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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata)
2. Phil Spector (Mamet)
3. One Way Boogie Woogie (Benning)
4. My Neighbor Totoro (Miyazaki)
5. Chungking Express (Wong)
6. We are the Best! (Moodysson)
7. The Firm (Clarke)
8. Bollywood/Hollywood (Mehta)
9. Viola (Pineiro)
10. The Counselor (Scott)


Blu Clementine

“John Ford is an unholy combination of the Boston Strangler, Groucho Marx, Zorro and Mark Twain.” — Stephen Longstreet

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Newly released on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection is John Ford’s 1946 western masterpiece My Darling Clementine. This highly fictionalized account of the gunfight at the OK Corral — pitting Marshal Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda at his most iconic) and his right-hand man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) against the fascistic “Clanton gang” (led by an atypically but convincingly psychotic Walter Brennan) — is a welcome addition to both the Criterion Collection and the growing number of Ford titles available in high-quality, high-definition editions on home video. My Darling Clementine was a pivotal film in Ford’s career for a number of reasons: it was his first western since Stagecoach in 1939 and his first fiction feature since returning from active duty in the Navy during World War II. The conflicts that arose during My Darling Clementine‘s post-production — between Ford and 20th Century Fox production chief Daryl Zanuck (with whom the director had previously enjoyed a long and productive, if occasionally combative, relationship) — ultimately fractured their partnership for good and led to Ford’s exiting the studio and starting his own independent production company, Argosy Pictures. This rupture is explicitly spelled out in Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray set, which features not only the copious supplementary material one would expect but two versions of the film itself: an early “preview version” (103 minutes in length and truer to Ford’s original intentions) and the 97-minute theatrical release (partially re-shot by Lloyd Bacon and heavily re-cut by Zanuck). The result is one of the most essential home video releases of the year.

Ford’s experiences during the war had a profound impact on his art and that is immediately apparent in My Darling Clementine, a film about a cattle man who emerges from the wilderness to “settle down” in the lawless town of Tombstone, Arizona, and reluctantly becomes marshal in the process. The first significant thing Wyatt Earp does upon arriving in town is to disarm and run out of town a drunken Indian, an event that occurs when Earp’s symbolic trip to the barbershop is unceremoniously interrupted. More importantly, Wyatt Earp’s reaction to the death of his younger brother James (and his lament over James’s grave about how their “Ma” will take the news) seems to reflect Ford’s own wartime duty of informing the parents of the deaths of the young men who served under his command in the Navy’s Field Photographic Unit. Finally, Ford stages the climactic gunfight at the OK Corral as if it were, in his own words, a “clever military maneuver.” There is a lot of powerful stillness and silence in the build up to the gunfight, as Earp and his deputies calmly walk up to the corral, which they then strategically infiltrate by cover of the dust kicked up by a passing horse-drawn covered wagon. This strategic maneuvering was undoubtedly influenced by the military maneuvers Ford had witnessed while covering the second world war as a documentary filmmaker, a lot of the footage of which has still never been publicly screened.

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My Darling Clementine also feels highly personal and quintessentially Fordian in the way that it eschews plot in favor of a series of vignettes — some comical, some poignant — that Ford himself termed “grace notes.” One watches Ford in general not for plot but for these magic moments: an unexpectedly stunning composition here, a bit of spontaneous behavior that he probably cooked up with his actors while on set there. The fact that My Darling Clementine contains an unusually large number of such moments is perhaps an indication that Ford’s wartime experiences had strengthened his independence and resolve to buck against the constraints of a rigid studio system. Daryl Zanuck, who adored Ford, had always complained about the tempo of Ford’s movies (Zanuck had even wired the director a message on the set of 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk reading, “They don’t call them moving pictures because they stand still. They move.”). Yet in 1946, Ford was willing to introduce the central conflict between the Earp brothers and the Clantons in his opening scene and then essentially put that conflict on hold for the next 45 minutes. This is absolutely the best stretch of the film, a series of magic moments that everyone remembers but that have nothing to do with the story. Most famously, there is the image of Wyatt Earp leaning back in a chair on the front porch of his hotel and balancing himself on a post with his feet. But there is also the sweetly awkward moment where Earp dances with Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) at the consecration of Tombstone’s first church, Linda Darnell’s Mexican prostitute singing “Under a Broad Sombrero,” the comical visit to Tombstone of a Shakespearean actor named “Granville Thorndyke” (Alan Mowbray), and Earp collecting poker chips in his hat.

