By John Kendall Hawkins
“And the day came / when the risk / to remain tight / in a bud / was more painful / than the risk / it took / to blossom.”
– Anaïs Nin, “Risk”
“April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / memory and desire, stirring / dull roots with spring rain.”
– T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
Lucid dreaming means to be aware that you are dreaming while doing so. Probably we’ve all had these kinds of dreams. Therapies have been built around lucid dreaming. Books have been written, sometimes equating it to an outer-body-experience inside the mind, and websites have popped up, including Lucidity.com. Philosophers have weighed in. As Nietzsche once said, in Human, All Too Human, “Misunderstanding of the dream. In the ages of crude primeval culture man believed that in dreams he got to know another real world; here is the origin of all metaphysics. Without the dream one would have found no occasion for a division of the world.”
But that’s not what Pamela Cohn’s on about in Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers. Not exactly. Cohn is more interested in a parallel hyper-seeing — waking up into your life and using a camera to help you do it, producing a cinematic experience, and reframing your way of thinking along the way. The 29 filmmakers Cohn interviews come from all parts of the world — Asia, Europe and the Americas — and their filmmaking covers the usual panoply of social issues, including immigration, race, gender issues, economics, surveillance state, selfhood, and the phenomenological use of the camera. Cohn writes, “My hope is that the effect of disparate personalities gathered together in one volume evokes an expansive and global conversation, not merely a series of dialogues strung together.”
The filmmakers journey away from the dulling Hollywood tropes and themes that filmmaking legend Dziga Vertov once referred to as “the new opium of the people,” and venture towards unchartered territory and a new language that shows rather than tells, such as what Vertov largely achieved in Man With A Camera. And that’s what Cohn sees these filmmakers doing: “Ultimately – and not to sound too precious about it – one of my overriding hopes for the compilation was that it would be a book of inspiration with a multivalent approach – for other artists, certainly, or anyone wanting to take the ‘risk of blossoming.’”
One illustrative example of the power to express a transformative experience by means of filmmaking may be seen in Michael Robinson’s short film, The General Returns from One Place to Another. The film presents a disturbed space inhabited by dream-seeing human-oids, representative of early David Lynch films, where a unspeaking character looks almost into the lens — as if the viewer is sensed, until an uncanny connection is made that sticks with you; pop music fading in and out, along with popping sounds (fireworks? thunder?) that elicit a wistfulness that doubles in the viewer’s mind (at least mine). Here is the video:
I interviewed Pamela Cohn recently about her conversations with the 29 filmmakers. Here is an edited transcript of our ‘conversation.’
Did you see or sense something similar to what I did in Michael Robinson’s The General Returns?
Robinson admits that there were almost extra-sensory signifiers going on for him when he made that video but like much of his work (he’s a prolific collage artist as well), he had unwittingly gathered all the elements that would make it work for him in terms of the dream logic he uses to craft story. As you’ve read in the book, David Lynch is a huge influence for Michael. From the longer version of the conversation I had with him – some of which appears in the book but was edited down quite a bit for space issues: “I wanted the darkness and damnation of the text to build against what felt like an increasingly floral or beautiful background though the images are sort of dark and mechanical too. The weight of that damnation collapses the text and then you have to reckon with how the various parts continue. I wanted this tug-of-war between beautiful image and ominous sound and the text to finally collapse…That helped me a bit with Onward Lossless Follows because like with The General, I sat down to make it with all these various pieces I had gathered and a pretty troubled heart to try to figure out what was going on. It, too, fell into place in a way that seemed like it knew more about me than I knew about myself.” So a lot of this is mysterious for the artist as well and that’s why his work is so timeless and ineffable, detached from any kind of thesis or strict discipline of logical thought.
One definition of Lucid Dreaming is simply ‘being aware that you are dreaming’ as a kind of stem reality you can grow stuff from. Can you elaborate on the concept and how it applies to your filmmakers?
These works are about action – memory as action, vision and writing as action. And unending sources of faith in one’s voice and vision. In the dream state, there are signposts – mysterious and sometimes uncanny – that cannot easily be directly defined. Allowing oneself to practice the discipline of dreaming while awake is something that takes most of us a lifetime to interpret, to process. For artists, it doesn’t stop at the process; it transforms into the slipstream of the physical world, which is more surreal than one’s dream state could ever hope to be. There’s an open conduit in that liminal space where dream state and interpretation and action swirl around one another. Ever since coming across the term lucid dreaming – a state where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming – it’s always stuck in my mind as the perfect term to describe the cinema experience.
The kinds of experiments filmmakers in Lucid Dreaming are trying out seem so ambitious.
It is ambitious – and so often misunderstood. To attach the moniker of “experimental” to any project is also ambitious – and risky. But what these makers are adept at is creating narrative parallels to what most human beings go through, asking deeper questions about who we are, what our relationships and responsibilities are to ourselves and to one another, and using dialogues between image and sound that create an impressionistic and poetic cinema, creating resonances that can stimulate the mind and heart of the viewer rather than dictate to it or explain complex thoughts in a tiresome and didactic way. It is a time for questioning, a time for seeking, a time for reflection, and a time for deeper connectivity. It is the hardest thing to achieve but so necessary, now more than ever.
Roberto Minervini’s work with Black southern women feels like something of a mix of Studs Terkel’s oral history project and the southern and Caribbean explorations of Zora Neale Hurston. Do they have the same focus? Are their angles the same?
