Archive for January, 2012

Dakota Digital Film Festival: Q&A with Jim Kambeitz

Monday, January 30th, 2012

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Interview by Greg Carlson

The first Dakota Digital Film Festival will take place in Bismarck on March 30, 2012 at the Belle Mehus Auditorium. Submissions are being accepted until March 9, 2012. For more information about entering work or attending the event, email ddff@freetv.org or visit the Dakota Digital Film Festival Facebook page.

Greg Carlson talked to festival co-organizer Jim Kambeitz.

GC: Is this the first organized film festival event in Bismarck? Who are some of the people involved with getting DDFF off the ground?

JK: This is the first film festival in Bismarck that we know of. Mary Van Sickle (Executive Director at Dakota Media Access), Jackson Bird (Cinema 100 member) and I thought that it was time for Bismarck to have its own film festival.

When we started asking others in the community, there was overwhelming support and within weeks we had a steering committee with representatives from production companies, local colleges, stage theaters, film clubs, and other areas.

 

GC: The call for entries appears to focus on student work. What is the mission of DDFF? Is the focus on education for people who want to use visual narrative to tell stories?

JK: The mission of this festival is to support and encourage filmmaking and audio/video production in all forms by providing a venue for professionals in the industry and students to meet and show their work. Although open to the general public, this first year is focused more heavily on students.

We are keeping it open to see what kind of material is submitted. While our focus is on short films from the region, they can be any genre, documentary, fiction, animation, etc. It is an experiment this year and we expect it to evolve in future years.

 

GC: What are some of the key events planned for DDFF in its inaugural year?

JK: The structure for this first year will have two components: a daytime session (9am-3pm) geared toward students and an evening event (starting at 6:30pm) that is for everyone. The daytime event will be a series of screenings and workshops. The workshops will be led by local professionals and will provide engaging content in a fast-paced and visually interesting style. Each workshop will be separated by screenings of short films by regional students.

Students will have a chance to talk about their films and answer questions. The evening session will include several unique short films and a chance for the public to interact with the filmmakers. We are taking submissions of all genres of short films until March 9th, 2012. If you’d like to submit something, email a link to view your film online or any questions you might have to ddff@freetv.org.

 

GC: Did you visit other film festivals during the planning stages? What did you learn in the planning process?

JK: We attended the Fargo Film Festival as well as the South Dakota Film Festival and talked with their organizers and a representative from the Free Range Film Festival in Minnesota. We learned these regional festivals are very supportive of Bismarck starting its own festival. They helped field our questions about planning, technical preparations, and so many other things. It is reassuring to feel their support and know they want this festival to succeed.

 

GC: Describe the independent moviemaking scene in Bismarck. What kind of creative work is going on there both professionally and otherwise?

JK: We have many audio/video producers and filmmakers in the Bismarck area; however, few people in the community seem to know this or have access to their work. Likewise, we have this body of very talented film and audio/visual professionals who are somewhat isolated and not cross-pollinating ideas and imaginations like they could be if we had more venues to share their work.

The experiences here range from professional documentaries that have been commissioned for the Smithsonian Institute, people who have collaborated with Ken Burns and others on world-class documentaries about Native Americans and other topics, to an animator who has worked on the Batman Returns and the Harry Potter movies.

We have also had a recent influx of North Dakotans who have returned to the state after being at film school in Montana, L.A. or Canada, and have started their own productions here. But the main factor here is that we have been missing a way to connect everyone – something this film festival and Dakota Media Access (the driving force behind the event) are hoping to change.

 

GC: What is your own background and experience in production?

JK: I got my Masters in English & film theory, and then studied cinematography at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, where I taught screenwriting and dramaturgy. I have shot several short fiction films and documentaries as well as two feature-length films about Ashtanga Yoga.

I am currently the Production Manager at Dakota Media Access where I get to direct, light, design and collaborate on a variety of productions, ranging from on-location multi-camera shoots and live cultural, musical, educational or entertainment events to PSAs, government meetings, and studio talk shows.

