Interview with Roger Warren Beebe
When Gainesville’s FLEX Festival opens in late January, founder/artistic director Roger Warren Beebe will welcome experimental film makers from five continents to a Florida college town whose tallest building in 2001 was a pink six-story Holiday Inn.
Beebe, 37, is part of cinema’s mobile, cosmopolitan and highly decentralized experimental wing. That pink hotel––an apt image of how experimental film does not belong to any single city––opens Beebe’s Strip Mall Trilogy (2001), the first of seven shorts on his new DVD, New Maps of the New World. Compiled for his Fall 2007 East Coast Tour, which covered 36 cities in 14 states over eight weeks, New Maps comprises the work Beebe has completed since moving to Gainesville in 2000 from Chapel Hill, where he ran the small-gauge film festival, Flicker.
Besides Strip Mall Trilogy, New Maps includes A Woman, A Mirror (2001), made with choreographer Sara Smith, which pairs pilot Amelia Earhart with modern dance. Composition in Red and Yellow (2002) sends up commercialized patriotism. Famous Irish Americans (2003) glosses race via unexpected surnames. (rock/hard place) (2005) considers tourist images. S A V E (2006) juxtaposes today’s abandoned gas stations with those Robert Frank captured a half century ago in The Americans. Though Beebe usually shoots on super8, 16 mm and digital video, TB TX Dance (2006) uses laser-printed celluloid.
A film professor at the University of Florida, Beebe has screened these films at dozens of festivals, major museums and film archives, and won some serious prizes. He’s at home discussing the cross-art experiments of Paul Strand’s Manhatta collaborator Charles Sheeler or historical figures like Depression-era itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters. But for eight years now, he’s also toured his films, an activity he and many experimental filmmakers increasingly view as integral to their aesthetic and about which he admits an “evangelical” fervor. Populist in venue and approach––Beebe likens them to indie rock tours––these small film tours avoid the gate-keepers of the ever-tightening US film distribution and awards credentialing system.
We first spoke in mid-October, when Beebe stopped in Syracuse for a screening at Spark Art Space. Our conversation continued by telephone when Beebe returned to Gainesville after the tour, which he said was “more successful than I imagined.”
You’ve said you and other experimental filmmakers decided, well, why shouldn’t we do this kind of tour? How did you organize this?
I should give credit to the pioneers. Obviously people have been doing things like this back into the Silent era. There’s a guy in the American South, H. Lee Waters, who used to travel from city to city. He would shoot film of the local people during the day, process and assemble it quickly, and then show it at night. So all the townspeople would come out and pay to see themselves on the silver screen. Vanessa Renwick and Bill Daniel did a massive, like 200-day tour from Portland, Oregon all the way over, down the East Coast and back again. I did my first tour in 1999––just a nine-cities, ten days around the American South. I’ve learned over time what works. I’ve got friends strewn all across the country––teaching, managing clubs, involved with art spaces. So that’s where I start.
This suggests a vast network of people interested in experimental film that mainstream media’s not paying much attention to.
I think definitely. Unlike the art world, where if it doesn’t happen in New York it doesn’t count, experimental film is much more decentralized. Some of the biggest festivals for short work have been Ann Arbor or Athens, Ohio. You put on a show and suddenly people are like, “You know, I didn’t know I like experimental film, but I like yours!” So I say, “Well, then you do like experimental film.” When people actually see what the stuff is––that’s the challenge, getting people to come out and give it a shot.
Sometimes I get the sense that the general public thinks all experimental film is like Andy Warhol’s “Sleep.”
That’s funny, yeah. But I think there are some more high profile experimental filmmakers. Now that the Stan Brakhage stuff has a Criterion DVD release, people are getting to see that and that’s probably more representative than Warhol’s Sleep. There’s such a narrow range of things that narrative features do, or even PBS talking heads-style documentaries. One myth is that experimental film is any one thing. The closer you get the more you realize how diverse the works are.
I was struck that your work––particularly the one with Amelia Earhart ––is really a marriage of art forms, photography and motion picture and visual art and––though you want to say that it’s anti-dance––there is dance. There’s something so satisfying about mixing those arts together.
Let me back up––it’s not anti-dance, it’s anti-“dance film.” People have a notion of what a dance film is that I want to overcome. People who aren’t initiates of modern dance, I think when they start to see a dance film, they just space out. I try to push them in the opposite direction. I think dance is great. I love Sara [Smith]’s choreography and it’s all built around that.
