walsh's contemporaries. But, this often searing, unsparing honesty also helps contemporary audiences connect with many of his 1940s films far more easily than they connect with most other films from that decade. They were vital then, and they remain vital today.

Purging the Past: Pursued

When Pursued premiered in March 1947, many people didn't know what to make of it. While some critics cautiously praised the film's suspense and effective use of outdoor locales, others were far sterner. Writing in the New York Times, for example, Bosley Crowther took Pursued to task in a big way. Some of his criticism was aimed at the film's star Robert Mitchum, who was, in Crowther's mind "a very rigid gent" who "gives off no more animation than a Frigidaire turned to 'Defrost.' " (Apparently, Crowther hadn't yet learned to appreciate the now-legendary "Mitchum cool.") But his harshest words were reserved for the story and its writer, Niven Busch, who, according to Crowther, "tried to write a psychological mystery in a western setting and bungled the job."

What Crowther and many of his fellow critics didn’t get was that Pursued was (perhaps along with The Ox-Bow Incident) on the leading edge of something new. It wasn't just a psychological mystery but rather a dark, deterministic, and consciously stylized film noir in a western setting. Jeb Rand's struggle to learn about his past is certainly central to the action, but this is also a story about a human landscape as harsh and forbidding as some of the film's wild New Mexico locales. Not only for Jeb but also for every other major character in the story, it's hard to be good. And, even though the story is set in the sunny Southwest, it also strongly suggests that human communities can be very dark, neurotic places.

Pursued begins with a Walsh signature shot: a lone rider on a galloping horse crossing a grand landscape with great urgency. We see that the rider is a woman (Teresa Wright), and soon she arrives at a ramshackle ranch house where she finds Jeb and we learn her name, Thorley. They are in love and apparently in danger. Then, in true noir fashion, Jeb starts bringing us all up to speed through a series of flashbacks accompanied by Mitchum's voice-over narration.

As a boy, Jeb had hidden in a cellar as his family was slaughtered. Jeb doesn't know who the perpetrators were; he only knows that Thorley's mother, Medora Callum (Judith Anderson) brought him to live with her, Thorley, and Thorley's brother, Adam (John Rodney). From the beginning, Jeb felt both a special connection with Thorley and had the sense that he was—and would always be—an outsider in this family. As he grows up with the Callums, Jeb also contends with recurring nightmares of the night his family was killed—nightmares he can't figure out and Medora can't bring herself to explain. Her only advice to him is to leave the past behind and look forward. But Jeb is adamant about learning what happened. Unknown to Jeb, too, another Callum, a one-armed man named Grant (Dean Jagger), wants him dead for reasons we aren't quite sure of, either.

When Jeb grows up, the Spanish-American War breaks out, and he goes to fight, leaving Adam to run the ranch. When he returns, Adam—who's always been uneasy with Jeb's close connection with Thorley—becomes increasingly hostile. Eventually, he tries to gun Jeb down from a distance but Jeb—not knowing it's him—kills him instead. Thorley can't bear this and turns against Jeb.

Eventually, however, she coldly allows Jeb to court her. Her plan, we soon learn, is to get close to him and kill him. But together the two confront her rage, and she realizes that she can't kill him because she's always loved him.

More is brewing as well. After several attempts to kill Jeb, Grant Callum has assembled a group of relatives all intent on doing the young man in. This leads everyone back to the ramshackle ranch where the story began and where we now hear why there's so much festering hatred. Jeb's father and Medora had once been illicit lovers, and, after avenging the wrong by slaughtering Jeb's family, Grant had made it his life's mission to get the last of the Rands, Jeb. Now, at the ranch where we now know that this slaughter took place, Grant and his men take Jeb and prepare him to be hanged. Then, to Grant's utter surprise, Medora, who's arrived on her buckboard, shoots him with her Winchester.

Now, the story is out, the villain has been dispatched, Jeb can begin to heal psychologically, and he and Thorley can start leading a more normal life together.

As this summary suggests, Pursued is about much more than one person's experience with a childhood trauma. Busch saw the story as similar to a Greek tragedy. Others have cited Biblical parallels such as Jeb and Adam's Cain-and-Abel rivalry. Still others have called it a "gothic" western and noted its "psychological fatalism."

Whatever the case, there is a lot to digest here. To begin with, all the main characters have neuroses of some kind. Grant Callum avenges forbidden sex by orchestrating a mass killing and then making it his life's work to kill an innocent boy. Medora goes to great lengths to conceal her past shame. Adam's incestuous love for his sister and jealousy toward Jeb drives him to attempt murder. Thorley transforms (for a time) into a noir-ish femme fatale who uses love as a tool to wreak vengeance. Finally, an unhappy, disconnected Jeb spends years desperately trying to piece together scraps of memory—scraps he hopes will give him a clearer picture of why he feels so unhappy and disconnected. "There's something that keeps us apart," he tells Thorley. "[But] there's an answer—something about me that explains everything."

Clearly, this is a very troubled group of people, a group we're much more likely to see in a noir crime drama than in a typical western of the time. In fact, many of the archetypal noir figures—the traumatized hero, the femme fatale, the person hiding a terrible secret, and the crazed avenger—are all here.

In addition to its undeniable noir sensibility, Pursued makes great use of stylistic trappings that are hallmarks of noir—a characteristic that may bring it closer to "pure noir" than The Ox-Bow Incident. Perhaps the most obvious noir convention is its flashback structure complete with a character's voice-over narration. Not only is this an excellent device to tell a great deal of backstory very quickly, but it also underscores the story's noir-ish determinism. Just a few minutes into the film, for example, we know that Jeb and Thorley are about to face a very unpleasant, and potentially tragic, reckoning. Another distinctly noir convention is the use (when Jeb and Thorley "court") of the femme fatale: a smart, manipulative woman who uses her sex appeal to try to achieve an evil end. Still another is the magnificent visual design from the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. In Pursued, Walsh and Howe worked closely to create the eerie, expressionistic, very noir-ish compositions that give the film an anxious, dreamlike quality and reflect the haunted state of Jeb's mind. The results are often stunning. Characters are occasionally shot in silhouette with their bodies outlined by moonlight, an effect that is both beautiful and chilling. Repeatedly, too, we go inside Jeb's mind to see the scraps of memory he has of the night his parents were killed, especially the memories of mysterious flashing spurs—another beautiful but chilling image. While gunfights in most westerns occur during the day and in open spaces, Jeb's second gunfight occurs at night, largely in darkness, and has the look and the feel of an urban back alley gunfight in a noir thriller where characters stalk each other in black, cramped spaces. Walsh and Howe also reinforce the confined nature of Jeb's life in the ways they photographed him riding into rocky canyons or in front of mountains. Shadows are often reaching out, grabbing hold of him like tentacles.