I love this occupation – so much that when I’m on vacation I’ll often squeeze in a production as well. I just returned from a leave of absence to study yoga in India where I also shot a documentary titled “Mysore Magic: The Source of Ashtanga Yoga.”

Haywire

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Haywire

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Frustratingly coy and belligerently reductivist, Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire” cooks up a story that plays to the strengths of mixed martial artist/American Gladiator Gina Carano. Parallel to the employment of Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” Soderbergh’s selection of Carano in the lead role laces his movie with a sense of expectation based on the occupational history of the performer. And while Carano’s abilities to scissor-lock her thighs around the necks of her hapless adversaries invites a certain measure of respect, the actor is devoid of the necessary skills to suggest any spark of self-reflection (talk of significant post-production voice replacement doesn’t help). Instead, Carano’s deadly agent Mallory Kane glides perpetually forward like the doll-eyed shark in “Jaws,” efficiently devouring anything unlucky enough to cross her path.

Employing the same disregard for dot connection demonstrated by Howard Hawks in “The Big Sleep,” but without the playfulness and double entendre, Soderbergh rigs Kane’s trials to a foggy chain of double-crosses traced to a fishy rescue/hostage extraction in Barcelona, which is constantly referenced with the equivalent of a wink or arched eyebrow. Unsurprisingly, Kane’s cohort of puppet masters and fellow operatives are all men, but the film’s cool detachment resists most every opportunity to explore the contours of gender beyond the protagonist’s ability to outlast her adversaries. With the exception of a few goggle-eyed reaction shots of Michael Angarano’s incredulous audience surrogate – who chivalrously steps into the middle of a bone-crunching diner takedown that opens the film – only the presence of Bill Paxton as Kane’s retired Marine Corps father adds a much-needed human touch to the story.

All the other men in Mallory’s life prove to be shifty, manipulative, deceitful, or murderous, and often all of those things at once. Ewan McGregor’s heartless Kenneth, a private black-ops contractor and onetime lover of Kane, hires Michael Fassbender’s Paul to eliminate her. Michael Douglas’ Coblenz and Antonio Banderas’ Rodrigo learn not to underestimate her. Even Channing Tatum’s kiss-or-kill Aaron seems confused about his emotional allegiance. Through it all, Kane kicks and punches first and asks questions later, not unlike cinematic inspirations James Bond and Jason Bourne.

Soderbergh, handling photography duties again under his pseudonym Peter Andrews, demonstrates considerable talent in the framing of the movie’s multiple set pieces. A fleet Dublin rooftop chase shows off the city with a dazzling command of spatial logic (location manager Peter Conway’s staff spent months getting permission from the owners of each building). A tense car chase ends unexpectedly with an example of Soderbergh’s dry wit. Most of the hand-to-hand combat scenes unfold with the sort of impressive, whole body wide shots favored by Fred Astaire, especially the destruction of a ritzy hotel suite during a breathless duet between Carano and the beautiful Fassbender.

“Haywire” often flirts with self-parody, and David Holmes’ exploitation throwback score makes you keep looking for Fred Williamson or Pam Grier to show up. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, whose work on “The Limey” provided Soderbergh with one of the best scripts of his career, isn’t as surefooted this time, and “Haywire” never sinks its claws into the viewer like the filmmaker’s best material. Instead, the movie misses a genuine opportunity to add something new to the genre; Mallory Kane is the only female character of significance, and her singular prowess only serves to remind us that she exists in a space controlled and populated by men.

The Iron Lady

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Ironlady

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Waterlogged with the worst clichés of the biopic, not even a committed act of Meryl Streep’s vaunted mimicry can buoy “The Iron Lady.” Skittering over the highlights of Margaret Thatcher’s political career without ever stopping to take intellectual stock of the historical details that undoubtedly required tremendous thought, concentration, and collaboration, Phyllida Lloyd’s film is much like Thatcher’s well-known coiffure: artificially volumized to appear fuller than it really is.

Surprisingly fixated on Thatcher’s dotage, in which the once fearsome leader regularly hallucinates her dead helpmate Denis (embodied by an impish James Broadbent) the elementary screenplay by Abi Morgan makes only vague efforts to frame Thatcher as a symbol of feminist empowerment. Instead, the movie returns again and again to scenes in which a panicky, paranoid, and frankly pathetic old woman struggling with dementia struggles to reconstruct the memories of her trials and triumphs on the world stage.

When Lloyd touches on scenes of Thatcher’s 1980s heyday, the inevitable cutaways to stock footage undermine expectations of quality and do the director and subject no favors. Without exception, Thatcher’s contemporaries and colleagues are indistinguishable from one another, and not a single scene depends on the scripted interplay between two sharp minds grappling with the intricacies of policy-making. Instead, Thatcher is shown repeatedly scolding even her party allies; in one embarrassing scene, the incensed PM gracelessly dismisses a meeting. It’s meant to show how hard Thatcher fought to be respected and kept in the loop, but it comes off like a petty tantrum.

Streep is abetted in the principal role by Alexandra Roach, who plays Thatcher as a young woman inspired by her grocer/mayor father to make something of herself. The audience is asked to take the emergent politico’s positions and beliefs on faith, since the fundamentals of her alignment with any specific party are absent. The film’s critical thinking skills are so weak, the viewer is asked to imagine the reasons for shots of champagne-swilling “Maggie’s Millionaires,” as well as all references to union busting. Inexplicably, Thatcher’s struggles with Northern Ireland and the IRA are sketchy footnotes. The 1979 assassination of Thatcher’s mentor Airey Neave, the 1981 hunger strike, and the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing are presented without context or insight.

Even with the movie’s weird framing of Thatcher as a slipping, senile crone, “The Iron Lady” is standard hagiography, inevitably overlooking any number of Thatcher’s worst tendencies. The movie doesn’t even bother to address Thatcher’s acquisition, courtesy of the Soviet Defense Ministry’s “Red Star” mouthpiece, of the title nickname. Pal Ronald Reagan appears only in a fleeting montage, all but eliminating the one big figure that might have been played as a pivotal character instead of the well-used caricature. Thatcher’s hawkish defense of colonial interests during the 1982 Falklands War eats up more screen time than many of the leader’s other milestones. The movie drolly asserts that Thatcher’s own policies had created the conditions that led to Argentina’s amphibious landings, and it is fun to hear Streep say “junta.” The accompanying, unintentionally funny shot of Thatcher as she broods over a naval strategy map looks like it was stolen from the satirical “Spitting Image” puppet show – which boasted a Thatcher at least as memorable as the one concocted in “The Iron Lady.”

Q&A with Matt Kish

Monday, January 9th, 2012

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Ohio-based artist Matt Kish, who spent roughly 18 months illustrating “Moby-Dick” with a drawing for every page of the Signet Classics edition, has seen the fruits of his labor published as a beautiful, full color volume from Tin House Books. Kish will present a talk on Thursday, January 19 at 7:30pm in Jones 212 (Fugelstad Auditorium) on the campus of Concordia College. The event is free and the community is invited to attend. Copies of “Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page” will be available for sale and signing following the presentation.

Greg Carlson talked to Matt Kish about the Great White Whale.  

You name “Moby-Dick” as the galvanizing book of your life. Can you describe when and how you first became aware of “Moby-Dick” and its power?

Interestingly enough, especially in these times when children and younger adults are so often roundly criticized for their immersion in movies, television, videogames and the internet, my first experience with Moby-Dick was seeing the 1950s film version, the one starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. I was quite young, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, and I was at my grandmother’s house for my annual Saturday visit. On WUAB TV in Cleveland, Ohio, Superhost would show Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoons and for some reason on this day I kept watching even after the credits rolled.

The next movie up was Moby-Dick and I remember being very bored at first. Too many boring, normal historical details. Sailing ships. People in funny clothes. All of that. But eventually I saw this vast, white whale on the screen and I have vivid memories of its bulk rolling through the waves and an eye staring balefully out of the TV. I was smitten. Here was a monster which was almost real! Maybe could be real! That drew me to the screen and I watched right through to the climax breathlessly.

