Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Matter of Perspective (With a Foray into the Realm of Film Criticism)

In the world of documentary film-making one has the opportunity to take a subject--any subject really--and draw out its intrinsically fascinating qualities.  I certainly would never claim to be a "film-maker," but there is something about the process of documenting a compelling subject on film and unveiling that subject's essence (for lack of a better word) that intrigues me as a student of the human condition. 

In recent years, I had the opportunity to do several short documentaries--on the vegetarian alternative, on the first year experience in college, on trekking through the Himalayas in Nepal, and most recently, on college-aged protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Capturing these disparate voices on film and giving them life provided me with immense creative satisfaction, even if the finished products were hardly worthy of a premiere at Cannes.  All these films were shot with no budget, using a $100 Flip camcorder, and free movie editing software.  The results at times were amateurish, but the inherent nobility of the subjects I was examining always shone though, despite my limitations as a film-maker and my lack of decent equipment.

Last year, on a whim, I decided to do a short documentary on the artist and film-maker, George Kayaian.  We were going to Sands Point Preserve with my nephews and I asked George if he would be willing to have me interview him about his theories on art and his own perspective on himself as an artist.  The film was shot in about 1 hour with minimal retakes and George basically had to talk about any of the issues I threw at him without any preparation at all (and did an amazing job, I might add).  Once I shot the film, I put it together fairly quickly and without many embellishments.

Artist at the Crossroads (2010)

Not long ago, George and I discussed how interesting it would be if he took the footage that I shot and tried to make his own version of the same film.  Two different perspectives on the same subject, essentially using the same raw material. 

He recently finished this project and his version is just about as different from the original as you can possibly get:

Artist at the Crossroads (2012)

On the positive side, George was able to take the original footage and cut it in a way that is definitely a more engaging experience for the audience.  The incorporation of his original works of art and scenes from his films also helps to give a better sense of the evolution of his work as an artist.

But I think essentially the two versions of Artist at the Crossroads reflect two fundamentally different views of the function of film-making.  I'm a philosopher by profession; George is at heart a true movie-maker.  And I think that film plays very different roles in our two worlds.

I think of myself as a "gadfly," provoking and antagonizing my audience (i.e., students) to think about issues in a new light.  I don't have to worry about boring my audience and I don't really care if they are put off or confused by what I create.  When it comes to my little films, I'm happy to give the viewer long stretches of exposition without breaking them up the way a real film-maker would, because I want them to be exposed to extended arguments--even if they are difficult--and to struggle with them. 

I also like the idea of following the rallying cry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud to shock people out of their conformist, middle-class, sensibilities  (├ępater le bourgeois).  But it is impossible to shock people any longer in the traditional sense of the term.  So shock has to take a different form.  Today people are uncomfortable with silence and need to be provided with endless stimulation all the time.  This is the curse of our modern existence.  So I think we need to force the audience to confront its own bread and circuses mentality, even if they don't want to.  The last thing I want to do is make the audience feel good after watching anything that I create. 

George, on the other hand, is at heart someone who really wants to entertain.  He's right out of the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille and Stephen Spielberg.  No real movie-maker--and I use this term in the best sense of the word--wants to bore or antagonize his audience.  That's why the late 60s and early 70s were a period of "films," not "movies."  And many of the films made during this period were an anomaly in the history of cinema, because the film-makers really didn't give a crap if you were entertained or not.  Try watching Trauffat's Jules and Jim, Coppola's The Conversation, or Antonioni's Blowup today and you will probably go out of your mind.  These are definitely not the kind of films to watch if you are looking to be entertained or amused.

But many of the greatest directors in the history of cinema--John Ford, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, the Cohen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, to name but a few--were entertainers in the best sense of the word.  Even when dealing with serious or philosophical themes, these directors know how keep things moving and to stir the emotions of their audiences.  This, I think, is the tradition that George is clearly a part of.  Check out, for example, what I believe to be his two most interesting films--Fragments and Man in the Hallway.  These films are seriously existential, but they are made in a way that, even if you weren't interested in the philosophical themes at all, you would probably still enjoy them. 