Studs Terkel was first and foremost a cultural anthropologist, in my opinion, and on the surface, you could say Minervini is working within a similar discipline. However, what is vital to Minervini, first and foremost, are the relationships he develops with his protagonists – the individuals he is asking to “re-enact” their lives for his camera – most of whom he’s known for a long time as friends. He considers them full collaborators in this endeavor and uses the camera as a conduit of sorts for emotional reverberations to fly back and forth. He is drawn, as well, to the underbelly of society and wants to shine a light on people who are often cast adrift or live on the margins, individuals with very little opportunity to be seen, heard, and counted, and whom we rarely see represented in mainstream media.
How would you describe the genre or genres described in Lucid Dreaming? Multi-plexual? Phenomenological kitsch? Or some new event in cinema?
The makers in the book tend to generally create their own style or “genre” in the ways in which they put together their work: fiction/non-fiction/memoir/(auto) biography – steeped in documentary practice. Some, we can say, work in genre-free zones with the understanding that they endeavor to use image and sound as a painter uses color, texture and shape, attempting to lay down on a blank flat canvas complex emotions, experiences, sensations, and stories/myths. The book exists so that I could give makers a platform to talk about the complexities of that and the high level of difficulty involved in communicating this way.
Your section on “Visioning with Sound” was interesting, because we often go to the mainstream cinema believing we are interacting with visual narrative almost exclusively, and we can forget how essential audio is to the storytelling. Music cues us on how to respond, sound effects help us to interpret.
Yes, most makers admit that their soundscapes are there, in essence, to manipulate the viewer emotionally. It is a form of control that makers such as Deborah Stratman, Michael Robinson, Gürcan Keltek, and Dónal Foreman can discuss so articulately. All agree that sound is powerful and these makers work very hard to master those effects for maximum emotional impact. I agree completely that in much mainstream fare – documentaries sometimes being the worst offenders – music especially is used profligately and irresponsibly – and annoyingly. Meaning the more bombastic the soundtrack or soundscape, the more suspicious I am of what I’m being shown.
What are your reflections on the aesthetic or practical differences between black-and-white and color? Gürcan Keltek answers this partially in your book with: “I used to work in the film development industry and all the things I used to work with related to getting these highly polished, clean, pristine color images. It started to make me kind of sick. The presentation of beauty in the industry and how people deal with those images made me feel that there’s something inaccurate built into how we perceive things, in general.”
I have been shooting black and white photography for the last 20 years. I, too, think that there is a possibility for purer storytelling but there’s a big difference between looking at it as merely de-saturating or leaching color from something versus using duotone to express a desire to focus on other things that are going on in the frame. But as Gürcan also states, there are makers who choose to work in black and white in a quite pretentious way, with no real rhyme or reason as to why they’re doing it except that it maybe looks more “arty”, or something superficial like that. I wanted to include this discussion in the book because it’s a vital and profound decision and each maker has his or her own personal and artistic reasons for working in black and white – see also Minervini, Maja Borg, etc.
Maja Borg’s documentary on the Venus Project, Future My Love (2012), opens up a new form of filmmaking, one oriented toward realistic practical visions of the future, new paradigms, for which there are concrete models. Can we document the future this way?
While Maja’s project does talk about utopian visions of the future, what’s at the heart of her film with Fresco are their Socratic dialogues about how they cope with the world’s shortcomings (in Fresco’s case) and a more personal exploration into shortcomings in interpersonal, intimate relationships, something that Maja explores in all of her work using her own corpus, her own point of view, and her own story. They found kindred spirits in one another, challenged one another, and learned from one another. Fresco ended up deeply appreciating what Maja made, although it was very far from what he’d expected. This kind of project really shows the fruits of an expansive, charismatic, and exploratory relationship between two brilliant minds – the film is the physical manifestation of what proved to be a profound relationship of respect and love.
Can independent or experimental filmmaking be an act of political disruption on a large enough scale to be meaningful or is it more an inspiration for would-be disrupters?
I don’t really think so. The art world is rarely that powerful and the people most impacted naturally flock to art and art making not so much to disrupt, but to perhaps start the thought process or the spiritual process that happens internally to each one of us when we encounter work that shakes up our senses, exposes new modes of being in the world. But film in and of itself can’t disrupt much of anything. Going back to Moore, I just feel his bid at disruption is misplaced because it’s so superficial and there for entertainment value mostly. When something is entertaining, it is our natural propensity to sort of turn off our discerning, critical brain and that’s not very useful when you’re trying to convince people to look at something in a new way.
Has being a judge of filmmaking altered or affected your approach as a filmmaker?
Yes I could say that it has. It’s certainly made me more discerning and because I’ve seen such diverse work over the years, it’s enabled me to develop an aesthetic and trust my own taste as to what I think is worth sharing with others – and what’s not, meaning it’s a completely subjective exercise. In terms of actual filmmaking, I would have to say I’ve made the same mistakes and taken the same missteps as anyone might do in attempting to transform something from my mind, to the page, to the screen. All I know is that the level of difficulty is very high, sometimes seemingly nigh impossible.
Who wants to watch short, independent, and/or experimental filmmakers anyway? And where can you watch them?
Those that crave, seek out and appreciate this kind of work can find it quite easily. Most of these makers self-produce and therefore have their own extensive websites. In this time of the corona pandemic, many makers are releasing select works for free or opening up their Vimeo pages or posting on YouTube. There is an extensive Filmography section guide for every maker in Lucid Dreaming at OR Books. Contacting the maker in many cases is very possible for they are the sole owners of their works and happy to be invited to share it.