Guest Writer: Caveh Zahedi on “I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore”
This Saturday, as part of our “Vegas Highs, Vegas Lows” film series, and timely to our winter holidays, we’ll be screening Bay Area filmmaker Caveh Zahedi’s I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore. Winner of the prestigious Critic’s Prize at the Rotterdam International film festival, this real-life documentary comedy follows Zahedi on a road trip to Las Vegas with his father and half-brother, in an attempt to prove the existence of God. When it isn’t going in the direction he would like, he attempts to force God’s hand by trying to persuade his father, half-brother and a heart-sick sound recordist to take Ecstasy with him. All thanks to Caveh for this backstory introduction to the film.
When my first feature, A Little Stiff, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, I took the opportunity to pitch a dozen or so ideas to film producer James Schamus (now co-president of Focus Features). Of all the ideas I pitched him, his favorite (which he offered to produce) was also the least commercial — a film about taking a road trip to Las Vegas with my gambling-addicted Iranian father and teenage half-brother. Career-wise, it was so counter-intuitive to make that my next film that I decided it must be the right thing to do.
Since I didn’t really know how to write a script, I decided to travel to Las Vegas with my father, my half-brother, and a tape recorder. I figured I could just record our conversations for three days, transcribe those conversations, edit them down to a ninety-page script, and voilà. Which is exactly what I did.
I submitted the script to James Schamus who tried but failed to raise the $200,000 needed to make it. After two years of rejection letters, I finally got a grant from the American Film Institute for $20,000 to shoot the film. Because much of the film took place in a Las Vegas casino and some of it took place underwater (in the casino’s swimming pool), it wasn’t possible to shoot the script that I had written (or, more accurately, transcribed) on that budget. What to do?
I called the American Film Institute and explained my predicament. I also explained to them that while waiting for the funding to come through, I had written another script entitled I Am A Sex Addict which I would rather shoot instead, if it was okay with them, simply because it was more recent and seemed more commercially viable. They explained to me that I could depart from the original script as long as I kept the title and the original premise — in this case, a weekend road trip to Las Vegas.
I was broke at the time and didn’t want to say no to $20,000. So I agreed to shoot a film with that title and premise, and set about trying to figure out how to do it for $20,000. What I decided to do was to throw out the script and just re-enact anything interesting that happened on the trip, immediately after it happened. This quickly proved impossible to pull off, mostly because it became clear almost immediately that my father couldn’t act.
So the film became a kind of documentary about this second trip, although this time there was a camera crew who became the secondary characters in the film. I brought some Ecstasy along to spice things up just in case nothing interesting happened, and what actually did happen I never in a million years could have imagined.
I spent two years editing the film (which was shot in 3 days) and submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival. Because I shot and edited on film, the tape splices broke during the projection and the Sundance programmer, angry that I had wasted his time, called to tell me that I would have to send him a VHS copy. I later heard through the grapevine that he HATED the film, and that he spoke vituperatively about me and the film for years afterwards. I soon learned that he would not be the only person to HATE my movie.
Whereas my previous film had been bought by both the Sundance Channel and German Television, this film never made a penny. It basically destroyed (irrevocably?) my once-promising film career. Despite winning the Critic’s Prize at the Rotterdam International Film Festival when it premiered there, the film was panned by almost every single American film critic and reviewer. One rather eminent critic called me a “twerp.” I was depressed for a year.
A few years later, I met Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M. I told him how much I loved his songs, and he asked me if I was the guy who made I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore. “You’ve seen it?” I asked him. He told me that he had, and that it had become a cult film in Athens, Georgia. That was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about that film as a cult film, but I heard it again and again over the years.
The film is almost impossible to find. It has never been released on DVD, and it has long since been out of print on VHS (the company that distributed it eventually went broke). I couldn’t even get the master back from the lab because the distributor never paid them and they were holding my film as ransom.
But time has a way of changing things. What is unquestionably my least successful film ever is, in the eyes of many, the best film I ever made. Many people who hated the film when they first saw it have since come around and now like it. I’m not sure how to explain this. Was it ahead of its time? Has the world caught up to it? Was it just bad timing?
In any case, it’s a film that is very close to my heart. I started dating my current wife after she saw the film and fell in love with it. Without this film, my life would have been completely different.
Caveh Zahedi received a B.A. in Philosophy at Yale University and an M.F.A. in Film Production at the UCLA School of Film and Television. His feature-length films include A Little Stiff (1991), I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994), In The Bathtub of the World (2001), and I Am A Sex Addict (2005).
¡Viva Las Vegas Showgirls!
