Wednesday, April 22, 2015

MING STUDIOS: TRACESThe Evening Class Interview With Marijn van Kreij and Jason Morales

Photo: Matthew Wordell
As a younger man during the so-called "Mens Movement", I attended several seminars with poet Robert Bly who—at a seminar entitled "Leaping Between the Horns of the Bull"—likened poetry unto an act of leaping. He posed that often the best poetry is the leap made over the staged tension between one image and another, often disparate and seemingly at odds. He envisioned the horns of the bull as those two disparate images over whose tension the poet leaps.

That staged tension and its concomitant poetic impulse is evident in the work of Dutch artist Marijn van Kreij, the most recent resident at MING Studios, whose creativity similarly resides in an inbetween zone, not only between images, but between mediums, and between himself as an artist and his participatory audience. For the last couple of weeks van Kreij has been working on an installation for his solo exhibition "Traces", opening April 25, 2015 at MING. The title of the exhibition refers to the song "Traces" by the internationally acclaimed, Boise‐based band, Built to Spill. Van Kreij's intention is for the lyrics of the song to act as an intangible platform to build from.

He explains: "In a very direct way the lyrics make you think about the mind and the distinction between an inner and outside world and how this thin line is actually not so clear at all sometimes, if at all traceable. I am planning to set these lyrics against new abstract works on paper which are all based upon images from a book I brought from my Amsterdam studio, called Klee en Cobra: Het begint als kind. I am forcing myself and the viewer to relate these two disparate sources. I believe what is to be found in between might be worthwhile. I am aiming to create these gaps for thought."

As MING contextualizes: "Van Kreij's work often magnifies the subtleties of daily life caught by the artist's eye and ear. His work engages with and reflects upon 'the creative act' in the broadest sense. Repetition and the reuse of existing imagery and text play a key role within his practice. His most recent exhibitions are experiments on how music and visual elements—drawings, paintings and text pieces—may connect to each other and shape the experience of the audience."

Marijn van Kreij (1978, Middelrode, NL) has exhibited extensively throughout Europe. His work can be found in major collections including Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (NL). "Traces" at MING Studios marks the artist's first solo exhibition in the United States.

MING Director Jason Morales first introduced me to van Kreij when we were waiting in line for Geographer on the first night of Treefort Music Fest. Shortly after Treefort, I sat down with Morales and van Kreij to talk about the upcoming installation before heading out of Boise to San Francisco on festival track. Van Kreij is lanky, laconic, and observes others with earnest intelligence and a hint of bemusement. He's inquisitive and alert.

I first asked Morales to lay out MING's strategy regarding the artist residency programs and why exposing local artists to international artists could prove beneficial. Morales underscored that the specific strategy of the MING Studios artist residency program is to support the local artist community by attracting international artists. Even with the Boise Art Museum (BAM), Boise's exposure to artists working in the Netherlands, India, and all over the world is limited and indirect (BAM's charter, in fact, concedes limitations to what they can offer by way of international art). But Morales is convinced that interaction between local and international artists creates a mutually-beneficial exchange of ideas, practices and opportunities. He envisions the cross-pollination moving both ways. By example, he considers the upcoming experience of a local artist MING will be profiling later this year who will then be given the opportunity to dialogue with cultural institutions in Europe. And to be fair, it isn't just European artists who will achieve exposure at MING, as the recent (and highly popular) exhibit of Noel Weber's work revealed.

Artist: Marijn van Kreij
"We are looking to also offer opportunities to local artists but it is in the context of an international community," explained Morales.

Funding such cultural exchanges is an ongoing negotiation. The Mondriaan Fund was instrumental in arranging for van Kreij to participate in the MING residency. During Jaialdi, MING hopes to expand Basque cultural expression by exhibiting the work of a Basque artist who, in turn, will be reaching out to various organizations in his region, both cultural and commercial, including previous sponsors, to help finance his exhibition. In gist, fiduciary involvement varies from artist to artist. MING is already collaborating with institutions in Germany for artists they're considering for next May. Hopefully, they'll be able to secure grants in Idaho, as well as develop internal fundraising efforts.

