The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Many filmmakers trust in what an image can do. James N. Kienitz Wilkins looks elsewhere. His films trouble their own construction: The image isn’t the foundation; it’s an element in a game propelled by a rush of language. Through an abundance of extended monologue and voiceover, the frame is always shifting, while the imagery becomes one more unreliable narrator. His films are slippery and provocative, maddening and fun. Their ambition makes them hard to pin down. More than a meta-critique of cinematic conventions, his work plays with form to investigate how meaning is made in the world at large.
We recently sat down to talk about his two latest films. This Action Lies (2018) is an object study of a coffee cup, suffused with three competing voice-over monologues. The mid-length experimental film asks what can be understood by looking at something long and hard, while listening to something else. The Plagiarists (2019), a feature Kienitz Wilkins cowrote with Robin Schavoir, follows a young couple who spend the evening with a kind stranger after their car breaks down in a snowstorm. Months later they discover an uncanny transgression that brings the authenticity of their moving encounter into question. Partly a parody of low-budget indie films, The Plagiarists more pointedly satirizes anxious social codes and gatekeeping around appropriation and the authentic self. Both films display Kienitz Wilkins’s dexterous practice and how, regardless of mode, he upends whatever it is we comfortably call the cinematic.
Mary Helena ClarkSo we first met in 2017 at the Whitney Biennial, but we almost met in 2009, when Ben Rivers asked me to pick up a 16mm camera he’d bought on eBay. Your camera.
James N. Kienitz Wilkins Yeah, I was selling my Canon Scoopic to fund Public Hearing (2012).
MHC How fitting, considering the way your movies often revolve around the economy of their making, and aesthetic economy more generally.
JNKW I loved that camera. But I remember thinking, at least it’s going to somebody who’s making something valuable. I didn’t personally know him at the time. I think that year he showed what he made on it at the Tate. I should ask him if he still has it.
MHC Do you want to buy it back from him?
JNKW Well, the problem is I don’t have any more money now than I had then.
MHC But you’re making films a lot faster.
JNKW That’s true.
MHC Your films can be deceptive at first encounter because they usually signal their terms upfront. Mediums (2017): it’s made of all medium shots. Public Hearing: the script is a public hearing transcript. Then as the premise plays out, the movie surpasses its structural constraints. And that’s where the real experimentation happens.
JNKW I like to get the obvious premise out of the way, stating it extremely literally, to the point where it’s useless to hang around in that realm and you have to grow beyond. The foundation of a movie, as far as I’m concerned, is a durational period with a beginning and an end. Beyond that, anything goes. That movement through time allows for a distinct kind of catch-up, where elements are introduced and then replaced, again and again. Acknowledging the conceit early on uproots the conceit itself because something still has to happen, you know? One reason I find many feature films unsatisfying is that they end exactly when I sense they’re ready to end. But go look at your favorite feature-length movie, and I guarantee there’s a point, around sixty minutes, when you were once like, Wow, I have no idea where this could go beyond what’s been established. It feels like it’s wrapping up, and then something is introduced that allows it to extend into a space hitherto unknown. I’m not talking about an M. Night Shyamalan twist, more an evolution. Figuring out how to keep going deeper is why I continue to find the feature-length form worth focusing on. I’m still making shorts, too, of course, but they’ve been getting longer. This Action Lies (2018), for instance, could have just been a little five-minute thing with a coffee cup, but it’s thirty-two minutes. I wasn’t sure if the movie could hold for that long. And the whole creative process was proving to myself that it could.
MHC I did imagine other endings for that film. Once the baby cries, I thought, Another filmmaker would have ended it now, when the outside world enters and gives a sense of space beyond the studio. But I’m glad it didn’t end there, or at the stroboscopic rotation around the cup. We need to keep rounding the film’s invisible corners.
JNKW Yeah, when the stroboscopic thing starts, it’s invited to become a different movie. But then it cuts back to fifteen more minutes of monologue.
MHC It was pleasurable to me that it didn’t have a visual climax. That would have been too tidy. You give time for things that felt arbitrary when first introduced to boomerang back into the work.
JNKW The film does have a boomerang shape in terms of its narrative. I like to think of narrative in visual ways like this. This Action Lies peaks in a way that’s similar to Indefinite Pitch (2016), and I consider them sister pieces. They’re both triangular, with a specific midpoint pivot that anchors, but also gives breathing room. We seem to be building up to it, but then, like you said, there’s a boomerang-y slope after. The pivot or break or intermission exists in many of my movies, perhaps to a tropey degree at this point. It was mandated in Public Hearing, being part of the transcript. After that, I don’t know. But it’s there for me as much as for the viewer—a time to consider what has happened, and what could happen. A time to think, and not just experience or feel—or sometimes, the reverse.