To further enhance aspects of the story, Walsh also employs some intriguing strategies with actors. Although Bosley Crowther was unimpressed by Robert Mitchum's performance, for example, biographer Marilyn Ann Moss sees Walsh's handling of Mitchum—and the result—quite differently. As she notes: Walsh "opened up Jeb's character by getting Mitchum's facial expressions to mirror a perpetual, natural innocence—thereby making him vulnerable to anything good or evil coming his way." As well as aligning Jeb more closely with well-meaning but often gullible noir leads than with self-assured, highly perceptive western heroes, this approach also helped to make the character more nuanced and interesting.

Pursued is not without its shortcomings. At times, for example, the behavior of the main characters seems forced and contrived. Is Adam's jealousy toward Jeb, for example, so all-consuming that it compels Adam to try to kill Jeb? Or would Thorley really vent her rage at Jeb by playing a femme fatale as part of a plan to kill him? In both cases, it seems like a big stretch.

Yet, despite its imperfections, the film remains quite powerful today. Much of this power comes, of course, from Walsh and Howe's visual design and cinematography, which seem to deepen and broaden every emotion being played out in the film. In addition, several of the actors convey their characters' complex and conflicted states of mind with great skill. Mitchum—an actor who could do just about anything extremely well—is quite effective as the sad, lost, and disconnected Jeb. Another standout is the wonderful Judith Anderson, who ably portrays the complicated Medora, a woman who carries terrible secrets and enormous guilt with her but who also grows to love young Jeb as much as her own children.

Still another—and perhaps the foremost—source of Pursued's power is Walsh himself or, more precisely, his ongoing processing of his own traumatic childhood experience. As Moss has perceptively put it: "Walsh's connection to the material … goes even deeper. The film's overriding concern is loss and grief, natural territory for Walsh, who in one way or another was drawn to these subjects and found his way back to them time and again. That Jeb loses his home is not lost on Walsh, who in the deepest sense lost his home when he was young." Jeb's search, then, reflects Walsh's own, and, we might assume, Jeb's story resonated with the director in a primal, profound way. In turn, we might also assume, Walsh turned that intense feeling into intensely felt art.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

THE CROW FURNACE (2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Dolissa Medina

Dolissa Medina and I first met during our involvement with the Galería de la Raza's (Re)Generation Project, founded by Amalia Mesa-Bains in 1995 to facilitate the involvement of the next generation of the Bay Area's Chicano/a and Latino/a artists. (Re)Generation provided emerging artists with exhibition and professional development opportunities. Dolissa volunteered to write press releases for the Galería—already an editor with a background in journalism—and met several key players of the (Re)Generation Project at that time. She played a key part in (Re)Generation's writers group and helped edit Manteca magazine. She came of age during her involvement with (Re)Generation and became an artist in San Francisco, not only as a filmmaker but as a historian, though she didn't start moving into film until about 2000.

In 2006, her 45-minute short Cartography of Ashes was produced in collaboration with the San Francisco Fire Department and with support by the Exploratorium. Cartography of Ashes marked the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, recounting the destruction of several city intersections in the quake's aftermath. Narrated by Bay Area firefighters, Cartography of Ashes combined oral history, folklore, journalism, and experimental storytelling to recount tales from the great firestorm that destroyed San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. Completed in April 2006 for the 100th anniversary of the disaster, Cartography boasted its world premiere at the 50th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival where it was projected outdoors onto a firefighter's training tower at SFFD Fire Station #7 in the city's Mission District. In August 2006 the film had its East Bay premiere at the Oakland Museum.

"Cartography of Ashes" - The Legacy of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire from Dolissa Medina on Vimeo.

During my visit to San Francisco in December 2014, I had the welcome opportunity to attend the world premiere of Medina's latest film The Crow Furnace at Other Cinema, Artists Television Access, as part of "Califas Visions", a group showing of the Caca Collectiva.

As Medina describes it, "The Crow Furnace is a narrative poem-essay about San Francisco, urban displacement, and the spectacle of loss. Two protagonists from different times, the Fireman and the Singer, become stranded in a purgatory state after death. They embark on a quest to find their last known locations in the now-unfamiliar city. In the process, they journey through time and place, encountering an itinerary of sights and objects pertaining to the city's history of catastrophic fires—from the real, to the cinematic, to the supernatural."

Likewise, in her artist's statement, she explains: "The Crow Furnace is a found footage film that was assembled with clips from more than 100 16mm film reels, Super 8 home movies, fire department video archives, and other materials to present a history of San Francisco as told through the element of fire. In constructing a fictional tale to present history at a mythic level, The Crow Furnace also aims to make a work about the Myth of San Francisco itself. The film focuses on the psychogeography of San Francisco's history of fire since its founding in 1776, the same year as American Independence. In many ways, I see San Francisco as a stand-in for the trajectory of the American nation. My film explores historic cycles of destruction and rebirth, gold rush booms and busts, expansion and displacement. The film is inspired by the Western myth of progress and the frontier and its contemporary dark side—redevelopment, gentrification, the disappearance of communities. Or as the film's narrator describes it, 'a spectacle of loss.' "

The Crow Furnace was then awarded a 2nd Prize by the Black Maria Film Festival and sent on tour throughout the United States, returning to San Francisco at the Roxie Theater.

Dolissa and I met up shortly after the film's premiere.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Fill me in on what you've been up to in the years between Cartography of Ashes and The Crow Furnace.

Dolissa Medina: After Cartography of Ashes, I went to graduate school. It seemed like the right thing to do because I had reached a certain plateau. I was self-trained as a filmmaker. I mean, through a grant I received, I took a lot of amazing classes with BAVC (Bay Area Video Coalition) and Film Arts Foundation, but I didn't really have any formal training in film. I thought by going to graduate school that it would help fill in some of the blanks. I ultimately chose an arts program, not a film program, because I was less interested in film production than I was in a fine arts background, which informed conceptual issues. UC San Diego had that kind of program and offered me a Fullbright, which was great. I also applied to some other schools like the Art Institute of Chicago and Temple, got into those, but at the end of the day for various reasons I chose UC San Diego.