It was Ford’s indulgence of such indelible digressions, and Zanuck’s opposition to them, that ultimately led to the permanent falling out between the two men. This falling out is illustrated in detail on Criterion’s Blu-ray, not only through the two versions of the film included (both thankfully presented in 1080p) but also through the many welcome supplements, including an excellent new audio commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride and a visual essay by Tag Gallagher. But, of course, even those not academically inclined will want to snap this up; the real treat here is the movie itself, one of the greatest of all Hollywood westerns, and this version represents a new 4K digital restoration with a linear PCM soundtrack that both looks and sounds fabulous (better even than the superb DVD that was included in the mammoth “Ford at Fox” box set from a few years ago). Ford’s body of work is so rich because the man himself, like other great American artists such as Walt Whitman or Bob Dylan, contains multitudes. As the quote from Stephen Longstreet that opens this review attests (less perverse than it might initially seem), Ford was a complex dude who could be a stern — occasionally sadistic — father figure, a comedian, an adventurer and a master storyteller. One gets a sense of each of these qualities in My Darling Clementine, a film that undoubtedly would be a richer experience could we see Ford’s original version today. However, it is a testament to Ford’s genius that, even shorn of 30 minutes and partially re-shot, the theatrical release is still one of the high water marks of his long and illustrious career.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

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Filmmaker Interview: Kris Swanberg

Last October I programmed a pop-up film festival at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. The inaugural screening was Kris Swanberg’s Empire Builder, a terrific slow-burn drama starring Kate Lyn Sheil as an alienated mother and housewife who travels with her infant son from Chicago to rural Montana for a vacation at her family’s cabin. Imagine a 70-minute microbudget version of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and you’ll have some idea of both the creepiness and impressive formal qualities that Swanberg offers up in her assured second feature. The following interview took place in Oakton’s Footlik Theater in front of a live audience. Because Kris was running late, I literally met her for the first time onstage for our talk.

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MGS: And here comes the writer and director of the wonderful movie you just saw. Please give a warm welcome to Kris Swanberg! Hi!

KS: Hi! I tried to call you.

MGS: That’s all right. I don’t get cell phone service in here. The film just ended about 10 minutes ago and I was taking questions. I said I couldn’t presume to answer for you. (To audience) I’ve never met Kris before. (laughs) So have a seat and we’ll chat.

KS: Okay, great. Sorry I’m late, you guys. I got confused on the campus here.

MGS: That’s quite all right. It’s like a labyrinth. It took me a few years to figure out my way around. So you’re editing a new film?

KS: Yeah, I just wrapped a feature (Unexpected). Do you guys know who Cobie Smulders is? You guys know that show How I Met Your Mother? She’s the lead in my new movie. We just shot it for 20 days in Chicago and we just wrapped October 6th, so I’ve just been editing that for a couple weeks now. I’m sort of in the trenches and I’m trying to make that movie good. (laughs)

MGS: Excellent. How close are you to completion?

KS: That is a good question. I do not know the answer to that question. Yeah, I think there’s a couple things, I might want to bring her back out and shoot a couple more things. But it’s looking really good. We definitely have a first cut. But, you know, just trying to make it perfect.

MGS: Picture is not locked, as they say?

KS: Picture is not locked, no, no.

MGS: Well, best of luck to you on that film.

KS: Thanks.

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MGS: Before we talk about Empire Builder, I’d like to talk about ice cream. Because I first became aware of you not as a filmmaker but as an ice-cream maker. A few years ago, my wife and I had another couple over to our apartment every week. We’d make them dinner and they’d bring either booze or dessert. And one week they brought over a pint of Nice Cream, which was, of course, your company’s ice cream. It was the best damn ice cream I’ve ever eaten . . .

KS: What flavor did you have?

MGS: Chocolate and jalapeno.

KS: Oh yeah!

MGS: And then I couldn’t buy it anymore. So why can’t I buy it anymore and how did you make the transition from being an ice-cream maker to being a filmmaker?

