Melika Bass is arguably the most important filmmaker working in Chicago today. Her mesmerizing short and medium-length movies have screened at prominent festivals around the globe over the past decade, although she is probably still best known for directing the music video for Sigur Ros’ “Vardeldur.” This should change now that three of her best films, Songs from the Shed, Shoals and Waking Things, are available to stream on Fandor. Her work—dark, enigmatic, exquisitely atmospheric—hybridizes experimental and narrative elements to create troubling, mythic worlds in which characters engaged in repetitious behavior seem curiously lost in time. She is also an acclaimed installation artist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute. On Thursday, April 6, she will exhibit new work at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their Conversations at the Edge program. I recently had a lengthy chat with Bass about her work, influences and upbringing.
MGS: Songs from the Shed, Waking Things and Shoals were all shot in the Midwest, and when you show landscapes in those films, the land looks very flat and Midwestern. But, because I know you’re from the South and because I’m from there too, your films have always struck me as being very Southern in terms of what I’d call their “psychic landscapes” – almost as if you’re transposing a Southern Gothic sensibility onto the Midwest.
MB: I think there’s something about this idea of a landscape or a place having a charge to it, so that the textures, the sort of shadowy potential of a place, what could have happened there – this idea of dread or shame and the tension of those things are all being abstracted. And they come from a kind of layered Southern Gothic sensibility. I’m definitely somebody who has a mixed relationship to natural landscape: Waking Things and Shoals are pretty rural or pastoral but that sense of pastoral with “creepy crawlies” underneath, you know? (laughs) It’s Southern but it’s also a certain kind of Americana.
MGS: It’s haunted. It reminds me of Faulkner who was interested in the ghosts of the past even though they’re not literal ghosts. That’s the way your films are.
MB: Yeah, and I think too this idea of a certain vegetable darkness, which I like. I think of it as like when you turn a rock over: it’s sort of cold and wet and maybe there are worms and surprises underneath. It’s a rock-turning sensibility. That’s in there too.
MGS: That makes me think of David Lynch – the opening of Blue Velvet with the beetles underneath the grass and the idea of “what lies beneath” that that conjures up. “Vegetable darkness” is an incredible phrase!
MB: Yeah, and I actually think cinema and being a filmmaker is a perfect way to play in this too because it’s all about illusion, right? For me, it’s about this relationship to reality and fantasy and this pull between abstraction and something really familiar – and how disorienting that can be. So, for me, the idea is treating things in a really imagistic way that’s not written in dialogue, at least not in these three films, as much as it is by these imagistic situations or stories or worlds that are then charged with a lot of sonic detail and a lot of slowness as a way to say, “Okay, here’s the surface of something but don’t you sense XYZ beneath it?” And then hopefully giving people the framework to kind of spin off in their minds what those things could be.
MGS: Is it fair to say your work is not really concerned with narrative?
MB: I think it is, actually. I mean, not in a conventional way and not in a way that addresses certain kinds of psychological realism and the traditions of certain forms and conventions of theater or literature. But I hope it triggers a kind of cognition or a kind of efforting to create narrative out of fragments. So, in that sense, I think it’s really concerned with narrative because all the ellipses are there. And I spend – and the people that I work with spend – a lot of time and attention to detail so that details are supposed to be holding and speaking a lot in terms of “Where is this place?,” “What could be going on?,” “Why are they there?,” Why are they acting this way?” “World building” is maybe a little much as a phrase but I think there’s a lot of that going on. And these details of place, or the really specific casting I’m doing – certain kinds of archetypal figures or certain kinds of behaviors and energies – these things, for me at least, are connecting to some really specific ideas. They’re just not fleshed out in a way that’s super-causal.
MGS: That’s what I mean when I say “narrative”: cause and effect.
MB: But there’s event and there’s behavior and there’s character.
MGS: And there’s location. You talked about the rural quality of Waking Things and Shoals. In Songs from the Shed, there’s a weird hybrid of rural and urban. It’s like you’re creating a cinematic space that doesn’t exist in reality but that makes perfect sense onscreen.
MB: That was one of the narrative possibilities there; that it was a kind of future and maybe it was post-disaster, so that things were somewhere on the edge of being urban, with nature taking over, or a kind of depletion of resources. So these people are protecting themselves or cocooning. Waking Things is the most explicit, but in all of these films there’s this sort of makeshift family or alternative “found family,” cult, whatever – and I realized I was making the same film over and over at some point – that somehow there’s a kind of xenophobia to that as well. It’s not overt. It’s most overt in Waking Things. But there’s this kind of strange isolationism and self-reliance, etc.
