Thursday, March 31, 2011


The 21st-century marriage of the digital revolution with China's bid for First World status and the resulting collateral damage, has been a boon for documentary filmgoers outside China. Cheap, portable digital technology has enabled an unprecedented flowering of documentary films about this country. Sadly, these films will probably remain unseen by ordinary Chinese given their subject matter and outspoken criticism of authorities' neglect and mistreatment of minorities, victims of tragedy and artists. Shot with low budgets and under the radar of government surveillance, these works earn the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts new series title "Fearless: Independent Chinese Documentaries."

Documentary film fans who missed distributor dGenerate Films' ground-breaking series "China Underground" at VIZ Cinema back in December, or New York's MoMA Documentary Fortnight in February, have a chance to catch two works from the VIZ program plus newer titles, starting this weekend for three weeks at YBCA.

Many of the six works featured in "Fearless" are long. I like SFIFF's head programmer Rachel Rosen's characterization of a recent overall trend in film-festival films: they "find their own length." The subjects of these works have convoluted histories that need to be told. Conventional running times don't do them sufficient justice, and the patient viewer at any rate soon finds herself deeply and rewardingly immersed.

Bring sustenance and maybe a cushion when the series kicks off midday Sunday with its longest, most grueling and finest film Karamay (2009). I usually save the best film for last, but I can’t wait to recommend this first in the series which cries out for an audience willing to endure its wholly justified 6-hour-plus running time. Everybody in China knows about the "12/08/94 Incident" in which 323 people died, 288 of them schoolchildren, in a fire that broke out in the cheaply constructed and illegally modified Friendship Theatre in the oil company town of Karamay in far northwestern Xinjiang province. Because the children died obeying instructions to remain seated so that inebriated Communist Party cadres could escape first, the government hastily assured the bereaved that the victims would receive "national martyr" status—one of many promises that it didn't keep. The children didn't even receive death certificates, which left them nameless. Instead, the parents of the dead children were subjected to firings, surveillance, ostracism, arrest and even beatings when they conducted their own investigation and petitioned for reparations. Director Xu Xin visits the victims' families on the 13th anniversary of the tragedy and witnesses their still explosive rage and recriminations.

The fourth hour of the film is devoted to the extraordinary soliloquy of one father, who comes closest to positing an overarching conspiracy theory for the tragedy. In indirect language whose import gains devastating power, he methodically indicts all the responsible parties in the incident, drawing a portrait of a China that has broken down at every possible level. This is politically engaged cinema at its most appalling best—a must-see.

Ghost Town (2008) is also about people living on the geographical and ethnic margins of Chinese society—this time in Yunnan province near the border with Burma. In an online interview, director Zhao Dayong said that this film poses the "cause" that would lead to the "consequence" of his 2006 film
Street Life (not screening at YBCA): a town gradually being abandoned by its inhabitants for the city because they can no longer scrape together a living there. The film follows citizens still making an effort: father-son Christian preachers, a young trucker in love with a girl about to be sold to another man, a pair of alcoholic brothers wearing out the patience of their womenfolk, and finally a 12-year-old boy abandoned by his parents who traps birds, cooks fry bread and hauls rocks for a living but still finds time to play like a child or sit quietly in a church pew. Its dwindling population shows plenty of life for a ghost town, notably in an enthralling shot of a church congregation wearing colorful knit caps singing a hymn, which rivals the pan shot of boat passengers in the opening sequence of Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life.

1428 (Du Haibin, 2009)—Along with Ghost Town, 1428 screened at VIZ. Its title referring to the time at which the 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck, this film refutes the implicit conclusion of the recent Aftershock, a melodrama bookended by the 1976 Tangshan and 2008 Sichuan temblors and China's top-grossing locally made film. In that fiction film's feel-good ending, the heroine whose family was torn apart in the earlier quake joins government rescue operations in Sichuan with full confidence that this time they have gotten it right. 1428 puts the lie to that complacent and dangerous attitude, as it details governmental neglect and abuse of the victims and survivors of Sichuan first 10 days after the quake and again 7 months later.

Disorder (Huang Weikai, 2009) is the most hyperbolic of these documentaries, aptly called by Chris Chang "a city symphony from hell." In grainy black and white footage taken from dozens of videographers, it cross-cuts various happenings in Guangzhou seemingly at the same time: the confiscation of contraband bear and anteater parts from a supermarket; a motorist pleading with a semiconscious man on the road to accept a monetary settlement before the cops tow his car; a diner demanding satisfaction for a roach found in his noodles; a man threatening to jump from a bridge and another dancing in traffic; pigs running loose on the highway; a baby found abandoned in a trash-filled lot; a brawl resulting from a truck about to be towed. The overwhelming impression conveyed by this film is a China in utter chaos, broken down at every level. Even at its bleakest it's a caustic tribute to the spirit of the Chinese people, for whom absurdity has become a way of life but who will not get to see this on video if the government can help it.

04/01/11 UPDATE: YBCA's Film/Video Curator Joel Shepard has confirmed that they will allow "sustenance" in the screening room for the screening of Karamay.

Cross-published on Twitch.

THE DISPOSABLE & THE DISCONTINUOUS: The Evening Class Interview With Stephen Parr

Stephen Parr is an archivist, imagemaker and writer as well as the director of Oddball Film + Video, a stock footage company based in San Francisco whose main business is licensing unusual stock footage to producers of feature films, documentaries, commercials, broadcast television, music videos, as well as web and new media productions. He is also hands down one of my favorite personalities in the San Francisco cinema scene. Every time I walk away from having a conversation with Stephen, I'm thinking, "Damn, I wish I'd recorded that!" So imagine my delight when Stephen accepted my invitation to lunch, recommended Chinese barbecue at Lung Shan on Mission, and agreed to let me record his take on the disposable and the discontinuous while we munched on tea-smoked eel and kung pao corned beef. [Photos of Stephen Parr courtesy of Anthony Kurtz, with Hardy Wilson assisting.]

* * *
Michael Guillén: Stephen, you have frequently expressed in the past your love for 16mm film, but you've also indicated to me your receptivity to new media. In fact, Oddball Film + Video is hosting a seminar and workshop on using inexpensive cameras to promote social action as part of the 4th annual Disposable Film Festival (DFF). Can you speak to your embrace of both film and new media?

Stephen Parr: It all has to do with how you perceive the world and how you perceive images and your reality. I shot a lot of Super8 when I was a kid. Then when I started going to school, I started doing more work with video because it was immediate and I really liked the immediacy of it. So I come from a background of video art and new media where people were actually even building and making their own equipment, like their own video synthesizers.

But really I'm more interested in content than format. I'm interested in learning how to do nonlinear programming that hits a lot of people on a lot of levels. That's what my real interest is. The technology is just the means to an end. I embrace any useful technology.

Guillén: So you're not a technical purist?