When it came to making his own version of Artist at the Crossroads, George couldn't resist the opportunity to edit the long-winded dialogue of the first film in order to keep his version moving at a brisker pace.  The result again is a film that even those who don't give a damn at all about art would probably enjoy watching.  It is, in short, a fine piece of moving-making.

As to which is the better film, I'll leave that for you to decide.


  1. It was a challenge and a second chance. Who could pass that up? When Michael Russo did a spontaneous interview on my thoughts regarding art and creativity, I was honored and overwhelmed. His questions were what you would call “profound” and “deep”. My answers were heartfelt and immediate. It was fun, I tried my best, and we had a nice day at Sands Point Reserve. I will admit right now, that I am a huge fan of Michael Russo’s filmmaking style, and I was curious to see what he would do with the footage we had shot.
    When I did see the movie, I felt two immediate things: 1) Michael did a great job assembling it, and the music and style choices, made the documentary, excellent and entertaining. 2) I hated the way I came across. The way I looked, the things I said-- who was this guy? I recognized parts of myself, but my answers felt incomplete, strange, and lacking originality. I wanted a do-over! This led Michael to encourage me to take the original footage and give it a fresh approach. To be fair, I wanted to use as much of Michael’s scenes as possible, but in a way that I could flesh out the missing pieces of “me”. He also encouraged me to add any elements that I wanted to accomplish this. Long story short; I assembled the interviews, added my art, specific film scenes, new music, and the result is posted above. To be continued...

  2. Part 2:
    First I want to say, I never thought about making a “better” film. I wanted it to be a closer representation to who I was, but faithful to the spirit, in which Michael presented the project.
    It’s true, as a filmmaker, I feel the need to entertain in my work. But it is not the starting point. It really begins with honesty and pleasing yourself as an artist. If you did anything solely to mollify the masses, you would be unable to begin your project, because those same “masses” represent a billion separate concepts, and which would you choose? Short of conceiving every single angle, (which is impossible), you would fail even before you began!
    If I want to represent “me”, then entertainment has to be there all along. But, is this version of the film the real me? To a degree-- yes. The ENTIRE me? No. But a good piece of filmmaking demands a continuity of tone. Mixing messages or emotional aspects, either waters down the work, or leads to audience confusion. So choices have to be made. I present the truth, but remain on point. This decision comes with a price however. An aspect of me will be sacrificed in the process. Some part of me will remain missing. You see, I have a humorous, silly, and zany side, that is a huge part of me. (There are films I’ve posted that will attest to the truth of this!) But I felt to stay true to Michael’s profound questions, I needed to treat them seriously. Respectfully.
    In the final analysis, I feel Michael is correct about my filmmaking sensibilities. To deny truth is folly. I want you to enjoy the “ride” I create. Michael’s strengths lie in his ability to challenge the audience, regardless of their reaction. I want to entertain and inform at the same time. Our two films reflect this strategy.
    Both film projects are equally valid. You could say that Michael’s “warts and all” approach is more direct in some ways. No distractions. The subject speaks. You listen. But for me, art and philosophy occurs in the submersions of my senses, it is in every way, a visceral experience. I might answer in profound sound bites, but I don’t stand around and ponder things as a rule. The real me is a rapid-fire creative paradox. A manic-like explosion of creativity. The work and thinking occur at the same time. Images/Music-- thoughts in quick bursts. That is who I really am. So, this was my intention (or platform) for making my version of the documentary. Overall, I owe Michael a great debt of gratitude and thanks for pushing me to do it. In the end, knowing that our versions exist, I actually can appreciate both films now, noting the differences and moments that make each one unique. I can respect and appreciate both points of view. Variety is a good thing. It was never meant to be a contest. There is no “better” movie. I hope the audience can enjoy both, and understand that-- if nothing else comes from this experiment-- there is no such thing as a single viewpoint.