When I think about contemporary American cinema there are things to be thankful for and, as with cell phone addiction and social media mania, a good deal to lament. Anyone can be a video filmmaker and almost everyone is. But role models? Unique visions? Not many artists around who rival my mentors: Cassavetes and Bergman. Plenty of practitioners, genre lovers, films about other films, and politically correct attempts at “ism” proving and “ist” promoting.
I like Sean Baker, the Safdie brothers, Chloe Zhao, Iñárritu, Cuarón, del Toro, Figgis, Haggis and the potential of the Bricolage group. But I don’t see many American films which take stabs at ‘the way things seem to be’, a modest phrase used to avoid the word ‘truth’, the provenance of used car salesmen and faith healers.
I remember intensely conceived and cheaply made films featuring life ‘as it seems to be lived.’ Most of those films were not American. Satyajit Ray (India) made films like that (Apu Trilogy, 1955-59). And Tsai Ming-liang, (What Time Is It There, 2001) Hou Hsiao-hsien, (Goodbye South, Goodbye, 1996) both from Taiwan, Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, 1997), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Peddler, 1987) both from Iran. John Cassavetes was the American who caught that drift back in the late ‘50s and made Shadows (1959), a film that changed my life.
Epic, grassroots, black and white video, cinema shot with DSLRs, which look like still cameras, and cell phones like the iPhone 7 Plus with its great 4k pictures, linked to neck straps held taut to augment the steadicam quality suspension system. Add an H4 Zoom mike and a couple of high quality lavs and you’re set. Today all it takes is epic intention to realise epic proportion.
Here’s how I first found out about it. In 1960 I left school and set out on the road, hitchhiking East with my packsack and 5 string banjo in an oil cloth case my mother made for me. On The Road, Kerouac and Cassady, then Henry Miller and Tropic Of Cancer and the Existentialists all set me out from San Francisco looking, feeling, longing, holing up in NYC; then working on Swedish freighters, living in Paris on the Place St. Andre des Arts at the tiny Anglo Latin hotel, now gone; then thumbing south to Greece and eventually back north to Sweden, signing onto a Swedish tanker, which took me to Punta Cardon, Venezuela and then back to the US and Cambridge, Mass. where I went back to school and a degree in English. One year on the road. In a Village crash pad one night, I met Bob Dylan for a brief moment. He wasn’t quite Bob Dylan then but neither were the Beatles who I was told were sleeping under the Paris bridges at the same time I was.
Another night during that wandering year just before I shipped out to Buenos Aires on the Swedish freighter MS Iberia I wandered into the Village and saw John Cassavetes’ film Shadows at the Bleecker St. Cinema. What in the world was it? Millions of words have been written, spoken and broadcast about Shadows since it first played at the Paris Cinema, New York in 1959. Film is personal, private, and a mystery you don’t ask ‘why’ to if it changes your life. But what I said to myself then, and have remembered to this day, is ‘You mean film can be about you and me?’ This had never occurred to me.
It was black and white, zero budget and nothing could be less epic than Shadows. But that was the job then. Make films about people on a nickel or a dime. As a result, in 1984 I made Signal 7, an improvised drama based on my experiences driving a cab in Boston, and I dedicated it to John. One night I all but shouted to him as I was exiting and he was entering the revolving door of the Helmsley Palace Hotel with Gena (I think) and Ben Gazzara. “And I dedicated it to you!” He laughed and a few months later I brought a copy up to Woodrow Wilson Drive, above the Sunset Strip, leaving it at his house. On the phone the next day he said, “Rob, I loved your film and so did Gena and we never agree on anything.” It could have been a ceremonial sword tap on my shoulder bequeathing knighthood. But there you are. A mystery and a reward for refusing to ask ‘why’. We couldn’t afford to make epic films back then and so we made films about people. Today we can make epic films about people ALSO with no money. We’ve come a long way.
