Friday, May 18, 2007

EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Brook Hinton

This coming Sunday, May 20, 7:30PM at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room, the San Francisco Cinematheque in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) will be presenting Excavations of the Recordable World: Brook Hinton and Katherin McInnis In Person. Brook Hinton will present Wave/Wake; an "extra-temporal" study of Union Square, Transit; Trace Garden: Markings where found home movie footage is presented as communication from beyond; and the San Franciscan premiere of a new work. Katherin McInnis will screen Landscapes in Alphabetical Order, an examination of how moving images are coded, organized and archived; Predictions, a portrait of the Musée Mechanique and more, including a selection of new work.

Several years back when Brook Hinton was the host of The WELL's Arts Conference, he and I got into a mini-thrash about experimental cinema. I ignorantly said experimental cinema was boring and Brook rightly took offense. Since then, Brook and I have frequently interacted as members of a Bay Area salon wherein art projects are shared for peer review and between his efforts and those of fellow WELLpern Eric Theise, I've come to more fully appreciate experimental cinema. Thus, it was with a certain amount of sweetness that Brook and I finally sat down to talk about his work and the role of experimental cinema among today's audiences.

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Michael Guillén: Brook, I'm delighted that I have matured enough to no longer be a slave to the narrative and able to sit down with you today to discuss experimental cinema. So right off, what is the importance of experimental cinema? Why experimental cinema?

Brook Hinton: It's an interesting question right now because there's a lot of debate about whether experimental cinema is even relevant within the world it exists in or whether it's become a genre; something that had its heyday in the 70's and is now overwith. I've always been a little uncomfortable with the term "experimental" and the work that I find inspiring—and that a lot of even old school experimental filmmakers are doing now—doesn't fit in that genre necessarily. I have taught my students that experimental isn't a form, it's an approach. It doesn't necessarily mean non-narrative; but, it doesn't require narrative. It's more a spirit of trying to push the medium and explore it and find out just what is possible within that language that isn't being explored in the more traditional and conventional forms that we see.

Guillén: "Narrative" itself is an indefinite term. I can't say there isn't a narrative in your films, though I'm not sure they contain a consensual narrative; but, that openess to variant projection is exactly what I find intriguing about them. While reviewing the pieces you've compiled for your wonderful dvd collection Glimpse, I realized that story lines or concept lines surface—I think at least some times intentionally—through the imagery and insofar as you intended specific ideas to be associated with specific images, those ideas definitely do come across.

In the popular medium, I would suggest that the most evident usage of experimental cinema that I've seen incorporated into a mainstream narrative has been the infamous video sequence from Hideo Nakata's Ringu and its American remake The Ring. Would you agree with that assessment?

Hinton: I guess uncomfortably so because it was also bordering on a parody of experimental cinema. Of course, it's kind of awful to see this idea that experimental cinema causes murder or something like that; but, what was interesting in the context of The Ring was this idea that this [video] was almost compelling; that you couldn't look at it because, if you did, you would keep looking at it and then the phone would ring a certain number of times and that was it, you were transformed in a terrible manner.

In terms of narrative, I have taught classes in narrative to experimental filmmakers where I have emphasized that there is no such thing as a lack of narrative. You can't actually get away from it. If I see a hand-painted Stan Brakhage film, where every frame is just these various blotches of color that he's meticulously arranged, I end up imposing a narrative on it as I'm watching it. It's, y'know, the roughly-textured red rough-edged areas of the screen are trying to get something from the blue parts of the screen. Then the yellow part is interfering, etc. I don't consciously in my work set out to create—in my non-narrative work because I also do narrative work—but in these films I don't consciously set out to make a narrative but I definitely am trying to present a cohesive world that the viewer can enter and then have an experience that, in the end, I have to [admit] does have the qualities of a narrative.

Guillén: Would one of the values of experimental cinema be precisely to educate a movie-going audience about standard—and perhaps even unquestioned—practices of narrative film? Most films come handed to us on a silver platter. This is one of my main complaints about most films; that an audience member isn't allowed to think for himself or herself. With experimental cinema you have to think for yourself. It's not made easy for you not to. You have to figure out who you are sitting in the audience watching a piece of cinema, the likes of which you might never have seen before, using unfamiliar narrative strategies, or non-narrative strategies. For example, your non-narrative pieces are atmospheric, almost brooding, achieved through the sound in your pieces, which is often a low-rumbling ambient noise. How do you achieve that?