This Action Lies tries to spatialize this time. It’s a monologue about an imaginary equilateral triangle–shaped room with no entrances or exits. An impossible room. If you try to imagine it, you start to factor in, well, where’s the ceiling? Where’s the floor? And the film doesn’t show either. You can barely see the corners, only based on the shift in lighting. It’s a room that’s partly depicted, but mostly described. To shoot it, I constructed two drywall flats cornered at an awkward 60-degree angle and painted them matte white. And then the cup’s on a little pedestal in the middle of this imaginary triangle, at the centroid.
MHC I checked to see if that was a real word after watching.
JNKW It’s weirdly not where you think it would be. In an equilateral triangle, the actual mathematical center is lower. It’s the center of mass. I had to revisit my high school geometry to map it out on the set. I made it in my dad’s barn in Maine. I shot in winter because I wanted to have a good, thick steam coming off the hot coffee. It was freezing cold out. I was a little concerned actually. The camera batteries kept dying. I kept taking the temperature of the coffee… cooling fast. I’m in the barn, toiling; it’s getting dark, and my dad’s cooking dinner, saying, “What are you doing out there?”
MHC Your films put me in this claim-making, theorizing headspace. In This Action Lies I was thinking about the monologue as something that gives precise psychological detail but at a remove from the narrative stream. A visual equivalent might be a close-up or a pillow shot in an Ozu film.
JNKW Well, your movies have that going on too.
MHC Oh, tell me, what do you mean?
JNKW For instance, I was looking back on your Orpheus (outtakes) (2012), which connects to Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. I actually haven’t seen Cocteau’s, but I recently read the play it was developed from, which he wrote in 1925. When I watch your movies, I know there’s a unified language and it’s a question of figuring out how to speak that language. In the introduction to Orphée the play, the English translator weirdly qualified it, just in case it was hard to read: “Orphée is like a coat of chain mail. Each link is dependent and interdependent. But Orphée is vulnerable, if, for want of skill in the actor or want of attention in the audience, a link is missed.”
MHC My film is like the fictional links removed.
MHC Orpheus (outtakes) has a logic akin to your work, in that it uses the physical realities of filmmaking, or at least the idea of them, to create a slippery, nested character: me standing in for Buster Keaton playing Orpheus.
While watching This Action Lies, I was thinking about monologue as thought, pushing up against the fixed subject of the cup, making me re-see it, reimagine it. And then, because it’s your film, I’m wondering if we’re cycling through a three-point lighting setup.
JNKW It’s totally a three-point lighting setup, done with one light. The corner I built could be any of the three corners of the room, and since it’s centered on a circular cup on a circular pillar, you never know if there’s a rotation of the camera around the cup, although the camera never moves, only the light. So it appears to be a three-point lighting setup. That’s what’s seen on film: key, fill, rim. Even if it’s not true. Or it’s true and false at the same time.
MHC It makes me think of the Necker cube—the optical illusion where you can’t determine the orientation of the shape. Do you know what I’m talking about?
JNKW I do. I’ve seen a GIF of it.
MHC It’s an unstable image and your film does something similar with language transforming the image, speculating upon the evidentiary subject. The voice-over even upends the physical conditions of the room.
JNKW And then grounded by something super physical: analog film. Proven by the photographic medium. Which is itself later disproven, to a degree (spoiler alert!). That, to me, is exciting, this idea of having it both ways.
MHC Which you like.
JNKW I love. And I think it’s completely possible. Having it both ways. The experimental and the narrative. The documentary and the fiction. The artist and the filmmaker. The here and there? If only because these things are false opposites to begin with.
MHC Along with the view of the cup, the personhood of the voice-over shifts.
JNKW Yeah, there’s a grammatical shift. That was more about structuring the way each shot is embodied. The three shots are narrated in first person, second person, and third person, respectively. Each shot is nine to ten minutes on a single roll of 16mm film. And they’re intercut from beginning to end, so forward moving. I tried to grammatically bake a sort of schizoid quality into the voice-over, like he’s arguing with himself. If I’m using the first person, it’s personal, confessional: it seems true. And then the second person is sort of conspiratorial and can also be accusatory in a weird way. And then in third person you can shift to be more factual, pulling back, and it can sound kind of historical.