Cassavetes showed you could make a film about you and me, roustabout, people on the edges of convention, not exactly rebels without a cause, but sometimes rebellious and sometimes with a cause… films which happen somewhere in between plot and story, the moments where we all spend most of our time. Life as it seems to be lived. Boring. Insistent. Difficult. Magnificent. Not acting, but a form of being, done with people living as close to the ground as possible. That’s the only thing that really interests me in the cinema.
But these films are considered ‘small.’ You hear it all the time. ‘I saw this little film the other day about two old people who make a suicide pact to head off old age… really small, made for under a couple of million.’ What’s small about that? Who cares what it cost? It’s a film about the human dilemma. What else is there? Does it have anything to say about everyday suffering? Small because it was made for little or nothing and tries to be honest?
A lot of cinematic nonsense has been made under the banner of ‘independence.’ In the era of ‘4k resolution for less than 1k investment,’ independent video production guarantees no valour. Or value. It’s a catch-all synonym for almost certain obscurity and occasional epiphanies. Every promising adept and hopeless duffer is included. Even Hollywood directors are now independent.
But independent of what? I’d rather be dependent, dependent on the life I see around me daily. Like in: the Kitchen Sink Cinema from England, the French New Wave, Cinema Novo from Brazil, Italian Neo- Realism… films devoted to one person in a small town, one street in a town, one corner on a street, one building on a block, one house, even one room. The scope is so small human joys and sorrows are the only subjects which fit. People doing what they do. Sufferers trying to heal. Broken souls looking for respite. Resolute lovers trying to understand each other. As Cassavetes used to say, “Terrific!” Not small… BIG films.
This kind of film exists in small quarters in order to concentrate on everything that really matters, not because filmmakers don’t have the budget to be grander. True, they can’t afford so called ‘Stars,’ glitzy locations protected with city permits enforced by friendly police protecting public safety. For this the filmmaker can be grateful. But it doesn’t free a visionary from dreaming bigger, working from an epic concept. The world unfolds around us all the same. The sky is as big to a beginning director as to Cecil B. DeMille, and given today’s 4k technology available on a cell phone, it can be photographed with even more scope. So maybe small isn’t the only size required for cinema which tries to mean something.
A small $500 drone can capture the curvature of the earth from 500 ft. Lenses are wider and smaller. And better sensors now exist which allow us to find light in almost utter darkness. Film students today have the equipment of a studio in their backpacks and, in spite of their teachers, often know that having a big toy doesn’t mean anyone sees the difference.
Digital video has challenged the arrogance of Hollywood and inspired the accessibility of the gifted amateur. And every artist is amateur in the moment of conception. Real inspiration is innocent. As is honesty. And facility in bringing concept to the highest degree of practice and achievement is like learning to hit a jumper. It takes time, a lot of practice and many mistakes. But where is the court? All around us at all times. If you haven’t noticed you’re probably not a film artist.
Unique and fascinating characters live on every block in every town in every country. Contrary to conventional prejudices, if they are willing and the director wise enough to inspire them, they can play every note, in every chord in every cinematic song of themselves. They may not be able to play Shakespeare. Maybe they can’t truly deliver a single written line. But they can improvise and out-write even the greatest screenwriter in playing that symphony of themselves.
And, with ideas that have a wider context you can take these exceptional people, actors, non-actors, it doesn’t matter as long as no one is ‘acting,’ and make an epic motion picture with a digital DSLR, an iPhone 7 Plus (and now an 11 or a 12), lavs and a Zoom mike. And much of the time you’ll end up dropping the lavs and using the cell phone camera mikes, superb tools in tight close-ups. You can’t pay so-called ‘stars’ and celebrity directors exorbitant salaries, or buy permits to shoot at Trump Towers. The Beatles had it right. “If you take a walk I’ll tax your feet.” That’s how society works. Pay to play. But how is it a poet doesn’t need a permit? A painter paints what he sees free of charge. The no-budget filmmaker needs to do the same.