Hinton: I actually have another life as a sound and music person. In fact, I started out in theater, went into sound, and then went into film. I studied music. I mostly create the sounds with synthesizers. They're usually not samples. They're old school oscillators and I use a lot of FM and additive synthesis. So they're basically scored but it's not a melodic—it's a more ambient—type of score. Some of them use existing sound effects that are reprocessed.

Guillén: Your scores remind me—and, again, I hope I'm not creating a false analogy here—but, they remind me of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's scores. He likewise uses low, rumbling noise that agitates tension and anxiety. I don't feel like your films are calming me down when I watch them. [Brook chuckles.] I feel they are provoking disturbed emotions within me. Is that intentional on your part? Or did you mean for them to be more contemplative?

Hinton: It depends on the piece. I like the idea—getting back to what you said before—that people aren't going to be led into what they should feel in the films. In fact, at a self-criticism level, the sound is too leading for my own taste in the way I'm using it now. But in Transit (2004), for instance, when I watch Transit now it's a comedy. It's this poor man who's trying to get across Union Square with his cup of coffee and he just can't quite manage this for himself. It becomes very funny if I'm in the right mood and other people have said that it's a very peaceful piece that makes them think about time, etc. Other people have reacted the way you have.

Guillén: Transit isn't one of the pieces that makes me anxious. I agree it's peaceful. I remember you actually showed that to the salon when you had just finished it and I maintain—as I did then—that Transit has a beautiful, shimmering, evanescent quality. The guy walking across Union Square is ghostly and I never thought of it as a comic effort to get across Union Square. Slow Force Glimpse (2004) is one of your pieces that makes me anxious and almost borders on horror with its stroboscopic disorienting effects. How do you do that?

Hinton: It would take a very long time to explain how it was done and, in fact, sometimes, I go so far in transforming something that I've lost track of the steps I've taken to get to a certain point. I'm just listening to the image itself. I used to do a lot of work on the optical printer when I worked with film. One of the things that I experimented with a lot was with the ability to use mathematical formulas to create relationships between different pieces of imagery. I didn't want to imitate that exactly but I wanted—when I started working in digital—to be able to explore those same areas because time is such a crucial part of my work in relationship between different moments in time. So it's really just a collection of filters, and techniques—mostly using Final Cut Pro; the blink filter (which editors will know about)—but, it ends up being a very long process because it's a lot of trial and error to get just what I'm looking for, and experimenting—that's the experimental part! Seeing if I put these two things together in relationship to each other and then try to compress them using that effect, so that they're occurring at the same time but still separate, what relationships evolve? Maybe that leads to another piece.

Guillén: How would you define your term "introjection", as in your Introjection Series of which Slow Force Glimpse is a part? What does that mean?

Hinton: My understanding of "introjection" is that in psychology it's often used to describe when something external takes a real form inside a person's psyche. In Freudian or Jungian terms—and I'm not an expert on those—it would be the Mother Figure, the Father Figure, the Anima, the Animus. But I have also seen it used to describe things that someone encounters going through their life. I've always been fascinated by the things that don't quite register in our consciousness but still have an effect on us. You can walk through a particular landscape or go into a room with a certain number of people and you walk out and you feel differently. You don't necessarily remember specifically the way that building was shaped or the look on this person's face; but, those things did become part of you if your senses actually experienced them. For me, introjection is just that: it is the way that external phenomenon becomes part of you. Even if it's something that didn't really resonate with you at the time. It's taken from carefully examining a much longer set of footage and finding these things that at the time I didn't notice but I realize as I'm looking back at the tapes that they had some resonant quality and it was related to what I was experiencing, and then trying to construct a piece out of that to get to the psychological reality of it, if that makes any sense.

Guillén: No, it makes sense to me. It likewise points to an observational responsibility people have to understand what it is you're getting out of what you're seeing. Case in point: your new work about the MUNI T-Line made me laugh out loud. You're on the T-line and you're filming these different segments, moving in an episodic progression through neighborhoods south of San Francisco, and then you come to this one sequence where the train stops and the camera's just looking out the window at a static shot. But it's not really a static shot because I saw a bird fly across the sky so I realize it was filmed in real time. Knowing that the composition was being filmed in real time made me very alert for any minor movement to understand what was going on in the sequence and how the environment was addressing my attention. So within the composition there's a guy standing there. He's just standing there and he's standing there and he's standing there and all of a sudden he swings his leg and the train starts back up and moves away from that scene. I'm sure that was sheer serendipity, but for some reason it tickled me and made me laugh because I was waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen.

