I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Lindzee Smith in conversation with directors Tim Burns and Jim Jarmusch. They discuss their works Against the Grain and Permanent Vacation as well as inspiration, influence, and creative exile.
Lindzee SmithOne of the main criticisms I’ve heard that is similar to both films is that they’re both overly romantic films about male concerns or pre-occupations with romantic visions of male life. How do you respond to that idea?
Jim JarmuschIt’s a portrait of a certain state that exists. I think that this state is only romantic for the character—not for me, and not for the audience. I didn’t intend a strong identification between Chris’s character and the audience—it’s more observation than identification. I think all the characters in the film are secondary to the main character, and all are portrayed as being either victimized by or separated from normal society. Permanent Vacation is a portrait of a particular young man’s world.
Tim Burns I think there is a preoccupation with the romantic male but Against The Grain is about the Romantic Male, and critical. The contradictions that exist in Ray Unit’s world form the basis of the film. His fascination with his own image. He’s a middle-class male from a western Australian boys’ school and art school. An individual, idiosyncratic, egotist. A competitive product of a post industrial capitalist state. The problem for me is the characterization of women in the film.
LSWell, I think it’s true, except for your mother, who is a remarkably strong character, Tim, inAgainst The Grain, all of the other women are subsidiary characters, or in the case of Paula Old, token women placed in there for guilt appeasement or something. How do you feel about that?
TBI think that’s true. The main character is a male and the women’s role was to bring the issue of morality of the camera and the male position in the film. So I wrote the script in relationship to Sandy Edwards, a very strong commercial woman photographer, one of the few professionals in Australia who trained through a male apprentice system. But I didn’t realize the photographer’s fear of camera manipulation. When Sandy’s in front of the camera, she’s uncomfortable and the result is conceptually very true to the aims of the film, showing the alienation of the camera, but much less defined as to where the woman stood as a character in the film.
LS Jim, Permanent Vacation—the story has been told so many times—it’s almost a formula story—the on-the-road, existential character wandering from situation to situation to situation. What amazed me in that film was the way you kept that constantly interesting. Was there any reason you had for choosing those ideas—that story line? Is that a central pre-occupation of yours or was it just that Chris Parker, the lead actor, happened to be an interesting model you wanted to use.
JJ Well, a little of both. It is an almost classical form—the young man’s picaresque portrait,bildungsroman and all that. It’s a reduction of that made very bleak. Chris suggested that to me in his real life—the state of having no real ambitions, of not really being inspired by anything. In this state the things that affect you are almost unconscious. They don’t strike you at the time, but they leave an impression somewhere. The film is based on Chris, on myself, and on my brother, who is the same age as Chris and who works in a factory in Cleveland.
LS Do you see that as a positive vision—passive nihilism?
JJ I think nihilism is a realistic outlook, but I see both positive and negative aspects in the approach of the main character. His self-imposed exile from existing institutions: work, school, family, etc., is certainly positive, but his difficulty in communicating with other people in the same situation is relatively hopeless. More and more, intelligent young people are put into this almost hopeless situation. That’s what the film is about.
LS One of the things that strikes me as interesting in both films is the notion of pace, because they are both directly opposite in approach to pace. What was your guiding idea about pace in the film?
JJ What I was trying to do was to approximate real time for the audience. Instead of embellishing the pace with quick editing, and moving things along simply because the audience is accustomed to being moved along at a certain “film” pace, I wanted to remove all that. Minimalize it so that you watch people in almost real time. The camera doesn’t punctuate things so that this becomes an important gesture, and this is not, according to the distance between camera and subject. I leave those judgements up to the audience by attempting to accustom them to a more realistic pace.
TB Well I had a lot of things I wanted to bring up in the film, so that made it cut fairly quickly in some way. But at the same time I wanted to keep the picture very square, still and unmoving, the action doesn’t really happen in the picture so much, it happens in the way the film is put together. It’s the opposite of the Super 8 theory where we ran the shots for the full duration of time and action. The movement within the frame created pace. The Grain’s look is influenced by a traditional Australian film look, square, unmoving. After six months of editing I wasn’t happy with the way it was cut so I cut the picture again, working off the work of the other editors. Again, if I’d had more experience with 16mm in the beginning, I may have done it differently, but I wanted people to see it more than once, because the film is complicated and there are different levels of comprehension. But I’ve always had a fast pace.
LS I found the pace of Permanent Vacation stimulating because I’ve been used to looking at a lot of Japanese theatre. I found the pace similar to that in Noh theatre and once you accomodate for that and relax into it then you can let the film work for you and in the case of Tim’s film, it’s more like rock and roll. The other two differences are in terms of volume—sound. What was your approach to this?
JJ The music track, mentioning Noh, was intended to slow you down into the pace of the film. By using gamelan music, slowed down, slightly treated and sometimes mixed with John’s saxophone, the effect is intended to be mildly hypnotic. The sync sound is, of course, all direct sound (with occasional effects added), which provides this thick background tone. You know, summer in New York has that incredibly thick white-noise background-sound, continuously.
