Monday, May 05, 2008

PFA: WE ARE CINEMAThe Evening Class Interviews With Matt Losada, Elijah Wolfson and Hector Jimenez

A little under a month ago—and largely as a gesture of support to my friend Matt Losada—I attended "We Are Cinema", a Pacific Film Archives program of student short films curated by UC Berkeley students. As Jeffrey Skoller, Associate Professor of Film Studies at UC Berkeley wrote for the PFA calendar: "Filmmaking at UC Berkeley is moving to new levels of creative expression and intellectual exploration, with production courses now being offered in the Departments of Art Practice, Anthropology, Ethnic Studies, Film Studies, Journalism, and Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. Rough-hewn and radical, this eclectic range of sophisticated and highly imaginative approaches to image-making by both undergraduate and graduate students—some of whom picked up a camera for the first time to make them—give us a glimpse of the future of filmmaking at UC Berkeley and beyond."

"We Are Cinema" was student-curated by Julien Guillemet, Elizabeth Johnson, Jungmin Lee, Alana Miller, Brittany Nickerson, Sang-hee Oh (who designed the evening's program), August O'Mahoney (who wrote the capsule for the PFA calendar), Jay Patumanoan, and Jennifer Siu, as part of an internship offered by UC Berkeley's Film Studies Department and PFA, under the guidance of Kathy Geritz, with the assistance of Jason Alley.

It was the program's multi-departmental representation that most impressed me and I found myself much more entertained than, admittedly, I was expecting. Wanting to support the Bay Area's new wave of filmmakers, The Evening Class took time to speak with three of the program's filmmakers: Matt Losada, Elijah Wolfson and Hector Jimenez.

Sin Título (2007)

As August O'Mahoney summarized for the PFA calendar, Matt Losada's Sin Título "explores the craft and art of making images amidst an askew urban setting." (Sin Título will be screened again this evening at PFA's program of selected works from the Eisner Competition.)

Michael Guillén: Matt, could you identify which department you hail from and how you were pulled into the film program? More specifically, how did you become involved in the Eisner Competition?

Matt Losada: I'm in the grad program in Romance Languages and Literatures. Specifically in the Spanish and Portuguese department, but also in French and in Italian. These are mostly text-based departments, but they have some film courses. I taught one last year on Latin American cinema, which was really enjoyable. The undergrads here are very smart, so the courses stay lively. I've always been into cinema, especially French and Spanish-language cinema, and so I took some seminars in Film Studies. One was a production course with Jeffrey Skoller, for which I made this piece, and afterward he recommended I submit it for the Eisner competition, [where it received] an honorable mention.

Guillén: Could you talk a bit about the tripartite structure of your film? What were you going for?

Losada: In part that was kind of pragmatically how it ended up because of the story told: basically a guy—who's my cousin Federico—who builds a pinhole camera, goes out into the street and takes some photos. That's it. So there was the first section where he builds the camera, then the section where he goes out of that room, out into the street and takes photos, then the last section, where you see the photos. In general it goes from really small scale, in which you see only his hands making the camera, to a sort of human scale when he goes out, to images with big scale that turn into more abstract images. The photos he takes have three sections too, because the camera you see him make has three pinholes that make the image show up three times, side by side but in slightly differing images. So there's sort of a rhyme there, and unity, of threes.

Guillén: In the Q&A after the program you spoke a bit about being fond of "boring" films; what are you referencing in particular?

Losada: I meant "boring" in quotes, of course. It's a matter of expectations, like when you tell someone they just have to see a certain film, then sometimes afterward they avoid mentioning it, and if you ask about it they say it was slow or boring. If they're used to lots of camera movement, lots of cutting, dense narration, they'll find certain films boring. I think this is what Pedro Costa meant when he said how lots of commercial films need to create "energy" where sometimes there is none. So I suppose I might have been apologizing for my piece not being like that. But I think that "boring" films are often much richer films, so I was trying for that kind of richness in the piece.