Hinton: That film is all unedited. If there's any movement, it's the train. It is just taken from one journey back and forth on the train. It was a silly conceptual thing: Oh, I'm only going to do this one trip so that it will have this validity, whatever, and I was so depressed after I shot the footage for that piece. Partly because I just didn't think there was anything there. But then the more I looked at the footage carefully, I realized what was there! It was very different from what I thought I was going to get. I'm going to be very curious how people react to that film. It's loaded in some areas and I'm not sure … it's an uncomfortable piece for me.

Guillén: I appreciated it. Living in this part of the City, south of Potrero, and familiar with the City's industrial and maritime districts, I thought your film was an important historical document. It baldly captures these neighborhoods just before they're going to change, partly as a consequence of the T-line. There were two images I especially liked. You had one of a blank, grey-walled structure that I thought was quintessentially South San Francisco and then you had another of an establishment—a bar I think—called Da Corner which indicates a threatened demographic, again by the T-line that provides access. So there's really a lot in that footage that the observer can cull out.

Returning to Slow Force Glimpse, another quality that intrigued me was its counterpoised pacings. You have the frenetic stroboscoping imagery countered against slow ice flows. Currents—registered through the flow of water currents or the effect of wind currents on foliage—as either a metaphor or an indicator of the passage of time seems to be very important to you. It's strong in your visual repertoire.

Hinton: Yes. Whatever conceptual or thematic issues I'm interested in exploring, it ends up coming down to time and the experience of time and mortality and being alive. I'm fascinated with the fact that a moment in time—you always hear the phrase "to be in the moment"—can't actually be captured. It's really not possible. I suppose photography in a sense captures the moment; but, if you think about it, "All right, I'm going to really experience every moment" and you sit down and are quiet, how do you define the moment? It's continuous. It is like a flow, a current, a river. In my pieces I'm definitely trying to work with this idea of time and the awareness of time. A fundamental thing about cinema—particularly when it's in a theater, when people are sitting down and the lights go out and you're giving yourself over to this experience—is that you have the time that's in the frame in front of you occurring and you're giving yourself over to this passage of time but you are also experiencing the time of sitting there in this chair in a different reality, in a different set of time. It's like you're placing time in relief against itself, which if you think about it, is a pretty profound thing. That's why film is so good at dealing with issues of mortality, of what makes life meaningful, what makes life not worth living, that all does really come down to time.

Guillén: What you're describing is exactly what Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul said to me when I asked him what was Buddhist about his films. He responded it was the audience being aware of sitting there, watching the film, attending to their breath. That, he said, is what is Buddhist about his films. Not necessarily what's in the film alone. I love your image of placing time in relief against itself.

Turning to your film Wave/Wake (2002), which you describe as "a meditation on states before and after a catastrophic event, reflecting in this case on the 9/11 attacks in NYC." In Wave/Wake you employ an image of a confluence of waves washing up and overlapping on shore. I immediately thought about physics and the laws of action and reaction as understood through forces in motion. I watched one wave go into the other and the next thing I thought up was the hijacked airliner hitting the World Trade Center. But what really got me in Wave/Wake was the elliptical text crawl. You show news commentators who aren't commenting, who are silent, while the text crawl beneath them registers a long, continuous ellipse. That said volumes about media chatter without a single word or sound. I thought it was brilliant. Did you go into the film with that concept in mind?

Hinton: Almost everything I do starts with more of an emotional or intuitive approach. When I started working with that image, I didn't think about the specific meanings that were read into it until I had already reconfigured them, reedited those people, found those sections where they weren't speaking, and then as I continued working on the piece, the thematic and conceptual things that are coming out become more apparent to me. Then it's a balance of how explicit do I make those because—again, as you were saying—I don't want to lead the audience. I'm not really interested in saying, "Here is what this event means." The experience of seeing that in relation to the other things the film is about is what's primarily important; but, yes, after that image started to resonate with me, I tried to think about why. The why is, in fact, that we're flooded with media chatter and whenever there's an event like that, when there's something terrible happening in the world, nobody really knows what to say but they're obligated on all of these news stations and text crawls everywhere in the world to chatter about it, say the same things over and over again, stating what we know, what we don't know, and it ends up being meaningless. I thought, My God, this is such a huge thing, in the United States particularly, and there was no silence, which was what I was feeling when it happened, this kind of terrifying silence inside. So yes, the film does reflect that absolutely.