KS:
Well, this is actually very linked to the film so I’ll just give you the whole spiel. Which is that I went to film school — I went to Southern Illinois University for undergrad for film school — and then I moved to Chicago. I worked with my husband, we shot a movie together. And before this film, I shot my first feature called It Was Great But I Was Ready to Come Home. I shot it in 2009. I was working as a filmmaker but I wasn’t making any money, so I actually had to have jobs. The job that I had at the time was that I was a high-school teacher. I was a high school teacher on the west side of Chicago and I was teaching film and video to high-school kids. So I did that for a couple years. I wasn’t trained as a high-school teacher, they just hired me to do it. And it was great. I turned out to be really good at it and I loved the kids, etc. CPS closed a bunch of schools, as you may or may not know, and I got laid off. All the teachers got laid off at that school. And I sort of was putzing around in my apartment and I took out the wedding present that I got when my husband and I got married, which was an ice-cream maker, and I just started drowning my sorrows in ice-cream making. So I got really good at it and started selling it and that just kind of grew and turned into a pretty successful business. And in 2012 or 2011, right before I shot Empire Builder, the ice-cream company that I had got shut down by the state of Illinois — not because it was poison or dirty or anything like that, we had passed all of our health inspections and we had our business license and everything was legit — but the state of Illinois has these regulations that they wrote for dairy that don’t allow for businesses to do hand-crafted small-batch ice cream, which I wasn’t aware of. So, in order to sell ice cream in the state of Illinois, you have to have factory-grade equipment and you have to work in, basically, a factory. So, they have all these regulations that are written for, like, Dean’s and Oberweis and places that are really, really big that make thousands of gallons of ice cream at a time. And so they came to me and they said that in order to continue I would have to purchase that factory equipment, which is just insanely expensive and I wouldn’t have any place to put it. So, the business got shut down. We wrote a bill and brought it to Springfield and tried to pass it in state Congress. We put a real effort into trying to make it work but it didn’t work. And I had at the time a six-month-old baby and I lost my income from the ice-cream company and we had just bought a house and I found myself as a stay-at-home mom. So my husband, who’s also a filmmaker, had to work a lot more and we had very little money. And I was just, you know, home with an infant and it was not what I imagined for myself. So, even though I think staying home with a kid is a really admirable thing to do and an awesome choice, I sort of felt like I had been forced into it. I remember being on my hands and knees and cleaning my bathtub and listening to the baby cry and just being like, “What happened? How did I end up here?” And I got really depressed. It was a real identity conflict for me. I wasn’t sure where I was at: I wasn’t making money as a filmmaker, I wasn’t teaching high school anymore, my ice-cream company got shut down and I found myself at a loss with what to do with myself and who I was and what I was going to be. So, anyway, I made this film to deal a little bit with the things that I was feeling at the time. So it’s interesting that you brought that up.

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MGS: Well, that’s a perfect segue into Empire Builder! So, obviously, it’s a very personal film for you and I would imagine making it was a somewhat cathartic experience as well.

KS: Yeah, it was a really personal film. That’s my real baby that’s in the movie. He’s going to be four next week.

MGS: And that’s some good baby acting too!

KS: Yeah, he’s really very good at acting like a baby.

MGS: Did he take direction well or did he just do whatever he wanted?

KS: No, he did whatever he wanted. We would just put him in the place where he needed to be. He was 10-months-old when we shot the movie so he was super-happy to just sit at a table and eat Cheerios for as long as we needed him to. It was a little stressful and I was conflicted as a mother and a filmmaker. It was a little stressful at the end when he’s naked and she grabs him and is running. We had to shoot that a few times and I think he got stressed out and cried and stuff because why was this person grabbing him, naked, and running? She was, of course, acting as if she was filled with stress, and running, and I think that was stressful for him as a baby. But he’s fine now, he wasn’t traumatized.

MGS: And that’s the kind of thing where it probably helped that it was your own baby, right? You probably wouldn’t want to use somebody else’s baby.

KS: No, because in the film that I just shot, we had a birth scene where we had to have a newborn baby and make it look like he was being born, and I hated it. It turned out really well but it’s really stressful because they literally don’t know what’s going on and they’re crying. You know, if you have a grown adult you can be like, “Well, they signed up for this.” Like, you know, if this is stressing them out, this is their chosen career path. If they want to act or whatever, they have to deal with this. But with an infant, it’s like you’re using that infant. Yeah, it was easier with my own kid, I think, than with another one.

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MGS: I’d like to ask you about the character of Jenny, around whom the narrative revolves. There were a few questions earlier about what exactly is wrong her. She seems very depressed at the beginning of the film and I said one of the things that makes the film so daring is that you show what’s wrong with her rather than have her talk about it. The cinematography in the film is so precise, especially in the early scenes, there are great static shots where the camera is at a distance from the subjects and it has a kind of voyeuristic feeling . . .

KS: Definitely.

MGS: And the sound design is also amazing. I think my favorite shot is when she’s looking out the window and you can hear the traffic outside and it gets louder and louder. There’s something very disturbing about that. How did you work with your cinematographer and also your sound designer to use sound and image to convey her subjective psychological state?