This Saturday! As part of our “Vegas Highs, Vegas Lows” film series, and in conjunction with the exhibition Double Down: Two Visions of Vegas, we’re screening Viva Las Vegas (1pm) and Showgirls (3pm). Not to be missed!
Never have there been two films so ripe for reassessment as George Sidney’s Viva Las Vegas, and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Made thirty years apart, they both reside in that basket reserved for the culturally unsanctioned. Maybe it’s due to the stain of Vegas — that fata Morgana that has traditionally made the highfalutin see red. Now, in the true era of anything goes, in which the Vegas aesthetic has established itself as the norm, it’s just possible their time has come…
Why reassess an Elvis movie? ‘Cause this one’s so damned fun! There are a few decent Elvis movies. Viva is the only great one. The King is as close as the United States ever came to producing an autochthonous deity. The lack of a worthy consort might explain the fallowness of the rest of his cinematic terrain. In Viva, Elvis meets his match, Ann-Margret. The plot of this film is a pretext for their sacred union, bringing with it the promise of fulfillment to the magical kingdom of Vegas — that ultimate flowering, refinement, end-point of the American mythos. Elvis plays an up-and-coming race-car driver, always a dice-toss away from attaining the motor of his dreams. Ann-Margret is a young goddess on the unconscious make for the proper consort. Together they will play, flirt, bicker, argue, make up, as well as sing and dance the rock-n-roll over the course of eighty-five increasingly ecstatic minutes. They inhabit a world of widescreen neon, in which every desire is attainable, and every dream has merely to be fantasized, and it’s suddenly reality — all without repercussion. Yes, this is the true American Dream.
I believe somewhere in the pages of Cahiers du cinema in the 1950’s, a proto-French New Wave director mused on the revolutionary concepts he hoped to enact in celluloid: gone would be artificial notions of plot and character not derived from action. Film was about the eternal now. Each moment would create its own reality, its own urgency. Life would be experienced by the glance, the gesture, the drama of expressions across the face, from second to second, shot to shot. If a character desired to sing, he’d sing. If she wanted to dance, she’d dance. If angry, they’d shoot to kill. If lusty, they’d go to town… Desire, thought, and action would again be one — and paradise regained. Each scene would exist for itself, build to a new shuddering climax, then be dismissed, in an endless quest for the new now now now…
This article must have been amongst the earliest of its kind to be translated from the French, and transported to Hollywood, for George Sidney, prince of the MGM musical-comedy, apparently read it and instantly put its principles into action. As an example of this New Wave genre, it has never been surpassed. Sidney was just the man for the job, having built an extensive body of work poised somewhere between primitive surrealist and naive absurdism, which had a long history of sending the literati into uncontrollable spasms of collective horror and outrage, and of gracing the faces of the average Jane or Joe with smiles of pleasure. There is something seriously strange about Sidney’s work, an unhinged yet vital deliriousness, a quality emitting from some now deep-buried, disclaimed and abandoned fold of the American Grain, which, I must admit, I find intoxicating.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once proposed Gentleman Prefer Blondes as the capitalist Potemkin, but for me this title goes to Viva Las Vegas. Though Blondes is arguably brilliantly embedded with capitalist ideology, Viva cuts to the chase by offering an unsurpassable platter of delights for our ecstatic delectation. This is the field of argument to which capitalism is best suited. Examples of what’s on offer: Elvis performing “What I Say” in a sequence that gives both Ray Charles and Bruce Conner runs for their money, the most mind-blowing first date in cinema history (not counting Last Tango in Paris), and, at the film’s climax, the most viscerally exciting auto race I’ve ever seen in a movie.
But this film is far more than capitalist apologia, for its convulsive beauty contains a religious dimension — an ecstatic vision, a mystical union of opposites, Viva Las Vegas presents such a profoundly affirmative view of the American psyche, that it suggests it’s capable of (witness the “fate” of Cesare Danova) transcending death itself.
If Viva is Vegas as utopia, the Vegas of Showgirls is a dystopia worthy of Blade Runner, or Brecht’s Mahagonny. Ambition, manipulation, corruption, the quest for power — these are the issues on this film’s agenda. Though its Vegas is as beautiful as that of Viva (in a 1995 kinda way), this work is a large and bitter pill — ultimately to your benefit, but scary for those in search of a quick and easy tease.