Resident artists are chosen through an involved, meticulous process of selection. In the case of Marijn van Kreij, he came recommended by MING's advisor Kerstin Winking, curator for the Stedelijk Museum. Winking had worked with van Kreij previously and was instrumental in identifying him, along with several other artists. She worked in the Global Collaborations effort at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA), which Morales advises—though on a different scale—is similar in relationship as MoMA is to MoMA PS1, and MoCA in L.A. and its offshoot's raw space. Comparably, the Stedelijk Museum has its primary space and then it has SMBA, a smaller venue where they host experimental and younger artists. As project coordinator for SMBA's Global Collaborations project, Winking has been discovering and grooming artists on behalf of the Stedelijk Museum.

As required by the Mondrian Fund, van Kreij filled out an application for MING so that the studios could better understand his concept and use of space and how his exhibition would be executed, what types of materials would be needed, and the project's potential reach. Reaching Boise's community is one thing but the hope is that his installation will likewise speak to a Dutch audience, or a German audience, whichever other audience to which an artist resident may have access. Of course, as of yet, van Kreij doesn't know what Boise or Idaho audiences will contribute to the equation.

* * *

Artist: Marijn van Kreij
Michael Guillén: What was it, Marijn, that drew you to Boise and made the MING Studios residency an attractive exercise for you?

Marijn van Kreij: Definitely that I was invited by Kerstin who I'd worked with before. I trusted her that this would be an interesting place for me. I'm not sure why she thought of me to show here. I haven't done many residencies. I've just started on this one for MING, but I think I will be able to work in a relatively quiet and relaxed way here, which will also be kind of new for me. It's something I look forward to. It's always interesting to have your work shown to a different audience with a different background.

Guillén: Are you billed as an experimental artist? Is that how you think of yourself?

van Kreij: No, no. Though what I'm going to do at MING is something of an experiment for myself, I feel I'm a painter draftsman who makes installations.

Guillén: My understanding is that you're saluting Idaho by taking a Built to Spill song and creating an installation from that?

van Kreij: It's kind of tricky, but this band Built to Spill was my only reference to Boise. I had already heard them in Europe. When I was invited, I remembered they came from Boise, so I began to listen to their music again. I was thinking about what to do here and—while I was listening to their song "Traces"—it spoke to me, and it served as a trigger, a starting point. My work is ultimately about combining different sets of information—be it visual, or sound. The experiment for me is how things work together. It's not so much about one single piece.

Guillén: So it will be a true installation, then?

Artist: Marijn van Kreij
van Kreij: That's how I see it, yeah. There will be things on the walls, which is classic; but, I hope to make it all one feel, one environment, and maybe add music or text so they play equally.

Jason Morales: On that note, too, this is something that is also attractive for us here at MING from a residency standpoint: we are looking for artists who will use the space, and work within the space. Nothing is fixed. They get a blank canvas in the space itself. Some may bring some work they've done before to incorporate into the project, but, generally speaking, how they absorb their experience here and their use of this physical environment is influential on what their exhibition then becomes. That's part of what we look for. We're not fixed on anything, of course. There may be exceptions to that at some point but, as a general approach, that's a critical element to the residencies.

van Kreij: I never really considered myself a painter because I don't work on canvas, I work on paper. I love to paint on paper. I don't relate so much to the history of painting; but, recently I've started to become more and more painterly and to refer to the history of painting.

Guillén: What kind of paper do you paint on?

van Kreij: All kinds of paper. I make a lot of drawings where I incorporate text.

Guillén: Are they meant to last? Or do you think of them as ephemeral?

van Kreij: Well, I started to work with and propose the idea of an ephemeral quality, that the project was not a final thing, which is my concern with painting: that it will become this definite thing.