LS (to Jim) And your camera?
JJ Pretty much static. It only moves when I want the plot to move.
LS The next thing I’d like to talk about is the idea of influence. People say these films are influenced by … or that this filmmaker is …, or these are the influences of…I have a particular approach to influence but … Obviously people who talk about films mention Godard. I haven’t really heard names associated with your films, Jim, except in my mind. Ozu comes up, certain Japanese films. Obviously these things aren’t conscious, influences are never conscious, or I suppose sometimes they are. That’s what I would like to talk about—the nature of influence. Nick Ray is obviously an influence on you, Jim, but how do you see that coming out in your films, how do we use these things, like artistic influences.
JJ Everyone is influenced by so many things—things they may never really recognize as influences. How people are influenced is often confusing. Nick Ray was most influential as a person—more so than as a director. I mean, whatever films I like, or books, or the design of a building or car might influence me.
TB My influences are wide and varied. My art background, then probably you, Lindzee, have been the main ones. The influence through the collected literary development of The Theatre of Fact. Theatre performance is the first influence, otherwise most ideas come from the more structuralist films I’ve seen, things that remain stationary in your brain (not narrative films so much). Against The Grain is basically about the reappropriation of images from all sorts of sources, so I directly steal fragments from various sources. Do you call that influence?
LS What you’re saying is these things can be oversimplified up to an infinite point to say that so and so is influenced by someone else …
JJ There’s always a long line of influences. You might see a shot in a Godard film that strikes you, and he stole it from a shot in a Fritz Lang film and Fritz Lang saw it on a billboard … It’s a long chain of … theft, or “influence.”
LS Your film is a much more overtly political film than Permanent Vacation, there are obviously political overtones in Permanent Vacation, the references to “the war” which is more ambiguous but neither of the films to me seem to represent where either of you stand politically, if you stand anywhere. Would you agree with that or don’t you think that’s even an important question—to have a political stance?
JJ I think it’s very important, but it’s a question of whether you choose to treat the political basis of the film directly and blatantly, or whether the political intent is hidden—submerged under the surface of the film. I intentionally kept certain things ambiguous. The Viet Nam veteran’s character was presented in a confusing way, the reference to an imaginary war with the Chinese is pretty oblique. Politically, all you’re given is that this character is a product of the Viet Nam era (although too young to be directly involved), he is affected somehow by the cold-war era, and he lives on the edge of a failing economic system. So, the audience is not made constantly aware of any polemic, but at the same time the film is portraying their way of life from a critical perspective. For me certain films that do this indirectly become more subversive than those making a blatant political statement. And especially as an American, to depict the American way of life in a way that leaves the audience with some kind of emptiness—the same emptiness that fills their own daily lives, that was the intention. Being less blatant in this way is a devious line to tread, and in many ways a more complex one.
TB I think the person in my movie does represent my political position—that’s where the problem lies.
LS Could you extend that a little?
TB At the end of my movie you’re left with an individual who’s making an action based on the theory that he has to continue to act. But still, more or less as an individual. That’s also my position.
LS Do you think it’s impossible to act as an individual?
TB I didn’t say that it was impossible to act, he blew up the communication center and the war memorial. It’s just that these actions are symbolic and represent the position of an individualist trained artist. However, the film looks critically at that and wishes it wasn’t the case. Individual actions can’t bring about revolutionary change, it’s more like taking action because one has to act out of anger, frustration and recognition of oppression.
LS Whereas the anti-hero of Permanent Vacation seems to be beyond politics, or certainly to be drifting towards some sort of nihilistic position—which is not where you stand, Jim, the way I see it …
JJ It’s not intended to be a portrait of my own politics.
LS Do both of you feel satisfied with the films you’ve come up with?
LS If you don’t feel satisfied, what are the dissatisfactions? And with the other movies that we are seeing around us like Subway Riders, Trap Door, Underground U.S.A. I mean I feel pretty dissatisfied with these too but it’s hard to put a finger on what it is that causes the dissatisfaction.
TB The development of the individual is New York’s main attribute. That’s the most direct aspect of the theory of existence here …
LS Is to build up the individual?
TB Yeah, is to create the individual and exist as a one person unit. More so than anywhere in the world.
LS So you would like to see a much more community oriented collective approach to film and filmmaking in form and content?
TB Well I would but I’ve been trained in the other way.
LS Both of the movies seem to be very sexless movies. Neither of you are sexless people, yet both of these movies avoid sex …
JJ The portrait of the character (which is not Chris, by the way) is very remote from other people. I didn’t want to depict sex in order to maintain that distance in communication. If this character was involved sexually I would have been obligated to investigate the meaning of that involvement in the context of the rest of his encounters with people. I think that his non-involvement is more in keeping with the film’s intent.
TB Because the film was constructed around the personalities of the actors, and because of my and Sandy’s relationship, it was difficult to develop Ray Unit’s polaroid sexual aspects. Either I didn’t care to develop it or I put a damper on that development somehow, I’m not sure. The ease of exploitation of bodies and women in film and the non-actor’s mistrust of that, is the most important reason.