Showgirls follows the exploits of Nomi Malone, a dancer who seeks to protect her integrity while crawling to the top of the Vegas food-chain. Young, vital, infinitely ambitious, yet willfully naive, charming but profoundly undereducated in all but a modicum of the street-smarts she desperately wants to shed, Nomi is a mass of contradictions, a woman in severe need of Reichian analysis, in which every element of being is treated as neurotic symptom. All of her talents and symptoms will come into play as she battles her way from strip-club nymph to full-fledged Goddess of show business on the Vegas strip. Arrayed against her is a virtual network of the devious and duplicitous, all of whom want either to prevent her from attaining her rightful pedestal in the Pantheon, or gain access past her g-string. As she powers her way through power-mad would-be seducers (club and show managers, a choreographer manqué, the reigning Vegas Goddess, a sexually violent Michael Bolton doppelganger), she comes ever-so-close to a confrontation with her own heart of darkness, but like America, to which her character is an analog, Nomi will stop at nothing to protect her remaining shreds of innocence. Over the course of the film, the trail of self-deception and chaos in her wake reveals a latter-day incarnation of Inanna, Sumerian Goddess of passion, war, and destruction.
Paul Verhoeven’s audacity is seen in the way he vacuum-packs contrary elements into seemingly irresolvable structures. Dealing in a largely heterosexual eros, but in a self-consciously high-camp manner, relishing ambiguity and reveling in primal force, proffering both satirical social critique and an appreciation for the permutations of undying archetypes, and working in a style marked for its mixture of raw garishness and cold European aestheticism, it’s no wonder the works are so often misunderstood. Their aim tends both above the head and below the belt.
The difficulty of these films is compounded by Verhoeven’s open embrace of that despised form, melodrama. This isn’t a problem for his macho melodramas — Robocop and Starship Troopers — but the mode has become somehow threatening when applied to a female world view. Showgirls refers back to the genre of “women’s pictures”, now for the most part sadly defunct, which dealt with troublesome emotions — hysteria, say, or unrequited love — and were often centered around sympathetic portrayals of outsider women. They served as societal safety valves, providing catharsis, allowing for an imaginative exploration of a realm of extravagant emotionality, touching parts of the psyche now repressed. This instinctive, working-class genre has lost its currency, due, in part, to the intertwining rise of PC strictures and upwardly mobile aspirations, and their concomitant code of rigid decorum. Guy Maddin, in a recent, spirited defense, said “melodrama isn’t true life exaggerated — that would be bogus. It’s true life uninhibited, just like our dreams.” And uninhibited emotion in the classically “feminine” mode just ain’t in fashion.
In dream-like style, Showgirls (like Viva) romps through other genres (musical, soft-core porno, over-the-top exploitation film, martial-arts action) as well, in the best meta-Hollywood manner, making for a narrative and dramatic short-hand in which complex ideas and feelings are suggested with ruthlessly efficient, effortless speed. Genre play in a film overloaded with painful realities is, in fact, the most transgressive element of this radical work — and the cause of the emotional gag-reflex it has so often inspired. Ultimately, Showgirls is a “women’s picture” made for men, and therefore disturbing to just about everybody.
Collection Rotation: Tucker Nichols
Our regular feature, “Collection Rotation“. Every month or so I invite a local guest to organize lists, groupings, or ‘exhibitions’ from our permanent collection. Our wonderful guest this month is Bay Area artist Tucker Nichols. Note: clicking through on the images will take you to our collection pages, with more info on art and artist.
Ten Natural Pairs
Collected by Tucker Nichols
Creating an online exhibition from SFMOMA’s permanent collection carries the luxury of choice without the hassles of scheduling or installation. The options are seemingly endless. Rather than come up with an idea and then hunt for fitting examples, I decided to take an afternoon to look at every image in the permanent collection available online. When something jumped out at me, I saved it in a folder. I didn’t think about what I was collecting or why. When I went back to look at the folder, natural pairs formed before my eyes. It was kind of eerie, really — every image found a partner for one reason or another.
Why is the most basic organizing principle to put like things with like things? What does it do for us? I can only guess that there are simply too many things in the world. It’s beyond our comprehension to take them all in. But when we group similar objects, we can begin to digest them. It’s why we have the cereal aisle — a typical US supermarket would be even more overwhelming if we didn’t organize everything by shared attributes. Once we’re able to look beyond the volume, we can start to see what’s there. The group below represents ten of the pairs that formed in my folder.
