Friday, September 30, 2022

MVFF 44—REVIEW: PATH OF THE PANTHER (2022)

The role of wildlife photography and, by extension, cinematography as a conservation initiative had its meager beginnings in the early 1900s when George Shiras (nicknamed “Grandfather Flash”) published a photo in National Geographic magazine of spooked deer bounding away from the camera. Shutter speeds were slow then, and the cameras cumbersome, and it wasn’t until the technological advances of the 1970s, coupled with the burgeoning public awareness of environmental issues, that the art form of wildlife photography gained its political edge. The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 had alerted the public to the number of species being brought to the edge of extinction, largely through human influence on their dwindling habitats, and wildlife photography—advanced by cameras whose shutter speeds were well suited to snapping fast photography with limited disturbance to the subject being photographed—allowed wildlife photographers to give those endangered animals a face. The strategy had always been that—if the public could see the beauty of these animals and witness them in their habitat—then a plea for their protection could be heard and effected. But even with more capable cameras, tracking animals in the wild and catching photos of them proved arduous, time-consuming and problematic. 

In the 1990s, wildlife photographer James Balog inverted that difficult task by choosing to photograph 62 endangered animals either in captivity (such as zoos) or controlled studio settings. By doing so, he underscored how inappropriate these conditions were—past limited biological interest—in saving these animals. Included in his survey was a photograph of a descendant of the endangered Florida panther, a three-year-old mixed breed male (panther mixed with mountain lion) kept in a private Tampa wildlife sanctuary. His photograph was published in the April 1990 issue of National Geographic, and likewise served as the cover to his 1990 collection of photographs entitled Survivors. At the time biologists believed that only 30-50 pure-blooded panthers remained alive in the wild. Offering his portrait of the panther, albeit admixed, was part of a continuing effort to familiarizing this endangered feline—one of the largest cats in the Americas—to the public. Already by 1982, the panther (Felis concolor coryi)—largely because of its endangered status—had been chosen by a vote of students throughout the state to be Florida’s state animal. 

For the piece Balog wrote for National Geographic, he lamented the role humankind played in the decimation of animal species through development’s relentless destruction of their natural habitats. “Humankind does not stand removed from animals and nature,” he argued, “we are an integral part of the vast network of life forces. Because of certain aspects of our cultural heritage we have exiled ourselves mentally from that network at a terrible cost to the animals and to ourselves. Their endangerment and their alienation from their habitat mirror our own; we too are adrift in the ether of alienation. [¶] We are, after all, the descendants of animals and our identity stems not from our experience with animals, but rather from our experience as animals.” 

Balog’s negotiation of photographing animals in human-controlled environments set the precedent for similar efforts, such as Joel Sartore’s stunning Photo Ark project, which included a heartwarming “photograph of the day” for National Geographic in October 2013 of a Florida panther resident in Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. By 2013 the number of panthers in the wild had increased to 165. 

The narrative plight of Florida’s wild panther has been taken up by Erik Bendick whose Path of the Panther (2022) is having its California premiere at the 44th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival. Bendick’s documentary launches by profiling the impassioned work of National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. who we’re introduced to as he chronicles the vehicular death of a Florida panther. Being hit by cars is the number one cause of death for the endangered Florida panther and—at the time of shooting—18 deaths by vehicular collision had happened in one year alone; devastating for an animal whose numbers have reduced to little more than 100. In the spirit of James Balog’s comment quoted earlier, Ward addresses the “wild spaces that we need to help save ourselves.” 

At present the Florida Everglades are “ditched, and diked, and dammed” by roadways cutting across them. His method of placing “camera traps” whose shutters are triggered by animal footfall are producing some of the most vivid images of the Florida panther to date. It’s a way, he explains, of having an animal take its own picture. He started caring about Florida’s panthers when he began caring about wildlife corridors, which I was exposed to (and began caring about) when my friend Sharon Matola, founder and former director of The Belize Zoo, detailed for me the efforts endeavored to create a wildlife corridor for the Central American jaguar. Without such a corridor for the Florida panther, there is no hope for revival of the species. 

Betty Osceola, herself of the panther clan, voices the indigenous wisdom borne from the Miccosukee tribal lands situated in the southern everglades, which the Miccosukee Nation call “the shimmering waters.” They thought of the panther as being the nurturer and protector of all things. It takes care of the land and watches over other wildlife. With its capacity to walk on land, swim rivers, and climb trees, it mirrors the jaguar of Central American mythology as a shamanic animal governing the three levels of creation: the underworld (water), the middle world (earth) and the upper world (sky). The melding of conservation efforts with indigenous wisdom speaks to solidarity of purpose and vision. Another unlikely bedfellow to the cause are the remaining ranchers in Florida who originally killed off panthers as being a threat to their cattle, much like they are now the threat to urban development. The Florida cowboy is a dying breed, just like the panther. 

Ward’s ancestors moved to Florida in the early to mid-1800s, homesteading in Hardee County in the 1850s. Eighth generation of a family of ranchers, Ward began his wildlife photography work in Africa, where he would be on assignment for months at a time, and which afforded him the troubling perspective each time he returned home of seeing how much was changing in Florida. He now envisions the remaining ranchlands as being the possible hope of creating a wildlife corridor for the endangered panther. 

Choosing the core range of the Fakahatchee Strand as a potential for the wildest most representative panther habitat, Ward’s engagement with his panther project began. This is where he set up his camera traps. At first emotionally frustrated because—by his own admission—the chances of seeing a panther by daylight in the wild is next to nothing, Ward’s frustration is further aggravated by his cameras being disturbed by inquisitive bears or blundering cattle, reducing his chances for capturing images of the panther within his limited time frames; but, eventually, Ward’s frustration blooms into fulfillment when he captures some of his first images of a female panther (nicknamed “Babs”, since they secured footage of her on the Babcock Ranch). Babs is the first female panther in 43 years to set up new territory and seek breeding grounds north of the Caloosahatchee River, which effectively divides the southern Everglades from the northern Everglades. In pursuit is a muscular male panther of unimaginable strength, also captured by Ward’s cameras; evidence that the system is being brought back into balance. 

It's to the documentary’s credit that viewers are allowed to participate in Ward’s excitation in recognizing that the photographs he is capturing of these panthers north of the river can serve to spark public interest in preserving the wildlife corridor. But it isn’t until his flight with David Onarato of the Panther Recovery Team that Ward catches his first airborne glimpse of a panther running on a trail below him. The Panther Recovery Team originated when there were less than 20 panthers in existence as an effort to curtail their extinction. Injured panthers brought to the Zootampa facility are given a chance to survive by, first, healing their wounds, then being released back into the wild; a truly triumphant experience also captured by Ward. 

Cleverly using camera dissolves to simulate the disappearance of the panther, Path of the Panther segues to footage from Ward’s camera traps that show panthers utilizing the wildlife underpasses beneath Florida’s interstate highways, a project endeavored by Brent Setchell, an engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation. Setchell helped design and implement these underpasses, which have become a priority for new roads or roads undergoing construction. Since 1990, more than 50 wildlife underpasses have been added to the area of the panther’s current range, which has helped to reduce road mortalities and allowed passage past fenced ranch lands and the treacherous roadways into the northern territories necessary for the panther’s increased chances for survival. Without these consciously and conscientiously engineered underpasses a wildlife corridor would not even be possible. 

Lovely home movie footage of Ward as a child harvesting wild oranges with his grandfather poignantly provides a continuity of image that accentuates how Ward’s childhood belief that his family’s ranch would always be there could actually be lost should a proposed development of three new toll roads gain traction in the legislature. One of the toll roads would cut right through his family’s ranch. Elton Langford, himself a rancher, as well as a Desoto County commissioner, joins forces with Ward to protest the toll road proposal. Within eight months of the proposal going public, land goes from $2,500 an acre to $20,000 an acre as investors began speculating on real estate development. Once again echoing Balog, Langford states that “We’ve got to protect them [wild panthers] as much as we can, because if we have habitat for them, that leaves habitat for us.” 

The documentary then veers into efforts to convince the powers-that-be not to go forward with the toll road proposal. But it’s not just political forces that pose a danger, it’s also elemental ones as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida and—with Hurricane Ian wreaking havoc and destruction in just the past few days—the repeated hazard of hurricane damage threatens the habitat of the wild panther, necessitating their passage north away from southern Florida’s rising water levels. It poses the questions whether panthers can sense such meteorological disturbances and have a means of seeking shelter? The damage to conservation equipment and research is insurmountable. 