KS: Thank you. Yeah, it really is a really cinematic film. Not to, like, give myself a compliment but the film I just shot, I think, is different in a way and I almost miss what I did in this film because there’s a lot of talking. There’s a lot of people explaining what they’re feeling to other people. And I always liked this film because it’s very quiet and it’s purposefully so and it really makes you pay attention. I always feel about Empire Builder: either you fall asleep or you pay attention. And, you know, some people fall asleep, which is fine. But you never know exactly what she’s feeling or what is going on. So you’re always watching and you’re picking at anything that is said or anything you do see, you’re building together clues to kind of figure out what is the story. And I think that’s (what’s) really interesting about this movie and something I’m really proud of. But, yeah, I think she’s depressed about her situation. In the beginning of the movie, she’s in Chicago, she’s not happy about where she’s ended up in her world. Some of that we learn in retrospect throughout the rest of the film when she does get to Montana, which is where the movie was shot. When she does get to Montana she does seem like maybe she’s putting a life together for herself. She’s cleaning and setting things up and making things and she does seem a little bit happier than she was. But then when she meets Kyle, she sort of gets back into the same situation that she was almost in. And her husband in the beginning of the film, he’s not beating her, he’s not violently a bad person, but I think he’s a little bit of an asshole and he’s a little bit oppressive. You know, I hate melodrama. In my films I’m always struggling to show something without it being over the top. I think she feels a little bit trapped in her situation, just the way the husband’s like, “Oh, you should cut up his meat smaller.” And the way he goes on about his idea for buying a new place. So when she meets Kyle she finds herself in a similar situation where, I think, he’s really attractive. And it’s always kind of a fantasy to go to the middle of nowhere and find a guy who’s like a worker-guy . . .

EMPIRE BUILDER - Thai Food

MGS: (laughs) I called him the “sexy handyman” right before you showed up.

KS: Yeah, I think that’s totally what he is. You know, and he gets a little weird too. He’s, like, forcing her kid to learn to walk before he’s really ready to learn to walk. But he’s not wielding a gun or anything either. It just doesn’t feel safe. It feels a little scary and I think it’s even a little scarier that there’s nothing really intense happening because there’s no sure signs for her to leave. If she came home and he was drinking and practicing shooting a gun, it might be enough of a clue to say, “Oh, let me get the hell out of here.” But I think what’s really scary in life is when you’re faced with a person or a situation and you’re not really sure if they’re bad or not. When you’re walking home from the bus or the train and somebody’s walking 20 feet behind you and you’re like, “Is this guy gonna try and kill me? Should I run? Or will I be ridiculous if I do that?” I think those are some of the more scary moments in life. And that’s sort of what I was trying to portray with that.

MGS: I think you’re absolutely successful. If this were the Hollywood version, he’d be waving the gun around. And if this were the Hollywood version, in the beginning there would be a scene where she would go out to lunch with a friend and she would say, “I’m so dissatisfied with my life. I need to escape from this.”

KS: Totally.

MGS: But you show it instead of having her talk about it. Okay, I think now would be a good time to open this up to questions from the audience.

You can rent or purchase
Empire Builder as a digital download via Kris Swanberg’s vimeo page:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bernie (Linklater)
2. The Babadook (Kent)
3. Exhibition (Hogg)
4. Selma (DuVernay)
5. Carancho (Trapero)
6. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata)
7. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
8. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
9. The Blue Room (Amalric)
10. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Dante)


Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room

I’m pleased to announce that I’m now contributing to Cine-File, the definitive guide to independent and underground cinema in Chicago. My first review is for Mathieu Amalric’s erotic thriller The Blue Room, which I was quite taken with and which I describe as being “both free of flab and capable of sticking to one’s ribs.” It opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run beginning tonight. You can read my review here:

http://www.cine-file.info/list-archive/2014/DEC-14-1.html

If you live in the greater Chicago area, you should sign up for Cine-File’s weekly mailing list here:

http://cine-file.info/mailinglist/join.html

blueroom


Celluloid Flashback: The Cannibals

One of my favorite living filmmakers, Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, will celebrate his 106th(!) birthday on December 11th. To commemorate, today’s post is adapted from a lecture I gave about his film The Cannibals as part of Facets Multimedia’s Night School series “The Masters’ Session” last year. The premise of this particular session was that the most regular Night School presenters, including yours truly, were given carte blanche to present whatever films we wanted.

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Thank you all for being here, I know you could be at C2E2 right now. When I was given free reign to pick any movie I wanted to show for this session of Facets Night School, The Cannibals was my first choice because, when I first saw it last year upon illegally downloading it, I said to myself, “This is so strange I don’t even know what to think about it.” So I’d like to start off by talking a little about Manoel de Oliveira’s career in general and about Surrealism, a tradition to which I think The Cannibals belongs. Oliveira is probably best known in the U.S. for having a freakishly long career: he directed his first film in 1931, which was then still the silent era in his native Portugal, and he’s currently making a new movie right now at the age of 104. What I think is especially interesting about Oliveira’s long career, however, is that, while he’s managed to be a very prolific director on the whole, that’s mostly because of the films he’s made in the past 25 years alone. (His career had stalled for decades when he was a young man due to lack of financing and political turmoil in Portugal.) I think that The Cannibals is, in many ways, an ideal introduction to his work because it actually kickstarts the prolific “late phase” of his career: since making it in 1988, he has managed to make an average of one feature film a year for a quarter of a century. The Cannibals can also be seen as inaugurating the most recent phase of Oliveira’s career in that it marks the first of many collaborations between him and his favorite actress, Leonor Silveira, who was only 17-years-old when this was made. When you see her, you may notice she looks a lot like a young Brooke Adams, the lead actress in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