Guillén: What made you so strong? You're acting like getting accepted into these universities and getting a Fullbright is nothing; but, those are notable accomplishments. What worked for you?

Medina: My writing skills. I know what I'm good at. I'm a good writer and I can articulate grant proposals. I've written grants for other artists and they've been successful. Because of my journalism training, being able to be succinct but also poetic, I think I have a knack for articulating artistic visions and presenting them to people. The funny thing, though, is that I'm less confident about the product that comes out of it. I know I can talk a good game but at the end of the day when you finally make the piece of art, you hope that it speaks to people.

Guillén: Which was why I was delighted by The Crow Furnace. Knowing it was going to be experimental, I approached it cautiously; but, was thrilled by the language of its lyrical voiceover. Just the line—"all skylines frame spectacles of loss"—gave me what I have been feeling and thinking about the changing face of San Francisco. I live in South Beach and every day all around me there are constant construction projects, which I describe as highrise luxury condos being built for the criminally insane.

Medina: I came up with that "spectacles of loss" line in graduate school, but in terms of the writing I owe a lot to people that I've worked with who helped me hone my script, which initially was actually the weakest part of the film. Jaime Cortez was very helpful with feedback, as was Angela Reginato (who did Polvo). One of the tricks that comes out of art school is that sometimes a project gets too abstract or conceptual, speaking within a small niche. The version of The Crow Furnace that I completed in graduate school is very different from the version I showed at ATA. Between the graduate committee screening and the new version, the film went through a rehash. I took a lot of feedback from what my committee told me and wrote an actual story. I'm happy for that.

Though my talent is writing, I was rebelling against writing. Since I was very young in the first grade, I've always been told I'm a good writer. I've always felt confident about it as a journalist and an essay writer. Not so much as a creative writer. Fiction is hard for me. When I later became interested in film, another reason I was more into experimental film was that it gave me the freedom to experiment with visual language, images, and editing syntax and structure, but through visual language. I became less interested in just writing. A lot of my earlier films are experiments with sound and image and not so much an actual story. So for the longest time I was rebelling against language.

What The Crow Furnace taught me as an MFA project—since the MFA project required a paper—was that I wrote a 20-page paper contextualizing what I was trying to do and realized that I missed writing. It reminded me how important written language, written words, are to convey a story, as was my challenge of rewriting the script and having writers like Jaime Cortez helping me find that voice. With the direction that I'm going to be heading in my future project Small Town Turnaway, I can no longer make a film of just images and then try to tack on a story and hope it makes sense. The film has to come first from the writing and language and then teaming that up with images.

The first part of my life I was a writer, really into writing, but having this idea of who I was supposed to be—a creative fiction writer—which I never was. I've never been able to write creative fiction. So then I went into experimental sound and image, not saying very many things. Now, I'm at a point where I'm trying to bring them together. That's an interesting trajectory even in terms of how I've developed creatively and also what's been happening with media and technology. When I learned to make film in early 2000, I cut it on film. I'm in love with celluloid. I love its organic quality. I love touching it, slicing it. But now everything's digital and we experience images in a different way. I would argue in a cheapened way. Images are much cheaper now and in the future I will need to use my writing to comment critically on the images being used to tell a story.

Guillén: Celluloid has a captured quality to images that digital disavows in its fascination with flow.

Medina: It's funny because I started out as a journalist, took a break and went away from that career—I had opportunities to be a newspaper person but I was too limited creatively—so then I started becoming a filmmaker making arty, experimental films; but, ironically, in the process journalism changed through the web and people who were journalists had to learn film production. Journalists are now also purveyors of image, sound and production. My skill set caught up. At the end of the day, I'm interested in creating these poetic works that are informed by journalism.

While I was in graduate school I also worked on a film about Selena as part of a series of small studies. I experimented with installation art, which was a total failure, but that was okay because that's what graduate school is: a chance to fail. That's also why I took a chance with The Crow Furnace, because I wanted to make a narrative film and work with actors, which I'd never done before.

Guillén: How much of a script was in place when you started making the film?

Medina: [Laughs.] Oh gosh. I was making it up as I went along!

Guillén: I ask because it's amazingly layered and achieves a textured hybridity. It is a found footage documentary. It is a romance fiction. It is an experimental play of light and sound. All these elements are at play and their cohesion is achieved in the narrative voiceover, which helped my eye wander around the images on screen to understand how you'd structured them. In gist, it's not mise en scène, it is montage, and the creative act is in the way you have assembled, edited, and placed the images together. At what point did the script come in as we now know the script? Were the images visual ideas first that then served a subsequent conception?

Medina: Most of it was this 30-minute series of sequences that I was interested in editing visually, coming together with sound design, and there were certain lines that stayed with the project from its earliest versions, such as the one you quoted earlier—"All skylines frame spectacles of loss"—where I said, "That's it!" It's the kind of line you can only write if you are writing it from a certain distance, from being an exile. At the time I was in graduate school and I naïvely thought I would be able to move back to San Francisco after graduate school. What I discovered was that I left and I couldn't come back. The economic conditions won't let me. That was heartbreaking and a lot of that heartbreak and that sense of loss, sadness, mourning and grief for a city that has died went into the story. I can envision the film as a eulogy for San Francisco, but at the same time—because it took many years for me to finish it—I became increasingly aware of all the changes that were happening in San Francisco.

Thus, the line about spectacles of loss is speaking openly to a wide phenomenon of economic shifts and inequalities, changing communities, let alone a changing skyline. I hate the condos that have gone up in your neighborhood. I was up at Dolores Park at my favorite spot and the condos block the view of the Bay Bridge. That's arrogance. It's like they're saying, "We're hoarding this beautiful view for ourselves. We can afford to pay for this view at the edge of the water, but nobody else gets to see it." It'd be very easy for me to make a film that shows my anger and bitterness, but my main reaction is one of incredible sadness.

Guillén: And yet I find myself hopeful in the face of this arrogance, having learned from my years among the Maya that the greatest of cities rise and fall. When I look at these processes of destruction prefacing new forms of creation, I know it matters, and yet it doesn't seem like there's anything anyone can do except accomodate the changes as they happen.