Parr: No. I like film very much because of its tactile quality and I love the way it's projected and I love the concept of people sitting in a room sharing an experience. That's something that's really important. Also, I like film because it is the longest-lasting medium invented. There isn't any other visual medium invented that lasts as long as film. People can talk about whatever medium they want, but there's nothing that's been around 100 years like film. At Oddball, we have reels that are 60-70 years old and we play them all the time. But any medium that allows people more control over their art is useful. With digital media you can make an image for one penny or nothing. You can record over and over.

Guillén: When you say you're learning to create nonlinear programming, what do you mean by that?

Parr: Most people like to think of a film as a way to tell a story. In the early days of cinema a lot of people told stories, a lot of people re-enacted myths, and a lot of people created abstract images. But a linear way of looking at things is only one way of looking at things and I suspect things are a lot more nonlinear than people think.

Guillén: So a nonlinear film is not as concerned with narrative continuity? Which approaches the subject of viewing films discontinuously.

Parr: What do you mean by "discontinuous"? Do you mean watching more than one thing at once?

Guillén: That's one way I think of it, yes. Though I'm also harkening back to how "discontinuous viewing" was a term used to legitimize criticism of channel surfing, back when television was accused of diminishing attention spans. It's now being dusted off and used again to criticize the viewing habits of internet cinephiles accustomed to watching YouTube and Facebook content.

Parr: I have mixed feelings on this. There's a difference between having a short attention span and being focused on a variety of stimuli. Most people that I see who use a lot of new media appear as though they
do have a shortened attention span. Let me try to explain why I think that. Just because a cell phone is available, why is it when someone's out that they need to check their phone on a minute-by-minute basis? Or just because a camera is available, why would you want to take pictures everywhere you go? It makes me curious about what the media has convinced us we should do. If you can do something, why should you do it?

If someone tells me they're going to meet me at 10:00, I don't want to be interrupted from what I'm doing five times within the hour about when they're going to
arrive; I just want to see them at 10:00, y'know? I don't want to spend my time talking about what I'm going to do. I just want to do it.

Guillén: This is reminding me of a conversation I recently had with a new intern where he was upset with me that I don't carry my cell phone. "How am I supposed to let you know if I can't make it on time?" he asked. I told him to just be at the agreed-upon place at the agreed-upon hour and no issue. "But what if something comes up?" he persisted. Which touched upon a pet peeve of mine: that spontaneity is often self-serving. My motto: make a plan and stick to it. You say you're going to meet me someplace somewhere then meet me there at the appointed time. If you don't arrive, I'll figure something came up and I'll find out about it later. It surprised me how much this seemed to agitate him.

Parr: Cell phones only benefit those who are changing plans on their cell phones. For instance, the phone was ringing at my Mom's house and she didn't answer it and I said, "Mom, your phone's ringing" and she said, "Yeah, I know." I said, "Well, aren't you going to get it?" She said, "No." I said, "Why?" She said, "Because I don't want to." And then she said, "Y'know, I didn't get the phone for other people; I got it for
myself." And then there's those people who call you and you're talking and then they say, "Hey, can I put you on hold?" I have one friend who says, "No! Call me later."

Guillén: All this addresses the addictive allure of mobile devices and their impact on social behavior.

Parr: There's no doubt about it.

Guillén: We don't even need to talk about how this has impacted audience behavior in movie houses. But I do want to tease out this quality of the addictive allure of new media, both portable and social. My question is: what is the addiction really about? I do think people want to tell stories. I do think they want to talk about their lives and share information. I do think they want to communicate with others but they haven't learned how to do it in any other more meaningful direct way, and—because they haven't—I suspect it feeds a frustration and dissatisfaction that reveals itself in compulsive habits obsessed with hand-held devices. That's why I'm especially pleased by the free panels DFF is offering participants this year, two at Oddball alone, which are trying to propose creative alternatives to mobile devices. I'm particularly intrigued by the workshop on how to use mobile devices to further social causes.

The other day on Facebook I read a comment by documentarian Heddy Honigmann that stuck with me. She said that the only important filmmakers working today are the thousands and thousands of YouTube providers.

YouTube is a de facto archive for the world. We know that. Let me give you an example of what I'm hoping to get at with the upcoming DFF workshops. I just did a show in Bangalore, this place called Jaaga, which is a three-story building made with palette-rack shelving. It's an open-air place where they hold workshops on how to work with their laptops and create electronic devices, very youth-oriented, very immediate, high concept low tech, how to make low tech stuff that works. Actually, one of the main guys who runs Jaaga is from San Francisco. He just went over to India and started creating these spaces where people could work and create.

One of the things I would like to touch on is: people can handle more than one medium at a time. They can handle poetry and music. They can handle film and live music. They can handle a lot of different media at a time; but, are they
focused? The whole point is about being focused. When they're walking down the street, why are people not listening to the world? To paraphrase John Cage: "Every sound is music." But instead, people walk down the street completely plugged in to digital media where the signal is actually being compressed so that you're not really getting high fidelity sound. Then on top of that they're either on their phone or watching consumer-oriented media that plays back from their phone. People have become alarmingly mediated. In my experience, such people don't know how to interact socially.

Guillén: That's reminding me of my friend Sergio de la Mora, an associate professor at UC Davis, who recently complained to me that walking across campus is no longer fun because nobody says hi to each other anymore; they're all too busy with their private phone conversations.

Parr: Also, there's some really strong work being provided online; but, a lot of what people record is narcissistic; it's all about
them. It's not about other people. It's not about people coming closer to other people. Most social media at its core, at its base, is a substitute for human interaction. Many artists will tell you that words aren't enough. Many people will tell you that image on a film isn't enough. My point is that there are so many levels of intimacy. We've gone from being in person, being on the telephone, to being on email, to being texted, to doing the Twitter thing. When you look at people who are truly creative on Twitter—someone like David Lynch, let's say—you'll find he's following something like 30 people while 12,000 people are following him. He's not following 500 people. He doesn't have time. How do you create art and socially interact at the same time?

Guillén: They say no entourage is good for an artist.

Parr: Another example: somebody will remix something that's completely meaningless. I've said this before and I'll say it again: the meaningless and the trivial coexist with the meaningful and the vital. So a guy on YouTube will make a radio out of cheese and it will work and he'll get 500,000,000 hits.

Guillén: [Laughs] I want to see that radio!! Send me the link!

Parr: But then some guy in Argentina will set up his camera and do something beautiful and poetic and he'll get 25 people to look at what he does.

Guillén: I relate. [Laughs.]

Parr: So what does that mean? Well, it means that—to a large extent—people are quite distracted by the technology around them. They're flailing. I don't think people have an understanding of how you truly utilize the technology that's there. We're really at a stage of infancy for most technology.

