Michael McClard by Kathy Acker

Motive is a S8 Feature Film produced by Liza Bear and Michael McClard/ Written and directed by Michael McClard/ Starring Jimmy DeSana with Paula Greif, and Tim Collins, John Lurie, Rae Spencer-Cullen and Betsy Sussler. Motive premiered at the New Cinema in April of 1979.

BOMB 1 Spring 1981
001 Spring 1981

Jimmy DeSana/S8 Still, Motive.

Kathy Acker Ahh, Michael, what was your motive in making Motive?

Michael McClard That’s really a terrible question Kathy.

KA (laughter) That’s my one planned question.

MM Ummm, that’s pretty hard to answer. I’m still having this problem because I don’t think Motive was ever really finished.

KA Well, when I saw the film I noticed that on the one hand the main character who Jimmy DeSana plays, a business man, umm … the point where he was a mass murderer and there was no reason given in the film why he committed these murders, he just did … There was this whole quandry about that, and because the question was never even asked, why he did it, on the other hand the film sometimes was very straight narrative arid sometimes was … not artsy but decorative in a way especially the focusing of the camera and everything was very pretty. So there seemed to be a repetition of his lack of motive in the way the camera wobbled between genres.

MM I wanted to make something that was nice to look at, or maybe I wasn’t even thinking about that at the moment of looking through the camera and trying to shoot a scene, I wanted to make … I wanted to see something that looked beautiful through the camera, but in terms of having a purpose to this beauty or having a strong statement to make about cinema or life … I mean, I did have an idea about … a general idea about what this character was up to. I had an idea about why he would be committing these crimes, right, but I didn’t want to make it really obvious in terms of the film because I thought the film should be about the obscurity of that motive, you know, that the film shouldn’t supply the answer, that if there is a solution the viewer should be able to extract it from the film with whatever degree of acumen the viewer extracts any other conclusion from the rest of existence, without being told that he’s going through this therefore he’s doing that. Or that this is what’s happening now and that’s why this is … You know, all those kings of narrative conventions. Like the way language is used to close the plot, in order to make it hang together …

KA Right, so in a way it was seeing that … there was almost no psychology in the film. That’s what was one of the most striking things and the absence of psychology was a freeing sort of movement, or felt as such …

MM Well, I felt like dealing with the activity of murder, but I knew it would invite this heavy psychological analysis, and that would be the most obvious approach to analyzing the film, and so I tried as much as possible to strip the film of anything that would lend itself to that kind of analysis, which meant in certain ways keeping the character very flat and … well, in some ways I think that that flatness also reveals other aspects … thematic aspects of the film.

KA Could you say what those other aspects are?

MM Well, now it seems a little naive maybe. Just that by taking away all of the psychological handles, the moral handles or whatever, you end up with a character who’s compelled rather than motivated and that’s part of what I was trying to get at. The character really didn’t believe in anything or wasn’t really driven by anything, so this was the extreme that he was resorting to in order to have a sense of identity or have a sense of being.

Motivestill 02

KA Well, there’s this French novelist, Pierre Guitat, who says the main thing he wants to get beyond in his books, in his novels, is to get beyond human psychology or what he calls neurosis that he can get at, again, what he calls biological reality or reality, and that the one thing that inhibits it is this neurosis or idealism.

MM Yeah …

KA Which he attacks very much from a leftist point of view.

MM I haven’t read …

KA Yeah, right, I’m just saying that it seems similar.

MM It sounds similar except it sounds more high-minded.

KA Yeah, he is a little high-minded and very theoretical (laughter).

Mcclard 04

Paula Greif.

MMBut it was weird because … I mean it made for a very unglamorous film in a certain way and I’m not sure whether it was memorable or not. I tend to think it was kind of unmemorable.

KA I remember it.

MM It just seems like it was so flat and …

KA That’s why I find it memorable, because I found it absolutely unremitting, it never gave you a second to … the most memorable thing is how you were really hard-edged about what you were doing, you never lapsed for a minute.

MM Which, in its own way, is a very formal thing.

KA It’s a very formal film.

MM Yeah, it was, it’s true, and it was hard to do because the tendency is to want to do all of the other things that make it bearable.

KA Yeah.

MM I mean the things that you know will make people want to pay attention.

KA Like the scene where Betsy’s (Sussler) in the phone booth and she dies. That could have been a very funny scene … It was pretty funny.

MM It was funny yeah, but it wasn’t comic.

KA The tendency could have been to make it extremely comic.

MM Or melodramatic or tragic …

KA Yeah.

Mcclard Michael

Rae Spencer-Cullen.

MM I think we’re going to continue working on the film though. We’ve talked about it. We haven’t really done it but Jimmy is interested.

KA What do you think the film needs? To be longer or …

MM Yeah, maybe to make it just a little bit more extreme, like add another … it’s absurd, maybe it’s black humor, it’s a humor that you can’t …

KA Blackest black, because black humor always went back to this idea of normal. It is just what it is.

MM In retrospect I also feel like there are kind of political connotations that I would like to make more emphatic or somehow a little bit clearer.

KA That’s partly what I wanted to ask you about next, what do you feel the political implications are that you want to make more prominent, that you want to enlarge upon?

MM Well, there is this parallelism in terms of the main character’s daily activities. It’s all kind of business related. He deals with his broker, and he takes trips, he’s a boss man. The decisions that he makes in his office or at his desk effect possibly thousands of lives, millions of lives, or at least parallel decisions being made by thousands of people like him do every day. In some ways it’s very similar to his making these deathtraps for people that are like logical constructs or things that he sets up and then walks away from and the mechanism continues until somebody is killed by it. His obsession is with making things, making the traps. He’s obviously not interested in who the specific victim is. Which is something I also wanted to remain as an ambiguous point in the film—whether or not his victims were deliberately selected or random.

KA What happened that you didn’t expect … I mean, because the film is so much about what you expected. It’s such a logical film and it’s so hard-edged and given that very heavy set-up, what happened, or did anything happen? Was there any process is what I’m asking. Or was the process almost nil?

MM Oh no, there was process, but I mean the preconception I think really … it was an a priori thing … I knew there would be a lot of unexpected things and such, a lot of the film was set up so that there was no possible rehearsal, there was no way to decide in advance what or how … Liza (Béar) and I would meet Jimmy at the place where we were going to shoot, and it was just pure projection, separate, independent projection. We’d talk the day before and if Jimmy was, ah, had business someplace and it was convenient …

KA Really?

MM I didn’t want to get into writing dialogue.

KA So it was mainly improvised?

MM It was almost totally improvised by everybody who was in the film.

KA Oh really?

MM Yeah, I provided the concept and almost everything else was improvised.

Mcclard 03

Betsy Sussler.

KA How was … who did the camera work?

MM I did most of it, but not in a vacuum. Jimmy did the point of view shots in the scene with Paula Greif at the end of the film and Liza did some of it in the scene where the guy gets pushed off the building. But when it was time to do a shot I would consult with Liza and Jimmy about it.

KA So it was very much in a way a product, after the initial conception, it was very much a product of everyone who worked on it.

MM Absolutely, it was basically improvised. It was a matter of agreeing on what the films should be, and everybody was subject to the same quandary.

KA Oh, that’s interesting, yeah.

Betsy Sussler's Menage by Craig Gholson
Becky Johnston by Betsy Sussler

Sleepless Nights is a S8 Feature Film produced, written, and directed by Becky Johnston/ Voice Overs written by Gary Indiana/ Camera: Michael Oblowitz/ Starring: Marie-Paule, John Lurie, Eric Mitchell and Rene Ricard

Kelly Reichardt by Gus Van Sant
Reichardt 01 Body

Director Kelly Reichardt first gained widespread notice with her 2006 film Old Joy, a paean to post–9/11 political and personal miasma played out in the campfire conversations and road-trip recollections of two longtime friends in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

Harmony Korine by Richard Bishop
Korine 01 Body

“I want the movie to be a living thing. I like the mistakes. I encourage the actors to go off and improvise and improve upon their characters. I like it when it’s a bit chaotic.”

Originally published in

BOMB 1, Spring 1981

Betsy Sussler by Craig Gholson, Carl Apfelschnitt by Sarah Charlesworth, Michael McClard by Kathy Acker, Eric Mitchell, Becky Johnston, and Amos Poe. Cover design by Sarah Charlesworth.

Read the issue
001 Spring 1981