Pair of torsos
|Left: John Coplans, Self-Portrait (Back with Arms Above), 1984, gelatin silver print. Right: Robert Gober, Untitled, 1990, beeswax, pigment, and human hair|
Pair of transcendent whites
|Left: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Canton Palace, Ohio, 1980, gelatin silver print. Right: Robert Ryman, Untitled [E], 1965, enamel on linen|
Pair of instantaneous artworks
|Left: Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964. Glazed ceramic with black paint. Right: Bruce Nauman, Study for Hologram, 1970. Screen print on Kromekote paper.|
Pair of photographs as sculpture
|Left: August Sander, Bricklayer, 1928. Gelatin silver print. Right: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1992/1993. Offset print on paper (endless copies) © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York|
Pair of surveillance photographs
|Left: Mitch Epstein, Untitled, New York 1996, 1996. Chromogenic print. Right: Todd Hido, Untitled #2027-A, from the series House Hunting, 1996-1998. Chromogenic print|
Pair of photos of the planet
|Left: William Anders/NASA/Michael Light, Earthrise Seen for the First Time By Human Eyes, 1968/1999, digital chromogenic print. Right: Bill Owens, World Savings opening day 1975, 1975, gelatin silver print.|
Pair of Memphis Egglestons
|Left: William Eggleston, Untitled, Memphis, 1970, 1970, dye transfer print. Right: William Eggleston, Untitled, Memphis, 1970, 1970, dye transfer print.|
Pair of editing as artwork
|Top: Christian Marclay, Video Quartet, 2002, four-channel video projection with sound. Bottom: Tauba Auerbach, Alphabetized Bible, 2006, offset lithograph|
Pair of circles of identical white objects
|Left: Richard Long, Chalk Circle, 1986, chalk. Right: Rody Graumans, Chandelier 85 Lamps, 1993, lightbulbs, cords, and sockets|
Pair of mildly depressing photographs of life in America
|Left: Mitch Epstein, Amos Power Plant Raymond, West Virgina, 2004. Chromogenic print. Right: Larry Sultan, Practicing Golf Swing, 1989. Chromogenic print.|
Something you just won’t see everyday:
Tonight’s FREE BEER Guest Bartender? SFMOMA director Neal Benezra.
Tonight’s guest bartender at Tom Marioni’s salon is none other than SFMOMA director, Neal Benezra. And not only that, but Neal will be joined in his labors by long-time SFMOMA trustee and former chairman of the board, Elaine McKeon. It should be said that, among Ms. McKeon’s many leadership credits, it was she who recruited Neal from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Also, she wears fabulous outfits. I’m looking forward to seeing this pair’s prowess behind the bar.
Tonight’s all-star cast ALSO includes SFMOMA exhibition design manager & chief preparator of nearly thirty years, Kent Roberts, as the evening’s reader. Not to be outdone by Neal, Kent is bringing along his own sidekick, media arts assistant & Open Space regular, Tammy Fortin, who for certain won’t let herself be outdone by Elaine in the get-up department. Plus, she’ll be playing the drums.
ALSO on tonight: novelist Michael Cunningham and designer Martin Venezky will talk about their collaboration on a limited-edition double deck of cards (design by Venezky, text by Cunningham), commissioned by SFMOMA in conjunction with the exhibition Double Down: Two Visions of Vegas. They’ll be joined by Henry Urbach, Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design. Free with admission; Wattis Theater, 6:30pm. SEATING IS LIMITED.
Interview: Corey Keller on Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible 1840 – 1900
|Left: Auguste-Adolphe Bertsch, Male itch mite, ca. 1853–57; Salt print; San Francisco Museum of Art. Right: Wilson Alwyn Bentley, Snowflakes, before 1905; Printing-out paper prints; Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C.|
[Here, our managing editor of communications, Apollonia Morrill, talks with SFMOMA associate curator of photography Corey Keller about the exhibition Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900. More than four years in the making, Corey’s “science show”–as we often heard it referred to during the planning stages–includes examples of early scientific (and pseudoscientific) photography. This Sunday, join Corey in the Wattis theater with film historian Tom Gunning & science historian Jennifer Tucker, as they discuss the representation of phenomena invisible to the naked eye and the potential of photography as a scientific tool. Or, you can check out Corey’s illustrated online tour, also downloadable as a podcast.]
Apollonia Morrill: How were science and photography connected in the 19th century?
Corey Keller: Photography was invented in 1839 and one of the things that interested me was the way it’s a product of science, but also influenced science at the same time. Many of the earliest photographers were in fact scientists, who were experimenting with this optical device, the camera obscura, and then trying to figure out how to capture the picture it made. They were experimenting with new lenses, new optics, and with chemistry. At the same time, because science was becoming so important, it became apparent that the pictures photography produced could help scientists, as a way of sharing information, and as a way of making pictures that was a lot faster and simpler than drawing.
So illustration was the primary function of scientific photography at that time?