For instance, there's no real etiquette for cell phone use. It used to be that if you wanted to make a call in a restaurant, you'd use the public telephone. And where would they put the phone? Back there by the bathrooms. You know why? Because they didn't want people to be disturbed if they wanted to carry on a private conversation. We've lost that age of privacy and now everyone wants to share themselves with everyone else; but, if you think about it, there's certain things that
should be private. There's no real ground rules anymore. I've been in India in the middle of a puja, a sacred ritual, where people get on their phone. I've seen people in restaurants talking on their phones while the waiter is trying to get their order. I've seen guys where people are about to get on an elevator and they ward them off saying, "Could you take the next one down? This is a private call." So they're taking their space and making it your space and they're taking your space and making it their space.

All these issues revolve around public and private space and the fact that a lot of people think that—if more people see their work—the work will be better. For instance, when I program and screen films I don't worry about the size of the audience. To paraphrase Jonas Mekas: the better the film, the smaller the audience. If you're going to make a generalization, that's probably not so bad. Sometimes I'll have a program and someone will say, "There should be more people here...."

Guillén: But it is what it is.

Parr: It is what it is!

Guillén: You're reminding me of CinemaScope editor Mark Peranson when he said the most interesting film is the one that no one else has seen. So the cinephilic challenge is to find a film that few people have seen and write about it: that's interesting!

You're also reminding me of something Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: "In short, we live in a transitional period where enormous paradigmatic shifts should be engendering new concepts, new terms, and new kinds of analysis, evaluation, and measurement, not to mention new kinds of political and social formations, as well as new forms of etiquette. But in most cases they aren't doing any of those things." ("Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections", included in his collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, but originally published in the March 2007 issue of Film Quarterly 60:3.)

Parr: There's no money in developing an aesthetic. That's the bottom line. There's no interest from someone who makes a product to develop an aesthetic around the product on how to use it if it doesn't benefit the bottom line. Take
Facebook as an example. Let's say I go in and open up a store—we'll use that metaphor—and I let people come in and we sell things to each other. What you do is get all their information and then you sell things to them while they're selling things to other people. You have no inventory. You have no product. The product is other people selling things to other people.

Television brought the viewer to the advertiser; it delivered an advertiser to the viewer. That's what television
is. It's supported by advertising. They're giving you a product. But what product do you get with Facebook? Other people. To me, it's a brilliant concept: you're selling other people to other people. Then you're taking their information and putting it into a box. "Oh, you like dogs? Well, you can be with the 'I like dogs' people. You like film? Great!" I mean, who doesn't like film? Who doesn't like dogs? How do you match peoples' interests? It's a cynical and sad way. What they say in Asia is that boredom is the sign of aristocracy. If you have a lot of money, you're not going to be on Facebook all day.

Guillén: No, it's just for us poor people who have nothing else to do.

Parr: It gives you an artificial feeling of control.

Guillén: To get back to our two main words—disposability and discontinuous—let's take a look at what's disposable. We were talking about linearity and nonlinearity. Speaking in the domain of history, linearity has an accumulative quality. The continuous and the historical record involve a process of accumulation. That's the weight of history. To throw off that weight is the redeeming value of disposability. It lessens the load of what has come before in order to accumulate anew. It comments on what can be jettisoned.

One of the specific reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of your involvement with found footage and your nonlinear programming that consistently rescues and recontextualizes footage arguably intended to be disposable. You use commercials, educational films, even home movies, to construct your programs. Can you speak to your creative reappropriation of the disposable?

Parr: Well, no one knows what's disposable and what isn't. I base my whole art on things that other people have thrown away and don't think have any value. Most of what people think is valuable, isn't. Is gold really valuable? My gut sense is that most of the gold we see is being used for
decorative purposes.

Our culture filters very little. A lot comes at people. I'll show some old campy drug film and people in the audience will say it's really funny and I'll tell them that the only reason they think it's funny is because it's 30 years old. You might as well laugh at yourself right now. It will probably be a lot funnier now than it will be in 30 years. Some people will say, "Oh, that was a really great film!" but it's not. It never was and it never will be. We just think it is because, in time, we look at what we have now. There's a certain linearity to time that—when you look back at something at the context it was in—it looks ludicrous. To me, it looks dumb when someone keeps looking at their cell phone. It's like a horse with blinders on. If you're spending more time looking at your phone than you are looking at the world around you, then you're kind of saying that the world around you is not really that valuable. It's just a place where you move through to get what you want.

In Asian culture if they have a picture of a fish in an aquarium, the native sensibility is that the fish belongs at the bottom of the sea. Western philosophy thinks that's wrong. They think the fish belongs
with other fish. Western culture doesn't really see things as a whole. Our culture is driven by needs. It's really a "me" culture in a lot of ways. Whatever can get me what I want. Imagine that you could have a phone that had every application on it that you could ever want.

Guillén: Why would I want to imagine that? I find that horrifying. The other day I was shopping in Safeway and noticed a magazine called Apps. That was its full content; nothing but applications. And I'm thinking, "Film magazines are going out of print while a magazine called Apps is flying off the shelves? Really?"

Parr: But that's what I'm saying: the whole concept of applications is geared towards consumption. In general, they say the iPad is a consuming device. It's made to consume. It's not made to produce anything. It's not like a laptop. Maybe you're creating and sharing pictures, but you're really consuming more than you're creating. That's something to think about. It's not so much how you're consuming but what you're consuming, how much you're consuming, and why?

Guillén: Let's return to your comment that disposability is your art. Can you expand on how you're working with these disposable items to create your art?

Parr: Everything has a life span according to our culture. Myself, I don't really believe in "genre-fying" everything, as if everything is a genre. Literally every week there's a different film festival in San Francisco: animation, film noir, independent, horror, sex. In one sense that's wonderful but I don't think those things necessarily work within the cultural framework we have right now. For example, I just did a program in Bangalore where people responded just as well if not better than they responded here in the United States. It's all about visual iconography, style.

Disposability is part of that awareness that developed in the '60s with environmental culture. At that time there was a lot of talk about planned obsolescence. People like Rachel Carson talked about the creation of objects that were being made just to be disposed. Nowadays especially people make products and no one expects them to last. If you buy a cell phone, you don't expect it to last for more than two years, which is not really a good way to look at things. So when I talk about disposability, I mean it metaphorically. As a metaphor, disposability can encompass a lot of different ideas. It can encompass the fact: what were these people thinking when they made all these commercials? Were they thinking that anyone would ever look back at them? Probably not. A lot of times people would make home movies but who did they think was really going to watch them? Their audience was very limited.

A lot of times people make big-budget films—something like
Avatar—whose aim is to last for 10,000 years. And yet James Cameron is using ideas that are totally timeworn ideas, beside the fact that it's a horrible script. Avatar has immediately dated itself in a very strange way because Cameron repeated all the same things that everybody else has been trying to do for 30-40 years, which is 3-D. He used state-of-the-art effects but he used the same story. So the strange thing is that—even though something is purporting to be new—it may last a week or it may last 100 years.