So how does The Cannibals relate to Surrealism? Whenever we hear the word “surreal,” I think we tend to think of art that is somehow aggressively bizarre and dreamlike in nature. But I think it’s important to remember that the original Surrealists, in the 1920s, represented something of a return to more conventional aesthetics following other, more radical artistic movements. Cubism, for instance, was more radical in the sense that it had destroyed the concept of traditional perspective; think of Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in which you can see different sides of the subjects all at once, and there’s no sense of separation between the foreground, middleground or background. When Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte came along, their idea was to present landscapes that did return to the concept of traditional perspective but they would then put things in the middle of those landscapes that absolutely did not seem to belong. And I think this is what gives Surrealism its power — the feeling that one is experiencing something that is very familiar and yet, at the same time, very strange because there’s usually one element that feels completely out of place. So I think the subversive way in which the Surrealists “defamiliarized the familiar” is what makes their work so funny and unsettling. And this is true not only of Surrealist painters but also of Surrealist films, such as those made by the great Luis Bunuel: a film like Un Chien Andalou (1929), for example, is surprisingly similar to Hollywood filmmaking in terms of how it’s shot and edited. It’s the irrational happenings within Un Chien Andalou‘s conventional film language that make the movie seem so bizarre.

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I mention Bunuel not only because he’s widely considered the greatest Surrealist filmmaker but also because he’s Oliveira’s acknowledged master. Oliveira even made a sequel to Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) entitled Belle toujours, starring Michel Piccoli, in 2006. But I think Bunuel-style Surrealism is also very much the approach Oliveira has taken in a lot of his own work and I think this is more true of The Cannibals than any of his other films that I’ve seen. So how exactly does Oliveira subvert the conventions of traditional narrative cinema here? The first thing you need to know about this movie is that it’s a musical — well, more of a filmed opera really, because there’s no dancing but every single line of dialogue is sung. The first time I saw it I thought, “Wow, this is so conventional as an opera that I can easily imagine seeing this performed onstage,” although it never has been performed onstage because it was created by Oliveira specifically for the screen. Oliveira wrote the screenplay based on a novel by the Portuguese writer Álvaro Carvalhal and then had a contemporary classical composer, João Paes, write the music and the libretto. The plot concerns Marguerite (Silveira), a high-society woman who marries a wealthy Viscount (Luis Miguel Cintra, Oliveira’s favorite leading man) over the objections of her jealous ex-lover, Don Juan (Diogo Doria). On their wedding night, the Viscount reveals to Marguerite his darkest secret, which leads to a devilish, uproariously funny climax that you have to see to believe.

Adding a layer of self-reflexive fun to all of these goings-on is an omniscient, singing narrator (Oliveira Lopes); at one point, the narrator hilariously complains about the protagonists’ use of the “sententious language of poor melodrama” in the previous scene. So, if you can imagine an unholy, self-reflexive mash-up of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), you might have some idea of what is in store for you tonight. I don’t want to say anything more about what happens in this movie on a plot level but I do want to point out that about three-quarters of the way into the film, something happens onscreen involving movie “special effects” that, in the best Surrealist tradition, could never happen onstage; and I think this highlights one of Oliveira’s clever formal strategies — to kind of lull viewers into thinking that we’re seeing something that could be performed onstage before pulling the rug out from under us. In doing so, I think he wants to get us to actively think about the differences between cinema and live theater. The other sneaky thing that I think Oliveira’s up to here is the way that he uses the form of opera specifically, which is the art form most closely identified with wealthy patrons, in order to attack the upper class (in other words, the very people who are most likely to end up seeing this movie).

The last thing I’d like to say about The Cannibals is that when it had its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1989, the festival’s director, in his opening remarks, begged the audience to stay for the last 15 minutes, assuring them that those 15 minutes would make the entire experience worthwhile. I would like to echo that sentiment tonight: please stick with this movie until the very end. The last 15 minutes are absolutely worth it. Enjoy the show.

The Cannibals has regrettably never been released on home video in North America. You can, however, see excerpts of it in the very lovely video tribute to Manoel de Oliveira below:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
2. Gremlins (Dante)
3. Cold Fish (Sono)
4. Basic Instinct (Verhoeven)
5. L’avventura (Antonioni)
6. The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice)
7. Persona (Bergman)
8. The Holy Girl (Martel)
9. Citizenfour (Poitras)
10. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sono)


Happy Thanksgiving from White City Cinema!