Primarily illustration. But significantly, and this was a key aspect, the metaphor that was commonly used to talk about photography at the time was “nature drawing her own picture.” This was important because it positions photography as a natural process, as something that was somehow like the natural phenomena that were being studied. The idea was that the picture generated itself, that there was no artist or scientist intervening … and that this record somehow comes into being as an exact copy of nature all by itself.
There was a broad range of scientific photographs being made in the 19th century. Can you give some examples of the types of pictures in the exhibition?
Because so many of the early photographers were scientists, and because science remains so important throughout the 19th century, photography was applied to almost every branch of science you can think of. But this show specifically looks at photographs of things that were invisible to the naked eye. We begin by looking at photographs made through the microscope–of things that are too small to be seen by the naked eye–and then move on to pictures through the telescope, objects that could sometimes be seen with the naked eye but most often had to be seen with an optically aided eye. By the late 1870s photographic emulsions had improved so much that photography began to record things that can’t be seen by the eye at all. For example, in astronomy that often meant that stars that were too far away to register on the retina would show up on the negative. The exhibition then considers things like photographs of electricity, or motion studies, things that are moving too fast for the eye to perceive. We close with one of the most dramatic scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century, the X-ray. The first X-rays were made in 1895.
Can you say a little more about the idea of the invisible?
One of the things we think about photography is that a photograph has a particular relationship to its subject, which is to say that the photograph looks like the thing it’s a photograph of. But what happens when you make a picture of something you can’t see? You have a picture but then you have nothing with which to compare it. This takes away one of the most basic ideas we have about photographs–that they are a record of the visible world. In the 19th century this was a particularly problematic issue because one of the metaphors people developed to make sense of photography was that the camera functioned like an eye, that it saw like the human eye, but in fact it functioned even better than the human eye, because it didn’t get tired and it didn’t have bias. But when the camera began to be able to make pictures of things that no human eye–no matter how perfect–could ever see, it posed a cultural challenge, and began to chip away at this metaphor. There’s a strange moment where photography and vision come unhinged.
Do you think people stopped thinking of the camera as an eye?
What’s interesting is that they kept using this metaphor, at the same time they were seeing that the camera can make pictures that the eye can’t see. They were also learning a lot about the eye itself, which turns out doesn’t work as well as we think it does. Suddenly there were pictures of things the eye can’t see, and viewers had to put faith in the picture, rather than in sensory experience. That’s something we’re used to today. A lot of the data we receive comes to us mediated. For example, how war is waged today. A lot of war intelligence is gathered by satellite, not so much by spies on the ground anymore. We get data from the satellite and then make decisions based on this mediated seeing. Who knows where the person reading that data is sitting! They could be thousands of miles away. That’s something we’re much more used to now: the idea that you can receive visual data indirectly. However, that was a strange concept in the 19th century. For a long time the photograph wasn’t accepted into a court of law as evidence unless you had a corroborating witness who could testify that the photograph was in fact true. Take X-rays, for example. When people first tried to introduce X-rays as evidence, they had difficulty because nobody could corroborate that the evidence presented on that photograph was true unless you cut the person open! There was no way to correlate that photograph to anything in the real world. And that posed a big problem. It didn’t take them long to get over that, but it was a conceptual hurdle.
Can you say more about the relationship between seeing and knowing? I think the adage “seeing is believing” holds true today; did it in the 19th century?
I don’t know when the phrase “seeing is believing” comes into use, but its meaning has changed over time. I’m not sure it holds true today. I think we tend to doubt our vision much more. For example, one of the first things we think about now, when we look at a photograph, is whether it’s been manipulated, or, is it digital? In the 19th century, the phrase would have had a very particular meaning because it was aligned with this new branch of science, with this interest in empirical observation–the idea that you could only trust observable phenomena. And that trusting in observation trickled out into all areas of practice. You see it in realist painting or literature. Scientific culture inflected an enormous range of cultural activities. With photography, replicating the natural world exactly carried an aura of authenticity that fit the world-view of this culture where seeing was believing.
So, despite the fact that photographers began manipulating their pictures early on, photographs still carried an aura of authenticity?
Well, it’s interesting. One of the things that was so shocking about early photographs was, because emulsions were so slow, things that were moving didn’t show up on the plate at all, so you could look at a picture of a street scene, for example, and you would know it actually had nothing to do with what that street had looked like when the picture was taken, because the moving people had disappeared. But there was a cultural belief system that was invested in the photograph, which came to stand for an idea of truthfulness, even though it wasn’t always the case. It’s interesting to look at the discourse that surrounds photography, because even its claims to truthfulness were debated from the very beginning.