Guillén: You're clear on the difference, then, between art and an artifact? You prefer flux and movement?

van Kreij: Very much so. That's why I'm involved with what happens inbetween the works on the walls and the sound or text. It's not this thing. It's about what happens inbetween, in your head. Let's say you just came in off the street after seeing a car accident, you would walk into this space differently, no? I'd like to do something that feels like that.

Guillén: So your artistry is its own ongoing process?

van Kreij: And maybe involves the viewer into the process. I invite them to be a part of the work I'm making to witness the traces of what's happened.


After three weeks of anticipation, the San Francisco International Film Festival's 58th edition is set to take off tomorrow night. Thus far, The Evening Class has checked out the awards and special presentations announced before and after the opening press conference and surveyed SFIFF58's impressive line-up of new works from France and Asia. In this last pre-fest entry, I'll spotlight some U.S. films of personal interest followed by a look beyond our northern and southern borders.

My favorite documentaries usually center on politics or the arts and there's no shortage of either at SFIFF58. Topping my must-sees is Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Nelson, the consummate documentarian whose Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple won the festival's Golden Gate Award in 2006, will appear at the April 25 screening along with Black Panther Party members. From roughly the same era of American history there's also Best of Enemies, which analyzes the legacy of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.'s famously caustic 1968 TV debates. Best of Enemies is co-directed by Morgan Neville, whose Twenty Feet from Stardom enlivened the festival two years ago on its way to an Oscar® win, and Robert Gordon, who'll accompany the film's April 24 screening. A Landmark Theatres theatrical release is slated for August. For a red-hot socio-political doc with local import there's Alex Winter's Deep Web, which profiles purported Silk Road owner and founder Ross Ulbricht. Director Winter will be on hand for the film's May 4 showing, along with a panel of special guests discussing the "current states of surveillance, privacy, journalism and where they intersect on-line."

For American arts-related docs, the big event this year is the Castro Theatre showing of What Happened, Miss Simone? on the festival's second night. As an obsessed, life-long Nina fan, I've watched her perform live on several occasions and possess nearly her entire discography on vinyl. That's why I was so disheartened by the mixed reviews the film received at Sundance and Berlin. Still, I wouldn't dream of not taking a look for myself. Following the film, director Liz Garbus (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Bobby Fischer Against the World) will be interviewed on-stage by radio talk show host Tavis Smiley. Netflix, who bankrolled the film, will host its VOD premiere on June 26. For a music doc with a Bay Area angle there's Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents. Don Hardy's film will hopefully unravel some the mystery behind the Bay Area's prolific (over 60 albums!) avant-garde musicians and multimedia artists, perhaps best known for their tuxedo, top hat and eyeball helmet stage costumes. Hardy will attend all three SFIFF screenings.

Other biographical documentaries on the SFIFF58 roster include Douglas Tirola's self-explanatory Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon and Iris, a glowing portrait of fashion maven Iris Apfel. Sadly, the latter will also go down as the farewell film from revered director Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), who passed away last month. In Stevan Riley's Listen To Me Marlon we'll get to experience Brando as never before, via 300 hours of secret audio tapes the actor recorded throughout his life. The film's April 25 screening will feature a special introduction by esteemed movie writer David Thomson. If you miss them at the festival, Landmark's Opera Plaza will host the theatrical release of Iris on May 8 and Listen to Me Marlon on August 7. Finally, none other than Isabella Rossellini is expected to attend the festival's world premiere of Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live!, director Jody Shapiro's accounting of the iconic actress' eccentrically educational, how-animals-have-sex stage show.