The story told provided a good opportunity to use the frame as a immobile boundary between what you see and what you don't see. At the end you see my cousin's photos, which I tried to respond to in the form of the individual shots, and that called for a fixed frame and long takes. So I started out lots of the shots as empty spaces, abstracted because there are no people for scale, and then I didn't move the camera at all. So the frame forms a strong boundary between what's on screen and what's off, and you can play with that divide, especially with the sound. When you're not following the elements of the story around with the camera, or cutting to different shots to follow what's important to advance the narration, then the off-screen space becomes pure opportunity to use sound to create a world out there. Sound takes on a completely different dimension, one that's not there if you don't establish that code, that you're not going to move the camera, or cut to tell the viewer what he should be looking at. So the minimal story allowed this, and the photos provided a reason to fix the frame and use long takes, which results in the "boring" I was referring to.

I tried to play with this boredom too. [For example,] in the endless shot of him building the camera, the phone starts to ring and he doesn't answer it, and it keeps ringing and ringing. The interval between each ring gets a tiny bit longer each time. I was trying to create that feeling of relief when you think it has stopped …but then the thing rings again … and again, until he finally gets up and leaves, [which] probably most of the audience wanted to do by that point. His photos also allow chance to come into play. Some are from the camera with the three pinholes, and they make three images of the same thing appear, but each image is different, because the pinholes aren't exactly alike, and the light kind of scrapes through on the rough edges and bounces around, creating all kinds of effects on the images. This element of chance is also present in a different way in the video shots, which show simple things like my cousin waiting to cross the street, and the city provides the rest, like people passing into the frame, smoke, dogs, sounds, all these little events. With video you can shoots lots of takes and eventually something interesting will happen.

To get back to the question, specific directors that are "boring", but in a very good way: the first [who] comes to mind is Ozu. Maybe Kiarostami. My favorite of all is Bresson. There's a great Argentine film from the '60s I showed in my course called El dependiente [1969] by Leonardo Favio. And some experimental films … Chantal Akerman is great, her Jeanne Dielman [1975] is a wonderful use of long takes and repetition with variation. Michael Snow's Wavelength [1967] is another. These films take you mental places where more narrative cinema can't go. If you describe them to someone, they sound really horrendous, but hidden in that "boredom" is a wonderfully rich perceptive experience. There are lots of newer narrative films. One that uses a fixed frame and very long takes and narrates with just sound, but in a different way, playing with different temporalities, is Hamaca paraguaya [2006] by Paz Encina. It's a film about waiting, which motivates the form. I showed it to my students, they'd never seen anything at all like it … some of them loved it, felt really strongly about it. Another good one, in a different way, is Honor de cavalleria [2006] by Albert Serra. Don Quijote and Sancho Panza's down time, when they're hanging out between adventures. It sounds kind of boring, doesn't it?

folie à deux (2006)

August O'Mahoney notes that Elijah Wolfson's folie à deux "addresses the obsession and voyeurism of both actors and audience", whereas the program notes translate that folie à deux is "a madness shared by two: a psychological phenomena wherein paranoia and delusion are transferred from one afflicted individual to another, closely associated individual. Their desire for each other generates and then reinforces a shared psychosis."

Michael Guillén: Elijah, which department do you hail from and how did you become involved in making your film and submitting it to the program?

Elijah Wolfson: The Rhetoric department at Berkeley is almost one of a kind; I believe one of only two such undergraduate programs in the United States. It's a kind of continental philosophy-based interdisciplinary program that simultaneously promotes intellectual rigor and academic creativity (which is usually an oxymoron). The department is closely associated with the Film department at Berkeley, and my focus was Narrative and Image, so I've had the chance to study a lot of film and aesthetic theory, the political and social uses of film, images, narratives, and aesthetics. The flexibility of the program also allowed me to pursue my interests in photography and filmmaking as I simultaneously deconstructed those same interests.

Guillén: What impressed me most about your film was its sense of atmosphere through sound design. Could you talk some about that?

