Tag Archives: maya deren

plundering my past

I am currently in the [slow] process of unpacking everything that I own and settling into my room in Memorial Hall.  In doing so, I have come across two flash-drives, ancient but still functional relics of my high school and very-early college writings, academic work, and even, lo, film-making efforts.

Like anyone, I find it rather surreal to be re-reading things that I penned (or typed) so many years ago, watching bits of film I crafted or perusing half-finished screenplays I abandoned.  It’s like meeting yourself from the past all over again, cringing at the ferocity of your tweenage angst or the frequency with which you referenced Catcher in the Rye in all of your poems, remembering that you were quite the rap-writing enthusiast back in the day, and re-discovering how you tried to sell yourself in prose to the college you are now attending.  Most of the things I have encountered this afternoon are probably of little interest to anyone but me, but I’d like to share a couple of them here.

When you apply to Carleton (or at least when I did, so many falls ago), you are asked to answer several supplementary questions in addition to submitting your Common App essay.  This was one of the questions.

Do you have a tentative (or firm) career plan (or dream)? Please describe it.

In my heart of hearts, I would like to make films.  I want to capture human relationships and emotions and mix them together in just the right way so as to make people stop and think and perhaps behave a little more humanely to one another.  This is definitely more of a tentative dream than a firm career plan, but nonetheless, film is a powerful and glamorous medium, and I am drawn to it.

I think that somewhere between leaving home and arriving at Carleton and beginning to discover that theory exists, the person who said this got a little lost.  I’m rather thrilled to find this proof of my own passion, almost objective in its feeling of having been written not by the me of today, but about the me that will always be in love with the cinematic.  And to have my 17-year-old self quietly and boldly remind my 21-year-old self that we must be humane, and that art can humanize us, and that is within my power — that strikes me.

For one of the later questions, I had also written two responses and labeled one as “Director’s Cut” and the other as “For Release in Theatres”.  This amuses me immensely, but even more, it echoes this sense of a historical inclination to film that I am encountering in my digging through my own past.

I also found something that I have been looking for since the beginning of this summer, the first little experimental film that I made during Fall Term of my sophomore year, as a part of the illustrious Profesore John Schott’s Avant-Garde Film and Video course.

It is based, roughly on the e.e. cummings poem “a total stranger one black day”:

a total stranger one black day
knocked living the hell out of me

who found forgiveness hard because
my (as it happened) self he was

but now that fiend and i are such
immortal friends the other’s each

I don’t claim to be proud of it, but I find it interesting in its first-ness: a rather sketchy imitation of Brakhage and shades of Deren, an overly dramatic banter with the ability of Final Cut Pro to overlay many many layers of video of varying opacity, but an earnest attempt to create a sort of cinepoem, to strive for what Deren suggests is the greatest form of the film, the vertical communication that defies narrative and allows the interplay of image and suggestion and light to create a psychological space.  The imagistic relationship between the poem and the film continues to intrigue me.

And so, the artist that the me of today is becoming has communed with the person that the artistically-inclined me of the past was intending to be; how very different and yet the same our conceptions may have been and are.

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why yes, i did meet kate millett

…I also saw Barbara Hammer outside of the IFC screening of her new documentary Maya Deren’s Sink.  Oh yeah, and I’ve seen Maya Deren’s sink.  Like, the actual artifact.  And I have a few of Joseph Cornell‘s paperclips.  (AND HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I’VE PEELED ASPARAGUS WITH ROBERT BEAVERS?  Cause yeah.  That too.  And gotten tipsy with P. Adams Sitney.)

But seriously.  The extent to which I can name-drop in the small but self-loving world of experimental and avant-garde cinema seems astounding to me, and maybe to a handful of people who I hope are reading this blog, but it probably won’t get me far in the “real world” — whatever that might be.

I would, however, like to take a moment to acknowledge the kind of eerie fact that in the last week or so, since having the great honor of returning some film reels from Anthology to famed feminist (and filmmaker) Ms. Millett and her partner, Sophie Keir, the search terms for The Semioptician have included hits for three distinct Kate Millett-related searches, two of which include my name as well.  Which, given that I hadn’t yet blogged about this lucky encounter, was at first rather disconcerting.  It seemed as if WordPress or some unseen search-bot was predicting my blogging predilections.