I was a ways in before I realized, oh, this is dance!
Yes, that’s the idea. One of the great things about modern dance, these pedestrian movements become what we call “dance.” The same way ordinary sounds are transformed into music. Many people ask on the tour if I take still photos because they see explicit references. Robert Frank’s The Americans, for example – I don’t, though, take still photographs and it’s only because I have a great love and respect for that art, just as I have a great love and respect for painting. Charles Sheeler is someone whose compositional sense deeply informs the way I shoot. That stuff is probably as active in my work as other films. But I’m really interested in duration and rhythm too, and I can’t get that in photography. I think that’s the reason I make motion pictures. It would be weird to live as a filmmaker and only look at other films. These people are looking at the same world that we are.
There’s a wonderful moment in A Woman, A Mirror, the close-up of the women’s feet––one pair goes up and just doesn’t come down. That luminous empty space kind of makes me light up.
In the original dance obviously we couldn’t do that so here we took some cinematic liberty. We wanted to insist on the materiality of their bodies, to say, flight is hard. The dream of flight is––almost impossible. And we wanted to allow this moment where you could transcend that–– this glimpse of weightlessness. I still like watching it after 25 nights in a row–-I still enjoy that moment.
What’s the thing you hope people new to experimental film will notice?
I like when people ask about the politics of the work. It’s not just an art practice that’s disconnected from the way I lead my life. I get excited when people sense that it’s about a culture of thrifting, of economy, of living thoughtfully and responsibly, not being seduced by the latest gizmos, thinking about how we can use this rich history of image-making. The so-called DIY culture, right? Just to talk about this camera cost four dollars that I shot (rock/hard place) on. Just that it’s not a rich man’s pursuit. Some of the final film was made for $23. I show it in a Cinemascope version now that cost $46.
Your projectors cost $5 and $30, is that right?
The 16 projector, yes. Actually I have a pair that were $5 each. The super8 was $30.
So how did that way of living lead you to make films?
Bruce Connor – the pioneer of found-footage film who’s been making films since the 1950s – said he started because it was cheaper than getting his camera and shooting his own film. I was attracted to film instead of video because at this moment in history it’s also cheaper. If you want to shoot video, you need a $1500 camera, a $3000 computer and $1000 worth of software. If you want to do film, really you could go to your local movie theater, ask the projectionist for an old trailer – they throw them away – bleach that down so you get clear leader and just start drawing on it or scratching it. I’m interested in music where people record on analogue four-tracks instead of going out to L.A. and getting some fancy producer too. I feel like I evaded the question here!
That’s an aesthetic interest––you figured out you could do that. When I was younger and I hitchhiked, I was never again “stranded.” I remember the moment I recognized that meant I could go anywhere. If you figure out other ways to make film, you’re never shut out of it because of the money. That’s really very invigorating.
Absolutely––you said it more elegantly. When I ran Flicker in Chapel Hill, this kid brought in a roll of film he shot at his 13th birthday party. Miraculously we had 150 people there to see it. They all applauded wildly at the end. It’s just so great. You can pick up a camera for the first time––you don’t have to go to film school, you don’t have to jump through any of the hoops people think. You get a camera and you point it at the world. Flicker was a sort of charmed environment, but it started with a dozen people and their friends. Every couple months everyone decides to shoot some films and show each other. You can make the films, now how can you get them screened? Tours like this show you can find audiences.
Yet there’s nothing haphazard about your aesthetic. That’s really obvious from watching your films.
Sometimes I wish I were less in control. The films I made up to 1999, I felt like part of the problem was I started to get too good at it. I started to try to find new ways of getting clumsy again. I like making these challenges for myself, like shooting a double 8 mm camera where you’re shooting half of it with the camera upside down and shooting backwards, trying to synchronize with what you shot in the first half. I do these things intentionally to lose a little bit of control.
Well, you have such an eye now––I don’t know how you would get away from that. I don’t know how that balance and composition would not be there.
That’s fair. I’m really obsessed. I’m sort of a closet structuralist. I really think about form and composition and that’s what motivates these films. I don’t come to them just with an idea that doesn’t have a shape. I come with––I’m gonna shoot it like this, I’m gonna cut at right angles, shoot primarily close-ups, shoot in shallow focus. I have the rules set out before I touch the camera. Shooting film provides a real sense of focus. Once you’ve pulled the trigger, you’ve got two minutes and 43 seconds. You better make it count.
The McDonald’s film––it’s just loopy! That wide sweep over the Grand Canyon and the soaring “Hands Across America” song. Where does that come from for you?