How did 19th-century scientific photography influence the development of the medium more broadly, or did it?
Oh, it definitely did. In large part, these experimentations with materials–development of new emulsions primarily–and new cameras, new lenses, and things like that were probably the greatest contribution of science to photography in general. But I think also that scientific photography helped to prove in many cases the value of photography, in the sense of communicating information, not only to specialized audiences, as scientists would exchange photographs, but also to engage the public. These pictures were spectacular and they appeared in fairs, and newspapers, and illustrated journals, and books, and they had an extraordinary ability to communicate to people in ways that other kinds of illustrations didn’t.
Why show 19th-century work in a modern and contemporary museum?
I guess what I would challenge is the presumption that modernity begins in the 20th century. It’s true that museums of modern art tend to focus on 20th-century art, but a lot of people might argue that modernism in art emerges with the impressionists in the 19th century, and that photography in large part contributed to the emergence of modernity; it was part and parcel of this whole conglomeration of ideas–technological, industrial, aesthetic, social–what we call modernity. Photography and modernity emerged simultaneously and are in many ways almost synonymous, I think.
These pictures were not intended as art; are they being presented as art now?
The pictures were certainly not intended as art, but their aesthetic value was not discounted. One of the reasons photography worked was because of this idea of mechanical objectivity I talked about before: the image had an authority that was inherent to it and didn’t depend on the artist’s hand. But on the other hand, people at the time recognized that they were beautiful pictures. And scientists then, like scientists now, always needed support for their work, whether it was government or private support. They used these pictures as a way to draw in the public. There was an enormous movement in the 19th century towards popular science, and a belief that to have a healthy citizenry you had to have a population that understood the most important ideas in modern science, and so they used photography and other kinds of materials as a way of bringing these ideas to the public. The pictures needed to be interesting as well as informational. The fact that they work on both levels is not a contemporary concept. (more…)
Seen on the way into the office last week:
Our winter of Are we discontent with Derek Jarman?
Hello all. A small group of us have been having the occasional post-screening discussion in response to the Jarman retrospective now on. As I noted yesterday, none of us have been quite sure how to gauge our encounter with Derek Jarman. Weighing in below are Brecht Andersch, our projectionist, and Stephen Hartman, film-loving psychoanalyst! (You may remember them from our summer of Alexanderplatz). If you have thoughts, we’d love to hear them.
Stephen Hartman: So fond of techno am I that I have always refused to listen to—I’m sure I’ve even said “hated”—opera without knowing much about it. Then, recently, a dear friend set out to convert me. We spent a wonderful evening listening and comparing. As I write now, my new heroine Régine Crespin is belting out Verdi. Alas, me…a convert?
Unfortunately, diving back into Derek Jarman after many years had the opposite effect. Where I was once an Act Up boy overwhelmed by the poetry of The Garden and in tears at the New York premier of Blue (which, I hope, will still reduce me to rubble), I left Caravaggio mildly interested, The Last of England bored, and The Garden all but obtunded. People change. And the films and music that give us identity age. I embraced Jarman in the 1980’s because the lush sensibility mixed with righteous indignation and a certain academic veneration of beauty had operatic strength. Why now, I wonder, does Jarman’s vision seem dated dull? Postmodern without punch? Operatic in its hysteria but without a unifying beat?
There are so many magnificent images. Yet, in the way they knit together, something seems lacking, unmetabolized. It was, of course, a very different time. People were dying of AIDS everywhere with no end in sight and WMD’s were circling around the American southwest on train tracks, set to launch at any moment. It was a jittery time: melancholic even in advance of death. Jarman captured thanatos well—if not with a kind of aesthetic hyperbole that could be hypnotic or off-putting relative to your anger at the unassimilated thud of yet another death.
At some point, though, the fat lady sings and there is resolution. I’m afraid that for Jarman, at least in the films we have seen so far, the tragedy is still pending. I’m going to try to go back to that time of waiting for the inevitable. But it is rubbing me the wrong way now that my heroes are the ones armed with hope rather than despair.
Brecht Andersch: While I must confess my previous encounters with Jarman’s work didn’t make me a fan, and this extensive retrospective has not been a conversion experience, I’ve nevertheless found some elements in the work to admire and enjoy, such as:
1) This is an artist of confidence and audacity – Jarman is a man full of feeling and passion, and whatever fears he faces regarding the difficulties of expressing a complex and thorny vision are met face-on and dispatched.
2) His work is deeply personal – each film seems to tell a version of his own story, or provide an update as to how events have affected the development of his vision. Many of my favorite filmmakers, writers, and artists work in this mode.
