Things Fall Apart: Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt’s The Unity of All Things at BAM’s Migrating Forms
The Unity of All Things, the first feature by artist Alexander Carver and filmmaker Daniel Schmidt, is an erotic queer sci-fi with an experimental narrative that combines particle physics, critique of global capitalism, various existential quandaries, and playfully perverse digressions into gender politics. It’s an unclassifiable micro-budget film shot on Super 16 and Super 8 in locations ranging from China, Switzerland, Chicago, and the Arizona desert, and has dialogue in at least three different languages. As its title might imply, the film’s ambition is undercut by a generous serving of self-aware humor.
The film receives its New York premiere tonight as part of Migrating Forms, the eclectic showcase of moving image art and under-the-radar films that has migrated from Anthology Film Archives to BAMcinématek for the first time this year. I caught The Unity of All Things last summer when it played at the Locarno Film Festival, where it competed in the Cinese di presenti section for new filmmakers. With its jagged rhythms, offbeat humor and seductive images all conspiring to confuse and intrigue (in more or less equal amounts), Carver and Schmidt’s film was a singular entry among the more linear offerings.
The Unity of All Things follows several female particle physicists, including a mother of incestuous teen boys, who are engaged in an effort to build a new particle collider on the U.S.-Mexico border. But that’s just the start. Also figuring into the scheme is China’s Cultural Revolution and the sudden appearance of a black panther, to name two. While I won’t claim to have a full grasp its fragmentary narrative, I’m fairly certain that a complete understanding is neither necessary nor entirely expected by the filmmakers. This is a film designed to mirror and project a destabilized universe. Character, genre, tone, and even image, are all vibrating in a state of simultaneous contradiction. If that sounds abstract, it should. But you can also just enjoy the film’s unique sonic and visual textures, and be more than fulfilled.
I caught up with the filmmakers earlier this week for soba noodles and a heady discussion about collaboration, colliding particles, and China’s one-child policy.
Filmmaker: The film seems to be positioned between the art world and the film world. One hand, it’s a 90-minute narrative feature that screens in cinemas. On the other, it’s a highly conceptual work that’s formally experimental.
Carver: If it was a more complete narrative or was aesthetically more coherent, it would probably serve a film-going audience much better. Art audiences still tend to have an allergy to narrative, though this is changing. I think the film would serve an art audience better if it were more faithful to some experimental ethnographic mode, or was, say, a psycho-geographic essay film.
Filmmaker: Humor is something that has, in some ways, not been embraced in certain experimental genres. It plays a big part in this film.
Schmidt: Humor is one of the main attractions to cinema and art for me. I also find humor in things that might not in a more populist sense be considered humorous, whether it’s a Bresson film or the Panahi film you showed at the Guggenheim recently [This is Not a Film]. Largely, when humor is done in a satirical sense, as it’s been employed in this movie and in previous movies I’ve made, it’s definitely meant to destabilize and to call into question different sorts of political and narrative structures, and see them in a refreshed way. The humor is fairly idiomatic to our community of friends and collaborators, and I hope it speaks to a larger audience. It absolutely has an allegiance to my previous experiences with the movies I made with [Gabriel Abrantes], but it’s also very different and is very particular to how Alex and I relate to each other and our humor, and the pleasures and problems we have with that.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about particle physics, which is a central component of the film’s narrative.
Schmidt: My dad was a particle physicist for pretty much his whole adult life. I was working on another film with a friend, and looking for a spectacular location, and CERN was on the list. I visited to location scout, but also to visit the last place my dad worked. He had previously worked at two other particle physic labs: one on Long Island and one in Chicago. I had never been to any of them before — well, maybe once when I was a child. Anyhow, after that previous project had finished on different terms and with different locations, I became interested in doing a project that investigated these spaces because I found the cultures [at the labs] very strange. And of course, the science that they’re doing [accelerating and colliding particles at nearly the speed of light] and the ambitions, as well as its affiliation to my father, was all really interesting. The particle physics communities at the three laboratories each had a very distinct culture. This was partially due to the financial health of the different institutions. The two in the U.S. had been recently defunded, and CERN in Switzerland is doing very, very well financially. Another interest that got sparked by visiting these sites, and also by reading about them, is that these laboratories are vast. I think CERN is 27 km in circumference. And they have to be located somewhere, even though they’re international endeavors, and they’re underground. And they become hotly contested items for which different states or regions have to prove that they can financially support them.
Filmmaker: Is a particle collider dangerous?
Schmidt: No. I mean, only in Dan Brown’s mind. There’s a lot of conspiracy that they are.
Filmmaker: And what is the goal of a particle collider?
Schmidt: Ultimately, the goal is to understand the origin of the universe and the fundamental structure of matter. Obviously, Alex and I were pretty interested in the mythic and superhuman quest aspect. Essentially, the mechanics of it is isolating sub-atomic particles and accelerating them with this underground ring and a system of magnets to speeds approaching the speed of light, colliding those particles and analyzing those collisions. A lot of the science goes into creating detectors that determine whether a certain piece of information is interesting or not because there’s no way they can store all the data they create.
Filmmaker: There are a number of different characters in the film, and you play with a confusion of identities. There’s even a set of twins who appear to change gender. But, as viewers, we are somewhat on the outside of these characters.
Schmidt: Psychology doesn’t really exist at all [in the film], and [it’s] replaced with desire. Everything is rendered as erotic, basically, in one way or another, but this eroticism and sensuality is not a reflection of the characters’ psychologies or the cultural psychologies that they belong to, but is simply a force.