You can make an epic video feature almost anywhere there’s oxygen to breathe. How? It’s called hutzpah. It’s called Vision if coupled with heavy labour. It’s called consideration. It’s called caring about people. It’s making a distinction between laws which protect people, and permits which just annoy everyone. It’s about asking permission… and often after the fact. It’s about tact as much as ruthlessness in pursuit of a cherished vision. It’s about free speech. And it’s about freedom to make any film you can get away with while giving everybody proper respect, payment if possible, film credits, publicity, and in every way you can give people their due. That’s how you do it. And often at night where you can hide in the shadows. And damn the bureaucrats!
Between 2000 and 2008, my Tenderloin Action and Tenderloin yGroup workshops made nine interlocking feature films in the streets of the San Francisco Tenderloin, the Albany Bulb, in Reno, the Nevada desert, in restaurants bars, hotels, rented rooms. And I asked permission and got it. And I didn’t ask permission and no one got mad. I once sat down, without asking, at a night sidewalk café and filmed a dialogue scene between two of my players. The manager came out, watched for a while and then asked, “When’s it going to be released?”
Players of mine jumped into a well-known fountain and embraced under the waterfall. Total cast and crew, including me, four. We shot for under an hour and disappeared into the night. I got permission to shoot on one of the SF Embarcadero docks and got production insurance, shot a suicide scene with a registered (and paid) stunt double. I think you get the point. You do and you don’t do. You pay and you can’t afford to. You have money and you don’t have it. Like every other person and municipal government. Assume you have credit in this world. The debt ridden United States has more than enough. And you deserve yours.
Nine feature films which start at 9:00 PM about 40-50 fictional characters living on America’s rough edges. The 9 @ Night Film Cycle. Ever seen them? Check with your favourite mistributor or inhibitor. They were cast from the hundreds of people who for five years came through the doors of Rand Crook and Ethan Sing’s Pacific Rim studio down on Natoma, and during another five later the Tenderloin Action Group became the Tenderloin yGroup at Carmen Barsody and Kay Jorgenson’s Faithful Fools Street Ministry near Turk and Eddy. Once a week in four hour sessions everyday people from every walk of life representing every nationality, race, sexual persuasion, human vice, and individual genius did Direct Action Cinema exercises in relaxation, concentration, and emotional experience. We used backstory improvs to build character and ordered developing circumstances into scenarios. No sitting down at a table and reading takes the place of standing up on location and inventing.
The people who stayed the course became lead actors in films where human drama was played out off the beaten path as well as right out in the open for all to see: in alleys lit by cracked streetlights, by highways and byways lit by passing cars, homeless encampments lit by barrel fires, bars where we shot, trespasses forgot, undeveloped waterfront haunts now gone, graced and replaced by stadiums and corporate headquarters, hobo jungles under bridges where you might risk a hit on the head and a missing wallet. But the hit never came and all we ever found was a good laugh, a pat on the back and co-operation.
And epic. Chalk (1996) and the nine 9 @ Night feature films. Close to ten years of work, 17 hours of finished film cut from hundreds of hours of footage, scenarios interacting and overlapping at various points, an obscure someone in the background of one film the lead player at the same moment in the next. All sorts of ‘un’ and ‘on’ programmatic intersects someday destined to attract their academic interpreters.
A couple of years ago my friend and collaborator Marshall Spight, owner of Meets the Eye Studios, San Carlos, sponsored an art show with 50 of my paintings and a “Cinema Temple”, an 18 ft. high and 25 ft. wide duvetyne tent hung in a completely dark black box theatre. Inside all nine of those 9 @ Night films played simultaneously on 9 video screens. Video windows glowing in the dark with only a thin patina of sound emanating from each screen. The breath of everyday miracles, each burst of joy, rage, despair, intimate connection, each moment of program music giving rhythm and piquance to a decade’s worth of work. A video museum dedicated to the work of citizen players, friends and colleagues, masters of picture and sound such as DP Mickey Freeman and editors like David Schickele, Allen Kelly and Milena Grozeva Ley, producers such as Michelle Anton Allen and our ever-vigilant queen of logistics, Mira Larkin.
Epic, grass roots, black and white video, cinema shot with digital DSLRs, which look like still cameras, and cell phones like the iPhone 7 Plus with its great 4k pictures, linked to neck straps held taut to augment the steadicam quality suspension system. Add an H4 Zoom mike and a couple of high quality lavs and you’re set. Today all it takes is epic intention to realize epic proportion.
I’m not the only one who thinks large and doesn’t worry about the costs. I am particularly impressed with Daniel Kremer and his epic Overwhelm The Sky (2018), a tad under three hours, loosely imagined from the early American novel by Charles Brockden Brown and now distributed by Kino Lorber.
Here’s how it describes itself: “An Existential Epic Neo-Noir,” loosely adapted from Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Overwhelm the Sky tells the story of an east coast radio personality who moves to San Francisco to marry Thea, the sister of his best friend Neil, a successful entrepreneur. Shortly before Eddie’s arrival, Neil is found murdered in Golden Gate Park in what the police surmise was a simple mugging gone awry. As the sullen Eddie steps in as interim host of his old friend Dean’s late-night talk-radio show, he obsessively makes regular visits to the forested spot where Neil’s corpse was found. One such visit unleashes a chain of unpredictable events that sends Eddie snooping into the life of a sleepwalking drifter with a mysterious, tragic, and possibly scandalous past. The film takes many unexpected twists and turns, winding up in the Arizona Desert, where a trading of places occurs…during a series of surreal, often frightening encounters.
Critics have had a lot to say:
“An endlessly intriguing, breezily enigmatic yarn that hangs out in the unincorporated territory between waking and dreaming, reality and paranoia. Daniel Kremer does not lack for ambition, persistence, bravery, and talent, and his work deserves a wider audience.” – Michael Fox, KQED/NPR
“A masterpiece! The filmmaking is so confident that it’s astonishing. The paranoid atmosphere, the perfectly calibrated camera moves, the always surprising but ineffably right compositions, and the precision of the cutting, reminded me of Jacques Rivette and Paul Thomas Anderson.” – Michael Glover Smith (director of Mercury in Retrograde), White City Cinema
Many of the players in Daniel’s film have also worked in an improvisational style with other members of the Bricolage group (which include Daniel Kremer, Josh Peterson [winner of the Audience Award at the 2021 Cinequest Film Festival for his first feature Like, Reply, Share] Deniz Demirer, Jeff Kao, Penny Werner, Kris Caltagirone) centred in San Francisco’s East Bay. Daniel has shown his faith in what each of his players brings to the table and has knit them together into a weave and warp of everyday familiarity, fact or fiction, one is never sure which. And we don’t need to be sure because the film runs on waving its own flags, propelled by its own energies and regardless of any spin we might want to put on it. This was a film Daniel made because it pleased, inspired, and directed him to make it. And most impressively, it was done with a large cast with many different points of view and motivations.
Daniel knew he wanted to be a filmmaker when he was eight years old when he started making films with family and friends. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of film rivalled perhaps only by Tarantino’s. He looks at every kind of picture and remembers it, how it looks, what it means, and the names of everyone associated with it. And he shoots with an artist’s curiosity, a field general’s determination and where he wants to all over the city. No trucks, trailers, no yellow tape designed to keep life away, no cops, permits, trailers for pampered stars. He leads a band of cinematic poets into great scenic places where life is likely to be found and he surrounds himself with it. This is piracy of the most elegant kind. Someone objects. Of course, no argument. Sorry to have bothered you. But in fact most people are not offended. Most are flattered. That’s the magic of filmmaking which attracts life rather than buys fakery. Yes, the law may be upheld, but many of the permit cops perform their duties with a smile and at a later date, off duty, find themselves in a film.
But Daniel didn’t stop there. One day with three cars and eight people he left the city and went East over the Sierras to Bodie, a well-preserved mining ghost town. Majestic mountains, desert terrain high above Mono Lake. Grand. Western. John Ford country. Old weather beaten mining shacks and clapboard houses. DP Aaron Hollander, sound person, four actors, and Daniel. They no sooner got out of their cars than they were stopped by a Park Ranger asking for a shooting permit. Too bad a permit could not be had on site.