3) The filmmakers he emulates and to whom he pays repeated homage are artists I admire immensely: Michael Powell, Cocteau, Pasolini, Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos. At one point in The Last of England, a rapid-fire montage of black and white imagery alternating with shots dominated by red or blue (in a manner clearly influenced by Anger and Markopoulos) is immediately followed by a homage to the ending of Pasolini’s Salo: two soldier/terrorists dance near a fire burning in the middle of the street, machine-guns slung over their shoulders as they waltz…
4) Jarman has a bold and unusual sense of color and film form in general, and the results are often beautiful. One technique he employs repeatedly is to blow up super-8 Kodachrome to 35mm. As a lover of this now almost defunct “home movie” stock, I find it very exciting to encounter its deep, saturated reds and blues on the big screen, though, as I’m also something of a film purist, the pixels acquired from the video intermediate of The Last of England are a bit disconcerting. More to my taste is that super-8 Kodachrome moment in Jubilee—blown up directly to 35mm—in which a ballerina performs, out-of-doors and nearby a fire. Through deft in-camera editing and graceful camera movement and zooms (Jarman no doubt operating the camera himself) Jarman becomes his dancer’s partner, and the film and the world come alive…
5) Jarman is unyieldingly honest, his work over-stuffed with contradictory impulses and ideas. Just when I’m ready to write him off as an unredeemable chiliast, for example, he makes a whole film—Wittgenstein—dedicated to the story of a man who must learn to live with all of life’s roughness and confusion. As alluded to above, each of Jarman’s films is a chapter in a too-early concluded spiritual autobiography, and this kind of rigorously honest self-appraisal—in a quest for a deeper encounter with Self—is extremely attractive to me.
Guest Writer: James Mackay on “The Angelic Conversation”.
We’re a lot about Derek Jarman on the blog of late. It’s been for many of us in the theater a process of discovery and rediscovery, and if the conversations I’ve participated in and overheard are a good barometer, even for those who are more familiar with Jarman’s oeuvre it isn’t as much meeting an old friend as re-encountering a familiar stranger you’re not quite sure what to do with. James Mackay, who produced numerous films with Jarman, writes here about the production of The Angelic Conversation, the first feature they made together, detailing especially the development of Jarman’s signature use of lo-fi film mediums including Super 8 mm and video. Mr. Mackay has also sent some fantastic snapshots taken on location during the shooting of The Angelic Conversation. We’ll be screening that film this Saturday at 3pm. Enjoy.
The first I heard about Derek Jarman was at an exhibition of Expanded Cinema at the ICA in 1974. They were showing a three-screen version of In the Shadow of the Sun. I didn’t meet Derek until much later, however, at the London Filmmakers Co-op in the late 70s, when I invited him to show some of the many Super8mm films he’d made. That night Derek showed some twenty films, projecting them himself from two small Bolex projectors he’d brought with him, and accompanying the films with a selection of music from commercial audio cassettes – like a DJ really. He kept the audience enthralled for almost three hours.
During the prep for that show we’d discussed the merits and disadvantages of working in Super8mm, especially the problem of fragility, and when we met again it was mainly to talk about preservation of his S8mm films. At the time however Derek was also very excited about the two features he had in development – Caravaggio and Neutron – and every time we met he would read aloud from each revision. Using my contacts in Europe, I was able to raise funding to have a 16mm negative made from the Super8mm original of In the Shadow of the Sun. This was Derek’s first magnum opus and the result of four years of filming and many layered composites.
As we spent more time together I was slowly drawn into the production process, from script consultant to development producer on Caravaggio. However, as that film was proving difficult to get off the ground Derek continued to work on other projects with the more accessible medium of Super 8 mm. TG Psychic Rally in Heaven (1981) was our first film conceived to be shot on S8mm but then completed on a more distributable format, in that case, 16mm. This was followed by a series of films mixing S8mm and 16mm. Our first foray into large-scale production started during a session at the ICA, where we were preparing a selection of Derek’s early S8mm films for a run in the cinema by transferring them to video. We were doing this by projecting the S8 films onto a white wall and reshooting them with a video camera. Halfway through the second day we started to get a bit bored with this process and began to experiment with a large tarnished mirror and the projectionist, Steve Randall. Derek projected the image on to Steve and the mirror while filming the scene with the video camera. This was an exciting new departure, and the material we filmed that day was the first step in making The Angelic Conversation.