Medina: It's an old story. That's why it was important for me to say that what was happening in San Francisco was not unique, especially now that I view it from the perspective of living out of the country in Germany. I came of age in San Francisco. I became an artist in San Francisco. I lived here for 17 years. It's the city of my youth. I'm not mourning a lost youth as much as I'm mourning the possibility that was San Francisco.

But I have to be realistic. When we complain about people coming here just to make money, we have to remember who was coming here during the Gold Rush just to make money? Who was being displaced then? That's what I wanted to get at through these different sequences and having characters speak over time and space to these historic cycles and that—if anything—San Francisco is the paragon of that kind of story by being the edge of the Earth, the end of Manifest Destiny, perched on the edge of destruction; this myth of the face of fire and gold and destruction, rebirth, and then destruction again.

That's why I was so happy when I found the Jack Kerouac poem "October in the Railroad Earth", wherein he wrote: "...and across rains they've come to the end of the land sadness end of world gladness all you San Franciscos will have to fall eventually and burn again." That was it! I found this after I'd finished the graduate version of The Crow Furnace. The graduate version was more esoteric, abstract and mystical, drawing a lot from my interest in Jungian psychology, alchemy, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Those references are still there and are, in essence, the layers you're observing. I recognized that only a few people would be tuning in on that and—in order to get people more engaged or to help them understand—I needed to add another layer to guide the story—"This is a story about a man and a woman"—it's simple, but sometimes you have to be literal and spell things out.

When you make experimental films, you get used to things being vague and conceptual, but—if you want to have a broader audience—you need to make your message clearer and you need something to anchor it. Since the images are such a collage, you need a calm narrator as a voice of authority, telling you what they want you to see, and guiding you through that. Again, this is something I learned from working with my colleagues, getting the help of other writers, and I hope this will stay with me and help me when I start on my next project.

Guillén: The presiding aesthetic of The Crow Furnace is alterity. In terms of the narrative guidance that you've layered onto the film's texture, it's of interest that both narrators are ghosts of people who have died in fire, if I'm understanding the narrative correctly.

Medina: Not necessarily. It's actually never revealed how they died. I hinted, but I decided that it's okay if people try to figure it out on their own. I could tell you, if you're really curious, but it doesn't really matter.

Guillén: What matters is that they're ghosts.

Medina: They're ghosts, yeah.

Guillén: Why is he a fireman and she's a singer? Where did that come from? Was that detail shaped from the found footage?

Medina: I always knew that I wanted a fireman to be one of the main characters, which goes back to the Cartography of Ashes project. In lots of ways Cartography of Ashes was—maybe not so much a study for this film—but a predecessor. When I made Cartography of Ashes, I actually made it knowing I was going to be working on The Crow Furnace. I was interested in looking at the history of San Francisco from fire because it is an interesting history as to how many times San Francisco has burned down and been rebuilt. That's part of the myth of San Francisco. The most logical voice for that was the fireman, right? I used a lot of found footage from the '50s on fire safety where the fireman was something of a hero archetype.

Guillén: Where do you find all this footage?

Medina: Various places. I'm part of an artists collective that has a huge archive we've collected over time. Myself, I've got a lot from Ebay. Also, I rely on Craig Baldwin, a local San Francisco filmmaker.

Guillén: Did you use Oddball?

Medina: I didn't use Oddball, but Stephen Parr was so generous. We premiered a work-in-progress of the film a couple of years ago at Oddball. He gave me the faith to show it and to get feedback. That was even before I was submitting it to my committee. The comments made me realize I had a long way to go. Finishing the film was also like a mourning process because I was trying to let go of San Francisco.

As for the singer, one of the early incarnations of the story played a lot with the Orpheus story with its ghosts and spirits and walking through the land of the dead, with San Francisco being the underworld. I feel like a ghost when I come to San Francisco.

Also, the song that opens the beginning and closes the end of the film is by local musician Paula Frazer (of Tarnation). She's awesome and I've been so inspired by her song. One of her lyrics says, "Follow time, like a ghost." I wanted that to inform the film too.

So originally there were a lot more references to Jean Cocteau's Orpheus, but I wanted to play with gender and have Orpheus be a woman, and a singer. Her character remained a singer, though the Orphic elements came and went. I don't know if you caught that the motorcycles represented Death? There are a lot of film references. It's an art school project so it's informed by talking to a lot of other artists and filmmakers.

Guillén: It's the manner of your film, in contradistinction to your style. The film's manner is textural and citational.

Medina: You can see it all there. Vertigo. The Towering Inferno. Chris Marker. I wanted to have that conversation. I like how Marker engages with the city of San Francisco. I like how Hitchcock was looking at Vertigo and the psyche of time, memory and obsession: the dark side of romance.

In a nutshell, the singer stayed as a singer. Neither have names, which is great. Both characters are aspects of me. In retrospect, another reading of it or another way of interpreting it would be that I see both of them as being representative of the old San Francisco: the fireman represents San Francisco's working class protecting the city and the singer is the artist, and both groups of people are currently being pushed out of the city.

Guillén: Another parallel alignment you've created, which interests me, is the story of the phoenix, San Francisco's symbol, but you've substituted the phoenix with crows. I loved the image of the sparks from the streetcar rails setting the crows on fire, but why this substitution?

Medina: I had a poetic flash in my head and so I'd have to say it was from the unconscious. As someone interested in Jungian archetypology, and the crow's mythic associations with being an intermediary, a messenger, between heaven and earth, it worked for me. You expect to see a phoenix on fire and—though not necessarily a cliché—it is expected. You don't expect to see a crow on fire. It's a strong visual. Also, I was influenced by alchemical woodcuts and—in terms of the codes or symbols of crows on fire in the alchemical process—it's meant to define a certain stage.

Guillén: The nigredo?

Medina: That's right, the nigredo. The idea that this darkness is the beginning and, through that, transformation. For me, that's what San Francisco is about. It's going through this nigredo. I was trying to have the film mirror the stages of alchemy, and it kind of did on an unconscious level, but the film was for me about black, red and white and black is where it all starts.