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Animal Kingdom (Michod)
2. Finding Vivian Maier (Maloof/Siskel)
3. Foxcatcher (Miller)
4. Mr. X, a Vision of Leos Carax (Louise-Salome)
5. Before Sunset (Linklater)
6. Badlands (Malick)
7. Locke (Knight)
8. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
9. American Sniper (Eastwood)
10. Breathless (Godard)


Filmmaker Interview: J.P. Sniadecki

The best non-fiction film I’ve seen in 2014 is J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, an immersive, ethnographic documentary culled from footage shot aboard Chinese commuter trains over a span of three years. Sniadecki’s deceptively simple premise posits a single “cinematic train” as a metaphor for the various tensions — political, economic, social, and religious — that exist just beneath the surface of contemporary Chinese society. I sat down with J.P. at the Chicago International Film Festival to discuss his training at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the evolution of his personal aesthetic, and his exhilarating new film. Much like The Iron Ministry itself, this transcription represents mere fragments of a much longer conversation.

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MGS: You studied at the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL). So they’re a production company you’re affiliated with but they didn’t produce The Iron Ministry?

JPS: As far as I am aware, SEL is not a production company. It didn’t produce The Iron Ministry, but the film has connections to the SEL in that I am one of the mostly filmmaker-anthropologists­ who are affiliated with the Lab and sometimes work together, provide feedback for one another’s work, and share a technological infrastructure. Lucien Castaing-Taylor first set up the lab and a related year-long SEL course in 2006, which coincided with my start at Harvard as an MA student in East Asian Studies. His idea was to create an interdisciplinary practice-­based laboratory to bring together the social sciences, art practice, and non­fiction cinema. From the start, Stephanie Spray, Diana Allan, Toby Lee, and myself were graduate students most closely connected to the Lab. Jeff Silva was an important teaching assistant and Ernst Karel was (and still is) the Lab manager and resident sound artist/expert. Together we formed a sort of working group of collaboration and critique that sought new and often radical approaches to making nonfiction film and media anthropology. Two or three years later, Verena Paravel got involved as a student of the course (though she already had her PhD in anthropology at the time). She was new to filmmaking and, while working on her first short film for the class, she encountered the industrial enclave of Willets Point in Queens. She had seen my 2008 film Chaiqian (Demolition), which takes place almost entirely on a demolition site in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and wanted to work together as co­-directors on the Willets Point project. We went to Queens together and from the first day of shooting had a totally exciting and invigorating experience collaborating in the junkyards and autoshops of Willets Point. We never looked back: we shot for two years there together, and released Foreign Parts in 2010. Then, I moved back to China to do my dissertation fieldwork, and also began the years of shooting the footage that became The Iron Ministry, while also making several other films: People’s Park (2012), Yumen (2013), and a short, The Yellow Bank (2010). Verena and Lucien began work on what became Leviathan and, shortly thereafter, Stephanie and Pacho (Velez) started shooting Manakamana. As I said, I made a couple of other films with other people while conducting fieldwork, such as the 78 minute single-shot documentary People’s Park (2012) (co­-directed with Libbie Cohn), and Yumen (2013), a 16mm psycho-­collage/wounded musical film among the ruins of China’s first oil town in Gansu province, made with artists Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang… All this to say, SEL is a small community of people without a dogma or manifesto, but with working collaborations and personal relationships that have produced work beyond the norms of both mainstream documentary and visual anthropology. It’s a collective spirit and a shared desire to explore new approaches rather than the formulaic.

MGS: Thank God for that. What differentiates The Iron Ministry from SEL films like Leviathan and Manakamana is that you actually interact with some of your subjects, which I thought was interesting. You don’t do formal interviews but I heard you talking off­-camera; at least I assume that was you . . .

JPS: Yeah. I’m behind the camera and asking questions . . .

MGS: Was that your strategy when you started the film or did it happen organically while you were making it?

JPS: Most everything that happens in my films happens organically. I wanted this film, like most of my other films, to be born of the countless and ramifying encounters that emerged from carrying a camera with me on all those 55 rides on the train: encounters between me and the train, and between me and the people on the train, and between themselves, and between all of us and the train system itself. And I wanted to give space for all the different kinds of cinema that a train can produce. So, rather than seize one form of cinema the train can engender, I was receptive to all that I could perceive. There’s a value in sticking to the beastly bowels of the train and the mechanics of the train, and not let anyone speak to the camera and just present the passengers as exhausted and suffering bodies. But I wanted to be open to the overflowing amount of language that fills the train. As I got to know fellow passengers, people wanted to talk to me about what’s on their mind, whether it’s politics or it’s a child back home or the excitement and fear of a new lease on life. I didn’t aim for particular sound bites or hunt out certain topics. These are just discussions and moments that came up after spending hours and hours and hours on trains. I shot this for three years. That’s a lot of hours I spent on trains. And, in some ways, though probably not immediately apparent, the film’s style also refers to a more personal form of filmmaking that reveals as much about me behind the lens as it does about the people and the technology in front of the lens. It is a diary film of all those hours I spent on the train.