MGS: And sense of imprisonment.
MB: Yeah, but towards an idea of survival or perseverance. I think, for me, it’s almost like there’s this kind of anthropological fiction or fantasy going on with each one of the films – and this is part of breaking the causal chain of narrative too – that it becomes some sort of site where you only have a few relics that remain and you’re like, “How do these go together?,” the sort of narrativizing that I know happens in archaeology. You have very scant elements.
MGS: You have to put the bones together.
MB: Yeah. “What did happen here?” “Who are these people?” I’m often trying to decode, in real life, a lot of things about humans. (laughs) And so I guess it makes sense that the films are coded in fictional ways on a lot of levels.
MGS: The idea of entrapment vs. freedom is present in all your films but it’s something you really elaborate on in Shoals with the asylum-like setting. What attracts you to this theme?
MB: I think dependence and interdependence and co-dependence within support systems, the dynamics of that, whether it’s family or chosen, are often pretty contradictory. There’s something very archetypal in the films about the older male figures and the younger characters who are too big to be children but are sort of being treated like children, who at moments are breaking out of that but then coming back to this role that’s been delineated and that they’ve all chosen to continue perpetuating. In some ways there’s a lot of overt psychologizing in that. And I think there’s also in some ways a fable-like quality to the films that takes that dynamic and links it to a lot of really dark fables that are about the same thing. You could look at some Grimm Fairy Tales and see similar dynamics.
MGS: Do you feel that the world you live in is a dark and sinister place or do you just enjoy creating that world up there on the screen? (laughs)
MB: People that see the films or installations that don’t know me and then meet me are often surprised that I’m wacky or shy and not super-dark and scary. You know, it’s nice to have the privilege to make art and put things elsewhere that may be inside you that don’t dominate you in everyday life. So there’s that. I also actually think that the experience of creating durational tension and an atmosphere of dread is pleasurable to experience. There is something cathartic about it and there is something where, if you go through it in a sort of simulated way and you survive then somehow you feel more… It’s a sort of trial run for actual problems or disasters. It’s also looking at a kind of loose ethics of authority figures. In a larger way, I do wonder about the governing systems behind a lot of things. What are the systems that we create, that are social, what are they doing? What are the systems and values and meaning that we give to our lives? What are these sort of repeated rituals or behaviors? Do those create values? Do those come out of something? What are the things that we just perpetuate without thinking about what they mean? And the darkness or the tension, yeah, it’s there. There’s other stuff there too! I would totally make a rom-com.
MGS: Your films do relate to genre, especially horror movies.
MB: And some melodrama!
MGS: Yeah. Songs from the Shed is also a kind of musical. Where did you discover that incredible song, “Land of Heart’s Desire”?
MB: I went to undergrad at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana and at one point they were having a library sale downtown at the local municipal branch and I was trying to be cool – about ’95 or so – with the vinyl records. So I bought three that day including this box set, with limp string tied around it to keep it closed, it was of this woman named Dame Maggie Teyte singing light operetta and opera and folk songs. I remember knowing immediately the vocal treatment through all of those musical genres was going to be super-weird. Maybe I should say I grew up singing in choirs. I started at four-years-old, went to choir camp, singing lessons. I grew up with both my parents in singing groups that performed. There was a lot of religious and folk singing in my family. Even when I moved here in my early 20s, I was in choirs, which I didn’t tell anyone about because it’s not cool. But I missed it as an experience. So I’ve always been interested in music. I encountered that song in that box set. And then there’s this whole niche-y thing with opera and divas where they have their day, like ballerinas. They have this really slim couple of years where they can rule and then after that they’re really lucky if they can…
MGS: It’s like being an athlete.
MB: Yeah, exactly. So she was a British opera singer who made her reputation in light operetta, mostly. And she had this kind of stylized way of singing that was not fully trained out of her. So the song that she’s singing, “Land of Heart’s Desire,” is not super-famous. But the song is about nostalgia and longing for the land of your family, which in this case would’ve been Ireland. I love the distortion on the record, when she hit those high notes, it sort of breaks, almost. I love that in texture sometimes where it’s pushing against the edge of legibility. It’s really expressive. But I liked this idea of someone who’s an overgrown child who seems to be at home but it’s obviously a set; through the repetition of certain behaviors, or light, or material, it’s a simulated environment. And he’s obviously trying to break away but he’s coming back, so adding in the song makes him a kind of science experiment, responding in this Pavlovian way. That’s what the use of the song is about. But it actually connects to this whole other idea around who people are and what culture they belong to. There’s this feeling of – back to this idea of xenophobia or the making of your own culture and Americana – there is something about maybe having family from Appalachia and being Southern, maybe shooting a film in Wisconsin (Shoals) that actually, as it turns out, was shot in a place where there historically were a lot of cults because people bought land and did whatever they wanted there and made their own rules. There is something quintessentially American about having a lot of romantic nostalgia for “your homeland,” which is a very contradictory cultural thing, identifying yourself with something, in this case, very Irish sounding.