I'm interested in the viability of a lot of things besides portable mediums. For instance, if you've made an art installation using a floppy disk, how do you reinstall a system like that?

Guillén: You're basically talking about the imprecision of memory and its potential obsolescence. Case in point: I had a major hard drive crash this past summer and I lost every piece of writing I'd written since I was 12 years old because there was no way to get to it. The drives were outdated so there was no way to transfer the data to a new computer, short of paying big bucks to recover the hard drive, which wasn't guaranteed. And the irony was that I had faithfully been transporting this data from computer to computer over the years and, wham, suddenly it was gone.

Parr: There's only two kinds of people that work with computers: people who have lost data and people who are going to lose data. It touches everybody. The thing about disposable mediums or any medium that has this planned obsolescence built into it is that—when you buy it—you have to think, "What do I want this to do? And how long do I want it to do that?" Right now in our culture there isn't anybody who isn't an archivist. If you have a cell phone with a camera on it, you're an archivist. Because you're going to spend the rest of your life migrating that data. It used to be that you'd take a picture, print it, put it in a box and then sit on it for 50 years. Now you take a picture and you have to move it from one phone to the next and—when you stop doing that—you lose the picture. So now you're dealing with a much more fragile medium.

It's strange because people say, "Everything's in The Cloud" but who lives in the clouds? I'm being a little rhetorical here, but The Cloud is not a place where people who are focused go. I mean, I might feel a little bit better if someone said, "It's down in Hell."

A lot of new media is predicated on the fact that the distribution system is more important than the content creation system. For instance, I have a warehouse full of film but it's only useful to my clients if it's digitized. That's why an alternate arm of Oddball is to take the opportunity to screen films from the archives, to show people the fact that the material is there to be seen and shared by them in the way it was created; but, I'm not opposed to other mediums using that footage at the same time. I've done events where I've incorporated film, video, live performers, music and I'm fine with all of it. Generally, most digital recording—with the exception of high-end stuff—is somewhat inferior to analog recording. Film is almost always superior to digital media. That's why I like it.

My situation, the way I run my business, is that I used to be able to buy a film, transfer it to a videotape, make a copy, and that copy could sit on the shelf for 20 years. Fine. The film itself is going to be there and last 100-200 years. But nowadays, you have to digitize a film, then you have to make two copies, then you have to make a viewing copy and back that up too, and then every 2-5 years whatever "they" decide is the latest medium—maybe Steve Jobs dies and so
Quicktime dies—you have to transfer it all. So you're always going to be transferring data and moving data. You have to build that into making your work so that anybody now who's making work should also be thinking about how to archive it.

We're at a point where people think they have control over the medium but the medium has much more control. Look at who's controlling the landscape:
Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft. Do you really feel that those people are going to make clear, aesthetic decisions about what's best for the way that you want to create your work? For instance, if you shoot 5000 pictures and upload them into iPhoto, it will take you forever to get them out of iPhoto because they want you to live in their world. That's the whole thing about being an artist—making your sickness be everybody else's sickness; making your vision something that other people go see—and when you're in a confined space like that, then you have to play by those rules. On Facebook you know where the guy's picture is, you know what he does, you know where his wall is; but, in the early days of the internet, you could get on line and not know what a web page was going to look like. It could be upside down. It could be all black with white lettering. It could be anything. The only people who do that now are high concept artists and branding companies. Everybody else just wants to get their stuff out there. That's one of the problems. People are more interested in having people see the work than they are in having it last longer or taking the time to do it in a way that's really inventive.

Guillén: You've made a good argument against disposability. Is there anything you can say in favor of it?

Parr: Well, the word disposable—at least in terms of the Disposable Film Festival—is a really good catchphrase and it works well. It's meant to be in jest. It's playful and I like it. I tend to use words like "portable." I co-curated the Savannah Portable Media Festival. We liked the idea of disposable as something that's made as a one-off but it's actually being used to create art. You can create art with really cheap things; that is, theoretically, if it's actually art and not totally garbage. But even if it's garbage, perhaps that's good too because the portable media is doing its job: it's cheap and it's quick. I think the idea of portability, the idea of something that's low cost, the idea of accessibility, and the idea that something is so common—that's one of the reasons that I started collecting films: they're very common—the whole concept of disposability, the whole concept of portability, all those things, are very useful.

I was in India a few years ago and I had a cheap camera but I got great photos. When I shoot, I try to shoot with something really small because I'm allowed to get into places where a lot of people aren't allowed to go with big intimidating pieces of equipment. And I like things that have a low learning curve. I don't think it's a benefit that I know how to take a film, transfer it to video, digitize it, put it to two hard drives, make a
Quicktime, log it, put it in Metadata, and FTP it to my client. I don't think that's a very useful thing to learn other than the fact that that's how I make my living, okay? I think it would be much more useful to take a film, put it on a projector, and have it come out a digital clip. That's way useful because that gets it to people really quick. When I look at the creative process, the thing that gets me from A to Z the quickest wins. I want to spend my time thinking about something creative. I don't want to think about why this doesn't render properly. That's for some tech guy who designed the software to figure out.

Certain kinds of social media are overhyped, even though they serve a useful purpose. But portable media—something you use to record something?—it's always much more valuable. It has a different value. And some portable media advances social activism. For example, there's a group in New York called Witness. They give portable media to people in third world countries to document human rights abuses. There's a guy from Singapore who I met at the Orphans Film Symposium in New York a couple of years ago and his work—he documented a lot of protests in Singapore, which is a pretty right wing country—has been confiscated. He doesn't have it anymore. It only exists on
YouTube. The thing to remember is that people did not start a revolution because of Twitter, no matter how much their branding experts would want you to believe. Facebook didn't start a cultural revolution. People started it by talking to each other. People need to credit technology only insofar as what they do with it.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


San Francisco's film snobs and film sluts have been abuzz all weekend privy to the advance announcement offered San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) members of this year's lineup for the 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54). It's been hard to keep quiet about this year's offerings but—with yesterday's official press conference, held in the spectacular Alexandra Room on the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis overlooking Union Square—the embargo has been lifted, though unfortunately there remain glaring omissions with regard to some of the festival's key events, namely who will be the recipient of the Founder's Directing Award, the Peter J. Owens Acting Award, and the Midnight Awards? Securing talent is specifically the issue here, Executive Director Graham Leggat admitted, adding that this is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks of his position. Let it be known that the all-important spectacular dimension of an international film festival—which all too often comes under fire from cinephilic diehards—is fraught with administrative complications like any other infrastructural arm of the festival that supports its architecture.

Leaving aside that minor disappointment in favor of anticipation, let's take at look at what we have available; first off with SFIFF54's Latin slate. A caveat: the short descriptions have been lifted directly from the SFIFF54 mini-guide, with expanded descriptions linked to the films' titles.