Looking over the roster of U.S. narrative features, I've heard really terrific things about Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad's biopic about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson. Paul Dano and John Cusack play the young and older Wilson respectively, with Paul Giamatti taking on Eugene Landy, the Svengali-like therapist who nearly ruined Wilson's life. What especially excites me about this film is that it's co-written by Oren Moverman, the guy who concocted Todd Haynes' radically offbeat Dylan biopic, I'm Not There. Moverman is a director as well as a screenwriter, and his new film Time Out of Mind will play at the festival's Richard Gere tribute. Love & Mercy director Pohlad will be on hand for the film's May 1 screening.

Five additional domestic features that have my interest piqued were all Sundance breakouts. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was a late addition to the SFIFF line-up. It receives one screening on April 29 and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon will be there. Also garnering lots of Sundance raves was Sean Baker's Tangerine, the shot-on-iPhone 5S odyssey about a L.A. trans-hooker ferreting out her errant pimp / boyfriend on Xmas Day. Director Baker and screenwriter Chris Bergoch are expected to attend both SFIFF58 showings. Two years ago I slept through most of Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, but I'm still game for Results, his new Guy Pearce-starring comedy set in a Texas gym. The main attraction for me is co-star Cobie Smulders, whom I know and adore from the only network TV sit-com I've watched in 40 years (How I Met Your Mother). Results opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 5, followed by Tangerine on July 17.

From the festival's Vanguard section, I'm bracing myself for the unpleasantness of Rick Alverson's Entertainment, which Variety critic Scott Foundas describes as a "dark, weird odyssey through a soulless American nowhere, with perhaps the world's most abrasively unfunny insult comic as guide." Last but not least, everyone I know is excited about the Bay Area premiere of The Royal Road, the latest personal essay film from San Francisco filmmaker Jenni Olson. Shot on gorgeous 16mm film, Olson uses California's El Camino Real highway as a jumping off point to "burrow into the endlessly mineable terrains of history and memory."

There are two Canadian films in SFIFF58's line-up, Dark Wave entry The Editor and Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room (co-written and directed by former Maddin student Evan Johnson). I believe this will be The Forbidden Room's first screening since its Sundance and Berlin premieres and I'm beyond jazzed we get to partake in it so soon. Inspired by the co-directors' dream of recreating imaginary "lost" films, The Forbidden Room appears indescribable even to those who've seen it. My favorite attempt is from Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema, who characterizes it as "a majestic culmination of Maddin's prowess in silent cinema tropes, a delirious, maddening rabbit hole of rippling nightmares that somehow, inextricably, fashion themselves into a cohesive narrative made up of cascading tangents." There's also an eye-popping cast that includes Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin and Mathieu Amalric.

Maddin's history with the festival goes all the way back to his debut feature Tales from the Gimli Hospital in 1989. He received SFIFF's Persistence of Vision Award in 2006 and who can forget the on-stage foley effects and live Joan Chen narration that accompanied 2007's presentation of Brand Upon the Brain? It's been announced that Maddin will indeed be here to present The Forbidden Room's sole SFIFF screening on April 25. If you've seen him before, you know he's an irresistible hoot. Maddin's expected appearance resolved my second biggest scheduling conundrum of SFIFF58—whether to see The Forbidden Room or the simultaneous Guillermo del Toro tribute at the Castro. Sorry, Guillermo. (My biggest scheduling conundrum? That would be the excruciating May 5 choice between Cibo Matto performing to Yoko's Fly at the Castro and the lone screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep. The 2014 Palme d'or winner was unceremoniously slipped into SFIFF58's line-up just a few days ago and will make its Bay Area premiere the same day as the film's DVD and Blu-ray release.)