Guillén: My private reading is that crows, along with ravens, are associated with Merlin in the Arthurian mythos and Merlin, for me, incorporates the process of time moving in two directions. Though your film depicts the effects of savage progress, there is an equal momentum in the film diving back, as if trying to reverse the processes affecting San Francisco. And didn't you actually do that? Having the construction of the tower go back and forth? So that's how I read the crows: as a temporal signifier of moving back and forth, of history moving back and forth.

So what is your intention with the film? What do you want to do with it? Where do you want to show it? How do you hope to frame it?

Medina: I hope that it's well-received. I showed it to some people in Berlin because I was curious how its local specificity to San Francisco would play elsewhere and whether it would carry over to other audiences. They dug it. That made me happy that people who had never even been to San Francisco could relate to some of its scenes. I started this project before there was so much media attention on everything that was happening in San Francisco and my hope is that the film will allow me to be a part of the conversation. What artist doesn't want to be a part of the conversation? We need to talk about how artists are responding to the changes in cities. San Francisco is the perfect example, though everyone will find these changes in their own cities. But there's something about how these changes have happened in San Francisco that has captured international attention.

There are a lot of artists responding to this reality who have left the city and become economic exiles, or who are still struggling to be here, and I would like my film to be seen by a lot of San Franciscans and hopefully inspire contemplation about what it's like to be living in a city that's going through these radical changes, how do we experience that history, and what is our personal relationship to it?

Guillén: Did you have animation in the film? Did you animate some fire?

Medina: No, that's actually leader film that I worked into the film. I love to see leader. When I was digitizing a lot of old films, I loved watching the leader run out. There's so much beautiful color in those leaders, including the orange-yellow effect, so I ended up manipulating it because it had that feeling of fire.

Guillén: My final question: can you speak to your preference for found footage filmmaking? Who your influences are? Why this has become one of the main tools in your toolbox?

Medina: Definitely. Coming of age as a filmmaker in San Francisco, there was a strong tradition of found footage. Craig Baldwin, he's my guy. He's so supportive and great. I was so happy that I was able to premiere The Crow Furnace at Other Cinema. It was the perfect venue for it. I'm also inspired by Jay Rosenblatt's work.

I'm a filmmaker who's actually not very good at shooting film. I don't think I have the eye for it. But I do love editing, and juxtaposing images, and I feel like there are so many images already out there, why should I make more? There's also a historical element to it that I like; the collected memory aspect of found footage. That's why I like to work with it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I arrived at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) press conference two weeks ago and immediately flipped through the catalogue, noting a prodigious number of must-see films that were already on my radar. Then I scanned the catalogue's Country Index and was struck by how few French films were on the roster. Was it an off year for France? Did most of the good stuff screen at last autumn's French Cinema Now series? Apart from a revival (Monte-Cristo), several co-productions and two documentaries with non-French subject matter (A German Youth, Of Men and War), franco-cine-philes at SFIFF58 appear to be left with just six features. The good news is they seem very well chosen, and I can vouch for two I already caught at January's Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent is a soulful, kaleidoscopic biopic of the celebrated French designer, starring Gaspard Ulliel (best known here as Hannibal Rising's young Mr. Lecter) as Saint Laurent and Jérémie Renier as his lover / business partner Pierre Bergé. The film elicited mixed reviews at Cannes, but grew in critical estimation over the past year—ultimately becoming France's Oscar® submission and the recipient of ten César nominations. Saint Laurent is a debauched ride through a destructive genius' life, all cradled in outsized period art direction and music. It also boasts an unforgettable succession of supporting turns from eminent European actors of today (Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and yesterday (Dominique Sanda, Helmut Berger). Seeing Saint Laurent on the Castro Theatre's big screen should be a scrumptious experience. But what really makes this a must-see SFIFF event is the expected presence of Bonello and Ulliel, who'll both be in the U.S. for a Bonello retrospective in NYC. Here's a promise of five bucks to anyone brave enough to ask Ulliel, "Dude, was that thing real or prosthetic?" The festival's lone screening of Saint Laurent is on Sunday, April 26 at 2 p.m. It also opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 15.

Just to be clear, Saint Laurent is a completely different movie than Jalil Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent, the somewhat middling, textbook YSL biopic that screened at last year's festival. Despite its faults, the earlier film does have a well deserved, César Award-winning lead performance from Pierre Niney, and the on-screen couture—courtesy of the YSL estate, who blessed the film—which are the original, authentic YSL creations that once strolled Parisian runways. Unless you're well versed in everything Yves, I strongly recommended watching Yves Saint Laurent (just recently added to Netflix streaming) prior to taking in Bonello's impressionistic Saint Laurent. The latter makes little effort to situate the viewer with relevant information about characters and locations. I would have been lost had I not dutifully sat through Lespert's film first.

My unexpected highlight at Palm Springs was Lucie Borleteau's Fidelio: Alice's Odyssey. This feminist seafaring tale is a first feature for Borleteau, an established actress who served as assistant director on Claire Denis' White Material and Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. Fidelio is anchored by a fearless performance from Ariane Labed (star of audaciously weird Greek flicks Attenberg and Alps) as a nautical engineer embarking on an extended container ship commission. She leaves behind a doting Norwegian boyfriend (Anders Danielsen Lie from Reprise and Oslo, August 31st), only to discover that the ship's captain (Melvil Poupaud) is an ex-lover from her sea cadet days. Labed's Alice navigates the resultant choppy emotional waters, whilst proving her mettle in a career dominated by men. Borteleau makes terrific use of the ship's imposing mise en scène and conveys a wondrous sense of life-at-sea.

Vincent is a another debut feature in SFIFF58's French line-up, featuring writer / director / actor Thomas Salvador as a mild-mannered construction worker who achieves superhuman powers when wet. In France, the film is being promoted as "Le premier film de super-héros français." Here it will compete for the festival's New Directors Prize and Salvador is happily expected to be in attendance. I'm also greatly anticipating David Oelhoffen's much-praised second feature Far From Men. Based on an Albert Camus short story, this neo-Western stars Viggo Mortensen—in his second SFIFF58 appearance after Jauja—as a schoolteacher forced to choose sides in the early years of Algeria's War of Independence. The wide-screen cinematography—with Morocco's high plateaus substituting for America's Monument Valley—is said to be breathtaking. The film's score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis has scored high marks as well.