Guillén: I liked your synthesthesiatic reference earlier when you said an image "speaks" to you. The images I remember in response to 9/11 was that of people covering their mouth in disbelief.

Hinton: You're right!

Guillén: It's an automatic response humans have to a horrific event to cover their mouth and I felt Wave/Wake played with that. Also, you played with reversing the footage, pulling the explosion of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center back into the building, which implied a certain hope.

Hinton: It's partly that and then there's another side simultaneously, which is a wishing that something had not happened, wanting to turn time back. I have since learned there are other filmmakers who have done the same thing with that footage. It's, in a way, an obvious thing to do and that's probably why I used this very pixilated version of it. I didn't want it to be so explicit. I wanted it to be muted. But there's also the thing about cycles. There are waves and then there are wakes. There are events and then the receding of the events. These things just continue in a more circular pattern. Since 9/11 we've been on a subsequent wave and we don't know what it's going to crash into; it's very terrifying. The backward image in a sense is a hopeful looking forward in addition to a wishing one could turn back the clock.

Guillén: Returning to the Introjection Series, which tend to be observational from a moving vehicle, there's this dread, this sense that something's going to happen, that the vehicle is going to crash.

Hinton: I don't want to think about what that must mean about me. [Laughs.]

Guillén: It reminded me of something Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano once wrote, that—with regard to cars—the term "accident" is a misnomer; that it should actually be called "consequence." He says that the minute the car was invented, collisions were inevitable. Ever since reading that, whenever the fear or paranoia around a vehicular accident comes up, I recognize it as a meditation on consequences. And though experimental or independent filmmakers frequently use the device of filming a coursing landscape through a car window, yours has this added sense of apprehension that makes it more interesting.

Hinton: The shooting out of a window is almost cliché in experimental film, it's true. When I made Shimmer Crash (2006), in fact, I thought—and I told people—that this is the final piece I'll ever make that has anything shot out of a window. It's difficult to work with that material and transcend that kind of person who's always shooting a camera outside a window. There are things that draw a filmmaker to those shots and one of them is, again, you have time. You have the motion of the car. You're moving from point A to point B and time is passing at the same time as things are passing and they're passing in multiple directions, forward and backward on all these various planes. For me, though, I've always been very uncomfortable with vehicles and cars. In fact, I recently switched to trying to ride a bicycle in the city for most of my transportation….

Guillén: Well, now you really have to worry about cars.

Hinton: Interestingly, I feel it's a complete—knock on wood—but I don't feel that constant dread and fear when I'm on the bicycle. Not that I'm unaware that something terrible could happen as a result of a car. Maybe it's because I don't feel quite as complicit. Most people need a car. It's not realistic not to [have one]. But the car, a vehicle, is something that does have a sense of "I've now given over control to something else", even if I'm driving it because the freeway, the other cars, it only takes one person to lose attention for one small amount of time and that's it. There's also the fact of the window, the portal, the looking through something, which adds a second layer to the camera. I think that's interesting psychologically and it can maybe make the filmmaker feel more protected? Safer observing? I don't know what it is exactly; but, I do know that the window aspect of it is a big part of it for me.

Guillén: I don't know if you know this or not, but, I'm 53 and I've never had a driver's license. I don't drive. Partly, because—going back to Galeano—the presiding consequence of a car is death. Or so I fear. That's why I don't really like to be in them because I have this constant fear of death. [Laughs.] That attitude also stems from being influenced at a young age by the existential writings of Carlos Castañeda who used the image of riding at night in a car and the headlights of a car behind you reflected in the rear view mirror as a symbol of encroaching death.

Hinton: It also gets back to what you were saying about currents. The world is full of all of these natural forces. Because I know a lot of people in the animal welfare community and I'm a city person and not so much a nature person, we have a lot of discussions about nature. I'm always saying half-jokingly, "Well, nature is not your friend." There's nothing good or benevolent about nature. It's just that it's so powerful that, if you mess with it, you're going to be in even worse trouble.

Guillén: It's a predatorial universe after all.