It's in the Big Cypress Basin that Ward’s lifelong dream of coming face to face with a wild panther materializes and, once again, the documentary thrillingly takes us into the heart of the moment, which he has anticipated for 20 years. His exhilaration at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity transitions into heartbreak when he realizes that the only reason that the panther is moving slow enough for Ward to photograph her is because she is waiting for her kitten to catch up. The kitten, whose painfully faltering steps Ward records, has fallen victim to feline leukomyelopathy, a mysterious neurological disease afflicting panthers and bobcats

The balance between setbacks and breakthroughs continues to define the plight and fate of the endangered Florida panther. It’s gratifying to see that the combined efforts of indigenous people, ranchers and conservationists have effectively blocked the proposal for the toll roads and strengthened political resolve to implement the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act

In summation, Ward asserts: “The panther is showing us that it’s not too late. It’s showing us that these remnants of nature can still be reconnected. And if we do that, there’s no limit to the scale of life and balance that we can bring back across this entire continent. To see the way that this story can unify and bring people together, I have tremendous hope that what wildlife corridors can do to bring people together across the entirety of this country.”

Friday, September 23, 2022

REVIEW: GRATITUDE REVEALED (2022)

Described as a “cinematic quilt”, award-winning cinematographer, director and producer Louie Schwartzberg’s Gratitude Revealed (2022) stitches together finessed medallions of color, texture and rhythm into a resounding syncretic whole redolent with inspiration and sage guidance, often from the mouths of children and the bright expressive eyes of the elderly. Gratitude Revealed solicits repeated viewings to appreciate the depth of its complexity and the value of its cohesion. 

I’ve seen Schwartzberg’s work in several films over the past few decades but it was his 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi, a Netflix darling, that won me over completely. I have recommended Fantastic Fungi to dozens of people and am grateful that I can do the same for Gratitude Revealed with equal assurance. 

For me gratitude is a spiritual discipline, much like Norman Lear’s definition of the two journeys each human being is offered: one is horizontal—what I would call the soul’s trajectory, the longbody of life from cradle to tomb—and the other is vertical, the conduit through which the soul’s trajectory is informed by spirit. The act, the grace, of inspiration. 

For over 30 years Schwartzberg has been the patient master of timelapse cinematography and, again, I am grateful for his patience and his trust in what the world will offer and reveal to him. He literally allows his viewers to comprehend the beauty of the longbody in condensed form. A flower, ensorcelled by tropism, wiggles up from the earth, sprouts two leaves, then four, then more, then buds and bursts or bolts into bloom, which seduces the courtship of pollinators. One can use the metaphor of the flower to represent the whole of a human life and when one captures that growth in timelapse photography it provides the wondrous sense of the cycle of being. It’s truly wonderful to behold. Timelapse allows you not only to witness the passing of time but to feel it, to identify with it, to recognize and align oneself with it. 

When Catholic Benedictine monk and scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast speaks to the beauty of clouds in the sky, Schwartzberg is able to ramp up the visual shapeshifting of clouds to address the power of breath, for after all isn’t that what clouds tells us? That the earth is breathing, as we are breathing upon it? When he shifts into slow motion when filming urban congestion and metropolitan patterns, it is also a way to measure breath, reminding us to slow breath down so that we can accept beauty in all its forms: both natural and urban. A scenic waterfall is, in essence, the same as the flow of people riding up and down an escalator. 

To return to the analogy of the cinematic quilt and the art of stitching medallions together to create a composite image, I’m surprised that Schwartzberg hasn’t employed timelapse photography to capture, let’s say, the variant stitchings of a crazy quilt being assembled by a quilting bee. I’ve always loved that term—“quilting bee”—as it engenders the creative activity of communal effort by honoring the industry of the insect that gives it its name. Attributed to colonial America when people were dependent on communal work to accomplish certain tasks such as barn raising, harvesting, and the finishing of quilts, the analogy is a relevant and contemporary reference to the necessity of communal work if humankind is to advance and survive. Gratitude has as much to do with recognizing the value of communal activity as it is about the joy of accomplished tasks, of building community. 

Schwartzberg achieves that communal recognition through a developed and articulate mode of interviewing technique, or rather through honest conversation and authentic communication. I have often said that my world is made up of conversations and Gratitude Revealed creates such a world cinematically. Schwartzberg has chosen his dozens of luminaries well. His approach has been much like mine in balancing the celebrity voices of the well-known with the articulations of the lesser known or fully unknown. He champions the cultural inflections of ethnicities, honors those finding their voices in recovery, and melds the wisdom of children near to source and the wisdom of elders returning to source. 

So much is said in Gratitude Revealed that so much can be said about what is said, which (again) can more aptly be described as praise, if not prayer, if not song. All I can do is pick out a few of the stitchings that caught my eye in this cinematic quilt, or a few of the phrases that I hear most clearly in this communal conversation; but, I certainly encourage each viewer to appreciate their own. This is a film that makes you grateful to have eyes to see and ears to listen and I am certain each viewer will—as the film attests—appreciate what they feel in each moment and become grateful for what they remember of what has touched their hearts. 

What touched my heart the most, I will admit, is the animated sequence wherein In-Q reads his poem “85”. As someone who has witnessed the deaths of many loved ones, who has been broken and restored by hospital bedside vigils, I am grateful that the love that conquers sorrow can be so eloquently expressed and so magnificently represented. 

Norman Lear is such a great talking head in this community of teachers because he has had such a vibrant cultural impact through the redemptive hope of humor, which he admittedly developed to honor the uncles who raised him after he lost his parents. By seeking out what he could give back to them for helping him through grief, he recognized the gift of laughter, strengthened it, and ended up giving laughter to the world, irrevocably changing perspectives and effecting socio-cultural change. I also appreciated his deep respect for everyday interaction with the people who populate one’s daily life—from the barrista who serves you coffee, the server who brings you food, workmates, the cashier at the till who checks out your groceries, to strangers on the street practicing random acts of kindness. Myself, I always stop to talk to old dogs, to scratch their battered ears and look into the eyes that understand my own frosty snout. 

 Like my motivational favorite Brené Brown, sociologist and author Christine Carter impressed me with her attention to how important it is to have distinct meanings to specific words like “happiness”—distinguishing it from the pursuit of pleasure and gratification, which only leaves us wanting more, or the fallacious pursuit of busy-ness as a mark of character—and to understand that these words we have for emotions are physiologically based, which might allow us to physically practice the skill of experiencing emotions such as happiness. 

 Jason Silva’s riprap incant on craving the connective ecstasy of intersubjectivity is a seductive spoken poem and his definition of cinema as an “engine of empathy” encapsulates Schwartzberg’s purpose in creating films like Gratitude Revealed. His praise of the digital power of the internet as a “technologically mediated Buddhism” had me squirming around in my seat with joyful agreement. 

And I must call out to the presence of Schwartzberg in his own film, recounting the tenacity of his parents to survive the holocaust, to be grateful to have children, whose resiliency inspired him to tell stories of survival, of optimism, of “participating joyfully”—as Joseph Campbell once penned—“in the sorrows of the world.” 

Gratitude Revealed’s presence in theaters has been far too brief, but like Fantastic Fungi, I anticipate it will achieve its greatest impact through the technologically mediated Buddhism of streaming platforms. Catch it now, catch it then, catch it again and again. 

Be grateful.

 

Saturday, August 06, 2022

HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG (2021)—THE EVENING CLASS INTERVIEW WITH DAYNA GOLDFINE & DAN GELLER (PART ONE)

Now I've heard there was a secret chord 

That David played, and it pleased the Lord 

But you don’t really care for music, do you? 

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth 

The minor fall, the major lift 

The baffled king composing Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Your faith was strong but you needed proof 

You saw her bathing on the roof 

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you 

She tied you to a kitchen chair 

She broke your throne, and she cut your hair 

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Well, maybe there's a God above 

As for me all I've ever learned from love 

Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you 

But it's not a crime that you're here tonight 

It's not some pilgrim who's seen the Light 

No, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Well people I've been here before 

I know this room and I've walked this floor 

You see I used to live alone before I knew you 

And I've seen your flag on the marble arch 

But listen love, love is not some kind of victory march, no 

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

There was a time you let me know 

What's really going on below 

But now you never show it to me, do you? 

I remember when I moved in you 

And the holy dove she was moving too 

And every single breath we drew was Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Now I've done my best, I know it wasn't much 

I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch 

I've told the truth, I didn’t come here just to fool you 

And even though it all went wrong 

I'll stand right here before the Lord of song 

With nothing, nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah 

Quoting the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” can arguably only be a snapshot in time. As laid out in Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (2021)Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s long-anticipated documentary (it took eight years to make)—"Hallelujah” was a song whose lyrics Cohen adjusted for years. Alan Light described it as “a little number he had been sweating over for years.”(1) Reputedly, the song had gone through anywhere from 80 to 180 draft versions.(2) Although it might seem that—since Cohen has been dead for nearly six years now—the lyrics of “Hallelujah” would be indisputably fixed, there remains a forward momentum to the song that suggests its intention to continue evolving, having already gone through so many transitions and varied performances within Cohen’s lifetime, subsequently shifting into a standard cover for multiple performers (at last count over 300), edging towards an ensouled anthem, and destined (I believe) to become a traditional a century or two down the line. “Hallelujah” is a song that has found and celebrates a life of its own.