MGS: I’m glad you mentioned repetition. In Shoals, you have women being instructed to do tasks that seem meaningless. In the other films we see people obsessively peeling and chopping potatoes, which makes me think of Jeanne Dielman, the ultimate cinematic statement about repetition.
MB: Yeah, and gender.
MGS: Is Akerman an influence?
MB: Yeah, I find her films really honest.
MGS: I also see a lot of Bresson in your work, especially the close-ups of hands working. Your sense of fragmented composition reminds me of A Man Escaped and Mouchette.
MB: Yeah, the Nanty character in Shed is partially based on Mouchette. In the new films I’m working on she’s evolving from that.
MGS: Her hair color is evolving!
MB: Her hair color is evolving. A lot is going on with her. Time is passing. But my shorthand joke is that she’s moving from Mouchette to Vagabond in the course of a decade, which seems right. Those two poles are nice – and realistic.
MGS: What kind of relationship do you have with Sarah Stambaugh as an actress? Do you have a pact that she’s going to play this Nanty character forever?
MB: Sarah is amazing. She’s just a natural performer for the camera. She’s interesting and compelling in every day life but she’s also one of these people that, when you put her in front of the camera, something becomes atomized that is only in the image. I talked her into it the first time in 2006 and then, in 2010 or ’11, I warned her I was thinking of doing more. There’s a feature script actually, that this character is the protagonist of that’s set primarily in North Carolina. It starts here and then goes there. So I was talking to her about that over the years and I saved her costume from Shed. Leone Reeves did this amazing distressing work for that film; the white jacket and jeans, she cooked on her stovetop with different spices, so it smelled really gross. It had food in it but it looked amazing. So I saved all of that in my basement and then had to air it out (years later) for Sarah. And she put it on, which was nice. So, she’s been up for it. Every chapter of the project (The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast), things have changed for the character. With the last shoot, this past summer, the character is talking in conversation with other humans. She would play multiple roles in the feature, some of which would talk and some of which wouldn’t. So there’s this kaleidoscopic character that’s split in different ways but in the same body.
MGS: You’ve introduced dialogue gradually into your work over time. In Songs from the Shed, you represent dialogue with title cards, as in a silent film.
MB: And part of that is because I love sound work. I love doing really detailed sound work and the three films all have, with the exception of the monologuing patriarch scenes or the singing scenes, those were shot synch, but everything else was done by hand. That’s constructed soundtrack. There’s tons of detail and foley and field recordings and stuff and I worked really closely with Mat Jinks and Lou Mallozzi on all three of these films, to build the sound.
MGS: Let’s talk about this monologuing patriarch character. (laughs)
MB: How many of them are there?
MGS: He’s bald regardless of who’s playing him!
MB: True. The bald thing is not required…but it happened.
MGS: Matthew Goulish has a great voice. I think, between Waking Things and your installation The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast, he talks more than all your other characters combined. He’s part of Every house has a door, the performing arts group you collaborated with on Waking Things. Was that your first time working with professional actors?
MB: I think so, yeah. Waking Things was a commission from Every house has a door to work with their performers to make a film that was in response to a live show they were doing called Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never. It was two Croation performers: Selma Banich, who I did the Sigur Ros music video (Vardeldur) with, who’s primarily a movement-based performance artist, and Mislav Cavajda, who’s a renowned theater actor; and Stephen Fiehn, who’s an American performance artist now in New York, Matthew, and Lin Hixson, the director of the group. Matthew is a writer and performer. He’s wonderful to work with because he’s very theatrical but he understands his relationship with the camera really well and he’s capable of so much nuance. So, in addition to things being “theatrical,” he can also do really small, beautiful things. So he’s just really inspiring to work with.
MGS: Is he the reason why you started using more dialogue in your films?