Asleep in the Sun / Dormir Al Sol (Dir. Alejandro Chomski, Argentina 2010, 83 min)—Every dog has his day in this beguiling metaphysical mystery set within the labyrinthine Buenos Aires neighborhood of Parque Chas, where a hapless watchmaker and his canine-crazed wife go soul-deep into a Kafkaesque world of pseudo scientists and self-possessed pooches amid period-perfect '50s decor. IMDb.

Asleep in the Sun played at last Fall's Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), Marilyn Ferdinand described the film as "a charming, unnerving film whose picture-postcard, 1950s setting lulls viewers into a sweet dream of nostalgia, only to turn a character's moderate neurosis into a nightmare for all those in her circle." She reported on Chomski's attendance at CIFF, where he advised that the film's genesis "arose from his friendship with Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares and his admiration for his novel Asleep in the Sun. The pair talked about adapting the book for the cinema, and when Casares died, Chomski decided to push on. He retained the spirit of the book, though many plot points had to be added ... to render the story coherent. And he decided to film it as a period piece, as originally written, instead of updating it to the present because he felt the story was too delicate to stand up to today's information-soaked scrutiny. ...Chomski added a very slight political agenda to the film by showing that people often are powerless to stop bad things from happening in their countries and communities. He used the examples of Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq and Argentinians who did not want a military dictatorship who had these things foisted upon them with no recourse. Of course, history catches up with every event."

The Parallax View, D.B. Bates counters that Asleep in the Sun "stumbles" in achieving its dream logic by making "two grave miscalculations that undermine the film's dream-like qualities: too much foreshadowing, and too much 'realism.' " But even he admits that "the film is loaded with elements worth admiring", boasting great performances, gorgeous cinematography and impressive evocations of the absurd, circular illogic of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus.

Black Bread / Pa Negre (Dir. Agustí Villaronga, (Spain 2010, 108 min)—In the dark days following the Spanish Civil War, a young boy witnesses a brutal murder by mysterious hooded figures. When his own father is accused of the crime, he sets out to exonerate him, but the facts he uncovers in this twisted gothic underworld are far from comforting. Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Dispatching to
The Jigsaw Lounge from the film's San Sebastian premiere, Neil Young noted Nora Navas's win as Best Actress for her role as the put-upon wife of an anti-Francoist farmer in 1944 Catalonia. Over all, however, he found Black Bread to be "a fairly stodgy tearjerker with mild supernatural touches that nod to Spanish-language forerunners such as Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Erice's enduringly seminal 1970s classic The Spirit of the Beehive." Young makes it clear, however, that "such comparisons are decidedly not to the advantage of Black Bread." Ronald Bergan suffered the same comparisons at MUBI, where he noted those movies "say much more in a less obvious and direct way" and complained that Black Bread was a "never-ending rambling melodrama which pretends to be making a statement on Franco's Spain, but muddies the water with a rights-of-passage drama, 'shocking' sequences, a folk tale of a monster, and a boy that wants to fly. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to its first impressive sequence of someone being killed by a hooded man, and a horse toppling over a cliff."

Jonathan Holland's
Variety review from San Sebastian was decidedly more favorable. He characterized Black Bread as "grim and gripping" and noted that "Agustí Villaronga's most mainstream film retains his trademark subversive edge, quickly evolving from rites-of-passage yarn into a complex, challenging item that is both dark to its heart and breathlessly watchable." He added that the film's depiction of rural poverty was "impressive" and that "several scenes, including a dream sequence, are shot through with a raw, unsettling power." As later reported at Variety, Black Bread went on to win nine Goyas, including Best Film, Director and Actress. Notwithstanding, I can't help but wonder if this dramatic sweep wasn't by default due to the well-publicized contention between Icíar Bollain's Even the Rain and Álex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus, whose enmity appeared to cancel out each others' chances. I wonder about this because everyone I know who caught Black Bread at its Palm Springs International screening expressed disappointment and outright amazement when the film went on to do so well at the Goyas. My expectations are low.

Colors of the Mountain, The / Los colores de la montana (Dir. Carlos César Arbeláez, Colombia / Panama 2010, 88 min)—A motley crew of young boys in Colombia lives only for one passion: soccer. But when their precious new ball rolls into a minefield, their dreams are suddenly on hold. Even as the village becomes the center of a tug-of-war between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas, the idea of a rescue attempt is too tempting to resist. IMDb.

Dispatching further from San Sebastian,
Variety critic Jonathan Holland noted that—though The Colors of the Mountain appeared "deceptively lightweight"—it was actually a "no-frills, sincere if sometimes cliched drama" that "nicely sidesteps sentimentality and haranguing social criticism, and its wobbly dramatics are compensated for by a wonderful central perf from kid thesp Hernán [Mauricio] Ocampo." Neil Young, in turn, dispatched that The Colors of the Mountain was "a more pungent examination of war's effects on young, innocent victims" than the aforementioned Black Bread. He noted that Arbeláez won the festival's "lucrative" €90,000 New Directors Award and concurred that Ocampo's performance was outstanding and "as good as anything I saw from an adult actor during my spell in San Sebastian."

Eye For Film, Amber Wilkinson emphasizes the film's "hidden but very real threats" and writes: "Shot almost entirely from the children's perspective, Arbeláez tackles universal themes of conflict and its impact on ordinary people without getting mired in specific politics. He deftly shows how quickly normality can disintegrate when conflict appears on the horizon. And despite having serious subject matter, he has a lightness of touch, an avoidance of outright displays of violence and an eye for the comedic that means older children could enjoy this as much as adults." The Colors of the Mountain has been picked up by Film Movement and is already available on DVD. Their press kit includes a director's statement that, interestingly, acknowledges the film's Iranian influences.

Jean Gentil (Dirs. Laura Amelia Guzmán, Israel Cárdenas, Dominican Republic / Mexico/ Germany 2010, 84 min)—Jean Remy is a Haitian man struggling to find employment in the Dominican Republic. Confronted with rejection and discrimination in the city, he sets off to try his luck in the countryside. Imbued with a naturalistic grace, this deeply sympathetic portrait speaks eloquently to the trials of humanity. IMDb. Facebook.

Following up on their debut feature Cochochi—one of my favorite films at the 2007 Toronto International—Guzmán and Cárdenas received a Horizons special mention at the Venice Film Festival and a jury award at Thessaloniki for
Jean Gentil, yet Variety critic Boyd van Hoeij still found their most recent effort "relentlessly dour."

Joy, The / A Alegria (Dirs. Marina Meliande, Felipe Bragança, Brazil 2010, 106 min)—In Rio, a group of young students (played by a memorable cast of nonprofessionals) transcends the hard truths of their lives through spirit and imagination in this magical realist urban teen adventure. Led by the charismatic Luiza, the group creates poetry and mirth in a collapsing world.

