Lady Vengeance: Interview with Sundance Filmmaker Eve Sussman
Although Sundance is predominantly known for indie dramas and social issue documentaries, the New Frontiers section provides a loving home for particularly odd ducks. Unlike many projects in New Frontiers, which are presented as installations or other new media formats, Eve Sussman’s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir was screened in a conventional theater. However, the film’s text, 300 bits of voiceover, 150 pieces of music, and 3,000 images are live-edited by an algorithmic computer dubbed the Serendipity Machine that creates a randomized sequence, meaning each screening is entirely unique. Not only does Sussman’s piece turn the idea of the mystery genre on its ear, it plays with the very idea of genre itself, as well as chronology, and convention, and every other building block of narrative as we know it.
Fresh from a successful three-show run at Sundance 2012, Sussman spoke with Lady Vengeance about storytelling and the nature of human perception.
LADY VENGEANCE: How did you conceive of whiteonwhite?
SUSSMAN: Well the title is named after a Malevich painting; White on White and Black Square are the two seminal pieces of Suprematist work, which is about transcendence through art, and pure feeling in art—getting away from representation. But as I was becoming interested in trying to make a piece about that painting, the actor I worked with, Jeff Wood, who was also at Sundance with us, became really interested in space travel. So his literal interest in space converged with the sort of conceptual, theoretical ideas of White on White. Malevich used these sort of megalomaniac theoretical concepts where he would call himself the chairman of space, and he would talk often about the idea of space, whether it was the space of the picture plane, or literal space as in the cosmos; you could sort of read it as a double entendre. And so we started conflating those two ideas, the idea of space and the idea of Suprematism and White on White and pure transcendence.
LV: How did this idea lead you to shoot in Central Asia?
SUSSMAN: Because Jeff kept talking about space I said, let’s go to where they launched the rockets from, which is the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe. And so we attempted to go to Baikonur, got arrested, got kicked out, and then found ourselves in the middle of Central Asia. We ended up in this kind of futuristic numbered city that actually became our primary location because it had this kind of retro future Alphaville-esque feeling to it. We thought, ‘oh my god, this is the perfect place for some sort of weird sci-fi retro-future film noir.’ It looks like a circuit board, there’s no street names, your address is like 3-36-12 or something; it’s sort of like you’re living inside a combination lock. We went back to that town four or five times, and each time we went the character got more clear, and we actually started storyboarding scenes and doing more and more improvisation, and finally we hired a bunch of actors in that town.
LV: So is there script locked away somewhere that is in vaguely chronological order?
SUSSMAN: There were lots of different sort of synopses and storyboards, and scenes, but there was no complete script. And most of the voiceovers that drive the film were written in retrospect. There were plot lines that we drew out, and different scenarios, and different ideas about the character, and different storyboards for different scenes, but we never had a traditional feature film script that was purposely cut up. It wasn’t that contrived, I guess I would say. It was really much more organic. And because we shot these different kinds of scenes, and then they ended up being edited algorithmically with these little voiceovers that could come in any order, you could have scenes that are conflicting, you could have ideas that are conflicting, you could have two different epilogues. There wasn’t a need for things to make sense the way they need to necessarily make sense in conventional feature film. And the other thing that’s really important is that even though people can’t get in there and play with the computer – lots of audience members always want to – it is an interactive piece because the audience does complete the story that they’re watching.
LV: Is there a concept you’re trying to demonstrate here through randomization, or are you just playing with the mechanism of storytelling?
SUSSMAN: I think the point is looking at how we tell stories, and the power of insinuation. Because so much of the narrative of our every day life is implied. You pass somebody on the street and you sort of assume that they’ve given you a strange look and then your imagination takes it from there. Or you think somebody smiled at you and your imagination takes it from there. And it’s all implied, it’s all in your head, and so the idea of how we form narrative as human beings and how implication and gesture, the smallest things, play a huge role in what’s going on is really what I’m trying to get at.
LV: That is true even on a subconscious level. The most basic perception is a result of your brain synthesizing a story about what it’s taking in.