MHC The first time I saw your films I was struck by the way they de-privilege the image, which is uncommon in the experimental film scene. The voice and image tracks are conceptually linked but fairly autonomous, with the language driving the piece. The Plagiarists shifts modes. There’s more world—events, backstory, characters, and relationships—the stuff of fiction.
JNKW The Plagiarists is an experimental fiction feature. I guess that’s the easiest way to describe it. I wrote and made it with Robin Schavoir, who also wrote The Republic (2017), which I directed. To some, The Plagiarists seems like an outlier since I’ve had more success in experimental film circles. But since I was kid, I’ve always written scripts and stories.
MHC How do you see the shape of The Plagiarists?
JNKW The shape is maybe a dented circle. The movie has three sections—two almost equal parts, and then a sort of coda. The first part and the coda arguably occur during the same winter: we return to seemingly extraneous footage taped around that time. I’d say the circle is also present in its visual quality, with contemporary subject matter captured on a vintage news camera and Betacam SP videotape from the late ’80s / early ’90s. There’s a confusion of time and origin. It’s not set in the past.
There’s this movement over the course of the film in terms of the performances, and it becomes more “comfortable” or familiar in terms of the cinematic language. We wrote a fictional character, Clip, inspired and played by the real Michael “Clip” Payne of Parliament-Funkadelic. He’s been on stage his whole life but never acted. Clip meets this young couple whose car has broken down on the road, Tyler and Anna. Tyler’s played by Eamon Monaghan, an artist who happens to act, as we’ve put it. And then Lucy Kaminsky, a professional actor, plays Anna. It was written that Clip would never be in the same frame as the other actors because we were interested in what that means for their relationship.
MHC Watching, I didn’t notice that Clip never shares a frame with the couple. But I felt the disjoint, and linked it to their awkward social dynamic, inflected by an awareness of race and class. Later when I found out about the formal constraint, it opened up another way to watch the film.
JNKW Also, this was the only way we could find time to shoot with him due to his touring schedule. So, the first act is completely artificial. Then the second act—which introduces a third professional actor, Emily Davis—is shot multicamera, so you’ve got this element of liveness, but it’s still very edited. And then by the end, it’s just tape, perhaps the “tester” that’s been recorded over, if it was left within the camera that’s discussed by the characters. Incidental footage subservient to a closing monologue foisted upon it. No meaning unless you’re invested in it. Just a thing in the world.
MHC An object.
MHC Within your films, objects are central. In The Plagiarists, the first time there’s a POV shot is when Tyler picks up the camera in the closet during Clip’s monologue. It’s the first time we’re seeing a subjective vantage point, and it’s also an object of the film’s fiction, a film within the film. I love that the shot is both of those things in a film that’s so much about doublings and slippages.
JNKW Yeah, in a very simple way, the movie is about the camera. You’re absolutely right that objects are almost a fixation of mine, thinking about my interest in old cameras and stuff like that. I’ve owned every type of camera at some point. But you can’t just be into old cameras without a purpose, otherwise you turn into a hoarder. The same applies to making objects. I can’t just throw stuff into a bottomless storage space. And so far, I don’t make work people buy. For me, one way of looking at movies is this way of isolating and capturing, catch and release. (laughter) The Plagiarists is very physical in that sense. It was conceived from an object: the script is written around the presence of a camera from another movie that I wasn’t able to make.
MHC Do you publish texts?
JNKW No, but I would love to. I want to publish plays or screenplays. Focusing on that as an end or a landing space meant for consumption just as it is. I don’t go see plays these days. I’m not really excited by liveness in that way. And I can’t afford it. But I love reading them as literature. I like the thin Samuel French actor’s editions that you can just kick around.
The script of The Plagiarists is close to what we shot, but I actually think it’s a readable and fun text in its own right. Robin and I wrote it fast and had a good time doing so. Another classic movie I haven’t seen is Six Degrees of Separation (1993), but while shooting The Plagiarists, I enjoyed reading the play it’s based on, by John Guare. I knew of the movie and was intrigued that it started as a play. It made me think about our editing approach, because Guare almost completely eschews setting. He’s very playful about the way he switches scenes. A character might just say they’re somewhere else, and so they are. It’s not magic. You’re just there. It’s a reminder that you were always only ever in an intellectual space, while still retaining the flow.
MHC And you come to that from monologue. I feel like the monologue is your form.
JNKW It’s funny; I wouldn’t have predicted that. I started writing monologue stuff later, like Special Features (2014) and Indefinite Pitch, but looking back to Public Hearing, I realized it’s essentially a series of monologues. The Plagiarists hinges on Clip’s monologue, the central plagiarism that drives the plot. Even Mediums operates with characters speaking past one another—like they’re in their own minds.