I must have talked about that movie incessantly because in a very short time, some family member gave me a tiny, square, heavily abridged 200 page children’s version of the book. What I loved so much about this version was that every other page had a scratchy black and white ink illustration. Some of the terrified me! But here was the entire story, and now I could revisit it any time I wished. What I keep coming back to as I think about this project of mine is how from the very beginning, the story of Moby-Dick existed for me as a primarily visual narrative. First as a film, next as a heavily illustrated book. Those images have never left my mind, and the story has never seemed, to me at least, to be just words on paper.

How many different editions of the novel have do you have in your collection? Is there one that rises above the others?

For a time, I was slowly building a collection of different versions based primarily on my love for the book and my mentality as a long-time comic book collector. Prior to this project, my favorites were the Arion Press edition illustrated by the great Barry Moser and set in a newly created font, called appropriately enough, Leviathan. This appealed to me almost as a fetish object since in some ways the entire project was so over-designed and attention had been lavished on things which were absolutely unnecessary but delightful to a an obsessed book collector like me. Another favorite was the Classics Illustrated comic version, but not the old one. The one I liked was a newer version, from the 1990s, illustrated by Bill Sienkewicz. His take on the imagery from the book was so brutal, so bloody, so surreal. I came across it as an undergrad and, other than its short comic book length, it seemed the definitive version of the story to me.

My many other versions all tended to be illustrated to some degree, but none of them were especially noteworthy, valuable or expensive. Since completing my own project though, I came to feel like I had been so deeply immersed in the novel for so long and in such an intense, visceral way that I needed a kind of catharsis. I held on to that Sienkewicz version and the tattered Signet Classics paperback edition that had been my guide through my own illustration project, but the rest I gave to friends or donated to libraries. It was time for me to give myself some room, some space to breathe, and even though I know I will read the novel again and again and again, it will be some time before I make that plunge back in.

You elected not to pursue formal training as an artist, but you have been creating art since childhood. What were some of your favorite classes in high school and beyond?

It’s funny, I’m not sure I ever made a specific choice not to pursue training or an education as an artist, it simply never occurred to me that it was an option. I had wonderful parents who would have supported any career I wanted to pursue, so it’s not like they held me back. As a kid, and even as a high school student in the 1980s, I just felt like drawing was as much fun as eating candy or playing videogames, and you couldn’t get a job doing either of those other two so I just somehow figured that going to college for art wasn’t even really possible. It may, however, come as no surprise that throughout junior high, high school, and college, my favorite classes were always the literature classes. I was, and remain, a voracious reader, so being able to read dozens and dozens of books and stories, talk about them in classes, write responses to them and dig deeper into them was heavenly for me.

Perhaps my favorite class was as a junior in high school, a class simply called “Novel” or something like that, where we spent an enormous amount of time exploring in great depth the novels The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, Wuthering Heights and The Fellowship of the Ring. What was remarkable about that class was not the books themselves since most high school juniors and seniors would have read them by that time. It was how deeply we were able to explore each novel and the environment which produced each one. At one point I remember the class scrutinizing a facsimile of the galley copy of The Great Gatsby and discussing the nature of publishing in the 1930s. Needless to say, my great love of literature was fixed in me from a very early time.

You have described your creative process in terms of making art as “analog,” but word of the project really took off and spread through the use of technologies available on the web. As a person with a hand in each of these worlds, do you ever think about how the old and the new intersect for you?

I don’t think about that intersection often, and when I do it’s not a comfortable fit for me. I have a lot of reservations about what I see online, and the way that some seem to relentlessly flog what’s really some empty content. Social media, blogs, and the internet in general have so much potential, but most people’s use of those things is just incredibly lazy. Blog posts shrink and shrink until Twitter, or micro-blogging, rules the day. How can you really say anything that matters in 140 characters? I have a special rancor for Tumblr which many seem to use to offer contextless collections of images that they themselves had no role in the creation of and are not willing to make any intelligent statements about.