Jay Weissberg's Variety review is unapologetically dismissive. Not a good sign. This might fall under what Jonathan Marlow terms a "dodgy" entry.

Mysteries of Lisbon / Mistérios de Lisboa (Dir. Raúl Ruiz, (Portugal/France 2010, TRT 272 min w. intermission)—Counts and Fathers, Marquis and Madames, orphans and nobility all spin their yarns in Ruiz's magisterial new gambit on the art of storytelling, based on a 19th-century Portuguese novel [by Camilo Castelo Branco] yet more like Dickens filtered through a surrealist's gaze. This costume meta-drama from the director of Time Regained (SFIFF 2000) is set in a decadent, baroque old-world Portugal. Official website. IMDb. Facebook.

My favorite film of 2010! I am thrilled to have the chance to experience this masterpiece again. As I wrote earlier, my first Ruiz film arrived as a guest and took a cinephilic slave. A sensual conquest has never been more swift and predetermined. I'm afraid I had little choice but to be overtaken by Ruiz's masterful amusement on the ambitious follies of youth and the nostalgic recapitulations of the elderly. I've resisted writing about the film since its world premiere at the Toronto International only because I felt it warranted at least one more screening before committing myself to such a pleasurable—if challenging—task; but, the truth remains that
Mysteries of Lisbon might require multiple viewings. It's that rich and multi-layered.

Souls more informed—and infinitely more prepared than I am—have already weighed in, however. Not only has Rouge provided the definitive online primer for Ruiz, but at
MUBI David Hudson has rounded up the first reviews from the TIFF world premiere, the New York Film Festival, plus commentary on the welcome announcement that Mysteries of Lisbon won France's prestigious Louis Delluc Prize. Eventually, I'll get around to drafting a critical overview of those entries; but, for now, am impressed with how Ruiz has crafted a film with a running time of four hours plus that feels breathtakingly only a little over two. Comporting with programmer Rachel Rosen's observation that—if there is any trend to be seen in this year's roster of films—it's that these films seem to find their own lengths. This length is not to be missed!

Nostalgia for the Light (Dir. Patricio Guzmán, (France / Chile / Germany 2010, 90 min)—The renowned Chilean documentarian goes to one of the highest, driest places on earth, the Atacama Desert, to examine the work of astronomers who search the skies to understand our universe at the same time that relatives of those disappeared under the Pinochet dictatorship search the sands for the bodies of the victims. IMDb. Facebook.

Encouraged by Boyd van Hoeij's
Variety review from Cannes, I made a point of catching Nostalgia for the Light at the 2010 Toronto International. It rapidly ascended as one of my favorite films of the festival let alone the year and I maintain that this searing and poetic documentary should be a leading Oscar®-contender for 2012. If it's not acknowledged with at least a nomination, it will merely be further confirmation that Americans have not only forgotten their own recent history, but how to judge a work of documentary art that will achieve relevance over time. I remain grateful for having had the opportunity to talk to Guzmán about the film. That conversation is up at MUBI, where David Hudson has been customarily thorough in monitoring the critical response to the film, first from Cannes, then Toronto, then its New York Run at the IFC Center.

I wish more mention had been made at the SFIFF press conference regarding Guzmán's attendance at the festival, by way of the Pacific Film Archive retrospective Afterimage: The Films of Patricio Guzmán. B. Ruby Rich and I agreed that it's an unfortunate embarrassment of riches that SFIFF's master class with Jean-Michel Frodon has been programmed against Guzmán's on-stage conversation with Jorge Ruffinelli at PFA. "I now have a conflict," I bemoaned to Ruby. "Yes, you
do!" she confirmed.

Tiniest Place, The / El lugar mas pequeño (Dir. Tatiana Huezo, Mexico 2011, 100 min)—Years after the Salvadoran military destroyed the village of Cinquera in that country's civil war, survivors have returned to rebuild their community. This amazing debut is an evocative testament to place, memory and the power of life to rebound from tragedy. International Premiere. GGA Documentary Feature Contender. IMDb. Facebook [Spanish].

Ulysses / Ulises (Dir. Oscar Godoy, Chile / Argentina 2011, 85 min)—The emotional life of a Peruvian immigrant in Chile is the subject of this nuanced character study of a man uprooted from home by economic necessity and suffering loneliness and dislocation. Higher wages can't fill the void created by separation from everything that is important to him. World Premiere. New Directors Prize Contender. IMDb.

Useful Life, A / La vida útil (Dir. Federico Veiroj, Uruguay 2010, 67 min)—A man who has spent his entire adult life working in a film archive faces a new beginning with the threatened closure of the institution in this loving black and white ode to a life lived among the reels, a deadpan comedy of cinema and obsolescence from the director of Acne. (With short Protoparticles (7 min).) IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

This is one more gem I caught at TIFF 2010 that I can heartily recommend to SFIFF audiences. It's a heartfelt valentine to cinephiles everywhere. My interview with Federico Veiroj is up at
MUBI, where Dave Hudson has likewise gathered up reviews from the film's run in New York. I feel a shout-out is in order here to San Francisco's own Global Film Initiative whose prescience to pick up the film for distribution presumably provided SFIFF the print to show at their festival.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

HBO: MILDRED PIERCE (2011)—The Evening Class Interview With Todd Haynes

Even as I sit in good fortune conversing with Todd Haynes in the Sundance Kabuki's green room, anticipating the special San Francisco premiere of the first two episodes of his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) co-presented with the San Francisco Film Society, I am aware that out there in the "real" world I have friends who have been out of work for two, sometimes three, years without being able to find another job, friends who are losing their homes due to predatorial loans and subsequent foreclosures, friends who are losing their health because they can't afford health insurance, friends who have had to migrate out of San Francisco to continue living in the Bay Area, and—for those friends who have been able to find a job—that it's involved setting aside specialized skills and talents to wait tables, tend bars or drive cabs. With few apparent options or remedies, I can't help but wonder how we as besieged Americans can retain vision when nothing seems to be left in plain sight?

This national dilemma is not lost on Todd Haynes who has skillfully analogized James M. Cain's classic 1941 novel Mildred Pierce to the current economic situation in which we now find ourselves. How he has accomplished this is his subversive genius. By staying true to its literary source, Haynes has revealed the relevance of this Depression narrative to our current lives through the long-form format of a cable mini-series, which has allowed the novel to unfold at its own pace. "
Mildred Pierce is set during the Depression," explains Haynes, "but not the Depression of dustbowls and breadlines. The crises it explores are those of middle-class privilege—issues of pride and status, the struggle first to regain one's standing and then to persevere through hard work and ingenuity. This feels very much like the particular struggles of our current economic crisis, coming out of a period of unbridled consumption." It reminds me of what my friend Mike Black once characterized as facing up to "the ignobility of work" and how so many of us toil our lives away at jobs that feel "beneath" us. The class struggle here seems to be between those who lead authentic, creative and productive lives and those who simply don't, and suffer for it.