MGS: How much footage did you shoot?

JPS: Probably 200 (hours). And I have footage of trains moving through the landscape: exterior shots of beautiful snow­-capped mountains and trains cutting through, trains snaking through different tunnels, crowds of people moving through train stations, people in front of the train stations sleeping on newspapers waiting for their train to depart, families saying goodbye on platforms. I made the decision to just keep it all on one train, to build a kind of cinematic train by stitching together all these different journeys.

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MGS: Trains and movies are kind of a match made in heaven — going all the way back to the earliest days of cinema.

JPS: The Lumieres.

MGS: Yeah! Another thing I thought when watching your film is that it seems like you’re presenting a kind of diverse cross­-section of contemporary Chinese society in terms of class, gender, age, etc. Was that one of your goals — to paint a kind of broad portrait of modern China?

JPS: It wasn’t one of my goals. I did want to capture, perhaps in an indirect way, the deep anxiety over the present and the future that pervades the lives of many Chinese today. The interpretation of the film as a cross­-section of China is something that emerges with the viewer, and with the editing scheme of moving in a way chronologically from the older “green­skin” trains to the high­-speed bullet trains, presenting a visual history of China’s railway network. And the inclusion of perspectives from not just Han Chinese, the majority of China’s population, but also from Hui Muslims, Uighurs, and Tibetans. But China is much too diverse, much to complex, and much to expansive for any one film to offer a cross-­section.

MGS: Oh, really?

JPS: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to ride trains all over China and I was mostly motivated first by I was motivated by the history of the train compartments and the trains themselves. So I knew I wanted to record the “green­skin trains,” as you see like when the liver is hanging and the people are chopping meat . . .

MGS: Which was really eye-­opening.

JPS: Yes. I could’ve made the whole film that train, which used to run between Zizhong and Chengdu, in Sichuan province. That train doesn’t exist anymore. So these trains are being taken off the network, but they’re also wrapped up with a whole affective realm of nostalgia . . . you know, journalists are writing articles about these trains because they’ve been such a part of the fabric of everyday life in China. People had to ride them for hours, sitting on wooden benches, opening the window to keep cool in sweltering days or just to light up a smoke. But because they’re disappearing there’s something of a salvage-­ethnography project involved here. But I also wanted to get the trains that are the mainstay of the network — the ones that have those sealed windows, from the 80s or 90s and have air-conditioners. And I wanted to film on the bullet trains that evoke a high­-tech China and speak to a heightened mobility and a new set of risks and uncertainties for China as a nation. And so, following that kind of visual history and that sort of infrastructural history led me to encounter people from all over.

MGS: Because everybody rides the train.

JPS: Because everybody rides the train, yeah. It’s pretty amazing too, the fact that we in the United States can barely catch a train where we live, to get anywhere. And now, in China, train rides from one end of the country to the other are six hours, when it used to be like 60 hours. It’s unbelievable. Obama’s never going to get that high-­speed train through Congress, I don’t think.

MGS: No, I don’t think so. But it’s interesting: I hear so many people talk about how they want to ride trains in the U.S. but then they never do.

JPS: Right.

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MGS: I think a lot of us have a romanticized idea of what it would be like to take a train across the country and stay in a sleeping car but we never do it.

JPS: It’s really expensive.

MGS: That’s true.

JPS: But your question about the cross-­section, to go back to that: it came out of the editing. This might be a platitude, but there’s a great deal of unease right now amongst most of the people I encounter in China, amongst most of my friends and colleagues too. And so, I don’t know if the film communicates this but people are facing a great deal of uncertainty. On one level, what’s both fortunate and unfortunate is that, some audiences here in the States or Europe after seeing the film say things like: “You show Chinese people who are aware of their lives and ask sophisticated questions and know what’s going on in the world and have political consciousness and criticize the government, and we didn’t know that. It’s so surprising because we don’t think of Chinese people that way.” And while I am glad audience members can have this kind of realization, it is also shocking to learn of the ignorance or the misperceptions concerning Chinese people. I often respond: “Well, the Party blocks several sites on the internet and removes lots of content, and the media cannot report freely (despite the efforts of some journalists) but there’s still ways to spread information, and the Chinese are still human beings with critical minds and sophisticated notions of the world. They’re not just all marching to the step of the Party.” But what I wanted to get at was this sense of anxiety and unease — ethically, technologically, economically and spiritually. So the religion comes in, right? Muslims in Tibet?