Rounding out the festival's French roster are films from two veteran SFIFF filmmakers. The SF Film Society has championed director Mia Hansen-Løve since her first feature All is Forgiven, played the fest in 2008. Her fourth movie, Eden, spans two decades worth of France's electronic dance music scene and is based on the experiences of her DJ brother, Sven Hansen-Løve, who also co-scripted. Eden is one of five films comprising SFIFF58's World Cinema Spotlight: The Sounds of Cinema. The venerated "old French master" of this year's festival is 47-years-young François Ozon, whose SFIFF association spans from 2000's Under the Sand right up through last year's Young & Beautiful. By all accounts, his latest work is also one of his best. The New Girlfriend stars Romain Duris—whose personal appearance promoting Chinese Puzzle was a SFIFF57 highlight—as a widower who takes comfort in wearing his dead wife's clothes, to the delight of his late wife's best friend (Anaïs Demoustier). In his rave review for Variety, Justin Chang detects the influences of Hitchcock, Almodóvar and de Palma, describing The New Girlfriend as "a clever fantasia on the many varieties of sexual perversion."

Cross-published at film-415.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


A seemingly revitalized San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) unveiled the line-up for its 58th edition at a press conference last week. Duly impressive in both breadth and imagination, this year's fest is the first to bear the full imprint of SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan, who was appointed to the job 14 months ago.

The first thing regular SFIFF attendees might notice is the structure under which films are now organized. "Marquee Presentations" is a new section comprised of "the festival circuit's most buzz-worthy titles," that will "often include interesting personalities in attendance." Fortunately, buzz-worthy hasn't translated into bigger ticket prices for these 18 select films. "Dark Wave" encompasses the genre films previously exhibited under the fest's Late Show banner and "Vanguard" is a newly created section for experimental works. All other non-competition feature films fall into the potentially nebulous categories of "Masters" and "Global Visions". This year's 79 shorts will be spread across six programs and can be found amongst the Golden Gate Awards Competition listings.

Another practicality worth mentioning for 2015 festival-goers is that after five years, the New People Cinema venue is out and Landmark's Clay Theatre is back in. Although I appreciated New People for its close proximity to SFIFF's main venue, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, not to mention the stadium seating that guaranteed clear sight lines to the subtitles, its subterranean location could become unbearably warm and stuffy, particularly for the final screening of the day. The Clay is a longer schlep from the Kabuki, which can be problematic if you have limited time between movies. But it's a worthwhile trade-off because the Clay's DCP projection, in my opinion, is the most gorgeous in the city. I'm also ecstatic the festival will be using the beloved Castro Theatre more than in recent years. The Mission District's Roxie, which most certainly has been used as a venue at some point since the fest's founding in 1957—although perhaps not in the 40 years I've been attending—will host the Dark Wave shows on Friday and Saturday nights.

In my first report for SFIFF58, I explored the awards and special events that were publicized prior to the festival's opening press conference. Here are some thoughts on those just recently announced. Apart from Jason Segel's personal appearance, nothing in SFIFF58's line-up excites me as much as rock band Cibo Matto's gig at the Castro Theatre on May 5. I've been a fan since their 1996 debut Viva! La Woman, and was relieved when last year's comeback album, Hotel Valentine, turned out to be amazingly good. For their Castro gig, the band will perform a new score for Yoko Ono's 1970 film Fly, in which the camera follows a housefly for 25-minutes as it circumnavigates a nude woman's body. Here's hoping they'll find a way to incorporate Yoko's "vocalizations" from the original soundtrack. The Cibbo-Ono connection actually goes back to when Sean Ono Lennon was in the group and romantically linked with band co-founder Yuka Honda. Cibo Matto also provided back-up for Yoko when she performed at the 1996 Free Tibet concert in Golden Gate Park. Their SFIFF58 program will include a new score for the 1970 film adaptation of Oskar Schlemmer's famously trippy Bauhaus-era Triadic Ballet (which you can preview here), and other promised treats.

Another propitious-sounding program from SFIFF58's "Live & On Stage" sidebar is Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914 - 1918. The venerable San Francisco avant-garde string quartet will perform Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov's titular anti-war composition, which incorporates everything from air-raid sirens to chanting monks. The program's visual element is supplied by filmmaker Bill Morrison, best known for his experimental collage film Decasia, which played the festival in 2002. Morrison has taken 35mm nitrate films shot during the Great War, converted them to HD and assembled them to accompany Vrebalov's musical construction. The rare WWI imagery Morrison recovered is believed to have "never been seen by modern audiences." For a more detailed description of the work, check out these notes on Kronos' website.

While Cibo Matto occupies the time-slot traditionally given to a silent film accompanied by live rock music, have no fear, there will be classic silent cinema at SFIFF58. This year's Mel Novikoff Award, presented annually to an individual or institution enhancing the public's appreciation of world cinema, goes to "translator, scholar and film sleuth" Lenny Borger. The program will include a screening of Henri Fescourt's 1929 silent masterpiece Monte-Cristo (a North American premiere clocking in at 218 minutes!), in a new restoration spearheaded by Mr. Borger. Prior to the Monte-Cristo showing, Variety critic Scott Foundas will interview Borger, himself a former Parisian correspondent for the esteemed trade journal. Their conversation will revolve around Borger's career as a sub-titler of classic French cinema—his work includes new translations for The Rules of the Game, Children of Paradise, Quai des Orfervres and many others. For some fascinating background on Borger, check out this interview at

This year's Persistence of Vision Award, given to a "filmmaker whose main body of work falls outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking," honors British documentarian Kim Longinotto. Her powerful, women-centric films have been a mainstay of the festival for 15 years, with my own personal favorites being Divorce Iranian Style and Gaea Girls (the latter a look at Japanese female wrestlers). The program will include an on-stage conversation (interviewer still TBA) plus a showing of Longinotto's latest work. Dreamcatcher is a portrait of Brenda Myers-Powell, a 25-year veteran of prostitution in Chicago who now dedicates her life to preventing the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth.

I'm probably safe in predicting that the wildest and weirdest—and perhaps the most wondrous—SFIFF58 program will be Welcome Space Brothers: The Films of the Unarius Academy of Science. Unarius was / is a benign Southern California religion/cult, who in their 1970 / 1980's heyday employed public access TV to spread a message of reincarnation and psychic space travel. Documentary filmmaker Jodi Wille (The Source Family, SFIFF 2012) will be our guide to all things Unariun. Her program will feature a compilation of the Unarius Academy's "best" videos and a screening of the 1979 featurette The Arrival, which is about "an aborigine who overcomes psychic amnesia to work through his past life as a genocidal space commander." The Q&A will be attended by "core Unariuns." Wouldn't miss this for all the stars in the galaxy!