All too often, a Tumblr exists as an excuse for someone to find a lot of things, “curate” some collection of these things, and offer them up as evidence of either how hip they are or how they can find things online that no one has ever heard of. It sickens me. With my own blog, with all of my own online efforts, I try to mirror who I am in reality. In other words, I hope that if someone were to read one of the posts on my blog they would get at least a sense of who I am as a person and what matters to me. I know there are a lot of people that do this as well, they just seem to be a tiny minority drowning in a sea of internet noise.

Did you have a favorite character and passage from “Moby-Dick” prior to embarking on your endeavor? Did that shift during or after you completed the work?

In terms of characters, my favorite is and always has been Queequeg. To me, he’s always seemed to be the ideal human being. Far from perfect, certainly, and much is made of his cannibal nature. But he is the epitome of all that is best in us, all that we can hope to be. He is a ray of light and a constant beacon of hope and humanity. For Ishmael, for the crew, and most importantly for the reader. The first illustration I created for Queequeg came after days and days of trepidation and stress.

I knew I had to get it just right. It had to be the perfect visual signifier for this character that meant so much to me. I had seen so many different depictions of Queequeg, with his tattoos and his topknot, and many of them were very realistic. I knew I wanted to avoid that route since it would be difficult to duplicate time after time and, honestly, it bored me a little. That line of thinking led me to the idea of distilling his tattooed face down to its very essence. Patterns on a mask. Nothing more. So my Queequeg evolved into a blue cipher, patterned all over with a beautiful, organic scalloping. I could draw him over and over and over, and looked for every opportunity to do so. Drawing Queequeg always brought me happiness.

As for favorite passages, there were so very many I was looking forward to. Oddly enough, the passages and quotes that were the most well-known – the “From hell’s heart I stab at thee!” and things like that – made me the most nervous. I knew that those passages, the ones that even non-readers of Moby-Dick were familiar with, carried with them the weight of great expectations. I worried that viewers would come to those illustrations with something pre-conceived, and perhaps be disappointed or even angry in my own depiction. That was a difficult battle to fight because in spite of those expectations, I simply couldn’t ignore those passages or choose to illustrate something else. My project wouldn’t be complete. I had to really turn inward, really shut out the world, really zero in on the version of Moby-Dick that had always existed in my own mind and charge ahead with no regard for what anyone else might thing. Fortunately, in the end, I am very proud of every one of the illustrations and believe that they are all true to my own vision.

How did the other harpooners evolve during the project?

Queequeg, and all the harpooneers really, to me had to be very different from the machine-like, ship-like sailors. These men, these harpooneers, were living weapons. Extensions of the violent greed of the captains and mates that commanded them. Yet they could not be machines, they could not look like machines, because they had to embody that fluid, dynamic killer instinct. These were the only characters that I spent even a bit of time sketching out before I drew them. I wanted each one, Queequeg and Tashtego and Daggoo, to be utterly distinct from the other. I also considered how, within the novel, each is a rather heavy symbol for their own race, culture or ethnicity. I wanted to address that, but more indirectly.

Looking back, I realize that my depiction of each of the harpooneers is a bit heavy-handed, but my symbolism has always been painted with broad strokes and I don’t regret that. So Queequeg grew from his tattoos and my perception of him as the ideal man, Tashtego drew heavily from totem symbols and Native American ideas, and Daggoo represented an image of pure and intimidating physical might.

Did Melville or Ahab or the Whale or other elements ever visit your dreams during the project?

Ahab, the Whale, Queequeg, Fedallah, the project itself, the idea of the project… all these things consumed me more and more the deeper I sank into it. Slowly, over the 18 months that I worked, it became in every sense of the word an obsession. I don’t think anyone that reads the book, that truly reads the book the way it demands to be read, can escape that. For me, reading and re-reading pages and chapters every single day, creating an illustration drawn from the book every single day… as cliche as this may sound, it stopped being a book. It stopped being a story. It became first a part of my life, and then my life itself. I truly felt as if I were living the story and walking those salt-stained boards with Ishmael and Ahab and the rest of the crew.

As the end neared, the desire… actually the need to complete this thing, to kill it the way that Ahab wanted to murder the Whale, became almost overwhelming. I began to see everything else that filled my life – my job, time spent with friends, the demands of a marriage – as hindrances preventing from working on the great task I had set for myself. The whales which had first enchanted and later haunted my dreams began to fill my waking hours as well. I stopped short of hallucinating, but it was impossible for me to not see evidence of the White Whale everywhere I looked. It was all I could think of and at times I could feel my vision dimming as my eyes seemed to turn inward and consider the next illustration as it played out in the theater of my mind.

What does your wife think about “Moby-Dick”?

She is a brilliant person and as voracious a reader as myself, but amazingly she had never read the novel until shortly after I completed my project. At first she said that after seeing the dark places that the project took me to she didn’t want to even think about it but over time, she told me she felt she had to read it in order to understand what had happened. Not just in the book, but to me. Interestingly enough, her first reading was accompanied by my own illustrations since she said that as she read, she frequently visited the blog to see how I had depicted certain scenes or characters.

So in some ways, her vision of the novel is patterned to a great degree after my own. That is a great honor for me. She talked to me less and less about the book as she neared the end though. I think the journey was taking the same toll on her that it had on me. Finally, after finishing, all she could say, and all she has said since, is this: “It’s a horrible horrible book but a brilliant one. I’m glad I read it and I never want to read it again.”

Nostalgia for the Light

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

Nostalgia

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The pre-eminent cinematic chronicler of his country’s history, Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman artfully revisits one of his guiding motifs in “Nostalgia for the Light,” one of the finest documentaries to make its way to United States viewers in 2011. Guzman’s oeuvre has been dominated by reflections on the 1973 Pinochet coup and its aftermath, perhaps most forcefully in the three-part “The Battle of Chile,” an achievement that Michael Atkinson claims “should be required viewing for high schoolers everywhere.” Guzman’s meticulously framed latest uses a radio telescope array in the Atacama Desert as a platform to discuss time – most importantly the way that we understand the past, interspersing ruminations on astrophysics and metaphysics with the somber stories of old women who comb the Chacabuco concentration camp grounds for the bone fragments of disappeared loved ones.

Guzman listens to astronomers and closure-seekers alike, intertwining the quantum-esque head trip of professor Gaspar Galaz’s suggestion that the way in which light travels places us in the eternal realm of the “already occurred” with the highly personal accounts of the relatives of Pinochet’s political prisoners. Archeologists and historians also work in the Atacama because the artifacts and remains are so pristinely preserved. Guzman’s technique turns the storylines into meditations on searching, and the yearning, seeking, and questing for answers both immediate and celestial catapults the film into a realm that feels altogether more spiritual than historical.

Despite the harsh and barren landscape of the Atacama and its reputation boasting the Earth’s ideal conditions for stargazing, the desert reveals surprising features that Guzman also chains to his narrative agenda. Pre-Columbian rock carvings and illustrations remain visible despite the ravages of weather and time. A cemetery populated by Chilean miners houses mummified remains in caskets that sit atop the arid ground. The alien landscape, sometimes described as the “driest place on the planet,” shimmers with an otherworldly beauty, even though it has been the site of so much pain. Guzman brings all of these pieces together with startling clarity.

“Nostalgia for the Light” features several stories that confront Pinochet’s destructive impulses, but the director’s careful, measured – sometimes even quiet—presentation carries with it an argument made more powerful and forceful because of its calm, matter-of-fact simplicity. One man made detailed drawings of the layout to the prison in which he was incarcerated. A young woman whose parents were murdered describes being raised by her grandparents and what Pinochet’s legacy means to her now that she has a child of her own. With each of these recollections, Guzman transcends anecdote.

Although “Nostalgia for the Light” did not make the Academy Award shortlist, it recently received the best feature honor from the International Documentary Association and it is assuredly a worthy selection. The movie’s liquid embrace handles the seemingly disparate visual elements in an unpretentious manner. It’s as if Guzman has spent so much time excavating the emotional depths of Pinochet-affected Chileans that he knows exactly how much or how little of his subjects to include. “Nostalgia for the Light” is one of those rare experiences in which the viewer engages in something akin to a conversation with the people being interviewed, which, along with the lovely views of the heavens, testifies to Guzman’s masterful skill.