So they drove down the mountain and found themselves on a dirt road. None of them had ever been there before. No buildings of any kind but old, worn fence posts began to appear and suddenly rusty barbed wire half buried in the sand.
Daniel had a hammer in his car. Angles appeared, vehicles parked out of shot and on ‘Action’ there was a ranch woman out mending fences when two characters came along in their pick-up. No house. That was later purchased from a stock footage service. The interior was found in Dogpatch, San Francisco. High desert sand, sage brush, arid hills and mountains in the background and abandoned fence posts inferred a classic Western ranch which wasn’t there. A wandering sleepwalker picked up by a cowhand meets a ranch owner, a drama played out with the magnificent backdrop of high plains country. In the film business we’re talking thousands of dollars. In the business of making epic no budget films: gas, food and a cheap motel. When Daniel got his idea, there was one hour of light left in the sky. More time than he needed as it turned out.
Daniel created a long forgotten road show opening complete with overture and intermission music and formal attire at the Roxie Cinema, San Francisco. Overwhelm the sky has also been shown at the Brussels International, SF Independent, Three Rivers, and Champs Elysees film festivals.
Another recent mini- budget film Daniel told me about was shot in India right out of the landscape of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. Pariah (2020), directed by Riddhi Majumder, a 23 year old first time feature filmmaker, was made with little money, but with profound access to a nature we rarely see. The cinematography rivals the best black and white, shot in a seemingly unspoiled rural area of Bengal, evoking an era long gone for city dwellers and rapidly disappearing for any but the most isolated rural, pre-industrial villagers. But one could shoot ten years in what appears to be a single pastoral village and never see what Majumder shows us. This is a transcendental vision about what to see and how to frame it, minimal interior lighting, exteriors unlit and chosen when the light is right, surprising compositions and points of view, a poetic tour de force.
In rural India the 21st century shows up everywhere but here we don’t see what century we’re in. The patrician attitude of the self-indulgent landlord seems pre-1950s when Ray began his work. Harsh class divisions probably still exist there accompanied by Pepsi ads, dusty Ford trucks and Monsanto billboards but there is only one time bound artefact in the entire film – a rusty old rifle you knew didn’t work but fired via a filmmaking trick. A photo of some dignitary in the background of the landlord’s mansion might date the film, but it’s too far away to see clearly.
What is epic in this film? Nature, photographed masterfully. (Abhirup Halder is the DP.) Sounds of the animal world almost too present, but a constant reminder of non-human cultures hidden in the forests. And suffering. The untouchable pariah of the title is a wandering mute, a helpless and humble castaway living on the outskirts of a small farming village, tolerated by the children who know he’s harmless as they scold and play with him, infuriating to the mothers who fear his childish ignorance may be dangerous. Certain men despise his helplessness, torture him for his handicap and, encouraged by the landlord, in one grotesque scene, rape him.
Whereas Ray’s films find virtue in lives led close to nature, Majumder focuses on the cruelty and ignorant fear of peasants, egged on by quasi-religious propaganda, guarding the little power they have by scapegoating this tender soul trapped in a defective body. And Majumder doesn’t turn away out of delicacy. He holds on to these terrifying shots of the Pariah’s suffering far longer than is comfortable. With unrelenting determination to show the pain and degradation inflicted on the helpless and sorrowful by the ignorant and arrogant, he won’t let us get away. No romantic view of the sensitivity found in nature’s children will survive his insistent gaze. These tillers of the soil are also killers of the soul. And pain is pain. I remember that much of the Cannes audience for Irreversible scurried for the exits after the Monica Bellucci rape scene, thereby missing the deep ethical reason for watching it. Epic films such as Pariah show us that the victims of human atrocity don’t have the same luxury. They can’t walk out or walk away.