In addition to the aforementioned Monte Cristo and Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, SFIFF58 will feature three more revivals—two of them newly restored 35mm prints courtesy of UCLA's Film & Television Archive. Wanda (1970) is considered a progenitor of the American independent film movement and Barbara Loden is credited with being the first woman to write, direct and star in her own feature film. This story about a disaffected coal miner's wife who hooks up with a petty criminal was the only film to be directed by Loden, who was also a Tony Award-winning actress, Ernie Kovacs TV show sidekick and second wife to Elia Kazan. Also screening in 35mm will be Stanton Kaye's Brandy in the Wilderness, a 1969 "diary" film depicting the dissolution of Kaye's relationship with writer / actress Brandon French.

Finally, SFIFF58 will host the U.S. premiere of 54: The Director's Cut, a near total reconstruction of Mark Christopher's reviled 1998 flick set in NYC's debauched discotheque, Studio 54. This new version screened to acclaim at this year's Berlin Film Festival, resulting in its being rebranded a minor masterpiece. Director Christopher, as well as actors Ryan Philippe and Breckin Meyer, are expected to attend the sure-to-be-fabulous Castro Theatre screening on the second night of the festival. For a fascinating overview of 54's tortured history, check out this article by Variety's Peter Debruge.

The far-out future of the movie-going experience will be amongst the topics for rumination in SFIFF58's State of Cinema Address. The talk will be delivered by none other than Douglass Trumbull, the director, visual effects artist and inventor responsible for the look of such movie classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner.

Cross-published on film-415.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

TREEFORT MUSIC FESTIVAL 2015: JUMPING THE SHARK—The Evening Class Interview With Alex Cameron & Roy Molloy

Photo: Jason Sievers
Alex Cameron was 15 minutes late to his Treefort gig at The Linen Building. Considering he'd been given the run-around securing a visa to enter the U.S., flew in to Los Angeles from Sydney, Australia at the last minute, hooked up with his horn player Roy Molloy in Reno, Nevada, drove from Reno up through the Jordan Valley into Boise in a pitch-black Cadillac Coup de Ville that Roy purchased for their tour from a used car salesman in L.A., Cameron was feeling no pain until he drove into the Linen Building parking lot to discover that there was a one-hour time difference between Reno and Boise. No time to grease back his hair. No time to put on his age make-up. No time to even brush his fucking teeth. He'd have to embody his grizzled showbiz persona Ken Du Pont as is: youthful, handsome, elegantly thin, besuited in pale grey, his hair all soft and fluffy. Man, oh man. What a way to start a national tour!

Inside the Linen Building anticipatory fans milled around wondering what was happening. Eric Gilbert instructed Talkative, the act following Cameron's, to go ahead and set up their equipment to give Cameron as much time as possible. Just when I was about to despair—Alex Cameron's act was the one I was most anticipating at this year's Treefort—he loped on to the stage, plugged in, got Roy and his sax situated, turned on the beat box, pivoted around with a smile, and launched right into storytelling. "I gave myself a goal on stage," he described elsewhere. "Start at the bottom, start where it can't get any lower, then climb. Elbow grease. Shine. Create light."

Cameron's debut album "Jumping the Shark" is a shiny labor of love that "holds its rightful place in the slipstream" (as he puts it), and which he hopes will carry him further still. A year and a half after the album's release, it continues building momentum. Cameron's stories huddle under a purposeful persona that melds new-kid-on-the-block bravura with someone who's already been around the block several times; yearning and world-weary in equal measure. It's a collection of tales he's written about his life in show business: the people he's met, the stories he's heard, the loves he's gained, and the fears he's developed. He pulled it together on his own coin after being rejected by eight record companies, had it mastered in the UK, gave it away for free at first on his under-construction website (downloads crashed the server), which maybe he didn't really want to do; but, isn't that the way it works these days in the music industry? It's an online wasteland with MP3s and FLACS and whatnot. And to paraphrase the good book, a quality act like Cameron's has no honor in his own wasteland. As he states it: "What do I know? I'm just the fucking guy making all the goddamn music. Nothing's the same as it was in 98. This net business goes real deep. Internet is fast. Maybe that means it's shallow."


Cameron's stylized self-deprecation furthers an image of frustrated success reflected in a mirror backed with silvered failure. It begs the question: how does one perceive a reflection? Especially the reflection of a persona? It questions whether success itself in today's marketplace isn't the consummate failure? For a while there he worried how many little rooms with no heart he would have to play before he ended up mopping the floor?

In his review of the album at Crawlspace, Shaun Prescott deconstructs what he believes to be the mythic conceit informing Cameron's embattled stage persona, stating "Alex Cameron buffers the uncertainty of experimentation with uncomfortable self-ridicule." And a review of Cameron's Facebook timeline (much of it bitingly—and hilariously—co-authored by Roy Molloy) is a heady mix of false starts and setbacks defusing any false sense of success, and yet chronicles an increasing performance schedule that bodes well. In essence, Cameron's is a coin toss where success and failure are the two sides of the same coin. "I don't read fine print," he writes. "So I don't get all hot about injustice." Even with nothing but heart, even with hard work, it's always just the luck of a flip.

I'm never sure if an act is going to match its recordings on-stage, but Cameron delivered full-force, adding dance moves wavering like underwater kelp and squatting close to the stage with an intense delivery that emphasized his popsynth post-punk performance, reminiscent of the early conceptual work of David Byrne, or David Bowie's white duke persona. Gynandrous flashes, evident intelligence, and the sensual texturing of Molloy's saxophone provided a fully satisfying set.