Then of course I remembered that I had, in fact, tweeted about it.  And Facebook-chatted my friend Rebekah with a rather enigmatic “also do you know who Kate Millett is??”  In light of these remembrances, it’s no longer totally unprecendented that I had a strange deja-vu-ish moment of looking at my blog stats (and yes, I do that, sucker for numbers and ego boosts that I am…) and wondering — did I mysteriously write a blog post that I’d been thinking about writing and then completely forget that I had…?  So thank you, whoever (all three of you?) searched for Kate Millett and found your way here.  It made my (several) (unheimlich) day(s).

lessons learned listening

: Or, a first manifesto.

For the past three weeks, the vast majority of my time has been devoted to shooting Tick Out of Time, the independent feature film that several of my fellow Carls have made happen this summer – this in itself a pretty amazing feat.  On July 17th the camera began speeding on the first take, and so many crazy days and nights of extreme heat and lost sleep later, we completed the martini shot, as they call it, in the late evening on Thursday, August 4th.  Wrapped.

Thus, an entire feature film has been captured on an endless series of re-formatted CF cards, and I was privileged enough to be a part of it – or rather, two feature films.  The first, the intended narrative fiction of Tick Out of Time, the second my own documentary-narrative interpretation of the process.  I originally came on board with the project, at the passing suggesting of the illustrious John Schott in early June, as the film’s documentarian.  The idea was that I would basically hang around and take stills and some footage of the process – auditions, discussions between the three members of the creative team, work meetings, location scouting, rehearsals, all the aspects of pre-production, production, and post-production, with a sort of vague intention of creating a documentary film, or at least a making-of movie.  (I also shot and edited this short promotional videofor the IndieGoGo page.)

It went as described, but as shooting arrived, my role transformed to something of a documentarian-digital imaging technician-social media maven-assistant camera-sound two operator-featured extra-production assistant extraordinaire, a getter of many birthday cakes and hotdogs and light bulbs and whatever else we needed at any given moment while sweating slowly to death in our interior location on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I somehow ended up giving my life to this project for three weeks, and in the meantime, juggling two other internships and, despite the many other tasks I was fulfilling, valiantly finding ways to keep shooting for my documentary, which the idea of actually producing in some extended and meaningful form was becoming more and more interesting to me.  I’m still trying to synthesize everything that I received in return for the life I have given to Tick Out of Time – beyond some travel expenses covered and a great deal of craft provided, I’ve learned more in this short, hectic, brilliant, stressful process than I probably could in any production class at Carleton.

  1. What a budget can accomplish – even a small one.
  2. Pre-production is one long series of phone calls.
  3. Mobilizing your friends and family to help make your movie can work.  Sometimes.
  4. Shooting in the summer means you will sweat.  Always.
  5. The new Final Cut Pro X may actually be pretty good.
  6. A well-crafted file structure and digital organization are a must with so many shots and takes.
  7. You cannot make a movie [of this nature] alone.
  8. That yes, filmmaking with a crew will attract attention on the streets of a city.
  9. Talent release forms: you can never have enough of them.
  10. What technical approaches to apply for certain aesthetic choices in sound recording and cinematography.
  11. Sometimes aesthetic choices are forced by technical constraints — and this can be frustrating or incredibly catalytic for making a better movie.
  12. At some point, you realize that all the sleepless nights and sweltering afternoons and early mornings have been entirely worth it.

I’ve also had some revelations of a more personal nature, or at least relating to my own conceivable future practice in film.  I’ve realized that some of my hesitancy to be in what I see as the “mainstream” mode of film production (even in the no-budget world of the indie flick) — with 90-page screenplays, directors, producers, talent, caterers, set designers, DPs, crews, key grips, and such — has been a sense of not having access to the technical experience or organizational power that this requires.  To some extent, working on this film has thrust me into those technical and organizational roles, brought me to the realization that I can’t wait for some special permission to ‘be’ a filmmaker.  I must simply begin.

Me on set.

At the same time, not because any great misogyny has been perpetrated by Mother’s Favorite Pictures (quite the contrary — I have had sensitive and meaningful discussions regarding gender and the film industry with Gabe in particular), the whole process and my realizations about the almost subconscious avoidance of the undeniably ‘masculine’ power structures and mechanical/technical aspects of production has redrawn my attention to the overall gendering of the industry, the art world, and the opportunities presented to me in general as a young female aspiring filmmaker.  Because on many levels, film is as much business as it is art, and the money and power required to produce it are historically located in the hands of (white upper class) men.

(I beg no forgiveness for any feminist polemics that begin to emerge, because such self-excusing only serves to keep the power of the female artist in check.  At the same time, I make no direct accusation toward individuals and wish to make no enemy – my enemy is, at the risk of simply ‘blaming the system’, the embedded social constructions that no one of us has created and no one of us can single-handedly rework.  That is the long road down which we have progressed far, indeed, but not far enough – The Farthest Shore still winks in the distance.)