MGS: That was fascinating.

JPS: Yeah, and I wanted it to be hanging in the air of the train that there’s this great deal of tension, as you can see, because if you read the news — you read the New York Times or anything — at least they report that there’s Uighurs, Muslims, who are attacking people at train stations, killing them with knives, there’s Tibetans who are burning themselves in protest by the hundreds, and not just in Tibet but in Sichuan, in Qinghai, in the greater Tibetan areas. And there’s economic uncertainty about how people can cover the rising cost of living. And there’s political uncertainty about what is the shape of the future of the state’s relationship to the people, as we see in Hong Kong. There’s also contradiction and uncertainty operating both within and behind what some of the people in the film are saying. Maybe it’s hard to see that if you don’t speak Chinese. If you’re reading the subtitles you can’t maybe pick up on certain facial expressions and ways of speaking.

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MGS: You’re fluent in Mandarin?

JPS: Yeah. Did you get any sense of uncertainty or did it feel like, “Oh, this is a nice ride?”

MGS: Oh, the uncertainty was definitely there. And I loved the discussion of Islam among the Muslim train passengers because I feel like the more media exposure that moderate Muslims have the better. Because in this country — and I’m a teacher, I see this with my students all the time — people associate Islam with terrorism.

JPS: Right. As they do in China.

MGS: Right. So I’m always grateful to see other representations of Muslims in the media. I reviewed your film on my blog — I’ll send you a link to it — but one of the things I wrote was, “You’ll learn more about China by watching this film than you will by watching 1000 hours of CNN.”

JPS: Thank you.

MGS: And I really felt that way because you show how people think. It’s not just the headlines.

JPS: Or a sound byte. You have to listen to people for five minutes straight sometimes. (chuckles)

MGS: Yeah, but it takes you beyond the headlines: there’s a great scene where there’s some young guys lamenting the influence of the mothers-­in­-law?

JPS: Yeah, people love that line. (chuckles)

MGS: It was hilarious. That kind of dialogue reveals something about the fabric of society that you’re never going to read in a news article. And also learning about the importance of home ownership in Chinese marriage was fascinating.

JPS: Good. I’m glad it was a worthwhile trip for you.

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MGS: I think the most amazing sequence was the one where the little kid is giving the mock-­spiel of the train conductor. Where did you find him and how did you film that? Did he just do that spontaneously?

JPS: I was stuck in Guangzhou during Spring Festival, the busiest month on China’s railways as everyone is rushing to get home for the most important holiday in Chinese culture. And Guangzhou is China’s busiest station that time too. So I was standing in line at the train station for days and days, asking for a ticket anywhere out of Guangzhou, but everything was sold out. After the fourth day, somehow, miraculously, when I got to the window, there was one train ticket to Shanghai that someone must have just returned, and so I bought it immediately. In that soft­-sleeper carriage I started talking with a woman whose co-workers were in the hard­-seat section and she wanted me to join her to meet them all in the dining car. So as we were walking through the crowded cars of the train, I was filming behind her, tracking along and I suddenly I heard that boy making everyone laugh. So I spun the camera around and I filmed him right there at that moment. It was totally unplanned and spontaneous. And then, because I was still dedicated to continuing the shot with her, I never stopped filming to ask him his name or how old he was, or where he came up with that surreal monologue. I never asked him anything. I just caught the moment. You can see that he sees me. He’s at once both playing up to the camera, and also hiding from it a bit. He enjoys the performance but seems to feel shy at moments. When he finished, I spun back around and continued following the woman to the dining car.

MGS: That is unbelievable.

JPS: It’s just a little gift he gave to the film and then to everyone who sees the film.

MGS: You couldn’t write dialogue that good.

JPS: No, there’s no way. People ask me, “Are the subtitles correct? Did you put that in there?”

MGS: It seems like a hilarious, politically subversive parody. You couldn’t write that. And especially because it’s a train conductor’s spiel, right, the kind of thing you would normally hear over the loudspeaker?

JPS: Yeah, he’s basically riffing off of that. Well, he’s probably been on the train for hours and hours and heard the same announcement so he’s spinning the joke from that.

MGS: But he’s substituting different phrases . . .

JPS: That I imagine he’s pulling in from the sort of cynical outlooks of adults around him. He’s possibly heard his parents or others talking about issues such as the one-­child policy. So he’s just pulling all that stuff into his new announcement.

MGS: But the fact that your whole film takes place on a train and for him to say that just adds another meta-­layer to the whole thing. It’s really kind of a miracle of cinema that you got that.

JPS: That’s what happens if you’re open to the world, receptive to what unfolds: you will eventually get gifts like that.

You can view a clip from The Iron Ministry view YouTube below:


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