Otis Chatzistefanou phrases it best at The Berlin Agenda: "Embodying an elaborate theatrical statement about bitterness, Cameron's on-stage persona Ken Du Pont evokes a forgotten variety show host. Sleazily crooning over a lo-fi bedsit electro background that reeks of '80s demo cassette oblivion, a reductionist indie manière that has its own tradition, he sings songs of showbiz failure and dilapidated romanticism. The faded glamour of Cameron's alter ego is an obvious narrative of betrayed ambition and immediately insinuates the whole scenario as a futile act of pathetic protest about the harsh realities of depreciated stardom in the hyper-inflated download clickonomy." Wow. Now that's a description! Cameron deserves a write-up like that, which in a way answered his earlier wish: "I need someone to jump in the hot air balloon with me—cause we're headed for the eye of the storm and I'm gonna be doing the steering, someone's gotta report it."

Afterwards, I invited Alex and Roy for a couple of rounds across the street at the Modern. I felt they deserved a couple of really pricey drinks for the day they'd had. I was hoping to provide the calming excess of celebration. The Modern was incredibly noisy and cheers would go up every time the electric giant squids would float by, so it was regretfully not the place to have an in-depth conversation with Cameron. For that, I point readers to McLean Stephenson's killer interview at i-D, which soundly covers the bases. On my end, I knew even an informal chat would be difficult to transcribe with all the background noise, so I opted instead to just hang with the two, crack jokes, and cruise Treefort. I was real happy for them whenever someone reached out to them as we passed on the street, praising their gig. Way to go, Boise. Make sure they come back.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Background on this project?

Alex Cameron: We've been playing in bands since 2007. But this current show is something that started in 2013. It's been about 18 months we've been doing this properly. [I grin to myself remembering that Cameron's Facebook timeline started off in 2013 with a splashy backstage / onstage comedy skit / medley with Andy Williams, Bobby Darin and Vic Damone. Was that Cameron's fantasy of "doing this properly"?]

Guillén: What impressed me with your music were your stories. Great narratives with a sense of humor in the writing. My two favorite tunes are "The Comeback" and "Real Bad Looking." "The Comeback" was the first song of yours that really grabbed me for incorporating a critique of the music industry. Can you give me the back story on that song?

Cameron: The starting point was in London where I was feeling at 23-24 that I had already put so much into my career without any tangible results. I didn't know if what I was doing was working. I had this puzzling moment where I started to feel angry with the way it all worked. Musicians were building profiles and becoming successful without really having any music. I felt the whole world had stopped listening to music and was paying more attention to these weird marketing strategies. It felt torturous not being able to keep up with the internet. It seemed like a reality TV show, in the way that reality TV shows has destroyed written television, and in the same way that cheap marketing has destroyed songwriting. I mean, it hasn't obviously destroyed it because you can still do it and it's still powerful, but it's on such a mass scale and these great songs that I love don't even get heard. So the song developed from that point of self-pity to making fun of myself. I mean, what's there to complain about? We get work in Australia. We play regularly.

Guillén: There's an embodied world-weariness in that song that led me to believe you were going to be a lot older than you are. I was surprised when you walked on stage because you're a young guy. So, clearly, you enjoy slipping into the characters of these songs and acting them out?

Cameron: For me it's much more powerful to exist in the world of a song I've written. I like getting to actually tell a story. It also comes down as well to how the music sounds. Each song on the new record sounds like the voice of the song wrote it. The structures are simple, each are about 16 bars, but they build and build on each other. They're a collection of microscopic and almost insignificant tragedies that somehow carry this huge weight. I feel I have a right to sing about them because they're so small that I can make them big. I can write about these little things that happen to people.

Guillén: "Real Bad Looking" made me laugh out loud several times when I first heard it, kicking off with the bold provocative announcement—"I am the goddamn drunkest, ugliest girl at the bar"—following through with the line about checking on the kid in the sauna—"I hold my breath when I check just to see that she isn't a goner"—and then the defiant line—"who the hell are they to tell me that I can't leave my kid in the car?" I was impressed with how you embodied this drunk woman's voice and am curious to see how this is going to play in PC U.S.A. It's edgy. [Roy Molloy mentioned that a New York City radio station refused to play the song and Alex Cameron seemed unaware of that.]

Cameron: That song came from when I was walking around Cornwall, U.K., and the song literally popped into my head, especially that line—"I am the goddamn drunkest, ugliest girl at the bar." I thought, "How nice. How free that would be. I can do whatever the fuck I want." So the song is about finding that bottom level and—once you've reduced yourself to the lowest you can possibly be—then you can do whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. It's pure observation at that point.

Guillén: And then I like how you set her voice up against the guy—"I am the dumbest, richest guy at the bar." I've met that guy again and again recently in San Francisco where rich drunk techie assholes get plastered and feel the need to pronounce their entitlements. Between these two drunk low-life characters, you've created a vibrant dyptich where the two voices play off of each other.

Cameron: A part of me felt that I should tell both sides of the story. I didn't think it would be a particularly good thing to just bash a woman in a song, so I added him to tell both sides. And it's not that I'm trying to be judgmental of either of them; I just thought they were interesting characters.

Guillén: I didn't find it judgmental. If anything, the humor felt affectionate. I kind of like these drunk people, as you say, for being who they want to be. Just like I hope people would like me if I were that drunk in public. We all rant and rave at the bottom denominator now and again.

So Treefort is your first gig on your national tour opening for Foxygen. Are you excited? Have you played in the U.S. before?

Cameron: We did South by Southwest last year.

Guillén: How'd that go?

Roy Molloy: We were a failure.

Cameron: We did two shows there and then did a show at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn. We like to keep busy. With this tour we're going to work as hard as we can to get the most out of it.

Guillén: You're certainly going to keep busy driving between your concert gigs. You bought a Cadillac Coup de Ville in Los Angeles and are going to drive that around the country with gas being the price that it is?!

Cameron: Don't worry, it makes more sense. Otherwise, we would have had to rent a car, which would have cost just as much as buying one and would have driven us crazy. Also, it's kind of like: what are we doing to do? Not buy a Cadillac?

Guillén: "Jumping the Shark" is your first album?

Cameron: Yes.

Guillén: What's that title mean: "jumping the shark"?

Cameron: For me it's a scene from Happy Days

Roy Molloy: And it's what we do in Australia sometimes.

Guillén: You jump sharks in the Great Reef?

Molloy: [Grinning.]  Yeah.

Cameron: It's a risky thing, right? Essentially, the term means you're taking a risk, but it's a good thing. You're taking a risk for the sake of your ego. "Are you going to jump the shark or not? Go do it! Live your life!" It's like doing a back flip into a pool to get everyone's attention.