  

As synopsized in the film’s trailer, the resurrection of “Hallelujah” from its near-death is the stuff of music legend, and as close to remedial justice as an artist could ever hope for. Five years after Recent Songs (1979), Cohen’s sixth studio album (and the third in a row that failed to do well), Cohen came down from a zen monastery on Mount Baldy, just north-east of Los Angeles, and entered into collaboration with producer John Lissauer to craft Various Positions (1984), which featured Cohen’s first recorded version of “Hallelujah.” Upon completion, Lissauer was convinced the album was going to be an important breakthrough for Cohen. Unexpectedly, Walter Yetnikoff—then president of CBS Records—hated it and refused to distribute it, even though it had been paid for. Various Positions was eventually picked up by the independent label Passport Records, and the album was finally included in the catalogue in 1990 when Columbia released the Cohen discography on compact disc. A remastered CD was issued in 1995.(3) 

  

Despite the shortsightedness of Yetnikoff, “Hallelujah” was performed by Cohen on tour (with varying lyrics). “Hallelujah” was then first covered by John Cale in 1991, which inspired Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version. Both versions, strengthened by Rufus Wainwright’s rendition on the Shrek soundtrack (2001) helped the song gain traction. The ability for a cover of a song to, in effect, rescue and resuscitate a song seemed an appropriate place to launch a conversation with Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. 

  

My thanks to Karen Larsen, Zachary Thomson and Zahra Sadrane of Larsen Associates for facilitating that conversation during the film’s mid-June San Francisco press junket at the Fairmont Hotel.

 * * *  

Michael Guillén: What is the value of a cover song? What is a cover song? Why that term “cover”? Do you have insight into what is the value of a covered song? Traditionals have always meant a lot to me. I interact with several young musicians in Boise, Idaho—there’s a strong music scene there—and I’ve argued for their learning traditionals. 

Dayna Goldfine: What would you consider a traditional?  

Guillén: “Wayfaring Stranger”, which has been around for 300 years. It’s been sung a million different ways. It could be the subject of another documentary!! 

Goldfine: There’s a documentary Bill Moyers made about Amazing Grace (1990). That’s the only other one about a single song…. 

Dan Geller: The value of a cover—it’s an interesting question—because most songs that you’re talking about that I would consider covered are songs where the major difference is in the musicality of the song. The song holds its own as its own emotional and intellectual orbit but the musicality will shift around it a bit. The emotional emphasis may shift a bit. 

“Hallelujah” is strange because the lyrics are so prismatic in a way—they’re so complex—that those covers by different artists seem like they’re entirely different songs. Just the preoccupations of the singer—whether they’re more enchanted by the Biblical references or by the sense of brokenness, or the yearning, or the celebration—they’re so different from each other that I can’t think of another song where the covers themselves almost feel like they’re new songs. 

Goldfine: Right. I probably wouldn’t be able to answer your question as a generic “what’s the value of a cover”; it’s more like “what’s the value of a cover of ‘Hallelujah’?” In an early incarnation when we were first thinking about this project, we were going to have a strand of this film where we would follow two or three artists as they decided to sing the song for the first time. We were going to watch the process that they used to make the song their own. 

Ultimately, a film tells you what it wants to be and—as we continued on the journey of making this film—that strand went by the wayside; but, I think every single cover of the song that we listened to, where people have really thought about it and made it their own, it’s a unique creation. I don’t think Brandi Carlile’s version is the same version Eric Church sang spontaneously at Red Rock because he was feeling blessed that night.

  

  

Geller: Or even how Leonard covers his own song with different lyrics along the way. The way he covered his own song—it’s certainly seen in the handful of video covers that are in the movie—they almost look like he’s singing a completely different song for a very different reason in each of those. That’s one of the reasons—as we got deeper and deeper into the movie—why we felt that the songwriter and the song, his preoccupation and the song he wrote and kept rewriting, were so twinned up together. To watch his own covering of his own song evolve in that way was startling. I hadn’t seen that footage before. We knew him from either hearing the original recording or seeing the concerts at the Paramount late in his life. When these other versions kept popping up while we were doing the research, it was startling to me; I had no idea.  

Guillén: It was a startling pronouncement in the documentary when Cohen admitted he wanted the song to become secular. That was a nice moment in the film because it made me think, “Oh! He chose to take it out of that holy realm.” 

Goldfine: Isn’t that cool? At a certain point he wanted to bring the song back down to Earth.  

Guillén: I understand that the structural traction of the documentary was based upon Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" (2012)? 

Goldfine: Not so much the structure because in a lot of ways the film just jumps off from the book. But Alan’s book was inspiring, because—basically, knowing that someone could get 250+ pages out of this song—gave us heart that we could probably do a film. But his book really does intertwine the Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen trajectories with the song and our film has a section of Jeff, but that’s it. 

Geller: But it was the inspiration, certainly. And Alan became a consulting producer and advisor, and also introduced us to all sorts of people. In many ways it was the depth of Alan’s book that was inspiring. It wasn’t just a simple sketching of “Gee, interesting that this song was rejected and then went on to heights.” It was the depth with which he approached the book that informed us that our film was going to be possible.  

Guillén: Language is a funny thing, y’know, particularly in its false dichotomies—the holy "and / or" the broken—whereas my appreciation for Cohen over the years since I was a teenager has always been that it’s not an either / or proposition we’re talking about when accessing the poetry of Leonard Cohen, which is holy and profane at the same time. That’s what I love about his work. There’s no “or” to fiddle over. Any comprehension of his work must embrace and encompass both. 

I could say the same thing about “Hallelujah.” People want to say, “I’m singing it in a sexual way” or “I’m singing it in a religious way”; but, neither approach really matters because the listener, the wild card, is going to take the song as they understand it anyways. For someone who’s being chaste, “Hallelujah” might be sexy beyond belief in its lyrics alone, no matter how its sung or how—as you said, Dan—its musicality is interpreted. 

Did the two of you ever get to talk to Leonard Cohen in person? 

Geller: We did not. And Alan’s advice was, “Don’t ask for an interview because you’ll never get it. Then they won’t even consider letting you do the movie.” The point of Leonard’s life was, “Leave me alone. I need to concentrate on writing what I can.”  

Guillén: Your film had a wonderful metaphor. I don’t know if he said it or you two said it about reaching an older age. 

Goldfine: Leonard said, “I’m not saying that 70 is old age, but it’s definitely the foothills.” 

Geller: The other thing he said is that it’s indisputably not youth. 

Goldfine: But he said there’s a pressing sense—I mean, these aren’t his exact words—but, there’s the pressing sense that one needs to complete one’s work. I thought that was so beautiful.  

Guillén: That’s where I am!! On the edge of 70, I identify with that so much. I live in a valley surrounded by foothills that every winter—when they’re covered with snow—I’m feeling. I find myself hiking in these foothills. It’s a liminal space conducive to subjectivity. I’m not quite old, and I happen to think I’m still good-looking…. [Laughter.] 

Goldfine: [Laughter]. You arrrreeeeee…!!  

Guillén: Oh, thank you!! 

Geller: And you dress well!! [Laughter.] 

But getting back to what you were asking about lyrics being “ands” and not “ors”, and how you interpret it, there’s a moment with Rabbi Mordecai Finley that’s not in the movie but was in the interview we did with him. We were going through the verses of “Hallelujah” together, just so I could understand his take on some of it, and we came to that verse:  

Remember when I came in you 

And the Holy Dove was moving too 

He went on about how that was right out of Medieval Jewish literature, but I said, “Rabbi, that couplet is about sex.” “No it’s not,” he said. I recited, “Remember when I moved in you and the Holy Dove was moving too? That’s about having sex.” You could see his eyes pop. “Oh my God, I never even thought about it that way,” he admitted. 

That’s to your point that one reason “Hallelujah” can be sung at weddings, or funerals, at all sorts of different events, is because you can approach the song on your own terms and get from it what you want; but—if you really look at the song—you can approach that same lyric and say, “Well, what else is it trying to say?” And it will be saying a lot of things. Every single line will be saying a lot of things, inviting you in to multiple interpretations.  

Guillén: As a teenager discovering Cohen (largely through Judy Collins singing “Suzanne” and then getting caught up in his published poetry), I steered through puberty reading sensuality—if not sexuality—into all of his spiritual phrasings. The importance of that fusion became seared into my sensibility. 

Goldfine: Maybe halfway through the film, Sharon Robinson says that Leonard conflated the feminine with spirituality. Leonard does this riff on how, y’know, this is something we drive towards, the sexual impulse, but it’s the other side of the spiritual impulse and this sense of wanting to get at the bottom of the meaning of life. He constantly twinned those two forces.  

Guillén: Which brings us to his understanding that his poetry was responsive to or informed by the bat kohl. 

Goldfyne: Which Rabbi Finley articulates as the “feminine voice of God.”  

Guillén: That quality of the bat kohl in Cohen’s poetry was influential upon me as a young person and, admittedly, a presiding guide to my own writing. Authors that I sought out after Cohen, such as William Goyen, also wrote with a fusion of the sensual and the spiritual. 

A song is like a room that you walk into that you’re thinking of renting for a while. What are you going to put up on the walls? What color are you going to paint the walls? What will you do to make this room yours? It’s the same with a song—and is part of my interest in covers—is how do you make a song yours? What is necessary creatively to make a song yours? How will it be different than how others sing it? 

The variance of how one can interpret a song has preoccupied my consciousness since I was a child. We were migrant laborers and I grew up singing in the fields, or listening to friends and family singing in the fields. My mother had a beautiful singing voice and she would sing while we were working and—inspired by her—sometimes I would sing. I remember one time this guy we were working with commented, “You sing too slow.” 

Goldfine: Interesting. What does that even mean?  

Guillén: Exactly! But it hurt my feelings at the time and I protested, “No I don’t. It’s just the way I sing.” Then someone else actually supported me and said, “He’s singing that song absolutely okay. Leave him alone.” But then that made me wonder: was I singing slow? And, if so, why? 

 Goldfine: I don’t think there’s a rule. There have been two cases where this film has shown at festivals. The first was in Denmark, in Copenhagen, and one of the programmers found three Danish musicians to perform after the screening and sing various versions of Leonard Cohen songs. This one young woman sang, “That’s No Way to Say Good-bye” and it was a very different “That’s No Way to Say Good-bye” than Leonard would have done, but it was a poignant version. And then this last Sunday at the Beacon Theater in New York Amanda Shires [website]—who’s a country crossover who idolizes Leonard—she sang “I’m Your Man” and played it on her ukulele. It was unbelievable. I loved hearing a woman sing, “I’m Your Man.” It was completely distinct from how Leonard would have sung it.

  

Geller: There are some artists where the original recording of what they did was so specific to the entity of the song that it’s almost impossible to think that anyone can do a version that would match up. With the exception of Cocker doing “With A Little Help From My Friends”, pretty much everything in The Beatles catalog you cannot find any cover that equals that original. It’s the sonic environment that they created, the way they sang it, everything, it just can’t be topped. Cohen’s different because the words are so deep and so important and offer so much possibility for interpretation. I think there are plenty of covers of his songs that are every bit as good as the original versions. 

Goldfine: Why would we even need to go, “This one’s good. This one’s not good. This one’s better. This one’s not.” They’re all valid.  

Guillén: Because they’re doorways. Each song is a way to enter the body of Cohen’s work. 

Goldfine: But what I was going to say is that for me the word would be that they’re every bit as valid, as opposed to good.  

Guillén: Yes. Again, emotional truth. 

Goldfine: Exactly. 

Guillén: The documentary has such a wonderful cast of talking heads, some who I knew, some who I didn’t know. I was delighted to see Rufus Wainwright—because I adore Rufus—and I had totally forgotten that his version of “Hallelujah” was on the Shrek soundtrack. But I was also noticing significant absences that I would have included if I were a filmmaker and only because I am caught up in my own mythos of Leonard Cohen. He’s not only a direct influence on my life as a writer but that influence has been continual. I’ve read everything he’s written. Read everything I could get my hands on that was written about him. Listened to every song he’s sung and any covers I’ve known about. Jennifer Warnes

Goldfine / Geller: [In unison] She’s the one! 

Geller: We couldn’t get her. 

Goldfine: We tried to get her.  

Guillén: “Famous Blue Raincoat” was the album of Cohen covers that brought him back to me. I had set him aside as the poet of my youth, feeling I had to move on, but then Jennifer brought out her album “Famous Blue Raincoat” and I felt, “Oh my God!!” 

 Goldfine: Believe me, we tried.  

Guillén: I had no idea that she had been a back-up singer for him until your documentary. I knew she had backed up Roy Orbison, but I didn’t know about Cohen.

   

Geller: Our inability to get her to talk on the documentary was a combination of things. First, it was too close after Leonard’s death when we approached her; she, among others, really needed to hibernate a bit with their feeling about what that had been like. And she’s very shy as well. As far as people we went after, she was the only one who declined. 

Goldfine: Obviously, she was front and center when we first started thinking about who to approach. Though I have to say that Sharon Robinson is also a great back-up singer and then a collaborator with Cohen on many albums. 

Guillén: I was so glad to be introduced to Sharon through your documentary. 

Goldfine: She’s amazing. John Lissauer was a very early interview as well, back in 2016, and we knew he was friends with Jennifer and I remember saying, “We would like to interview her” and he said, “I’ll be surprised if she does it. She’s very shy.” At that point Leonard was still alive so we put it on a back burner and started asking other people. Then Leonard passed. I had reached out to Roscoe Beck, who was Jennifer’s ex-husband, and who was in the process of producing her last album, which came out a couple of years ago. I asked if he would sit for an interview and he said, “You don’t want me. You want Jennifer.” At that point I wrote back and said, “Indeed. But everyone tells us she’s too shy.” He said, “Write me a letter and I’ll forward it to her.” He was generous enough to do that. She still said, “I just don’t want to. My memories of Leonard are here and I’m not really ready to articulate them.” As a filmmaker, I think it’s very important to respect that. When a potential subject of an interview tells you clearly and articulately, “I don’t want to do it”, I think it’s only fair as a filmmaker to go, “I respect that.”  

Guillén: What about Cohen saying that people should stop singing “Hallelujah”? 

Goldfine: I agree with “Ratso” that he was kidding.  

Guillén: Kidding, perhaps, but also not kidding? I don’t believe in either / or positions. I think multiple feelings are going on at the same time. 

Geller: I think so too.  

Guillén: The other person whose absence I noted—though you did have one image of her—was Joni Mitchell. 

Goldfine: Because we were looking at it through the prism of “Hallelujah”, it narrowed our choices. But it was a gift to us as well because it meant we didn’t need to be trying to make the definitive Leonard Cohen bio pic. Every time we thought about who we were going to interview and what kind of things we were going to include, it was always, “How does this fit into the prism of ‘Hallelujah’ ”? And, of course, his relationship with Joni was in the ‘60s and it wasn’t that long-lived, so it didn’t make sense to include her.  

Guillén: Which I accept and understand, but more I was thinking about “Rainy Night House”, the song she wrote about him.

   

Goldfyne: And “Case Of You”.

  

Geller: If you can get us the interview, I’ll be down in a second.  

Guillén: I’ll see what I can do. [Laughter.] 

Goldfine: But then again, it didn’t make much sense. Jennifer was for sure.  

Guillén: Well, all the more reason to congratulate you on the strenuous work you did obtaining the archival footage. I’ll give you a classic reaction, because I can only have a personal reaction to this film. Your press notes have excellently laid out the process of making this film and I will borrow from that for review, but for me your film was just all so personal. I had always heard that Leonard was a ladies man, a serial amoreaux. I monitored these different affairs he had and the songs that came out of them. The archival footage you presented that I loved was when he was talking about how when you get older as a Jewish man, you change your name. He was talking to this woman about how he would change his name to September. He is so beautiful and so sensual in that sequence and the smile on his face is so seductive. You could see how he was seducing this woman and how irresistible he was. I could see how women would fall in love with him. 

Geller: He’s like a cat toying with a mouse.  

Guillén: Exactly. And he does that a lot actually. 

Goldfine: I love that footage.  

Guillén: Can you talk about where you got that footage. It enfleshed him. 

Goldfine: We had seen that footage early and catalogued it in our minds and also in our notes on archival footage. 

Geller: That’s CBC footage. 

Goldfine: But it wasn’t until we were fortunate enough to sit down with Leonard’s rabbi, Rabbi Finley, in L.A. over coffee that he reminded us of that footage and unpacked it for us in a Jewish way. It was like, “Oh my God. This gives us a whole other layer.” Then when we got back home after that interview with Rabbi Finley and revisited that footage, it was unbelievably rich footage in terms of the way Leonard was flirting mercilessly with this woman. She was in his palm.  

Guillén: As was I!! That’s what I’m saying. I’m so grateful that you found and incorporated this CBC footage because I felt that I was being seduced by Leonard Cohen. 

Geller: And also being toyed with, because when he says September—and he’s not fessing up that it’s a Jewish rite of passage—when he says, “I’m also thinking of getting a tattoo” and that has a double meaning. First, we’re talking about (at that point) less than two decades away from Auschwitz, right? A tattoo on a Jew means something very different. The other is in the orthodox Jewish tradition, or in the priestly Cohenim tradition—because the Cohens are the priestly tribe—tattoos are forbidden. If you have a tattoo, you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, right? So, whoa, he’s just throwing these little bombs at her, figuring she has no idea. Most people don’t have an idea what he’s saying in such a simple line. And then, of course, she says, “Where are you going to get the tattoo?” and he says, “Over on York Street.” [Laughter.] 

Goldfine: Because he’s always one step ahead of her. But, again, I thank Rabbi Finley so much for unpacking that scene for us because it might have made it into the film without that, but—having Rabbi Finley explain in this very beautiful, graceful way about what it really meant to Leonard to say he wanted to change his name to September—it allowed us to use that scene in all its comic but rich context. 

 Guillén: You had to negotiate a difficult transition when you began to talk about Jeff Buckley reintroducing “Hallelujah”. As I was watching the film and the focus shifted to Buckley, I winced because—I have to be very honest—I never cared for Jeff Buckley or his cover of “Hallelujah”. It never did anything for me. I never liked his version of the song.

   

Goldfine: So did you agree with him when he said he hoped Leonard would never hear it?  

Guillén: Well, I thought he was being a bit precious. 

Goldfine: No, I think he was right. He was actually quite humble.  

Guillén: But, truthfully, how could Leonard not hear it? 

Geller: Right. I think he was just saying he hoped Leonard would never hear it. When he finally fessed up and said, “It sounds like a boy singing it”, there’s truth. I think he knows vis a vis Leonard at that stage in the early 1990s that it would be hard to measure up. Musically, it’s gorgeous.  

Guillén: As your documentary points out, and as is well known, Buckley’s version is how most people know this song; but, when the documentary started going off on this, I thought, “Oh-oh. Is that all for Leonard? Because I’m not done with Leonard! I want Leonard.” I thought the way you paced and abbreviated the focus on Buckley was masterfully edited. You offered just enough Buckley that I actually felt for him this time around and actually appreciated what he had done with the song. 

Geller: Good.  

Guillén: The headline of his drowning in the river was tragic, and it made me wonder if this song would have become what it became had that not happened? There’s a mystery touched upon in your documentary about that song. “Hallelujah” is going to become a traditional, as I mentioned before when talking about “Wayfaring Stranger”, which is already 300 years old. “Hallelujah” is going to become a traditional sung 300 years down the line, 400 years down the line, people are still going to be singing this song. 

Goldfine: Both Clive Davis and Rufus—actually, almost every single artist that we interviewed—said that if it’s not part of the Great American Songbook, it will be. 

But the one thing I wanted to say about Jeff was that was the hardest section—not so much to edit as a sequence—but to figure out how much to go there and when to cut back. The very first version of the Jeff Buckley “chapter” of the film (if you will), was twice as long. We had to find a way to pare it back. 

Geller: Bit by bit by bit. 

 Goldfine: It took a long time to get it to be the right balance.  

Guillén: I often feel that editing is not given the due it deserves. It is the hard part of making a film, especially when you’ve gained access to so much information. After the Buckley chapter, as you phrased it, the documentary then explores the popularization of the song via “American Idol” and Shrek, which admittedly began to make me feel a little bit uncomfortable because of the dangers associated with the commodification of a song. It’s like all the conflicted feelings I have about the commodification of Frida Kahlo. 

Geller: Commemorative mugs!  

Guillén: Refrigerator magnets! But then—again, quite skillfully—you brought it back to Leonard and how he did the song, showing what the song really was. 

Goldfine: Thank you. 

Geller: We had the let the air out of the balloon a bit because—after blowing it up like that with the “American Idol” sequence—we had to let the air out carefully so that you don’t feel a sudden disjuncture and could be let down from that manic crazy moment when the song is at number 1, 2 and 36 on the U.K. charts. There were some corners to turn that we weren’t immediately successful at first, but we kept at it. 

Goldfine: Thank God somebody interviewed Leonard right at that moment in 2007 or so when the song was in three places on the charts. I love that he says, “Maybe people should stop singing it for a while” and he has this little smile on his face. Ratso says he was kidding. Who knows? Other critics have said he told people not to sing it anymore. 

Geller: You’ve brought up something, Michael. When we make our films, we hope that they last for a while and some of them have lasted for decades now, which is great, but I hadn’t thought until you just mentioned it that the song is likely to become a standard and that might give a chance to this movie to be a resource for people for however many years down the line if they’re curious about this song that is a standard, a portrait of how it came to be, and the man who made it. That just made my day thinking, “Maybe this film might last for a good long while.”  

Guillén: And there’s value to that. I’m just about to hit 70 and I think, this guy, this song, has been in my life since I was a teenager. His poetry helped me through my early love affairs. His poetry told me what a love affair was supposed to be, or what a poetic life was supposed to be, so that when I first visited Manhattan, I had to stay in the Chelsea Hotel, and when I had the chance to meet Joni Mitchell after a concert in Memphis, I lingered at the stage door to meet her. In other words, his has been a longbody influence. What is speaking to me now—that you have so elegantly portrayed in your documentary—is that Leonard Cohen, ever since he was a young man, wanted to be an elder. 

Goldfine: Isn’t that unbelievable?  

Guillén: And approaching 70, I too long to be an elder in the full and resonant meaning of the word. 

Goldfine: I don’t know if it’s ever chic to say that you want to be an elder, but for him to say it in 1974, at the age of 40, in a conversation with Ratso Sloman….  

Guillén: And perhaps he shouldn’t have said it at 40? 

 Goldfine: Why not?!  

Guillén: Because he wasn’t an elder. 

Goldfine: No, he wasn’t saying he was an elder. He said, “I would love to become an elder. I hope I have the good fortune to be able to become an elder.”  

Guillén: Okay, that I accept. And it tracks with what I’m currently feeling. I tell myself, “You made it through AIDS. You made it through Trump….” 

Geller: [Laughter.] You’re still making it through Trump!!  

Guillén: Right. We just had that horrible incident of the men arrested in northern Idaho who were on their way to a gay rally to cause horrible damage and I think, “Another near miss.” But what Cohen keeps giving me and making me think—specifically through what your documentary presents to your audience—is, “Look how elegant he is. Look how humble he is. Look how loving he is. Everyone who collaborates with him, who works with him, loves him.” 

So, first, as a young man he taught how to have a love affair and now he’s teaching me how to be an elder, how to be gracious to the young. What’s holy about his graciousness is what the Native Americans would call the longbody. When he was young, it was as if he was already old. And when he was old, he related to the young. That holiness is what I believe people respond to in Leonard Cohen. It’s a palpable, physical, visceral response to his writing and his music and the experiential arc of his life, which served to create “Hallelujah”. I can’t get that song out of my mind since watching your film. I’ve been singing it under my breath for about 69 hours now. [Laughter.] And I don’t even know all the lyrics so I keep singing the same incomplete phrases over and over! 

Goldfine: When the film played at the Beacon on Sunday night, there was a mini-concert afterwards and the concert promoter set up who was going to be in it. There was Judy Collins—that was an obvious choice—so that when the curtain came up after the film she sang “Suzanne” and then it was Sharon Robinson, Amanda Shires, and then this promoter goes, “Trust me, be open-hearted about this, I think this guy named Daniel Seavey who’s in a boy band and who came to fame singing ‘Hallelujah’ on ‘American Idol’ should sing ‘Hallelujah’ at the end of this show.” I can’t speak for Dan but I was like, “You’re going to have someone come out and actually sing ‘Hallelujah’ after this film’s over?!” Daniel came out—he’s like 22, 24 years old—and he hit it out of the park. He brought the house down. He made that song his own.

   

Guillén: That’s it! That’s what I’m approaching when I talk about the cover, or when I talk about traditionals, what I’m trying to say to my young musician friends in Boise, “It’s not really about you. It’s not about how you’re going to interpret the song. It’s not about how you’re going to phrase it, or pace it. That’s not what the true value of a cover is. It’s that the song is holy. It covers time. It’s about time. You’re the steward. You’re a speck of time in the life of the song. And don’t you want to be a part of it? That’s where ‘you’ come in. That’s where—when you match the holiness of the song—you own it and it becomes yours as it becomes anyone’s who willingly serves as the steward to the holiness of the song.” 

I’m so grateful that you chose with this film to focus on such a powerful song. But I was surprised when I reviewed your press notes that you claimed to have never done any film about music. What about Ballets Russe (2005)? 

Geller: Well, there was music in that but I wouldn’t say it was a movie that was examining music in and of itself. 

Goldfine: Early on, when we were just starting to toy with this idea, we were fortunate enough to be on a festival jury with Morgan Neville who’s made a lot of music docs….  

Guillén: Good ones! 

Goldfine: Really good ones. He’s a great filmmaker. We pitched this idea and he offered to come on as a DP and that gave us some street cred because—even though we thought we could make a music doc based on our past work—the world didn’t necessarily agree that we could. 

Geller: It just opened more doors. His participation was a validation. By Morgan Neville saying that these filmmakers have the chops to do something like this, for people in the music world who might not have been familiar with us, it helped. People in the dance world know who we are. People in the art world know who we are. But we were entering a new terrain.  

Guillén: And I believe it’s becoming an increasingly popular genre, largely because of my generation, our generations, people are more interested in what influenced us in our youth? Here I am now, pushing 70, what made me who I am now that I can look at these foothills dusted with snow and have a poetic, aesthetic arrest? It was music. Music helped me become myself and continues to do so through every year I’m alive. What songs mattered to me? What songs matter to me now? 

I’ve been saying for years that as I grow older my films of choice are documentaries. They’re the most interesting stories because they’re real stories. 

Goldfine: You can’t make up anything better.  

Guillén: Right. 

And I think people are more interested now in the musicians, the artists, the art of crafting songs, and your documentary is attractive for providing the fulcrum of one song to shed light on the man who wrote the song and on the art of songwriting itself. 

Goldfine: It definitely allowed us to narrow and hone in on one aspect of Cohen’s artistry. In some ways it’s a revisionist history because so many people have idolized the Marianne-Leonard relationship but I feel our film is saying, “That was one thing, but, you know, there was Dominique.”  

Guillén: And though you use “Hallelujah” as a fulcrum to leverage insight, your film is not just about “Hallelujah”. You sample many of Cohen’s songs. 

Geller: There are 22 of his songs in the film.  

Guillén: Which was a great relief because I was concerned that you were just going to keep playing “Hallelujah” over and over again until I would go crazy and have to rush out into the lobby to stuff popcorn into my ears. 

Goldfine: We didn’t know we were going to do 22 other songs, but we also weren’t completely upfront with Robert Corey, the head of the Cohen estate, who said, “If I would have known eight years ago that you were going to talk about 22 other songs, I don’t know if Leonard or I would have allowed you to do this project.” 

Geller: But we didn’t know when we approached it! But as we started playing with it, to understand “Hallelujah”, you need to know “Who By Fire”. To know “Who By Fire”, it would help to know a little bit on the other side, like “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”, just to see the different elements of Leonard. Then, because the film does extend to late in his life, “Tower of Song” becomes important. It’s all about mortality, and aging, and where you are in that tower. Bit by bit we began to get further into debt. [Laughter.] 

ENDNOTES 

(1) Alan Light, “Broken Tablets”, MOJO (January 2020, pp. 70-71). 

(2) Wikipedia entry on “Hallelujah”, accessed August 5, 2022: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallelujah_(Leonard_Cohen_song) 

(3) Wikipedia entry on Various Positions, accessed August 5, 2022: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallelujah_(Leonard_Cohen_song)

Monday, July 18, 2022

OUTFEST 40 / FRAMELINE 46: UNIDENTIFIED OBJECTS (2022)—THE EVENING CLASS INTERVIEW WITH JUAN-FELIPE ZULETA

Photo: © 2022 Corey Nickols, courtesy gettyimages.com

Whereas one is an acknowledged auteur’s megaplex arthouse horror confidently boasting a first-tier cast, and the other a modestly-produced independent first feature with relatively unknown actors gamely trafficking niche festivals, there are thematic resemblances and effective similarities between David Cronenberg’s 45th film Crimes of the Future (2022) and Juan-Felipe Zuleta’s first feature film Unidentified Objects (2022). That says and promises a lot for Zuleta’s next forty-four. 

Both films address near-future demographic ruptures that target maligned minorities disfavored by a majority populace; a social stratification that is near de rigueur for dystopian sci-fi narratives, where the power struggles between hierarchies determine access to an increasingly limited trough. Cronenberg’s social outcasts are “plastic eaters”—individuals able to survive on the refuse of a polluted and compromised world—and Zuleta’s are small gay people, namely one small gay person, Peter (bitterly portrayed by Matthew August Jeffers), who is able to survive the state-sponsored indignities of physical non-conformity. Embodying what “normal” people fear as unknown, the subjects of both narratives seek to redress and subvert the ways in which ruling political forces alienate and marginalize and frequently eliminate physical “types” who do not support their governing hegemony. It’s suggested in both films that self-acceptance is requisite for social acceptance. Self-acceptance is the cornerstone to resistance. 

Unidentified Objects recently had a one-off U.S. premiere screening at the 46th edition of San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, where it won an Honorable Mention for Outstanding First Feature. Unidentified Objects is currently situated as the Platinum U.S. Centerpiece for the 40th edition of Outfest, venued in Los Angeles. That centerpiece screening is on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, and Unidentified Objects continues on to contribute to Outfest’s structured hybridity by being available for remote streaming from Thursday, July 21, 2022 through Saturday, July 23, 2022. 

As synopized at Outfest: “Peter, a self-described ‘college-educated, homosexual dwarf,’ keeps to himself in his apartment as he reels from the recent loss of his closest friend. His solitary existence is up-ended when his quirky neighbor Winona shows up at his door with a favor to ask: she’d like to borrow his car so she can drive to the remote Canadian field where aliens are due to beam her aboard their spaceship. 

“Led by a sensational pair of performances from Matthew Jeffers (TV’s New Amsterdam) and Sarah Hay, this disarming and wholly original take on the roadtrip comedy finds its charm and its power in spotlighting characters who rarely get the lead roles. Directed with a fabulous visual flair by first-time feature helmer Juan-Felipe Zuleta, this film demonstrates the thrilling rewards of watching previously sidelined characters take center stage.” 

My thanks to publicist Matthew Johnstone who provided access to Unidentified Objects during its Frameline premiere and then facilitated a Zoom conversation with its director Juan-Felipe Zuleta. Long an avid fan of Latin American cinema, I’ve had welcome opportunity to interview Colombian filmmakers over the years, including (most recently) Ciro Guerra and Luis Ospina. Thus, it was with sincere pleasure that I was fortunate enough to speak with one of Colombia’s youngest up-and-coming filmmakers, Juan-Felipe Zuleta (now, officially, Colombian American). 

* * *  

Michael Guillén: Have you been able to take advantage of the film incentives provided by Colombia’s recent movies law, passed (I believe) in 2003, 2004? 

Juan-Felipe Zuleta: I apply every year. I haven’t won it yet so it hasn’t helped me; but, it has helped a lot of filmmakers in Colombia. It is competitive. Some people get really lucky. Some movies—like Ciro Guerra’s—are not seen anywhere; but, I think it’s the best thing that has happened for film culture in Colombia. Like I said, I apply every year with a project. I think the project that I have submitted for the last couple of years—one that Lee [Frankel] and I wrote—it might be a little too commercial? I don’t know. You never know because they change judges every year. It’s not like in Canada or some European countries where everybody gets it. In Colombia, especially for first-time filmmakers, they give one prize for $150,000.  

Guillén: Well, you’ll probably win it when you least expect it. 

Zuleta: Yes!! And, listen, I’m very persistent. I never stop applying.  

Guillén: Good, good. 

Zuleta: I have another movie that I want to make, in Spanish, called We Were Born Dead (in English) or Nacimos Muertos (in Spanish). Hopefully, we can use some of the funds from that law for that, or some of the other laws that Colombia has like the 1556 law that’s for foreign investors. There’s one where the government just gives you money to make a movie and part of the extension of that law is—if you bring in foreign investors—there are tax breaks, something like 40% tax breaks for foreign investment.  

Guillén: That’s a particularly interesting development for Colombia’s film industry. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul recently made a film in Colombia, Memoria (2021), starring Tilda Swinton, which I considered a fascinating development. 

But let’s focus on your movie, your first feature, Unidentified Objects (2022), which is having its U.S. premiere at the 46th edition of the Frameline Film Festival. Let’s hit the title first. You’re playing very skillfully and intriguingly with a blend of the sci-fi genre and gender politics, as insinuated by your title. 

Zuleta: Yes. The title Unidentified Objects was one of the first things that came to be when Lee and I knew we wanted to make this movie. Lee and I are longtime collaborators. We work every day on screenwriting, back and forth with ideas, so when you talk about “gender politics”, I think the film is beyond gender politics. The film was written during the Trump administration. I’m an immigrant to the United States….  

Guillén: I misspoke. I meant to say identity politics. 

Zuleta: Identity politics, yes, that’s more like it. When I got to the United States for the first time, I had a visa. I’m a citizen now—that’s a long story—but, originally I was assigned an alien number. That’s how my passport was called. That’s how my green card was called. I had an alien number. “You don’t belong here. You’re an alien.” 

In many ways it goes back to that sense of who belongs, who doesn’t belong, who’s identified, who’s unidentified? Who are the people who are like everybody else? Who are those who aren’t? That sense runs through every topic that’s controversial. You can talk about artificial intelligence. You can talk about the gay rights movement and all of that. You can talk about immigration policy. You can talk about professions like church workers, etc., right? You can go deep into many many topics. So Unidentified Objects is a perfect title. In fact, it’s my favorite title.  

Guillén: [Laughing]. Well, that’s a good thing since it’s your film’s title. 

Zuleta: It’s really hard to find a good movie title. It’s much harder than anybody thinks. “What should my movie be called?” But this one was easy.  

Guillén: One thing you’ve done masterfully in broaching the subject of aliens, or alien rights, or alien identities, off-Earth and on, is that you’ve situated the subject within a liminal space through a liminal perspective. It interests me that you’re playing with this liminality, and that you have aligned that effort with your own experience of being an immigrant into the United States. You’re allowing this liminality to filter out to any identity that people in your audience might identify with in your movie. 

Zuleta: Yes! It’s a liminal space across the board, but it’s a liminal space about a road trip movie where you are literally crossing a border, right?  

Guillén: Your characters cross from the United States into Canada. 

Zuleta: Liminal space to the degree of subjective storytelling where we’re trying to understand where these characters are coming from and there’s something about humanity, about “what are my thoughts? Or my feelings and the way I feel?” That does not necessarily mean that you feel that way, right? It’s very subjective. Everybody has a very specific experience in the way they inhabit the world. Everybody, everybody, no matter if you’re within the same people in the same…—what I would call “circles within circles”—even people who are in the LGBTQ community, and even within that the gay community, and even within that, everybody has their own experience. 

When you take a character like Peter [Matthew Jeffers] who is an academic and a scholar who cares about literature, who cares about words and culture, about Anton Chekhov—one of the greatest Russian authors—but, he’s also a little person, and his is a gay experience of a little person in society that is very particular and unique, right? That hasn’t been explored in cinema in a way that I, at least, think is interesting. And yet we’ve seen interesting little people performers. We know there’s a lot of talent. There’s a huge talent pool of actors in that community, per se.  

Guillén: Yes, but what you’ve done differently in your presentation of a central performance by a little person actor is you’ve explored the fantasies and articulated the fears and frustrations of little people in—as you have phrased it—a “circles within circles” specificity. We’ve seen representations of little people in cinematic narratives—Peter Dinklage, for example, in his various performances in movies and television—but, you have complicated that representation through a gay lens, which I find interesting, particularly in Peter’s fantasies; fantasies I would say that are driven by a “Lynchian imperative.” 

Peter’s fantasies are neither prefaced nor explained. They arise out of an experience the audience believes they are participating in, which gradually, if unexpectedly, morphs into something other than the experience the audience thought they were having. There’s an oneiric pivot that distinguishes the experience on the screen as either a dream or a fantasy. Which leads me to the ambiguities you have purposely folded into your narrative. These ambiguities—as strangely as they are introduced—reveal emotional truths. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? 

Zuleta: I’m a firm believer that storytelling—especially in cinema—is not about being literal. It’s not about being in-your-face obvious. That’s what a telenovela, or certain stories are. They’re telling you, “I feel this way”, right? What I love about storytelling, especially visual storytelling, and the capabilities you can do with visual and audio-visual storytelling is precisely what you are saying: we can really go deep into the psyche of a human being. We can dive into their reality and their experience of the world. If it’s done well through sound, through images, we can create a deeper meaning that hasn’t been done or that is not part of our real specific experience. That’s why some people will say, “Oh, this is like a fantasy film.” I do think there’s something about surreality, meaning, what is that? It’s exploring a world that’s both….  

Guillén: Well, you defined surreality in your press notes as “the imaginary meeting the irrational.” 

Zuleta: Exactly! I speak about surreality being the imaginary meeting the irrational and, in many ways, that’s like there’s so much meaning. If you look at a Luis Buñuel movie, or a David Lynch movie—I’m talking about directors that I like—you can go and point at a certain scene and say, “That scene is making me feel a certain way inside. It’s making me feel weird. It’s making me feel emotional.” And yet for some people it’s like having their pants pulled down in a toilet. It’s like their reaction is something different. When I talk about visual storytelling it’s mainly about diving into that world. It’s about how can we create an experience visually that, again, could be fantasy, could be reality? That’s where ambiguity comes in for me. My favorite stories are the ones that make the audience be part of the experience. That make you start questioning, “What is happening?” 

For example, audiences—especially audiences that I like—they like to play detective. They try to be ahead of you. They like to anticipate what’s going to happen or try to have an explanation to what you’re showing them. Unidentified Objects is in many ways designed by those surreal sequences that you’re talking about through which we can give a lot of substance. If you study it, if you watch it multiple times, every viewing is going to be different. With every viewing you could probably come up with a different conclusion to what we’re trying to say. Yet, as you said, the one thing that is always there is the emotion. 

People have said that this movie are pill trips. That this is just Peter dreaming everything because he’s taking pills. One of the first things you see the main character do is take pills. Sure, that’s an interesting interpretation of the movie, but that’s where the ambiguity takes place. It’s like the ending of the movie Prisoners (2013) where Jake Gyllenhaal is standing outside of a house where, we as the audience, know that Hugh Jackman is buried underneath. We know that he’s screaming and blowing a whistle but Jake Gyllenhaal is not listening. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but we do. The movie ends there. You’re left thinking, “Oh my God, is he going to unbury him? Is he going to save him? Is he going to die?” That’s maybe a literal way to look at it, but I can get very passionate about it….  

Guillén: [Chuckling.] Yes, clearly. As can I. I interpret what you’re doing with the liminality in a slightly different perspective. I’m well-trained in psychology and mythology. What I understand to be the first liminal spirits, the first threshold spirits (if not the first psychotherapists), were in ancient Mesopotamian mythology in the Sumerian descent myth of Inanna. In that myth Inanna goes down into the Underworld where her sister Ereshkigal rules. Ereshkigal is a miserable queen who doesn’t enjoy reigning over the dark underworld. In her mean-heartedness, she kills her sister Inanna and hangs her corpse on a hook. But Inanna, suspecting her sister might do just that, had previously arranged to be rescued if no one had heard from her in three days. 

The Sumerian god Enki, deeply troubled by what has happened to Inanna, attempts to help her by creating two sexless figures named gala-tura and the kur-jara from the dirt under the fingernails of two of his fingers. He instructs these two sprites to appease Ereshkigal and retrieve the corpse of Inanna. In some versions of this story these two sprites take up residence in the threshold of Ereshkigal’s bedroom where, listening to Ereshkigal’s bitter complaints about her pain and discomfort, they repeat her complaints back to her. “Oh,” Ereshkigal complains, “my hip hurts.” “Oh,” the sprites repeat, “your hip hurts.” “Oh,” Ereshkigal complains, “my back hurts.” “Oh,” the sprites echo, “your back hurts”, thereby confirming Ereshkigal’s misery, placating her and appeasing her so that she hands the corpse of Inanna over to the two sprites to take out of the Underworld where—through magic rituals—Enki is able to revive her. 

As I understand and interpet it, the function of these liminal spirits is to repeat to you your psychology; to help you articulate it. That’s what I believe you have done with this film, specifically through the surreal fantasy sequences. Representing liminality, giving it a voice, helps us to identify and understand it in ourselves. 

Most notably, the scene in the film where Peter fantasizes on dancing with the tall, handsome man in the bar dove right into my heart because I have been coming out of a failed love affair and, I have to say, I watched that scene and knew that I was Peter. Which is to say that his emotional truth was my emotional truth. I was that small. I was dancing with someone that tall. Someone that handsome. Someone that masculine. I watched that scene and thought, “Wait a minute. How can I be this? I’m not small.” But I was

In effect, your film performs this function. I hurt from a failed love affair. Your film is saying, “You hurt from a failed love affair.” 

Zuleta: Yes, that’s 100%! In many ways, I feel a lot of the scenes. I think the bar scene plays really well, specifically in the disability and the LGBTQ communities because there’s an extra layer. If you’re a little person and you want to approach somebody in a bar or if you’re someone from the LGBTQ community and you want to go up to someone and tell them what you feel, there’s an extra layer. “Are we in the same world?” 

You’ve used the word “threshold”, which is the name of my production company. My production company is named First Threshold.  

Guillén: I didn’t know that! 

Zuleta: Yes, my production company is called First Threshold precisely because it’s that crossing, that moment when you go and you’re living within, you’re living in all spaces, that in many ways is that moment of transition. But I love what you’re saying. That bar scene, for example, is very universal.  

Guillén: This is where I have to tip my hat to Matthew’s performance because what launches the emotional truth of those scenes is that moment—the beats you give him—to be incredulous. Like when the guy turns to him and says, “Would you like to dance with me?” The look on Matthew’s face of incredulity makes you feel, “No, this is impossible. It can’t be happening.” Then you see it happening and then it devolves into the repetition that tells you, “Oh, this is oneiric. This is something surreal. Irreal.” I have to commend your directorial timing and Matthew’s chops in following your lead. 

Also, the sequence of being pulled over by the police, hearing the voice of the cop and his bizarre instructions, was likewise delightful because—not only was it a gay fantasy—it was a sci-fi fantasy. Which poses the question: can you speak to why you used the sci-fi genre as a metaphor to orient your message? 

Zuleta: I’m that fond of the genre. I love science fiction and what it represents in culture. I love these movies. If you watch Guillermo del Toro telling a story about an alien that’s with a deaf woman in the 1950s and you buy it, you cry in the theater. Science fiction is one of those genres that is, in many ways, like subcultures, like the many ways that people think about Marvel movies. It crosses boundaries. It crosses belief systems. You can talk about politics. In 1984, Orwell wrote a novel about the oppressive politics of a totalitarian regime. That’s why period piece movies exist. They give you permission to talk about today without talking about today in your face. I’m a fan of science fiction. I love science fiction. 

People ask me if Unidentified Objects is a commercial movie? Is it a personal movie? The point is that we made the movie that we wanted to make. We just made something that we would want to see and feel and hear. I love Isaac Asimov movies and his arguments about artificial intelligence, talking about identity, which is interesting because you can create huge metaphors about humanity, about identity, about belonging, about asking, “Am I real?” In that scene with the cop, we took science fiction and pushed it through surreal storytelling, and through fantasy. It’s a merger of genres. People also call Unidentified Objects a dark comedy, because it is funny, even though it’s a tragic story. 

It’s funny that you mention that scene with the cop because it shows that I am a collaborator. Originally, in the first draft of the script, we didn’t want the character Peter (i.e., the actor Matthew) to be naked. Matthew and I had a deep conversation about that, about what that scene meant. In that scene the cop commands Peter and questions his humanity, right? That’s the purpose of that scene being there—"Are you human? Are you an unidentified object?”—that’s the premise. You can feel all that there. 

In cinema, when you see male genitals it’s considered not necessary because society hasn’t caught up yet. Matthew was the one who told me, “I have to be naked. I need to be how I came into the world. I think that’s how Peter feels in that moment and we need to be true to the character and true to the story.” I agreed with him, but I said, “Listen, it’s your decision. I’m not going to ask you on a low-budget movie to be naked on screen; but, we are taking this very seriously and I agree with you. He has to be naked. It’s going to make a difference if we want to make the impact that we want to make.” So, yes, to our audience, to your readers, whoever listens to this or reads this, we do have a scene of a little person where he is completely naked and he’s been stripped down by a cop who is questioning his humanity. In many ways, that’s the premise of that scene. So, yes, we have to take it to that surreal level where the audience crosses a threshold.  

Guillén: Further, this is a nuanced version of the sci-fi genre because what you are talking about—especially with regard to identity politics—is a near-future. This is something that we’re in, but also nearing. We have transgender issues, Latino issues, all sorts of minority issues of people coming into their own, gaining agency, but still chafing against law enforcement or cultural enforcement that are not yet fully recognizing them, that are seeing them—as you suggest—as unidentified objects. I don’t know if you intended to do that, but I have to commend you for utilizing this subtle sci-fi approach to visualize and politicize a near future. 

Zuleta: The answer is yes. These are the themes of science fiction when you are talking about the near-future of politics and the norms of society. Yes, that’s what science fiction does and is always commenting upon. In many ways, as I was saying before, we use genres and combine genres so that we can comment upon these themes. 

Returning to the subject of exposing male genitals, you do have to think from a storytelling perspective, especially as a director, if it works. If it works, if it’s necessary, that’s where you have to judge. Is it something that you’re doing for an emotional impact? You have to think about why you’re doing it. Our conclusions were that it was something we needed to talk about. In many ways, the script was re-written when Matthew came on board as an actor because it was a little person movie as well. He was giving us permission to tell his story and the experience of a little person in the world. So I had to take that into consideration. It wasn’t just me being a director. It was me taking into consideration the characters and the subject matter and really understanding from his perspective, which I had never really seen before, even though Lee and I had conceived of it from the beginning as being a little person’s story. But there are many layers. What is the liminal experience of a little person in the world?  

Guillén: They’re asking us to wrap up here so my final question might be about what you discovered about your movie while editing it? 

Zuleta: Two things about the editing of the movie. That’s a big big big deal. The biggest thing with a movie like this is that we rewrote some things in the editing room. The biggest thing that changed was that initially we edited the movie in a linear storytelling way. We built the movie with our composer, Sebastian Zuleta, my brother. From the moment we started filming, we knew we were going to do it with that soundscape, which was analog scenes. We started creating some of those sounds from production. From the moment we were filming, we wanted to know how it felt, how it played, everything. That scape, we used some of that and then it got replaced with original comps. That was a big tool. 

The thing I realized after editing for 16 weeks and when I was close to locking the picture, someone handed me a piece of paper and they told me, “You have to really lean over more into the dream quality of the film and you have to explore non-linear storytelling.” It was really hard to make this decision as a director of a low budget movie because we didn’t have the resources, but I said I’m never going to lock this picture until I truly explore that note because that note touched me. It meant something. So what my friend the French editor Raphael Lubczanski and I did was we went back and revised some of the driving scenes with the music and took down dialogue from other scenes where we had too much dialogue and we explored a version of Unidentified Objects that was non-linear. 

The movie did inhabit this weird dream state, this—as you said—liminal space but we didn’t know what it was. There were things there that were just floating and there were many reasons for that. Partly the aliens, partly the pills, all of these things coming together, but non-linear storytelling was the one variable that we hadn’t originally done. That’s how we came up with the beginning. That happened in the editing. There were other things that we found as we asked ourselves: how do we manage the expectations? How do we manage the ambiguity? How do we maintain the audience on a journey that we’re telling them we’re taking them somewhere? 

I edited the movie about 10-15% max. I didn’t change it much. I made small changes. But there was an exploration process in the editing. What I have to say about movie editing is that it is one of the most fundamental things of cinema. Writing a script, you have a blueprint, yeah, but editing is where you can truly innovate. Because we did that, that’s why Unidentified Objects feels like a bigger movie in many ways. We really spent the time. I don’t know how we found the resources. Me and Raphael just dove into everything we’ve been talking about, making sure we could make it feel the way we wanted to make it feel. That’s what the movie asked of us.  

Guillén: One little editing flourish I would like to ask after is the caterpillar crawling from underneath the alien hat. Talk to me about that. 

Zuleta: That was a happy accident. At that location there were these caterpillars on the road. I didn’t conceive that image originally. Matthew pointed it out to me. He said, “That’s Peter. He’s a worm trying to cross the road.” I was like, “You’re a genius! We’re going to shoot this right now.” And then we shot what became the opening shot of the movie at the end of the shooting schedule. I put a dead cockroach next to Peter’s crocs in the opening shot, after we shot the caterpillars. I was using bugs as a metaphor for his character who is a worm, a dead bug, who is a borderline suicide who has to decide whether he wants to die or not. There has been such a metaphorical use of cockroaches who survive the changes in society. They’re still there dwelling, surviving, going through everything, people stepping on them, right? That’s ultimately the theme of Unidentified Objects in some ways. You know where I’m going with that, right? But the caterpillar was a miracle, it was Matthew’s idea, and we thought, “We got to get it.”  

Guillén: I want to thank you, Juan Felipe. Unidentified Objects is a beautiful first feature. I’m excited for your Frameline U.S. premiere. I wish I could be there, but I actually live in Idaho and have to return home. 

Zuleta: I wish you could be there too.  

Guillén: Your passion is infectious. I know your Frameline audience is going to enjoy that so much and you’re going to enjoy interacting with them. Thank you, Juan Felipe, I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me. 

Zuleta: Thank you, Michael. I look forward to staying in touch.