Looking southward, 2014 was somewhat of an off year for Latin American cinema. Few films from the region received much critical attention on the fest circuit and the handful of breakouts, like The Way He Looks and Futuro Beach, have already seen their Bay Area festival and theatrical releases come and go. Happily, the one Latin American film appearing on my SFIFF58 wish list did manage to make it onto the roster. With Lisandro Alonso's Jauja, South America's most noted minimalist returns with his first film in six years. Premiering in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to excellent reviews, this trippy, meta-Western is set in a Patagonian outpost with Viggo Mortensen as its unlikely star. The actor also produced and co-composed the score. A second Argentine film I'm hoping to see is Two Shots Fired, an existential comedy repping the first new feature in 10 years from New Argentine Cinema director Martín Rejtman. As he did in 1999 with Silvia Prieto and again in 2004 with Magic Gloves, Rejtman will be personally accompany his latest work to the SFIFF.

Other South American entries at SFIFF58 include new films from Chile (El Cordero), Peru (NN) and Brazil (The Second Mother). Mexico is represented solely by Arturo González Villaseñor's powerful-sounding documentary All of Me, which depicts the women who hand off food to rail-riding Central American immigrants en route to a new life in the U.S.A. From the Caribbean region SFIFF58 offers Murder in Pacot, a drama set in post-earthquake Haiti from the always interesting Raoul Peck (Lumumba). Sand Dollars arrives from Haiti's next-door neighbor and stars Geraldine Chaplin as one-half of an interracial, intergenerational lesbian couple. This work from the Dominican Republic was co-directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, a filmmaking team whose impressive previous features, Cochochi (2008) and Jean Gentil (2011) screened at previous SFIFF editions.

Cross-published at film-415.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Once upon a time, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) was the principle way Bay Area movie lovers kept up with Asia's key filmmakers. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hong Sang-soo, Brillante Mendoza to name a few, were all directors whose films screened at SFIAAFF, often with the filmmaker in person accompanying a small retrospective. Since SFIAAFF transitioned into CAAMFest, however, they've evolved away from programming the higher-profile Asian art films one might find being discussed, for example, at Fandor's Keyframe Daily or in the pages of Film Comment or Sight & Sound. Luckily for us, the San Francisco International Film Festival has stepped up big time. The festival's 58th edition includes nearly every new and noteworthy Asian-centric film my cinephilic heart could desire.

I had almost lost hope of ever seeing Black Coal, Thin Ice, the Chinese neo-noir that won Berlin's Golden Bear and Best Actor prizes well over a year ago. It's one of two Asian features I had the chance to preview on DVD screener and it was well worth the wait. Written and directed by Diao Yinan, this slow-burning, neon-hued policier follows a dejected former detective as he investigates a sad-eyed laundress who might also be a serial Black Widow. Set in the wintry northeastern province of Heilongjiang, Diao's brooding, off-kilter yarn yields a succession of swell surprises—death by ice skates, nocturnal Ferris wheel sex, and a beauty parlor shootout that could be the biggest WTF moment you'll have at the festival.

I've also had a look at J.P. Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry, the latest doc from the folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab. While less abstract than Leviathan (SFIFF 2013) and not as formally rigorous as Manakamana (SFIFF 2014), Sniadecki's film sticks to the SEL template of visually engaging, observational-yet-immersive non-fiction filmmaking. This intimate look at Chinese passenger trains begins with several minutes of black screen accompanied by grinding metal. Then the camera sets off to probe the train's physical components. When a human element is finally introduced, it's in the form of a boy's brilliantly sarcastic parody of train safety announcements. Sniadecki captures the chummy claustrophobia endured by eating and sleeping passengers and we the viewers are rarely permitted a glance at the train's passing scenery. The director records, and occasionally participates in, guarded conversations about life concerns in contemporary China. The film's bravura set piece has Sniadecki trailing a snack vendor as he wends his way through the train. The one thing everybody wants—instant noodles—is of course the only thing he doesn't have. In anticipation of SFIFF58's screening of The Iron Ministry, the Pacific Film Archive will host a two-night retrospective of Sniadecki's work, with the director in conversation with local film writer Max Goldberg.