LS Because looking at Betsy’s film the other night (Sussler’s Menage), it was very much dealing with sexuality, both in the way its images were composed and some of its subject, directly, deal with our sexual behavior and a lot of construction of the film was sexy, consciously so—she wanted to have sexuality blatant in the frame. Whereas a lot of the male movies are really sexless. Many movies that are coming out in New York now don’t deal with sex. Strange, huh?
LS Yeah, well one other thing before we go on, I have heard people say, about Permanent Vacation, that they thought it was exploitative, of the Lower East Side, and—in terms of the hispanic character in the movie.
JJ Anyone who makes that kind of criticism is guilty of taking any one of the characters and applying them as stereotypes to a larger group of people. One would then be matching individuals with stereotypes. Even to refer to Chris’s character as existential is a mistake, because that implies that he, alone, is an example of a philosophical state. I think this is dangerous—to assume that individuals are simply examples of things that are only applicable in some general way. This is a reductive way of seeing a film, or anything else. If one finds it “exploitational” to Spanish-speaking people to represent one person in that group, then one is stereotyping that entire group in their own mind. I never considered the characters in my film to be simple stereotypes. Do you interpret the joke the black guy tells as being representative of all American blacks? I find that a bit simplistic.
LS Would you offer the same defense for Fort Apache? That’s the same sort of defense they offer for that film.
JJ I haven’t seen it, but what I’ve read about Fort Apache is that an identification is made with an entire neighborhood, and therefore with an entire ethnic group. That’s a very different thing. Permanent Vacation isn’t, in any way, a careful observation of the Lower East Side. It’s used as a landscape suggesting the collapse of an economic system. The film’s intention is not to analytically observe a specific group or neighborhood. The only “group” is that of people who are outcasts, and I thought that, by having all of these little vignettes that are variations of something, rather than each one being an individual stereotype, people would get the idea. The other downtown independent films are all such “white” movies that maybe people aren’t accustomed to interpreting anything beyond that. Therefore these rather simplistic judgements are arrived at.
LS About future projects. What do you have on your mind?
JJ I’m working on another narrative script that follows three central characters. It’s a little more diverse than Permanent Vacation. It has a different tone and a lot of tension in the structure, unlike Permanent Vacation’s intended lack of tension. The story deals with one person who has just been released from jail after seven years who finds New York transformed into something like an occupied state. It’s like he’s landed from Mars or something. Everything is rearranged. There is another man who is in some way responsible for the other’s imprisonment, and there is a woman who figures between the two men, a woman who really holds all the cards, so to speak. It’s called The Garden of Divorce and it’s influenced by film noir as well as the Japanese Samurai genre.
TB To make a film entitled World Trade Center versus Empire State Building—Alphabet City.
LS I’d like to get your impressions of The Berlin Film Festival—your impressions of films—what you liked and what you didn’t like.
JJ I didn’t like the festival itself that much—too many films, too spread out across the city, and a very business-like atmosphere. After it got a little too business-like I started to investigate Berlin, which is an incredible city. It seems to be very similar to New York in terms of tension and atmosphere, but for very different reasons. Like being a walled-in island, torn in half, with the constant military presence.
LS What about the films?
JJ I didn’t get to see Stalker, the Tarkovski film that I wanted to see. The Forum of Young Cinema was probably the best part of the festival. I saw White Journey by Schroeder, and Les Maitres Fous by Jean Rouch screened with the posthumously constructed film of Maya Deren’s on Haitian Voodoo rituals, called The Divine Horsemen. But, all in all, I didn’t see that many films I was impressed with.
TB I was too busy working on my own film to see many others. But it was the first time I had been in a Film Festival situation. I found it interesting. Then I went to England and looked at films in the library at The Other Cinema. State of Siege, Hollis Avery’s films, one with James Baldwin, the last two reels of a couple of Godard movies.
LS Jim, do you see any resolution between your involvement in music with the Del Byzanteens and your filmmaking … Is there any way those two things can meet?
JJ The two do influence each other. Constructing music helps my thinking about script construction in an almost abstract way. Less abstractly, the two both end up being constructed with machines. You start with light on film and then it becomes a mechanized device. With sound a similar process develops and you end up in the studio. There is definitely a cross influence. Plus, our music is very cinematic.
LS I remember last year we were going to get the Del Byzanteens to play alongside Metropolis—and I think Evan Lurie finally did it up in Toronto with some other musicians.
TB I was interested in Napoleon for that reason. The energy going out of the live-orchestrated soundtrack was so massive, actually too massive for the film—overwhelming. This huge orchestra—it was like going to an opera where the ovation for the orchestra goes on longer than the one for the singers. I mean you were paying $10.00 a bloody seat, you knew there were a lot of people being employed everytime the film showed. But the idea that I got from that was to do the next music track live with the running of the film—but not to continue to do it that way—to record it, in relationship to the images, on a silent basis and then to go back and make that the basis for how the film comes together. The Del Byzanteens fascinate me because they make music from films.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee