Empire Builder

(Please watch this in full-screen mode if you can!)

Just over one year ago, in December of 2011, Elliott Durko Lynch and I hosted the World Premiere of our film Empire Builder at the Bryant Lake Bowl, featuring performances by a number of talented artist friends, on the theme of Parents and Generational Complexities. It was a beautiful night.

For awhile I wanted to keep access to the film a little bit exclusive, in case it got into a bunch of film festivals. It didn’t, per se – and I’ve discovered that I don’t find that fact terribly discouraging, at this point in my career. I’m not sure why it didn’t jump off the stack of screeners at any of the selection panels for the half-dozen festivals I sent it to… maybe it’s too strange, or not strange enough, or not coherent at first glance, or too pretentious, or too unassuming.
I’d say it’s at least somewhat experimental, and it’s definitely personal – a chronological document of me following Elliott to visit his dad in the hospital, very near the end of his life, presented without much context or explanation. It’s meant to kind of wash over the viewer, without necessarily making perfect sense or resolving neatly. Like the events it depicts, the film is an immersive and chaotic experience, that makes more and more sense with additional careful viewings.

At the close of my first semester of my MFA program at the University of Minnesota, I’m happy to report that the epiphanies of the first semester alone will more than justify my commitment of three years to the program, even if I don’t learn anything else. Perhaps the most significant event has been my introduction to my freshman crush, Walter Benjamin, who manages to articulate ideas about filmmaking (with the help of translator Hannah Arendt) that have been on my mind lately – he just thought of it first, by about 100 years.

Such as this quote, which really succinctly captures my intention and process in projects like Empire Builder, and my soon-to-be-finished piece with Kristen Froebel and the Brass Messengers (and Elliott again), and the currently-being-edited project Crazy Horse (thank you Jerome Foundation!):

There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than the chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places–the activities that are intimately associated with boredom–are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.

…from his essay The Storyteller, in the collection Illuminations. It’s all there – he just gets me; my reasons for shooting 16mm film and hand-developing it, my current preference for non-dialogue filmmaking, my decisions to impose a variety of somewhat arbitrary limitations and rules upon my shooting and editing process.

In this essay, Benjamin goes on to contrast the art of the storyteller with the art of the novelist. It’s maybe a whole grad thesis paper in itself, but in short, I feel like his compare-and-contrast of storyteller to novelist is essentially analogous to the relationship between my current approach to filmmaking and the traditional narrative feature film, as produced by either Hollywood or by what’s called “Independent” cinema these days.

Which isn’t to say that I’m the only person making movies this way. There are certainly a wide variety of non-traditional approaches to cinema being practiced today, it just doesn’t necessarily fit to call them “non-narrative” or even “experimental.” Empire Builder has a story, and drama, and characters – the difference between it and, say Beginners with Ewan MacGregor (also about a son’s relationship with his dying father) is that Beginners is working much harder to give the audience all of the information they might need, to craft a very specific fictional world – whereas Empire Builder is observational and doesn’t guarantee the viewer a pre-processed or pre-digested experience of the world.

I find that in fictional narrative it’s often fairly easy to discern the motivations of all the major characters – which is very safe, giving the audience the comfortable illusion that it’s possible without too much effort to know all of these people intimately and understand why they make the choices they make. Whereas Empire Builder can be bewildering on first viewing, or second or third, because no-one is stopping to explain themselves for the edification of the audience. In a way it’s opaque, which probably didn’t help its chances at film festivals, but I prefer Benjamin’s wording, describing its mode of storytelling in terms of “chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis.”

When writing the script for my current project Crazy Horse, I was surprised to find myself extremely averse to dialogue – as soon as I introduced dialogue to a scene, the characters started explaining themselves, talking about their histories, and arguing with one another – none of which was ultimately necessary to the core, archetypal relationships I wanted to explore by pointing a camera at these actors. So in the end, there’s no dialogue in that film – we’ll see if the essence of the story comes through, I hope so and I think it will, but I honestly don’t know – which maybe does make it “experimental,” come to think of it.

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