MHC The Plagiarists feels like one of your films, for certain, but uses more elements of genre in the story and characters, which transform how the film reads. Before its release did you have a sense of where the film would find its audience?
JNKW The specific feeling of The Plagiarists comes from it being a collaboration. I think of its “author” as a third synthetized voice. I really appreciate the programmers at Lincoln Center and the distributor, KimStim, who came on board. It’s a risky movie that tries to have it both or more ways. It’s not for everyone; I get that. It’s a cultural satire using indie predilections, the “ingredients,” let’s say. While at the same time, it’s more indie than a lot of indies these days, in the way it was constructed and produced. Some people saw the movie as cynical and annoying; I think they’re believing a little bit too much in the characters, who were written that way. They’re supposed to be cynical and annoying.
MHC (laughter) Yeah, that critique relies on an insider/outsider dynamic, with someone being the butt of a joke. The movie is up to something else. It’s using the form of an indie movie as a disguise. The parodic layer isn’t the point. I read The Plagiarists as a critique of authenticity to get at ideas about identity. The movie’s doing double duty.
JNKW Right. Some people say it’s a parody of mumblecore. But that’s a convenient misunderstanding. I’ve never seen a mumblecore movie and neither has Robin, but as far as I understand it, the genre was inspired by reality television, easy access to DV cameras, a certain fetishization of earlier indie filmmakers, and an idea of emotional authenticity. What’s more relevant to me is how the past seeps into the present—the plagiaristic potential embedded in us all. The main character, Tyler, particularly embodies this in his artistic confusion. He has strong opinions, but no cohesive argument. Everything is mixed up. The movie is most concerned with structurally examining this. For example, to many, The Plagiarists feels improvisatory, but it was 100-percent scripted. It was also shot on a once-expensive camera that predates mumblecore by twenty years. I recently talked to this critic-curator, and he said, “This is not like mumblecore at all. Stylistically it might seem like it. But mumblecore was hardly interested in the economy of its time, namely the Great Recession. It was about personal relationships.” I’ll take his word for it. For Robin and me, economic straits are what creatively drive us. As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder and harder for me to take seriously the idea of producing a fiction screenplay without questioning its existence in the real world. The Plagiarists takes up this thinking as its subject matter.
MHC With your films, if somebody asks a purely technical question during a Q & A, rather than eliciting a dead-end response, it will open up all these new inroads to the work. Sometimes I feel a film is expected to contain everything you need to understand it. We talked about the forensic read. Is it all there? Is it legible?
JNKW There is that expectation. But it’s an impossible expectation, no? Or a fake one that is more connected to satisfaction and taste than completeness.
MHC Whereas we go to gallery shows and it’s a very different experience of understanding that necessary step: context.
JNKW However, I do feel The Plagiarists contains all you need to enjoy it. And even what you need to decode it on a material level. It’s just that some extra work is involved, if that’s what we mean by “context.” It might not reflect well upon you, poor viewer, who perhaps bopped along to the soundtrack before learning it was all Pond5 stock. Or maybe you didn’t learn, because you left when the credits started. I argue that’s okay. Let’s engage our bad taste. There’s a scene where the characters forget how to make a beef bolognese. Clip suggests it probably doesn’t matter what order it all goes in; it’ll taste the same. I think he’s just being nice. The order does matter to the discerning cook. Those who are paying attention. The movie is a bit of a challenge to pay attention: yes, there is this “indie” story happening, but there’s also material and formal stuff that binds it all.
But context complicates. The Plagiarists is now, officially, a theatrically released feature. There’s a different sort of expectation for entertainment that comes with that. Yet at the end of the day, it was made for cheaper-than-cheap by some so-called experimental filmmakers. So how to read this? Well, I propose literally that. Reading it. Is a movie a text? And can it remain entertaining as such? Or what if a movie cites texts? We’re in a new age of movie watching, where the rarity is gone. So there’s almost no excuse, if you’re curious about something, to find out a little bit more. I’m not saying the movie doesn’t carry the burden of being meaningful and good. But take a moment to go, Huh. And look something up or talk to someone about it. I believe this type of viewership is cultivated much more in arts contexts, like the gallery shows you mention.
MHC The film is not dependent upon someone getting, say, the Pond5 music, but it gets you thinking about other clues that hint beyond the surface read.
JNKW Exactly. The use of stock music is about more than just vibe. The point of stock music in general is that it’s as close to copyright infringement as you can legally get. In the credits, we also cite all the texts we used. So at the very least, we the filmmakers are not the plagiarists, on a technical level.