So many of the shots are so close to what you’d see in a real MacDonald’s commercial. Maybe that’s the source of the humor too. Also seeing it projected on super8 instead of on commercial break on TV. That’s inherently ironizing––this little camera, this little projector. Then the song is ridiculous. It was actually a song to raise money for the hungry––they were gonna connect hands from sea to shining sea. The Kenny Loggins imitator who sings the song, the children’s chorus–– all cranked up a notch too far.
Then, Famous Irish Americans––I’m Irish, so I knew that book, How the Irish Became White, and something about Irish surnames among Black communities in the Caribbean. This is always treated in such reverent, careful terms. But the film’s very funny.
It started with Shaquille O’Neal. There was a half-time interview and they were asking, “As a Black man, what is it…?” It suddenly struck me how unproblematically they’re calling him a Black man. There’s the reality of it – everyday he’s treated as a Black man. But then, it seemed like an incredible blind spot that we’re not asking, his last name is O’Neal? I started just pulling on this little thread. His father is also apparently a Black man. He wasn’t raised by his first father and actually O’Neal isn’t his father’s name. There’s no obvious place where O’Neal was a white Irish person. But it seemed short-sighted to focus on one person. Just in the NBA, there’s 30 teams, a dozen people each, a pool of 360 people – maybe half white. So among maybe 190 Black people, a dozen with Irish surnames. I started digging and reading. It’s just amazing the stuff you discover. Middle America thought Ella Fitzgerald was a white woman, so her records got played outside the race record context. I think I crammed a lot into eight minutes. My own reaction was just to laugh at myself when I saw this life-long blind spot. I figured I’d be true to that impulse.
How did you decide to do (rock/hard place), about Morro Bay, California?
It’s where my parents retired. People complain the power plant is an eyesore, but that isn’t enough to make me think of making a film. I started noticing all the tourist images––again, I just started laughing–– exactly where the frame ends is where the power plant starts. So I thought, this is a film.
Of the films on New Maps, which is your favorite?
How can you choose one of your children? [laughs] The most recent films, I think I feel a greater affinity for them. I would say (rock/hard place) and S A V E. They don’t squeeze the life out of their subjects. They allow reality to be messy and say, let’s think about this and what does this mean? For now, I like that about them. I still like all the films, having seen them 25 nights in a row.
What do you get from the exchange with audiences on this tour?
The network gets wider. I really get that great connection every time. I see that people are receptive to the work I’m making now. I’m a little bit of a Johnny Appleseed. I’ve loved seeing New England and the different landscapes, even the different foods and different beers that each town’s microbrewery makes. I don’t see the leaves changing in Gainesville.
Have you seen places on this tour you want to shoot?
I thought about bringing a camera but I need to digest more. When I go into a film I want to know what I’m going in for. There are places–– between Buford, South Carolina to Charleston, there’s a stretch and the light was perfect that day––I felt like slamming on the brakes. Another time I’d like to have more days or more stops in really tiny places. I’m fantasizing about a small-town Florida tour or maybe next April in the Pacific Northwest. I’m definitely getting ideas. Philadelphia has this bizarre industrial structure with tall towers that exactly echoes the downtown. From this vantage near my friend Ted’s apartment you see on the left of the frame––I’m imagining a frame already––these abandoned smokestacks, just shooting up in the sky, and on the right the skyscrapers of the new modern city. It’s still not a film, but it’s a shot. I’ve seen a lot of shots on the road––if I were a still photographer I’d be collecting things. That’s one short-coming of making motion pictures.
What’s coming up for you next?
I’ve shot four films that are waiting for editing. One when I was much younger, living in Paris. One is a return to the S A V E station––the building is gone. Two longer things I’ve been working on for a while. Then, I’m thinking of a project with bodies again. I think I want to put myself in a little more. I feel like these landscapes are weirdly people-less and that already haunts the work.
Anything else you’d like to say?
We’ve covered a lot of territory so I think I’d like to set up my projectors. The setting up every night is part of what I love, knowing that in the back of my Toyota Prius, I can fit everything I need to make any room into a theater in 90 minutes. I should probably go do that now.
New Maps of the New World is available from Roger Warren Beebe directly at his website, www.clas.ufl.edu/users/rogerbb/, which links to Gainesville’s FLEX Festival, or from the independent DVD label Lowave (www.lowave.com). Nancy Keefe Rhodes writes about film, photo & visual arts from Syracuse, New York.