Hinton: Yeah. But there are all these forces in nature, the currents, the water, earthquakes, these [forces] that move through us, that take our experience of time and change it, interrupt it, accelerate it. It's almost a cliché also to say that when some terrible thing happens suddenly, a person is much more aware of all the details around him. The car and the train and the airplane and all these things are man-made currents of that type. They've done wonderful things in many senses for people. They also have this great potential for destruction as 9/11 showed. It's remarkable that that had not happened before in a sense, if you think about it. These are gigantic pieces of metal loaded with gasoline and it is a terrifying thing. So, in a way, it's like the ultimate messing with nature. Another thing about my fascination with vehicles in some of my work is that it is yet another force and current moving through time; this one coming from our own creation as opposed to coming from nature.

Guillén: And not being quite as resilient as nature. You depict your two waves intersecting on a little tern and the tern just stands there and enjoys being washed by the two currents from both sides. Quite a contrast to a plane hitting a building. There's little give there. Speaking of wind and water currents, your piece Flow (2001) is Monetesque; it reminds me of Monet's water lily series.

Included among your upcoming Yerba Buena program—along with Wave/Wake and Transit—will be a newer project Trace Garden: Markings which represents something of a departure for you. Though you've begun working with found footage and photographs, thematically Trace Garden links to Transit and underscores the spectral quality of your work. What is the impetus behind Trace Garden?

Hinton: The original impetus was simply that I had this footage and had started collecting other similar types of footage as well out of a fascination with this idea that we are so mortal and we are such blips basically in the world; in terms of time, we barely register. It's interesting to me how human beings try to mark their presence in the world, ranging from taking photographs and recording what they've done. In a sense tattoos are a marking of time directly onto the skin. You're trying basically to grasp time somehow and it's impossible in the long run; but, there's something very moving to me about that process. A lot of the footage that was used in Trace Garden has a quality to it—because of the way the images had deteriorated—that it almost stopped being like film and it started to feel like, as I was going through it, communications. This is what these people left but now something's happened to it. It's not in the same form as they left it. Somehow it just naturally evolved into this conceit of a series of films that were presented as though they were communications from beyond but they were actually those people's memories that were distorted both by the distortion of memory and then in the transmission from one world to the other. It's really not that different a process from what I've used in other experimental work because I have visual material—it's just that in this case I didn't create it—but there's always an intense mining process. It's actually the most time-consuming thing that I do; taking apart all this imagery and moving it around in time and speed and juxtaposition to find what kind of hidden meanings in relationships and resonances are there. Trace Garden doesn't feel that different to me except that perhaps I'm freed of the necessity to have a more overriding conceptual framework for a piece.

Guillén: It's more figurative. It's actual people.

Hinton: Yeah, it's actual people and I think it's leading me to shooting another narrative film later in the summer. Trace Garden led me to working with people. I started in theater working with actors and it's always been a conflict with me, this obsession with more direct experience and then with the creation of something using actors. Trace Garden's leading me to a place where I can finally bring these things together. We'll see.

Guillén: I especially liked the Game In the Forest sequence, which is reminiscent of Shimmer Crash, because you have these light flares in both pieces that—since I'm reading into them—indicate some increase in consciousness. Especially with Game In the Forest, the image of the figures becoming more and more illuminated from within until they're nearly balls of light seemed very much an accurate depiction of ghosts or some consciousness from the past coming across.

One final thing I would say about the temporality of your pieces, I was trained in Central American art to appreciate that temporality registers both in sequence and aspect. Sequential time can be understood on a narrative continuum, you have then, you have now, and all the space and movement inbetween those locatives. But the aspect of time implies a constancy, which includes the then and now, but is actually always happening all at the same time because you're always looking at it and you're always thinking about the then and now but it's always happening.

Hinton: That makes me wonder if Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five with the whole concept of time on the planet Tralfamadore was directly lifted from the Mayans in that sense. All time is present all the time.

Guillén: Possibly. Whether the Mayans or any number of indigenous groups who understand intimate time, indigenous time, being "unstuck in time" as I think Vonnegut phrased it.


Brian Darr said...

What an intriguing interview. I have seen none of Hinton's films. Something I hope to remedy this Sunday if I can make the time.

I love the line "experimental isn't a form, it's an approach." The line between the avant-garde and the mainstream is fuzzier than it appears.

Michael Guillen said...

I'm glad you appreciated the interview, Brian; it was certainly fun and fascinating for me and I hope you'll have the time to catch the films at YBCA. If not, let me know, and we can arrange for you to see them on DVD.