Wolfson: A film professor I had told me that—for a narrative film—sound is two thirds of a movie. People will accept a terrible image if the sound is good, but if the sound sucks—no matter how good the image is—people will dislike the film. So I take sound very seriously. I was lucky to have my friend Chris Shurtleff, who's a sound engineer, help me with the sound design. For folie à deux, I wanted the sound to reflect the unsettling feeling of being the object of the voyeuristic surveillance system that pervades modern spaces—the sense of being watched never goes away, [which] might not be at the front of your mind but is always lurking underneath. So we had a kind of light tonal dissonance recur regularly throughout the film that gets louder and more aggressive as the film progresses. I also layered a few different recordings of the dialogues between the main character and her boyfriend, to get a kind of echoing, vacuous space, the space I imagined her to occupy mentally and emotionally. She's a narcissist, who constantly needs someone or something else, something outside herself, to fill the void.

Guillén: Clearly David Lynch has had a major influence on you. I anticipate a horror film out of you in the future. What film, in fact, lies ahead?

Wolfson: Yeah, Lynch is a huge influence, especially his sound design actually. About the future, I'm not really sure. I bought this Canon 8mm film camera a while back and a couple of summers ago in Brooklyn, a friend (Peter Kassel) and I made a silent, black and white horror film called The Meatman. It was the most fun I've had making a film. I really like the texture of film better than video—I'm a pretentious analog guy and still develop my own photos—and I have some Kodachrome 8mm film stock that I'd like to experiment with soon. I'm moving to New York after graduation and I'd like to get involved with the independent film scene out there. I'll probably have to get a real job for a while, but I'll keep writing and shooting and hopefully sometime soon I'll have the opportunity to work on a feature length film, either writing or directing, or both.

Direction (2006)

As the program notes synopsize, in Hector Jimenez's Direction, "A writer is losing his mind after witnessing the death of a director on the set of a film he wrote. His psychiatrist recommends he rewrites the death. Upon doing so, he breaks with reality and realizes his own life is scripted." Or as August O'Mahoney states it, Direction is "a rapid-fire deconstruction of directorial intention [that] ends with the undoing of it all."

Michael Guillén: Hector, which department do you hail from and how did you became involved in the student films project?

Hector Jimenez: I graduated with a BA in Film theory in the spring of 2006. I worked on a few short films while studying, both for my own practice and more "viewable" stuff.

Guillén: Direction was, by far, the most scripted of the films in the student showcase. Could you talk a bit about how you developed the script?

Jimenez: The idea for Direction itself came from an amalgamation of two or three stories I had been writing on and off for a while. The foundation however came after reading Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters In search Of An Author." I [have] always enjoyed when the fourth wall [is] broken, but I never encountered anything like [Pirandello's play]. The great thing about the play is that the fundamental drive is the narrative itself.

The script writing process was sort of ad hoc. I essentially sat down and thought about all the things I liked about film and what I would like to try and tackle. I ended up with this list of things like "animation", "screwball comedy" and "self-referentiality". Then I just tried to merge these into a cohesive story.

Guillén: I enjoyed your cartoon repartee, especially the "We're in a movie" / "No, we're not" sequence, which seemed to come straight out of Warner Brothers with Bugs and Daffy going at each other.

Jimenez: As far as the Rabbit Seasoning thing goes, I feel like it just nicely culminated the absurdist build-up of the scene. I had written myself into a corner where the psychiatrist needed to also "pop" out of the narrative. I was trying so hard to build this logical path, and then after banging my head on it for a while, realized that using cartoon logic just took it one step even further in the direction I wanted to go.

The film is now two years old and just sort of existing in YouTube limbo. I submitted it to a couple festivals, but nothing really came of it. I think I'm at a point now where I just sort of released it into the wild and let it exist.

Guillén: What's coming up?

Jimenez: I'm currently working on a screenplay for a feature length film I hope to self-produce soon. It deals with a future world where Mexico has slowly established financial stability, while the U.S. [has] slowly [fallen] into financial woes. Now Mexico is moving on its prior territories (California, Texas, etc.) in an attempt to expand. In the middle of this is the Los Angeles-raised Hispanic protagonist who needs to decide whether to flee north with the U.S. or immigrate into the new Mexican nation. I'm having a complete blast writing it and definitely coming from a far more personal and experiential perspective.