Nowadays I’m creating another trilogy of improvised dramatic feature films, epic in the way I’ve been talking about, concerning the lives of homeless and houseless people shot in multiple locations on the road from California to Nevada. Statistics estimate that about a third of those in that category are likely to be afflicted with drugs or alcohol. Another third suffer from mental illness. The characters in the Nomad Trilogy are the other third likely to be much like you or me. Lost a job, their house, faith in the system. They may operate on either side of the law. Young lovers (Train Schickele and Emily Corbo) are out on the road on a personal quest. Wildcat construction workers (Rusty Murphy and Tony Milliner) are looking for work while trying to save the life of a street addict (Lydia Becker) who hid in the back of their truck. An RV of meth sellers are trying to get out of that business before they get caught in it. Arid Cut (2019), film #1, which premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2019 follows them in and around homeless encampments in San Francisco’s East Bay, escaping from urban removal and Trumpian indifference.
Center Divide (2021), film #2 was conceived and shot, masked and distanced, including a scene where players discover Covid en-route, set in the small towns, dry lakes, hills and deserts of drought plagued Modoc County tucked under Oregon to the north and up against Nevada to the east. It was shot with two hand held iPhones, an occasional DSLR and the remarkable drone work of Diarlen (the Lion) Pantaleo and one great flying masterpiece from Chris Damm. For the first time I took the lead camera (iPhone 11) and Zhan Petrov, an up and coming filmmaker to watch for, the second. Petrov’s first feature Love Funeral (2021) is an epic, black and white digital follow-up to Mike Figgis’s Time Code (2000) – four cell phones following modern lost generation types colliding in a crash pad, all cameras on screen at once in real time, no editing, one take, shot in 1 hour and 13 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles. Terrific!
Our players prepared in the Citizen Cinema workshop with the usual Direct Action emphasis on strong emotion and back-story improv. We teamed them with a small guerrilla crew and the natural talents assembled by long time Modoc resident, photographer and writer, Jean Bilodeaux our up country Modoc producer and co-conspirator. Moving fast through the countryside we looked straight into the sun, blending cinematic elegance with Fauve-esque photons and video impasto achieved with the quantum quivers of Monochrome Punch. Adding a touch of Bergman we, as modern day primitives, wanted to ‘fight sophistication’ as Cassavetes proposed, iPhones close to the ground and drones high overhead.
Faultline (in production), film #3 will take us into ranch country where drought threatens to overwhelm rural economies and traditional values struggle with the partisan divides of a deeply divided country. Urban will come up against rural and values compete in a kind of theatre game where passionately held views can clash. Knowing that we’re making a fiction after which antagonists shake hands and share a drink gives us a rare opportunity to recognise that what we favour may be less eternal than the need to accept differences in order to preserve democracy. Yes, we need to get rid of presidents who lie. And, no, we don’t despise our opponents in a fair election, our one hedge against bloodshed.
Why do we make films anyway? Or dance, or paint or mount our own hobby horses? I prefer to find my own way outside systems and expectations. I don’t trust people just because they’re in groups. I know that I’m the only organism which can mediate my life’s alternatives and come up with the me I can live with. Others too do better off the grid and out of credit society. Everyone, in their own way, faces a country some of us are starting to think has betrayed basic values to say nothing of common sense. The fact that money and power are money and power, go together and always have, is not news. Both with and without the other, they now seem ‘the way of things’ rather than the usual union of the survival instinct and human cupidity. When political campaigns are not only determined by, but advertised as, the measure of a candidate’s valour, when exorbitant fees for TV ads are the measure of ardour and passion for a cause: when TV networks protest they are seeking ‘truth’ while humping for the profit motive, when religion has taken a much to be thanked for back seat to scientific wonder at the miracles of the universe, but both have been replaced by the dark arts of party politics and lobbying, the missionary practice for a rapidly growing secular hierarchy of corporate profiteering, we start to wonder. Is there a better way? Do we have to leave society as it has become, in order to find a way of living based on what it still might be? Questions like these are embodied in the Nomad Trilogy as it watches people and what they do, cut loose from the America we know, looking for a country we do not yet know how to find.