MHC You often mine the public domain. Like the astronaut photo in your Gasworks show. Or the Public Hearing transcript. Let’s talk about documentary and authorship.
JNKW That photo, The Second Person (2018), is a digital photograph of a photograph from the moon landing. There’s a number of self-reflexive things going on in the resulting image, but to the point, I got interested in it because NASA is part of the government, so we as tax-paying citizens have a right to the vast image library they’ve produced. It’s obviously documentary material, like a public-hearing transcript, or a quotation from a book. But my documentary impulse is not simply to use content from a “real” world source, it’s to explore my personal claim to it on a technical and/or legal basis, rather than, say, a claim of identity. Of course, the spiral of identity is often a side-effect, as expressed in Indefinite Pitch.
So the “claim” directly connects to The Plagiarists. Plagiarism is not a crime on the books—that’s what copyright protection is for. It more like a faux pas or an extra-legal transgression. What happens when someone can technically do something, despite your moral outrage? Well, I guess you go on Twitter and talk about wanting to execute them. Plagiarism is a big issue as we see information freed of objecthood. In the movie, when Clip’s appropriation of a work of literature is discovered, the character Alison says, “It’s not like he sold you a fake book or something.” He just said something. It’s unnerving; you feel like he did something very wrong. But there’s nothing really to be done about it. And so it comes down to policing bad social behavior, often using equally bad social behavior. We see this happening all around us in culture today—like the frenzy around cultural appropriation—and it’s ripe for satire.
I think satire is an important form. The word itself is so strange. Looking it up, the Latin root satura actually has a culinary basis. It used to mean full, like sated. But then the meaning shifted to miscellany or medley. And there was this related phrase lanx satura, which meant “a full dish of various kinds of fruits.” That’s a great way to think about The Plagiarists: it’s no beef Bolognese; it’s a bowl of fruits.
MHC I’m glad that you brought up etymology. You often talk about the history of a term, such as the evolution of Dunkin’ Donuts branding language in This Action Lies, tracing these lines, breaking down the mechanics of a word. It’s such a text-heavy practice.
JNKW I rely on text to understand the world. I approach things, especially images, with skepticism. Not cynicism. When I’m told a shot does this or evokes that—says who? Where are we starting from? Etymology is a fun and useful starting point. If we accept this basis of a word as the furthest back we can go, then from there, where have we landed? I like that movies can contain this type of inquiry. They are efficient containers for many things.
MHC I think of films as a choreography of sense, containers for a particular, shaped experience. And when I’m making one, each component becomes an input that, at least in my mind, figures an implied perceiving body. To go back to the shape of a film, you could think of its form as being made through encounter. It changes the way you navigate the world, for sure.
JNKW Even when not making a movie. Were you the one talking to me about Jerry Seinfeld? Another comedian was saying he feels like he’s never living in the moment. God, who the heck told me this? Maybe it was an interview in the Times. I think this comedian asked Seinfeld, “Is that a problem? Do you feel like you’re mining every moment for material?” And Seinfeld was like, “Well, no. I’m never in the moment. And I love it.”
MHC You relate to that?
JNKW I’m not saying I’m totally like that, but the act of making movies so mirrors life. It’s strange to then be doing it while living life, you know?
MHC Well, you, like Jerry Seinfeld, play a version of yourself in your own work. There’s a first person, autobiographical voice that’s literally voiced by you. There’s a version of James in these films.
JNKW Right. Of course. That’s a good point. And the plagiarized material in The Plagiarists is from Karl Ove Knausgaard, who is widely identified with this autofiction trend, in which the author is at once the character and not. Though let’s not get started on how autofiction is a fake term and a rebrand of what has been happening in fiction and movies forever. Seinfeld is a perfect example. Probably the most successful example in the history of mankind.
MHC In This Action Lies, you talk about yourself, or a version of James as a brand…
JNKW Yeah, I try to be aware of that. Like imagining if my voice got away from me. Who does it belong to then? When it starts to call out who I am too. I mean, that’s one major consequence of making stuff we put out into the world. Or doing interviews like this. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. I don’t have a real say in it. Is it me anymore?
MHC I like this idea of your voice getting away from you… You said that, not me.
Mary Helena Clark is an artist working in film, video, and installation. Her films—such as Orpheus (outtakes) (2012), The Dragon is the Frame (2014), Palms (2015), Delphi Falls (2016), The Glass Note (2018)—have been screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the New York Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Wexner Center for the Arts, Vox Populi, Anthology Film Archives, and Brooklyn Academy of Music, among others.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.