A Defense of Acquaintances

I got a very interesting question in the comments section of my film Acquaintances today. Rwordplay wrote:

Dan, Not entirely sure I understand the point of the exercise. I think think it’s difficult to transcend the banal—it is obligatory for novelists and still life painters, but it’s absolutely critical for a filmmaker to turn ordinary conversation into something so mysterious, we have no choice but to listen. Where’s the mystery?

I wrote a lengthy response:

I suppose the mystery is in how these people escape these circumstances, either imagined or real, and frame them as narratives. The last interview in particular keeps veering between obviously open wounds and fantasies that seem all the more fantastic for their incredible banality (to have a child and name it after a video game character), and the mystery is what he could have done to escape that. As it stands, he killed himself. Some of them are less attempts to be mysterious so much as to try capturing the fleeting moods of a town-the segment in the coffee shop where man talks about feeling trapped in Saratoga since it doesn’t seem lively to him would seem to suggest both an irony in its contrast to the fantastic quality of the stories preceding him and captures a feeling I’m sure every subject had at some point. Each interviewee seems to take solace in the notion there’s some sort of normal world out there somewhere. Yet, their idea of this world is always woefully underdeveloped. Though I hadn’t read this when I made the film, Stanley Elkin’s observation that the great life is one of cliches seems appropriate here. Each one breaks through a hardship with the help of a system of their own making-the ridiculous amnesia tv show,holding open doors, reiki treatments, the almost country lyrics of the man with the speech impediment. Are these admirable accomplishments or sad writhings of trapped creatures?

Though I can’t say I defend the entirety of the film, most of which was shot when I was 17 and edited between then and when I turned 19, I still find that I achieved a great deal of what I set out to do with the piece. I shot it when I was obsessed with the work of John Cassavetes and the subsequent academic renderings of him by Ray Carney, in particular the books Cassavetes on Cassavetes and The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies. Both are excellent books, and I recommend them highly.

In Cassavetes work there seems to be a promise of wisdom in the reckless disregard for any structural or grammatical traditions in the cinema, one I took whole heartedly-that if one could only escape ideas one could reach the wealth of experience as it happens. This dovetailed nicely with the strong feeling I had then about Saratoga-that so many people I knew regarded it as a trap, that they’d never escape it, and that their future lay in cities, and that I disagreed with them entirely on all these points. The town seemed stranger and more rich in contradictions and lore than anything David Lynch could concoct and they all seemed to be on the surface. Yet this was a surface so slippery that one could hardly skate on it without falling and tripping. So going in, my initial impulse was “How do I show how bizarre and exciting the day to day life is here?”

The other initial guiding impulse was simply that the film was in a sense an autobiography of my high school years-that I had spent most of my time gathering stories from the townies as they were called, and the film is like an extremely condensed version of my many leisurely days of coffee and wandering. I went in with only two rules, each of which I broke rather quickly.

1)I would go into each interview with no predetermined questions or subject in mind. I wouldn’t prompt the subjects. Any structure would come from later editing, which I gave myself an open deadline to finish.

2) The only thing consistent to each interview is that I would speak to the person for an hour, the length of a mini DV tape.

I broke rule one several times, knowing many of each subject’s stories and guiding them toward ones I thought should be preserved. I also broke it, and at the same time allowed for the repeated motifs of the film simply in that the questions were ones I’d had on my mind at the time-how does one reconcile after quarrels with parents, what do you do after finishing high school etc. Rule two I broke by using two tapes on Ross, the first subject in the film.

I wasn’t sure what shape the film should take after shooting, and decided I would try to memorize each tape in the process of editing so I could form the footage like a short story. I edited each segment individually with no sure idea in my head how they would be combined if they were going to be combined at all. The idea to shoot landscape shots came to me two years later, two weeks before I had booked the Saratoga Arts Center to premiere the film. These shots solved two problems with the finished segments-1) I thought they moved way too quickly, and one after another would instill a mechanical skimming by the viewer, 2) I wanted it to be about the town by being about the people in it, and this seemed to connect the two things in a more concrete way.

Editing was guided more by a desire for an indefinite tone, a simultaneous feeling of tragedy and humor and the inability of the audience to feel any specific thing while watching it without later calling such feelings into question. This makes it incredibly hard for the viewer to try to do a detailed reading leading toward a notion or lesson to be taken away. The film doesn’t have intentions toward either. If it’s heading toward anything specifically, I suppose it’s a premonition of something that has fascinated me more recently-the challenge to perform in the wake of tragedy and the scramblings toward and inevitable disappointment in the improvisation undertaken.

The first public screening after showing a number of segments to friends was an interesting experience and in some aspects a signal of failure. A film I thought was hilarious was taken with mute horror for the most part and while the audience was moved, they all shook my hand and hugged me afterward as though comforting the bereaved at a funeral. Friends I’d shown segments to earlier had laughed uncontrollably or launched into several hour accounts of their own lives. Many asked me if I owned a tripod. I didn’t then.

I’ve begun work on my next long form film, which is going to deal with ambivalence and non-feelings in a manner entirely different from Acquaintances-there will be properly filmed shots, written material, voice-overs, etc. I hope the two will make interesting bedfellows.

And if you haven’t already, please check out the book I just published. It’s really cheap and I personally think it’s pretty good, though there’s no accounting for taste.

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