With Agfa selling off its colour stock cheap – £2.5 for a cartridge, including processing – it was decided that our new project should be something more ambitious than a short. The combination of low-cost stock and Derek’s preferred shooting speed of 6fps meant that a little stock went a long way. There were to be two central characters. Derek had met Paul Reynolds at the Bell in King’s X and somehow I found Phillip Williamson. The idea was to create a free-form love poem with these two young men at its center.
We filmed the sequences for the new work gradually over the course of a summer. As our resources were very limited – neither of us had any real income at that time – we could only afford to film one or two days at a time. Derek chose all the locations. I devised the smoke and flares. Ken Bolton or another friend would drive and as there was only room for four, with a driver, Derek, & myself there was space for only one of the principal actors on each location shoot! The only time the actors were filmed together was for the bed scene in Derek’s Charing X Road flat.
Other scenes, with extras, were filmed in the ICA cinematheque. A video-only sequence was filmed in Derek’s flat. After each shoot the film was sent off for processing. As soon as it came back we would borrow a U-matic recorder from the British Film Institute on the other side of Charing X Road and then video the films off the wall. It all sounds a bit amateurish but we were deadly serious.
Having completed filming in the late summer of 1984 we began to edit, using a simple two-deck VHS system. About this time, Derek was greatly annoyed that Channel 4 (the new TV station) were funding Peter Greenaway to make a series of shorts from Dante’s Divine Comedy, but had completely ignored Derek’s own petitioning them with the idea of making a series of shorts based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. It suddenly dawned on him that it would be an even better idea to combine the sonnets and The Angelic Conversation.
Around this time we’d done some tests on to 35mm to see how the images would hold when blown up, and the first couple of tests were ropey indeed. Then we met Fred Weinal from Colour Film Services lab and he put the material through the new machine that he’d built and that worked.
Manfred Salzgeber invited us to show the film at the Berlin Film Festival the following year.
Angelic Conversation is less of a home movie that became a feature and more a feature conceived and made using home-movie technology. S8mm gave us access to the tools of cinema despite the fact that we were both flat broke.
There was an air of anarchy to London in the early 80’s. Thatcher was running roughshod over our culture. We had sentimental drivel such as Chariots of Fire in our cinemas. The gay press was more reactionary than the right-wing newspapers. But the music was good.
While waiting for the money to come through to finish Angelic we made Imagining October (1984), a 27-minute meditation on state censorship and repression. (Imagining October recently ran for eight weeks as an installation at Tate Britain.) This was made in the same way as Angelic, but much faster—we only had six weeks to make it before it was to be shown at the 1984 London Film Festival—but we managed it and got the first print back from the lab on the morning of the screening. Sitting in the Lumier cinema on Saint Martin’s Land we were so apprehensive I could hear both our hearts beat. We were really pleased it worked, it was what we wanted, we’d seized the means of production. Cinema was ours.
There was a wind of change at BFI Production and less tolerance to experimentation. They wanted to do a film with Derek, but on their terms. It was still fun but coming from an art school background the kind of costume drama that Caravaggio was becoming didn’t really interest me. I wanted something more contemporary, more urgent, and so we made The Last of England – just Derek and me and our friends. We paid for the shoot ourselves out of money we’d raised making music videos for the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys. Only after we shot and edited the film did we look for money to make the 35m print and pay for the music. We made it under the auspices of someone else’s company. That turned into a slightly steep learning curve but fortunately I had a good lawyer! Anyway it’s still my favourite film!
After that experience I set up my own company, which produced The Garden and Blue. This enabled Derek and I to have complete control (and ownership!) over the films. Blue was surprisingly hard to finance, although the budget was quite small, around £90k. People had difficulty getting their heads around the idea: A blank screen. Some just laughed. But Derek was right and it worked splendidly.
Still, the most fun we had was in the early days when we made Angelic Conversation – just four people: Derek, me and the two cast members. And lots of other films and projects in the years between 1979 and 1986, when we were on the outside and not even remotely interested in being on the inside. Derek was a great man, generous, kind and a second father to me.
Born Inverness, Scotland in 1954, James Mackay studied film at North East London Polytechnic (now University of East London). After graduating he became Secretary of the London Film-Maker’s Co-op and then Cinema Programmer. In the late 1970’s Mackay produced a series of programs for the Edinburgh International Film Festival titled New British Avant-Garde films and programmed similar for the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival later he would revisit curating as Film and Video curator of the B2 gallery 1981 – 83. He began producing in 1981 through Dark Pictures, the firm that he founded as a production and marketing company for new films and video, beginning with a series of shorts by Derek Jarman.You can read more about him here. Filmography here. All photos courtesy James Mackay. Photo of Mr. Mackay: Brook Dillon.