MB: One of the things about how I’m working with language has to do with my family. I have a lot of ministers and teachers in the family. So there’s a lot of talking and a lot of writing and a lot of discussion. For whatever reason I’ve always been really attuned to it as something really performative and also something that, even though it’s often about clarity or persuasion – again the surface level of things – there are often lots of layers of meaning or suggestion. So I think about, “Oh, I think I want my characters to speak,” or “Oh, if I’m interested in human behavior, people actually do talk – to each other and to a public.” And because there’s this observational/behavioral thing then in working with other humans – the fascination sort of drives you to make something – I then want to have characters whose M.O. is a certain verbosity, right? And a kind of contrast between their physicality and their speaking – not necessarily in a cynical way, in a complicating way, in part because that seems realistic to me. Those are “public servant” jobs. So there is this sense of “We go to work and we do this for people.” Then there’s a sense of another kind of behavior, something much more private. And there is an interesting divide there.
To get back to your question: I saw Matthew Goulish and Bryan Saner, who are both in the Latest Sun project, in Goat Island’s piece, The Lastmaker, at the MCA in 2007; there were these monologues given by both Matthew and Bryan. And I just remember realizing, “Oh, there’s something oratory here. It’s not conversational.” With Bryan especially, it had a kind of religious reverence to the language and the cadence. It felt really familiar. And with Matthew, there was a wry wordplay and love of contradiction. So, I just wrote in the program “Minister Film with…” and I just wrote their names and put it away. As I got to know them over the years, I realized that they both have very different religious backgrounds. So I thought it was going to be a really autobiographical project about my religious family but I realized I was more interested in this process of rehearsal that’s super-collaborative where I have really specific ideas about things I want but I’m also, as an extension of being into behavior – and doing these portraits and installations – I actually want people to bring something from their lives. So it ends up being this biographical fiction where the material that’s generated is this hybrid of anecdotes, memories from all of us, staged in a very constructed fictional context.
MGS: I’m glad you brought up your family without me even asking! You talked about the divide between hearing sermons in church vs. hearing those same voices at home. What was that like for you as a kid, growing up in that culture?
MB: At different points I had about 12 ministers in the family – so grandparents, parents, stepparents, uncles, aunts, and first cousins now. If you go beyond the first-cousin layer, the numbers go up. It’s my mother’s family, my father’s family, my stepfather’s family, my stepmother’s family.
MGS: Different denominations or the same?
MB: They’re all Southern Presbyterian except for one really awesome Methodist, who we love, of course. Because my parents divorced when I was a kid, and they both remarried, I didn’t grow up with my Dad every day though I saw him often, so I didn’t grow up going to church every Sunday. But my mother is also a preacher’s kid and my Dad married my stepmother at the time, who was a minister. So, at one point, that was two ministers who I would go visit. My mother married my stepdad who wasn’t a minister but who had been to seminary and had briefly been a minister and then he went on to teach political science. And his mother was a Presbyterian missionary in China. And two of his siblings and two of their spouses went to seminary. My dad’s brother became a minister. And then my mother’s parents: her dad, my granddad who was a minister, was a huge part of my childhood so I was around them a lot. So, even though it wasn’t a daily or weekly thing, whenever I saw family it was, and is, there. It’s interesting: it’s family culture more than my individual experience as a preacher’s kid exactly. One of my jokes is: you should see what it was like at Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving dinner because it’s like, “Who’s going to do the prayer before we eat? Who’s going to bless the meal?” I remember distinctly, I don’t know how young I was, but I was aware immediately when I was a kid that it was like, “This is not just a prayer. It’s a bit of a performance because we’re all experts in this particular sacred art.” It’s a very unusual job and it’s a very lonely job, I think. It’s hard to be a part of a social community if you’re a minister because people might not feel totally comfortable…
MGS: Kind of like being a cop, in a way?
MB: Or a shrink or something. Can you relax around them? Can they relax around you? It was something that I noticed. It’s also about writing a paper every week and the anxiety of that. Even though the text you’re working with is very set, there is this challenge of the job where “you have to make something relevant and meaningful of this.”
MGS: Did you ever consider going into the family business?
MB: Yeah. There’s a joke that it’s my fallback career. You can go at any age or at an advanced age. And I’ve done a fair amount over the years of, you know, liturgical dancing, reading the liturgy, starting at 12 and then into my 20s. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and that was another way for me to process all that stuff.
MGS: And then you shifted to cinema (laughs)?
MB: Yeah, I did. There’s also this kind of devotional slowness that goes on in the films. And I think, for me, making installations is maybe the most direct relationship with that: how to stage a space so that it invites people to devote their attention in this very frontal way.