Negotiating around the famous Oscar®-winning performance by Joan Crawford in Michael Curtiz's 1945 "noir" classic Mildred Pierce—no mean feat, I might add!—Haynes astutely relies on Cain's novel to reveal the compelling narrative of the rise and fall of Mildred Pierce. Kate Winslet unflinchingly inhabits the role, making it all her own, by remaining faithful to the book's characterization. If mythologist Joseph Campbell's suggestion that an individual's brilliance shines through in the performance of their everyday tasks, then Kate Winslet's Mildred Pierce is radiant with a growth maneuvered task by task, step by step.

The Miniseries debuts on HBO, Sunday, March 27th. Check the official website for details.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm of that demographic, Todd, that came to your films by way of Far From Heaven (2002) and then went back to visit your earlier work and I have to say that your films have the unnerving quality of making me bawl in public. [Haynes laughs.] If it weren't for the kind shoulder of the young woman sitting next to me at Far From Heaven, I don't think I would have made it through that film.

Todd Haynes: [Laughing.] That's sweet. Thank you.

Guillén: And, of course, your recent HBO film Mildred Pierce has its moments as well. The scene where Mildred (Kate Winslet) and Bert (Brían F. O'Byrne) agree to divorce is a heartbreaker.

Haynes: I
know! These powerful actors of mine.

Guillén: What is it in the specific catharsis you mine from the melodrama of these women's narratives that assists you in your filmmaking vision?

Hayne: It's just the most fascinating form. In a way the term "melodrama" is so clumsy and imprecise unlike other genres that we might talk about—like westerns, film noir, gangster movies or whatever—because it also incorporates a kind of pejorative attitude about emotional or sentimental excess. But it's almost because of that, that it makes me want to get in there and roll up my sleeves and figure out why? What is that? Why is it dealt with derogatorily? Why do we dismiss melodramas and domestic drama as something second-class in preference for genres that are, first, more escapist and more associated with male protagonists? Genres that express more freedom in exploring frontiers (as in westerns) or investigating crimes (as in gangster films)?

Melodramas are stories about families, and women in houses, and relationships that don't always work out, and people making tough choices under the pressure of societal views and prejudices. Not only do melodramas have that brand because women are so central to them but it's really about our own lives; it's really about what we all experience in life. I like that about melodramas, although I've tried to do something quite different in the style of
Mildred Pierce than what I did in Far From Heaven. In Far From Heaven—which was quoting from the most stylized period of the melodramas in the '50s and trying hard to be true to those cinematic styles—it was almost more an experiment. It was almost riskier. When people had strong emotional reactions to the material, it proved to me that this genre has incredible legs and really endures because—even though we were working through an artificial visual language and pushing it further than normal—people did have a strong emotional reaction to that film, which says a lot about the form. It says a lot about melodrama.

Mildred Pierce, however, I was exploring naturalism. It's a more understated treatment of the material than what I did with Far From Heaven. The intensity, the drama, the extremes are all in the material and I didn't need to add to that an extreme visual language or an intense musical score. I wanted to give the audience room to find their way into the material and not overdetermine their emotions.

Guillén: Some of the immediate feedback I've read on Mildred Pierce, and what I experienced watching the first two episodes, has been exactly this measure of restraint. And as you've described it elsewhere, the film exhibits a "relatable" naturalism, which speaks exactly to how a genre can be resuscitated in such a way as to find relevance with modern audiences. Yet still I wonder why a genre that was so blithely dismissed in the 1950s as "women's weepers" has elevated into modern relevance? Would it have anything to do with the power politics in the film's male-female relationships? Your films give the yin and yang of relationship a postmodern flip of the coin. The yin is expressed through your earnest, enterprising women and the yang by your indolent but attractive men. What do you seek out in such gendered tension?

Mildred Pierce is different from traditional domestic dramas that usually explore women who are somewhat disempowered and who are more in a domestic space and don't usually trespass beyond that. A real line is drawn between the working world and the home world. Children are the ones who are ushered out to cross that boundary, such as in the more traditional classic mother-daughter stories like Stella Dallas (1937) where—and this is often true with these stories—the kid represents the tension. The mother doesn't want to let go of the child but she also wants the child to move up the social ladder. That usually ends up with the mother having to sacrifice greatly and sometimes even hand the kid over to the wealthier part of the family and let somebody else bring her up better than she could. That's how Stella Dallas ends, for instance, with her maternal sacrifice.

But what's so interesting in Mildred Pierce is that it's women who are running the show. The men are waylaid by the economic catastrophe of the 1930s that they're all trying to figure out; but, it seems like women just had to—by necessity—take action and become active in the work place. In Mildred's case, it starts with small steps as you've just seen in the first two episodes where she has to get a job and re-examine who she is in the world as a single mother and what her middle-class identity is really all about. So she has to take a job that she considers beneath her; but, through that experience, she learns a great deal, and discovers she has a lot of innate talents and skills that she keeps learning more about to see how far they can take her. Ultimately, they take her quite far indeed. But the men in Mildred Pierce are passive and I think that's so interesting. It's not the war years yet—it's not the time when the men are gone and women are running the factories—it's prior to that. In a way, all of the men in Mildred Pierce are passive failures, of various varieties in the story.

James M. Cain has said that one of his missions and what he set out to say by writing
Mildred Pierce was to tell the story of a woman who uses men to get what she needs. What I think he probably meant is that she doesn't see what she's doing; she's doesn't do it knowingly; she does it instinctively. And then gets in trouble. And then discovers how it happened. Of course, what it really is all about is this mother and daughter relationship. Mildred finds men and puts them to the service of her ambitions that are all being fueled by the needs of the daughter. She is preoccupied with and over-invested in this one child. The men fall into service to that mission, with all sorts of various outcomes along the way.

Guillén: Elsewhere, you've referred to that intense mother-daughter relationship between Mildred and Veda as an unrequited love affair. And there's already some buzz about your having "queered" the narrative by inbuing an incestuous lesbian flourish to their dynamic. Do you agree with that?

Haynes: Not if you read the book! It's even more startlingly pronounced in Cain's amazingly modern 1941 novel, on which the 1945 film version was based. More people are better familiar with the 1945 Crawford vehicle than even the novel, but that film took great liberties and changed a great deal of the novel. There was no murder element in the original story.

Guillén: They slapped some noir onto it?

Haynes: Exactly. And to try to appeal to and bridge to the audience that they had established so well with Cain's crime novels. There is a scene—which you haven't come to yet if you've only seen the first two episodes, and I hope I don't give too much away—but, when Veda first confesses to Mildred that she has been seeing a boy and is pregnant as a result, in the book it literally describes Mildred as doubling-over with nausea out of utter jealousy. She doesn't react like, "Oh my poor daughter, she's going to have a kid! What are we going to do now? Her reputation is screwed." Or whatever the typical maternal reaction might be. Instead, she experiences utter jealousy that Veda has gone out with a boy and gotten knocked up without her knowing anything about it. It's intense. There's also a kiss you will see in Episode 5 between mother and daughter, but it's directly out of the book, this remarkable book, which is incredibly fearless about venturing into territory that challenges all traditional and acceptable ideas about mother and daughter and the limits of those relationships.