As a student of film, I have also been drawn to the experimental and avant-garde forms of cinema, historically more artisanal and intimate, requiring less of that masculinized money and power with the artist working alone or in concert with one or a few others.  Historically, perhaps, a more feminized mode than that of the ‘mainstream’ film production, but nonetheless a male-dominated realm of the arts as well.  But I wonder, a bit, whether some of my interest in the avant-garde arises from both my oppositional feminist leanings and a subsequent desire to be subversive, to be ‘avant-garde’ in its most oppositional sense, and from my desire to make film being diverted by fear of the ‘masculine’ large-scale production mode toward the more accessible ‘feminized’ personal, intimate, artisanal tendencies of the historical avant-garde.  The genre can carry a sense of the immediate, a made-by-hand style that resonates with me, but this summer has made me question, to some extent, the true nature of my affinity for this type of film, and how this affinity functions within the discourse of gender that is inherently part of my relationship with the world.  Likewise, documentary, cinema verite and the essayist modes of Chris Marker and Agnes Varda have grown increasingly influential in my own storming brain, sparking lightning bolts of thoughts as to what I may want to do with my filmmaking.

So that is the clearest lesson of all: that I ought to be making films.

I suppose I have known this all along, or since the moment I walked out into the magical starry October night after screening In the Mirror of Maya Deren, a sophomore in college calling home to declare that I had found my calling, pacing the streets of Northfield and waxing eloquent (sophomorically, perhaps) on the virtues of Meshes of the Afternoon.  Or perhaps much earlier when my thirteen-year-old self painstakingly produced a documentary of my grandfather’s life, what now seems a clunky Ken Burns imitation redeemed by sheer luck and purity of emotion into an essayist paean to the deeply personal experience of death at a young age.  Or perhaps even earlier, when I, the ever-wakeful preschooler, would desperately will myself to sleep during naptime, knowing that a successful afternoon sleep was the prerequisite for watching a movie with my parents on any given night in our wilderness wooden enclave on the outskirts of Park City – a feisty four-year-old yearning for films and blithely unaware of the strange magic being worked upon me by growing up within the shining aura of Sundance.

This summer has been a reminder that I wanted to declare my major four terms early; a summer devoted to the moving image, its production, consumption, consideration.  A summer of sitting steeped in the history of ‘essential cinema’ at Anthology Film Archives, of exploring the horizons of new media and video art at Eyebeam and on W. 14th street, of keeping my camera rolling on a daily basis, and of course, experiencing full immersion into the world of the making of the independent film.  I have been flirting aggressively with psychogeography, but I think now it is time to realize that psychogeography needs a means of translation, and that I can make that means of translation this medium to which I am renewing my vows.  I have been flirting with feminism (or at least the academic study therein associated), but this too, can be in concert with my camera — a choreography of life that is filmic and focused on understanding myself and the world through the twin lenses of my gender and my Nikon.

Luckily, there is no requirement that I choose one mode or genre of film and cut ties with all others — to be experimental, to be mainstream, to be experimentally mainstream, to work with narrative, to work with documentary, to work with narrative documentary and the liminal spaces between the constructed reality and the supposition of ontological truth in chemically or digitally images, to be a psychogeographer and a feminist and a Japanese scholar and a filmmaker — all roads are open.

I am committing myself to making no commitments, except to the need to express.  So long as I am breathing film, I think I can come close to finding all the frustration and happiness that will fulfill and sustain me.

And so, I am incredibly grateful for the experience of being a part of Tick Out of Time — as the post-production process kicks in, I will undoubtedly still be around and perhaps take on the co-editor role the guys have offered me, eager now for experiences that bolster my ambitions.  And I do, in truth, have a special love for this project that keeps me coming back in spite of constraints on my time and wonderings as to whether I should be working on more of my ‘own’ work.  Rather like an anthropologist, I am steeped in this participant observation.  As I continue to shoot this documentary (and I will, in the post-production phase as well), I become more convinced that it may be something bigger, a subjective realist narrative of my own awakening, the unconventional screenplay for which may be this very blog post.  I see a film infused with the artisanal and the intimate, a film that does not abandon feminism or psychogeography or theory but builds its foundations on a mental montage of all this and more, a film that attempts irony and humanism and rejects all universals.

This is the art, as Jonas Mekas says, that we do for our friends and for ourselves.