SUSSMAN: Exactly. And if you didn’t do that you would be totally dysfunctional. Just to go from your house to the store, you have to have a story in your head of how to do that. That is a narrative, right? And there’s all kinds of things that go on and all of those little interchanges, from picking up a carton of milk to how the cashier hands you back the money, that might imply all kinds of things, and the power of those implications and the power of those kinds of interchanges, those very subtle interchanges between people is what I’m really interested in. My previous two large scale video pieces really looked at those things, because they actually didn’t even use language. They were all about the power of gesture and how gesture implies narrative. In some ways this harkens back to pieces I was doing ten or twelve years ago that were using really really low tech means, but were combining written narrative with film that was either live feed or shot, but would line up kind of serendipitously to seem as if they were illustrating the story you were watching. Not on high tech computer or anything, it was before I even knew how to edit on a computer, but they had a similar kind of storytelling idea, where you had these small ten or twenty line stories, that were relayed to you as text on the screen, and there were two or three screens that would line up footage next to it in a kind of serendipitous way. And inevitably what would happen is that the images you were seeing would start to illustrate even if technically they had nothing to do with the stories. But your brain wants to synthesize those things. And the desire to synthesize those things is what I think is so interesting.
LV: So that element of chance as a storytelling tool has always excited you?
SUSSMAN: Yeah, and I think in some ways I’m kind of going back to what I was doing 15 years ago with just more high tech needs.
LV: When did you think, “Hey, I can explore this same idea of randomizing the interplay between text and image using technology?”
SUSSMAN: It came about because I started really questioning the editing process, and the storytelling process, and the narrative process, and the idea that we hold the editor on such a pedestal, especially in the history of American filmmaking, much more so than in European filmmaking actually. And I have huge respect for editors and I think I’m a very good editor, and I have a really great editor, but I really wanted to question that process, because I still think that so much of what I like about editing happens because of luck. It happens because you just happen to lay two images next two each other on the timeline and it’s suddenly very poetic and very powerful. A lot of the time you don’t actually think of it, you just sort of manage to shove two shots together, and you don’t quite know why. Especially if you don’t work in a mainstream narrative context, which I don’t. So it’s not about following a script and picking the best take, that’s not what I do. I started thinking, “what if I could build a machine that would give me more serendipity, more luck than I could ever generate myself?” I just wanted these resonant, poetic, metaphorical juxtapositions, and I wanted lots of them to be shot at me. And so we thought, let’s build the Serendipity machine and a computer can do that much more efficiently and much faster than a human can.
LV: For a more conventional editor the job is sometimes to ensure that everyone in the audience is having the same experience, but the job of Serendipity is to ensure the opposite.
SUSSMAN: Exactly. Exactly. It’s about sort of having this open-ended thing, and the audience being an active participant in the making. The audience is sort of doing 50% of the making here, which I think is really interesting. They have to come and work too…which is why the film is not for everyone. Some people will leave after ten or 15 minutes but, you know, the people who stay and get into actually really get into it, because it is participatory, and if you get into that participation you’re not bored. It’s not about spoon feeding a narrative statement to someone, that’s not what I’m interested in. There’s just enough of that going on, and some people do that very, very well, but that’s not, I think, where my strength lies.
LV: Do all of the screenings of whiteonwhite involve the small screen that runs the metadata of the editing algorithm as the film plays?
SUSSMAN: It’s very important that the metadata is there, it’s very important that the audience understands that there’s a machine driving this movie. It is being edited live by computer, and without those code screens there, you don’t immediately understand that. So it’s partially a conceptual conceit, that the audience is aware that the computer is in the room with them, but also, I think it does add this sort of poetic element because all of those tags, all of those words that we’re using to describe the footage has a poetic resonance to it. The tagging is really a stream of consciousness thing where you look at this footage and start tagging, right? But that stream of consciousness act is something that I thought the audience should be privy to. And you start to understand how the machine makes decisions, and actually when we did a first Work-in-Progress screening MoMA like a year and a half ago, somebody in the audience said, oh it’s sort of like having a fireplace in the audience, you sort of feel the warm glow of both screens feeding those words and so you have some other insight into the piece. I would never show the piece without that screen.
LV: The story itself is within the mystery genre, and is a mystery for the members of the audience to piece together, and having the code screen there was like unravelling another mystery. The film is in the narrative mode but the code is in the mathematical mode so your brain is being engaged in these two totally different ways.
