Melika Bass is a North Carolina-bred, Chicago-based experimental film and video artist. Her two newest works, the short Waking Things and the feature-length Shoals, showcase a unique artistic sensibility that eschews narrative storytelling in favor of poetic visual textures and forms and a creative use of heightened natural sound. Her films also focus on unsettling, occasionally disturbing imagery that feels germane to the rural Midwest. These new works will receive their local premieres at the Museum of Contemporary Art: an installation version of Shoals (titled Shoals: a film cycle in seven parts) will play on a loop as part of the “UBS 12×12 exhibition” that runs from February 4 – 27. Additionally, each film will screen as a stand alone work on Sunday, February 6th. I recently spoke to Melika about her singular vision.
MGS: So how does a girl from the mountains of North Carolina develop such a unique experimental/narrative hybrid aesthetic?
MB: A lot of weird, atmospheric stuff comes from Western North Carolina. I’ve been calling Shoals a prairie grotesque, and my film before it, Songs from the Shed, a midwestern gothic. I think my attraction to crumbling, decaying places and surfaces comes from growing up in the South, where the wear and tear of history is everywhere, there’s all kindsa roots buckling up sidewalks, and ramshackle is an economy (and sometimes a design) aesthetic. The mountains in particular are drenched with that cold, twilight melancholy mood.
MGS: You studied at the Art Institute. How did your training there impact the work you’ve done since you graduated in 2007?
MB: I felt lucky to study at SAIC when I did. I waited 10 years to go back to school after undergrad. By the time I went for my MFA there, I was a full-blown cinephile, and knew I wanted to make films in a particular style, with writing and working with performers, that was not straightforward narrative. Before SAIC, I had plenty of work experience doing TV production, film exhibition, and dvd producing. The Art Institute was the perfect place for me to create a self-driven filmmaking method that embraced the realistic constraints of making crafted, personal films. At the school I also found wonderful like-minded folks — talented performers and crew — and became exposed to many other kinds of art that influenced me (writing, performing, photography in particular).
MGS: I loved the rough cut that I saw of Shoals. It reminded me of a horror movie in a lot of ways but I found it even more unsettling due to the lack of conventional trappings I usually associate with that genre. I’m thinking specifically of images alluding to mummy and vampire mythology and the scene where a woman is having a boil on her neck lanced. Could you explain your attraction to this type of imagery?
MB: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the genre stuff! I was definitely watching Cronenberg’s The Brood a bit when I was writing the film.
And, I have always scared easily. Still do. I think I like experiencing stories and movies that scare me, and find it cathartic. I read somewhere once that the reason some folks like getting really scared at the movies is because it’s a kind of safe practice-run for the real version of situations we fear could happen; that we feel stronger if we ‘survive’ a terrifying movie scenario. Not sure about that, but it’s interesting. If anything, I pride myself on being a bit of a rock-turner, someone who wants to show the dank, dark, muddy side of some aspects of human interaction, especially the anxiety around not knowing why people behave the way they do, and why people stay in constraining situations when they appear to have the will to leave or change them.
Psychological dread seems to be a common element in my films. In Shoals I wanted to extend the dread into something physical (and a bit fantastical). The human body rebels against controlling elements, and manifests the resulting excess or aggression. . .
MGS: I was also fascinated by the central location in the film, which seems to be an institution located in the middle of nowhere. We see a sign early on informing us that it’s a school and yet the clothing and daily rituals of the “students” make it seem more like a mental hospital. What was the inspiration for this location?
MB: The story came about in a couple ways. First, I wanted to be flagrant after making my last film, which I felt was a little repressed. I wanted to make a movie by recording sound first (sound before picture, as it’s usually the other way around). I have friends who lived on this farmette in rural Wisconsin, and went up there for a visit to scout it, and so recorded sound in places, and walked around. I knew I wanted to work with the 3 girls (Emily Irvine, Carolina Gonzalez, and Kayla Wroblewski). The terrifying Fritzl case had been in the news, as well as the Mormon bust, and both had me pretty fixated on cults and possessive family structures. After listening to all the screaming insects in Wisconsin, seeing the beautiful spaces near the property, plenty of mutated plant life (probably from all the run-off of nearby dairy farms), and then talking to Chris Sullivan about being in the film, I realized it had to be about a cult.
MGS: You work primarily with non-actors, a lot of whom have striking physical characteristics. What do you think are the advantages of working with this type of performer and what specific qualities do you look for when casting?
MB: Working with non-actors is challenging, a bit scary, and frequently a very moving experience. For the last few films I have started a project by finding the performers (non-actors) first, and then talked them into being in the film. Then I write parts specifically for those people (characters usually based in a way on certain qualities I see in them naturally), and then put them in a fictional situation in which they perform a version of themselves from my script with my direction. Working with each non-actor is a different adventure of developing a language in rehearsal. The advantage, when it works, can be a powerful, naturalistic performance that is quite behavioral, and hopefully adds to a feeling of observation in the viewer.
MGS: A theme that runs through your work is control. Both Shoals and your short Songs from the Shed feature an older male figure attempting to control the lives of younger, more impressionable characters. In Shoals the relationship is more charged because the characters being controlled are young women. Did you intend this to be a critique of patriarchy?
MB: Glad you asked this one. Yes it is a bit of a gendered critique, but it’s also I hope a complicated exploration of early Americana, where religion and science co-mingle in troubling and entertaining ways.
MGS: All of your work that I’ve seen has been shot on 16mm, but then transferred to digital and projected digitally. In ideal circumstances would your films be projected in 16mm as well or is there something you find appealing about the texture of the film-to-digital transfer itself?
MB: I love 16mm projected. But…I have really enjoyed capturing in 16mm, and then significantly manipulating the image digitally (color and contrast). This has become a big part of the process, as well as slowly building a very detailed, textural soundtrack through foley and field recordings, that is all digital. The contrast of the grainy, soft filmic image and the crispy, detailed sound is a tension I like a lot. I would lose some of the sonic detail, and the range of control of color/contrast, if I went back to 16mm.
MGS: Your new films are going to be playing at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of a site-specific installation, which is a new experience for you. What can you tell me about this method of exhibition? What should an average movie fan expect if he or she were to attend the upcoming show?
MB: I am excited about showing the films at the MCA. My films tend to be episodic, cyclical narratives, so I think that Shoals: a film cycle in seven parts, will lend itself well to being installed in a loop in the 12 x 12 gallery. The nice thing that will happen is that viewers will enter the space and, choose-your-own-adventure-style, begin the story at a random point of their entry. The film is already fragmented, and quite ambiguous in terms of why people are performing certain actions, how long they have been there, what the nature of their relationship is — things that are usually quite clear in a traditional narrative but that I love making the audience wonder about and create their own possible answers for… Now, as an exhibition, the causality of events will have even more mystery to them, and viewers will be able to engage ambiguities and connect fragments in very different ways, just depending on when they enter and exit.
The theatrical version of Shoals also shows with Waking Things in the MCA theatre (one screening only) — Feb. 6 at 3pm — if folks want to see it as a linear film. It’s the perfect pre-Super Bowl event!
Shoals Rating: 7.4
You can learn more about Melika’s films on her official website.
You can learn more about the MCA screenings on their website.
Any of my students who attend the MCA screenings will receive extra credit. Please refer to the Extra Credit page of your course website for more details.