The Chinese film I'm most anxious to see at the fest is Red Amnesia, the third entry in director Wang Xiaoshuai's (Beijing Bicycles) Cultural Revolution trilogy. Veteran stage actress Lu Zhong stars as an older widow disoriented by the massive changes in modern China. She has strained relations with her two sons—a successful businessman and a gay hairdresser—and she's being stalked by a mysterious stranger who may possess unsavory knowledge of a past transgression. I'm also curious about Peter Ho-Sun Chan's Dearest, which takes on the subject of child abduction in a nation that still enforces a "one-child" policy. In his review for Variety, critic Peter Debruge claims the film's first half "reeks of self-righteous social-issue filmmaking," but then "takes a sharp turn into far more interesting, morally complex territory," once the child in question is returned to his parents. As a possible antidote to all these serious art films, SFIFF58 will also present legendary director Tsui Hark's 3-D historical action-adventure blockbuster The Taking of Tiger Mountain, adapted from one of Madame Mao's infamous Eight Model Plays from the Cultural Revolution era.

South Korea is represented by three films in the SFIFF58 line-up, beginning with the latest joint from prolific auteur Hong Sang-soo. Hill of Freedom is the time-fractured tale of a Japanese man tenaciously determined to regain the romantic affections of a Korean colleague. This 66-minute film with mostly English dialogue received mixed reviews when it played at Venice and Toronto, but I'm delighted for the chance to see it on a big screen. At nearly three times the length, writer-director-actor Park Jung-bum's 180-minute Alive is said to be an immensely powerful and incessantly grim depiction of a rural factory worker's struggles. Park's last film, The Journals of Musan, won the festival's New Directors Prize in 2010. Finally, in Kim Seong-hun's slick police thriller-cum-social satire, A Hard Day for one cop begins with a hit-and-run accident on the way home from his mother's funeral, and then proceeds to get worse. The film's final twist reportedly "brought down the house" at its Directors' Fortnight premiere at Cannes.

Two years ago SFIFF audiences were blown away by The Act of Killing, in which shameless, 1960's Indonesian paramilitary death squad leaders reenacted their crimes in the style of various Hollywood movie genres. Joshua Oppenheimer's stunning documentary would eventually receive an Oscar® nomination. Now the filmmaker returns with The Look of Silence, an equally acclaimed follow-up that shifts focus from perpetrator to victim, following the efforts of one Indonesian family to reconcile the 1966 murder of a beloved brother and son. If you're unable to catch either of SFIFF58's two screenings (one in SF at one at the PFA), The Look of Silence will open at Landmark Theatres on both sides of the Bay come July 31.

Amongst the remaining Asian selections at SFIFF58, I'm most intrigued by Chaitanya Tamhane's Court. This Indian narrative feature depicts the trial of a 65-year-old social activist and performer, who is charged with murder after a sewage worker listens to one of his songs and then kills himself. Court distinguishes itself by delving into the personal lives of all involved—including the accused, the dead man's wife, the judge and the opposing legal teams—creating an enactment that indicts both India's class and judicial systems. The film created a lot of buzz when it screened at last month's New Directors New Films series at Lincoln Center and it's one of nine competitors for our festival's New Directors Prize. Other SFIFF58 Asian films competing for the same prize include Diep Hoang Nguyen's Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere from Viet Nam, and Afghani Oscar® submission A Few Cubic Meters of Love from director Jamshid Mahmoudi. Rounding out the festival's Asian roster is a pair of films from Japan: Daigo Matsui's Wonderful World End and Dark Wave selection The World of Kanako, a violent thriller starring immediately familiar actors like Kôji Yakusho and Joe Odagiri.

Cross-published at film-415.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Classic Hollywood’s Best-Kept Secrets

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

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

Both points are worth noting.

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

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

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

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

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

Purging the Past: Pursued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guillén: What matters is that they're ghosts.

Medina: They're ghosts, yeah.

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

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

Guillén: Where do you find all this footage?

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

Guillén: Did you use Oddball?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guillén: The nigredo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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