SUSSMAN: I like that, that’s nice. Also in a lot of mystery, noir thrillers, stuff like that, you have some kind of treasure map, or note, or text that only means something to the detective, and I think the code works on that level. You have the story and then you have what’s going on with all the text on the screen and you’re trying to figure out both of those.
LV: Did you choose to work in the mystery genre because the narrative construction is itself a mystery?
SUSSMAN: I’ve always been a fan of the mystery genre, I mean I’m a total sucker for the sort of mystery thriller noir, and if I ever did make a “conventional” feature film it would probably be yet again in that genre. So the nature of the narrative wasn’t immediately why I thought it should be a pseudo-noir mystery. I think it, again, serendipitously happened to fit really well together. I think that decision to sort of make something that used that kind of genre came about more because of these locations. They had that sort of retro-future sci-fi noir feeling.
LV: whiteonwhite has screened in a movie theater setting before, but did you find your experience at Sundance to be different, because the audience isn’t necessarily at the festival to see experimental film?
SUSSMAN: I went in totally skeptical, I’ll be honest. I went in thinking, this is not my milieu, this is not my scene, this is probably not a great place to show the work, and many people had warned me it wouldn’t be a great place to show the work, and I was actually really pleasantly surprised. There was much more of an audience there for experimental work than I had expected, and I think just maybe a New Frontiers audience. I think like of the 50,000 people who go to Sundance, there’s 200 of them who are New Frontiers people, and are checking out the wacky shit, right? And I think those people are a little more open or have a little more patience, or aren’t so story-obsessed. I mean, Sundance is a very story-obsessed place, when you talk to them about the Labs, when you talk to them about the Short and Feature Film Program, they’re just so obsessed with what I would consider to be a pretty conventional way of telling stories. Not that that’s bad, that just…that’s that. And I don’t do that.
LV: How did people respond to the work?
SUSSMAN: The people who got into it got really into it. With each screening there were more and more really interesting, really deeply philosophical comments. One person talked about how it’s a little bit like quantum mechanics where there is this idea that you can’t observe an experiment without changing the experiment. And I thought that was a beautiful statement. This really young girl came up to me last night, and I guess she’s a comic book artist, or really into comics, and she said ‘oh, you really understand it the way that you understand comics,’ and I thought that was so interesting; this person who’s got a total aesthetic for reading comics can read this movie, because comics also sort of force you to fill in the blanks a little, because they don’t give you every single frame. People really bring their own thing to it, and that’s very exciting.
Somebody made another really interesting comment about the monologues which are half in English and half in Russian. He said: ‘Oh, you know, I teach writing, and one of my students is Russian and now she’s writing in English, but she said it’s really hard because in Russian literature they don’t really have transitions; they talk about this, and then they talk about that. You really have that kind of structure going on.” He asked if I picked Russian as the second language in the film because because of the desire to have that structure that jumps around in the way that Russian literature does and I said, “Actually I wasn’t even aware of that.” It was also a serendipitous coincidence. The way we have the kind of serendipity in the editing, people have that same sort of juxtaposition going on in their own minds with whatever it is their thing is, whether that’s psychology or Russian literature or quantum mechanics.
LV: Do you feel like you’re done working with the algorithm or do you want to try applying it to other stories and projects?
SUSSMAN: I don’t think I’m done with it. We have many versions of it actually and our programmer Jeff Garneau wrote a version of it that can go out to multiple screens. The one we were running at Sundance can’t, but we have other versions of the algorithm that can do, say, a flatscreen installation, or can put nine panels on one screen and run them kind of like a weird tic-tac-toe game. So there’s lots of different options, and I think we’ve barely scratched the surface in thrms of the potential for how to use these ideas.
I must concur.
For more information on Eve Sussman and whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir visit the Rufus Corporation website.
FARIHAH ZAMAN began working in film as a Programmer for Film South Asia documentary film festival before moving to New York in 2005, where she was the Acquisitions Manager at independent film distribution company Magnolia Pictures. In 2008 she coordinated IFP’s No Borders program, the only international co-production market in the US, before becoming Program Manager of The Flaherty Seminar until 2010. Farihah currently writes for The Huffington Post, as well as online film journal Reverse Shot, among others.