Guillén: Let's talk about the film's visual flourishes related to gesture. The gesture that specifically sticks in my mind as near-brilliant is when Mildred repossesses the car from Bert, arguing that she needs it because she's working. She drives him back to where he's staying, drops him off, and then you have that image of her right hand gripping the steering wheel, flexing its fingers. Her taking command is evident; but, it made me wonder how you direct a gesture like that? How do you know when you have the gesture right?

Haynes: It's a really good question because it gets to the core of this specific character, this woman who functions by doing and by action; not by reflection and self-awareness. In fact, Mildred is someone who has big blind spots about what motivates her. But she muscles through life by doing things and by transforming frustration into productive work of all kinds: whether she's baking a pie, or repossessing the family car. But what's interesting is that's the way that many actors, including Kate, prepare their role: the externalization of the character through physical tasks and challenges. It's often just simply practical.

For example, Kate had to train how to separate chickens and look like a master doing it. She had to have waitress skills that were convincing for when she ultimately masters that task as a character. All of the physical tasks that define Mildred as a character and chart her growth and her rise as a business woman are activities the audience had to absolutely believe. This is true as well for Evan Rachel Wood who—as the grown Veda—becomes an opera singer who had to master arias in different languages. Evan had to learn how to sing them so that she looked like she was singing them properly. Morgan Turner—who plays the younger Veda—likewise had to learn how to appear that she could play the piano. For actors, the externalization of who they are through tasks is really helpful. It's concrete and helps them find the character through the act of doing something. It's specific.

But this is also interesting because it says a lot about how Mildred the character and Kate the actress share this as people. Kate really understood that about Mildred. Kate has self-awareness and the critical faculties that Mildred doesn't because she's an actress and an incredibly brilliant woman.

Guillén: So the actors come to you with gestural suggestions that either comport to your vision or not?

Haynes: It's not even that deconstructed. It's just part of the meaning we're trying to convey in this particular scene or that particular scene. Unless it's literally her separating chickens because there are specific ways to separate chickens. Kate and I are both massive Top Chef freaks and we visited Tom Colicchio at his house and he gave her instruction on how to separate chickens. He came up to me at the party we just had a few days ago at the New York premiere and thanked me for thanking him at the end of the film. Whenever I see Tom Colicchio coming up to me, I always think that the smile's going to drop and he's going to ask me to do some really tough challenge. [Laughs.] He's actually really nice in person. He is to me. Tom was incredibly helpful and Kate was relentless about mastering it and doing it right. Kate had to feel that she was doing it right and she approached everything she had to do as the character accordingly.

Guillén: Clearly, it's a given why you cast Kate Winslet in the title role and I'm aware that she was in your mind even as you were drafting the script, but I'd like to draw some attention to the supporting actresses in the series who—in the two episodes I've seen—are already revealing remarkable work. When a frequently-heard complaint is that there are few good roles for middle aged actresses anymore, you have populated Mildred Pierce with nuanced performances by a variety of great supporting actresses, most notably Melissa Leo as Mildred's friend Lucy and Mare Winningham as Ida. Can you speak to casting?

Haynes: It's an embarrassment of riches when you're picking actresses in that age bracket of who can play these roles because we have so many fine, great serious actors who don't get offered roles all the time who are in their forties, during their fifties, whenever it is, even late thirties and into their sixties. To me, that's the walking troupe of our finest actors, because they have the life experience at this point and the professional experience to bring to roles they may not have had 20-30 years ago when we first knew their work. No, it's disproportionate, there just aren't enough great roles for that brand of actor. For several of these roles it was hard to narrow it down to make an offer to one because they were all so great. There was a long list of really solid people.

Guillén: Shifting to your working relationship with your cinematographer Ed Lachman—who's worked with you previously on Far From Heaven and I'm Not There—you mentioned earlier that your intention with Mildred Pierce was to shift away from the overblown melodrama you were quoting and subverting in Far From Heaven. Yet Richard Porton, in his recent column for CinemaScope, has observed: "Haynes' talent for balancing intimacy with a distancing mise en scène in which the actors are viewed through windows, bars, or mirrors is gloriously Fassbinderian." Which harkens, of course, to a notedly different style of melodrama.

Restrained, "relatably naturalistic" as you put it, the scene of Mildred sitting in the café realizing that she has to swallow her pride and suffer the ignobility of work that is "beneath" her was rendered so heart-wrenching, all the more for being watched from the street through a dusty window. And then Lachman's camera seems set adrift, roving around the restaurant, observing just the women in this environment, just what they're doing—listlessly counting money at the till, gossiping about Garbo, clearing off tables, picking up tips. There's a feeling of disenchantment in the camera, as if it's becoming aware of something disappointing revealing itself beneath the surface. Did you intend that? Am I reading too much into this?

Haynes: No, I
like that! That's interesting. You're right obviously about the tendency of the camera to hold back and observe. In a way I wanted to suggest that in houses—especially where there's a lot of overinvestment in members of a family—that everybody's always watching everybody else; that there's no place where you're completely alone. We hear this in the story. Veda is always snooping around Mildred's things and knows exactly when there's a uniform or a bottle of scotch stashed in a closet. She knows exactly when Bert her father leaves because his clothes are gone. So there are these third eyes that are always observing behavior and I just wanted to have enough distance to feel like you don't really know who's watching who all the time; but, there is a feeling of being watched and that adds a level of tension to the intense difficulty of a kid needing to separate from their parent and identify themselves as their own person. But there's such mutual contamination—of space, of investment, of desire, of love, of projection—onto this girl Veda and a lot returned. There are a lot of weird projections of Veda onto Mildred that the separation of mother and daughter becomes a much more fraught process. But, yeah, as you say, we play it out in scenes that go beyond the house and that happen in the world outside.

I started by watching the films of the really great revisionist films of the '70s that would take classic genres and material and be faithful to the genre and tell the stories sincerely and passionately. But there was something about how they made audiences feel that there was something modern and contemporary about the way they were doing it that made me think it was somehow about today. When you look at those movies, what you see is a restrained camera that pulls back, that lets shots play out at length, and I think what that does is it makes the audience see things for themselves. You're not always cutting to what the audience is supposed to look at. You're not scoring it to tell them what to feel. By letting the shot play out, the audience feels like their own reading is important and there's room for them to find what's important in the frame and to navigate the frame themselves. It gives them room to apply what they're seeing to other contexts. That was the spirit of it.

Cross-published on Twitch.