Carver: The film is deliberately reckless and playful with representation, and this is sort of uniformly distributed. It’s not just people that are treated with this irreverence, but whole landscapes. There’s a type of satirical play. What Daniel and I were contending with, since it was our first collaboration, [was] watching the subject matter, in a gravitational way, sort of implode and then explode as we gathered more and more content and reached a critical mass. Our job was to cast a wide net and see what stuck in the film conceptually. Why we want to make a film like this is because we’re reacting to the contemporary. The contemporary is an accelerated, destabilized, global capitalist world.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about some of the material choices that went into making the film.
Schmidt: What are for you the conspicuous material details in the film, that either you enjoy or are confused by?
Filmmaker: On a pleasure level, I respond to the film’s circularity and sensuality. I especially like the scenes on the beach that bookend the film and are accompanied by the electronic score. But in terms of conspicuous formal decisions, I think there are two main ones: the decision to separate sound from image, in terms of dialogue, and the decision to shoot on Super 8 and Super 16.
Schmidt: Each of those decisions comes from a different place. The technique [separating of sound and image] I started using when I began working with Gabriel. He had developed it with our friend Katie on a film they made together called Olympia. On one level, it’s a pragmatic solution to dealing with non-professional actors and a small crew where you don’t have a [designated] sound person. Those are creative decisions, too. Being able to work with a small crew allows you to enter more guarded locations and to work with performers who might be able to just give you a physical performance without intoning the lines, or even being able to speak the correct language. When it comes to post-production, we dubbed all of the characters with a mix of the performers’ actual voices as well as other people’s voices, and it’s done for different reasons. This technique allows for many modulations [of a] performance. And it primes us to a mindset of revision at a point in the process where most people [have to commit to a performance]. We can put in new lines; we can have them [speak dialogue] in a way that contradicts the performance.
One of the other main production considerations is that we shot this movie over the course of 18 months, but staggered with large four or five month interludes between shoots, which also allowed for revision. I think is evidenced in final movie, which is a mix of different apparatuses to deal with the content. Because we’re shooting on film and we have a small budget, we’re only afforded to do one take or two takes, three at the most. It’s sort of a modus operandi. It commits us to the performances. It’s an intentional thing — I’d like to try working with a larger crew—but something [this process] works on its own terms. We shot at each particle collider for a week. It’s on film. You’re not going to go back to reshoot it. We trusted our cinematographer, Charlie Anderson, who’s a fabulous guy. We developed a way of working over the course of the different shoots.
Carver: At the end of the day, the control over the composition, the image, is something that we relinquished from time to time, in just getting this thing accomplished.
Schmidt: The decision to shoot on Super 8, rather than Super 16 in China was really due to trying to keep the project on celluloid, but I was satisfied with how it looked. [There was a greater risk of confiscation with a larger camera.]
Filmmaker: Did you write a script with dialogue?
Carver: Writing the film was something that had to evolve as we worked on the project, because we were trying to balance so much subject matter, and we really wanted the film to be sensual and humorous and perverse. To maintain a level of chemistry, we’d sort of write forward and erase back. I think it ultimately helped to create a very pliable structure. One of the technical challenges was how to maintain the narrative threads. They’re very minor, but they exist. Another challenges was how to make certain that we were balancing [the different characters], because it’s an ensemble film and we didn’t want any in particular to be the center of the film.
Filmmaker: How did you cast the film?
Carver: That was also something that developed over time. Our friends were the first people we reached out to, so we cast many of them. The primary concern was how to cast the young boys [the characters are twins]. It’s inferred in the film that they have a sexual relationship. We knew that would be an issue or a problem. I was meeting Daniel at JFK because he’d just flown back from China, and we had a kind of meeting there. We talk a lot about the context of our decisions, and why these boys have a sexual relationship and how it relates to broader concerns or subjects. And I said to him, “What would you think about actually casting women to play the boys?” for a number of reasons.
One of the things we’d been talking about while developing the film project was the various differences of Chinese society that so fascinate the Western world in a sort of passive-racist sense. We were trying to weave a tapestry of desires that was very much informed by these sentiments. So one thing that concerned us was the single-child policy in China in relation to its modernity, and the perverse fascination Westerners have with this policy. In addition, the gender bias in China for male children is also a fascination. We were interested in creating these characters that could literally embody something along those lines. It could be twin boys — an anomalous thing — existing in a state of exception. They have a sexual relationship and are, sort of, fetishistic objects in China, but also for Westerners thinking about them as well. In keeping with the film, which is already very queer, to push it into the scope of gender, and to do it in a way that would siphon too much attention, so we wanted to absorb it into the fabric of the film as much as possible. We were interested in having them pass, to a certain degree, but to have very conscious gender slips in the film. And we do use body doubles to show male genitalia, which bookend the film, and is conspicuously absent in the rest of the film.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the genre of science fiction and its relationship to your film.
Carver: Like all good science fiction, keeping the big picture in mind is important, because on a smaller, syntactic level, it’s all nonsense. [The film] is not a true allegory because it’s not coherent, but [it has] a poetic structure that’s thinking things and feeling things in a broader set of terms. I think that’s one thing that makes the film difficult to penetrate. The most fundamental aspect of science fiction is system building and world creation. It’s the necessity to create another space, another society, another social order, another world. In our film, we don’t really do that. We simply take the world and mutate it a little, shift it a little, destabilize it. That’s sort of our hypothesis, that it’s sufficient to create science fiction, and the act of science fiction predominantly woven around this socio-historical text, which [includes] the appropriation of language and Chinese history and the narrative of modernity. Our postulation is: is it science fiction for us — two Americans in their twenties — to narrativize in Chinese language and about Chinese history? The film sort of takes that force of the global capitalist order — that hubris and psychosis — and applies it to science fiction and opens up the wound, which is the Occident-Orient divide. For anyone who’s going to look at it with a close read, it’s certainly problematic.