“It Ended Up Being Therapeutic for Everyone”: Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert and Damon Smith on the Now-Streaming Room H.264: Quarantine
Do any of us remember a time when the film industry was not in crisis? At the time of Wim Wenders’s 1982 documentary, Room 666, the on-screen directors who considered his prompt (“Is cinema becoming a dead language, an art which is already in the process of decline?”) grappled with the kinds of issues (film vs. TV, the rise of blockbusters, the struggles of art cinema) that would go on to preoccupy filmmakers and film critics for many years — up to and through the production of Jeff Reichert, Damon Smith and Eric Hynes’s 2018 Brooklyn-set reply to Wenders, Room H.264.
If Room 666, in which titans like Jean-Luc Godard, Steven Spielberg and Rainer Werner Fassbinder answered Wenders’s question within a quiet room at the Hotel Martinez during the Cannes Film Festival, gained potency from knowledge of the negative space — the commercial bustle of Croisette — just outside, the more playful Room H.264 functioned as a sort of community-based baton-handoff, a collection of doc filmmakers, many working in hybrid or experimental spaces, expanding the limits of the original 1982 question while, at times, critiquing its inherent solemnity. The 2016-shot Room H.264 premiered at the 2018 Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series, as did an immediate sequel, Room H.264: Astoria, NY January 2018.
With this latest fourth edition, Room H.264: Quarantine, April 2020, the series continues at a time when the concept of crisis is a global one, shared by all, filmmaker and viewer alike. The cast of participating filmmakers has changed, once again, while, this time, the foundational formal stricture imposed by Wenders’s original film — one room, one (mostly fixed) camera person — has been necessarily jettisoned. Quarantine, created over the last several weeks by filmmakers all over the world shooting at home alone, or amongst families, via Skype or FaceTime, shares formal elements with, well, just about every piece of news media out there right now, as cable news pundits too beam in via their webcams from dens, sundecks and living rooms.
But if the form is more familiar, the content is certainly not, as this rangiest of the H.264s finds filmmakers alternately ruminative, anxious, shell-shocked, serene and mischievous. Jiayan Jenny Shi discusses the politics of streaming in China in what was, at the time of her filming, a forerunner of the current AMC/Universal debate. From a country with a more generous social safety net, Danish filmmaker Anna Eborn points to the general precarity of the independent filmmakers — “As an artist, my situation hasn’t changed, I don’t own anything…” — while, here, Cecilia Aldarondo places the current filmmaking crisis within a broader conversation about cultural worker sustainability in the U.S. Steve James, with tongue only slightly in cheek, bemoans the fact that his latest feature, City So Real, hasn’t sold. (“It would be perfect to watch right now during the fucking pandemic,” he says.) Michael Andrianaly quotes Gilles Deleuze (“We’re no longer in a disciplinary society, we’re in a society of control”). Todd Chandler plays guitar and then with his kid. Breaking the “INT: LIVING ROOM” fourth wall, as well as the whole notion of a quarantine, Swedish director John Skoog visits forlornly the three drive-in screens that are last movie theaters running in all of Denmark. The picture (as best as I can tell from the blurry image): Ang Lee’s high-frame-rate actioner Gemini Man. “It’s hard to predict the future,” Skoog says.
All four editions of Room H.264, plus a documentation of one live version, are streaming free through Sunday, May 3, for free on the project’s Vimeo page. I spoke to the three filmmakers upon the launch of their series in 2018, and below I circle back, asking Hynes, Reichert and Smith about their continued allegiance to Wenders’s prompt, filmmaking as self-therapy, and the future of the series.
Filmmaker: Your series riffs off of Wim Wenders’s 1982 doc, Room 666, and its question to filmmakers: “Is cinema becoming a dead language — an art form which is already in decline?” It seems a question alternately more relevant yet also almost insignificant in the current moment, a contradiction that is amplified by the degree to which the filmmakers engage with it in specifically or not. As this series hits its fifth episode, what are your thoughts on the continuing utility of the question that is its center?
Damon Smith: We’ve thought a lot about this. It’s fair to say that we all find the question maddening. We’ve had many discussions about whether or not to introduce a different question, even a series of questions, that might elicit a fresh set of responses. Yet we keep returning to it as an essential component of the formal constraints we’ve set ourselves. Each time we’ve made one of these films – in 2016, 2018, 2019, and now April 2020 – the participants change, the locations vary, and most importantly, the circumstances specific to the moment of filming provide the tone and color of each filmmaker’s very personal reflection on cinema, whether that’s through silence, performance, intellectual engagement or some form of auto-dialogue. What doesn’t change is this tortuously formulated prompt, which is both an artifact of Wenders’s milieu in 1982 and a cliché of death-of-cinema anxiety dating back almost a century. But it does remain useful despite its hoary provenance. For better or worse, it’s our compass point.
Jeff Reichert: In the third H.264 film, COLUMBIA, MO, MARCH 2019, the participants seemed in large part disinterested, even annoyed, by the premises and construction of the Wenders question. So, many of them disregarded it entirely or addressed it in aggressively obtuse ways. That made for material we found exciting, but also got us thinking about the question’s continued utility. We’re still puzzling over this…I’m glad we stuck with it for this iteration as it has perhaps re-found a kind of meaning in this moment. And seeing all four films together, it has been a continual surprise to me just how different from each other they are, even though their basic building blocks are identical. So there may be something to sticking with it.
Eric Hynes: Whether or not it was our original intent — reader, it was not — now that the project has become serialized, and extended over years, there’s value in maintaining some of these formal conceits, even if we, and our participants, strain against them. It allows for us to identify variations and progressions, to compare a response from 2020 with one from 2016, with this question, among other things, as a constant between them. As Jeff and Damon said, we’re definitely weighing this element, and may indeed find ourselves floating something else in the future.
Filmmaker: Because of the format, in which filmmakers are shooting themselves from within their home, as opposed to one central hotel room, this edition is able to be more international than the others, and it’s interesting to view the filmmakers’s responses through the lenses of their own societies and cultures. Anna Eborn, for example, who is based in Denmark, says her own life hasn’t changed that much, while, immediately following, the U.S.-based Cecilia Aldarondo worries about the sustainability of cultural workers in the U.S. What sort of process did you use to select this particular group as those who’d comment on this particular moment, and what struck you about the variety of their responses?
Hynes: I actually think Anna and Cecilia are saying similar things — Anna’s life isn’t very different because she’s a freelance independent filmmaker, meaning she has no security and is accustomed to losing gigs and being out of work for long stretches of time. But certainly there are differences between the film economies of Denmark and the U.S., and it’s high time Cecilia’s sentiments about sustainability are heard and heeded, and perhaps now is that time. The prompt for this iteration was the cancellations and suspensions of winter and spring international film festivals, knowing that filmmakers were stuck at home when they were supposed to be presenting their work in festival settings around the world — those were the filmmakers we sought out. Anna, Pia Hellenthal and Michael Andrianaly couldn’t come to New York for First Look, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz couldn’t go to Copenhagen for CPH, Cecilia, Liz Lo, and Bo McGuire can’t be at Tribeca, Todd Chandler couldn’t be at SXSW. And though there’s a diversity of responses, I think there’s a common sentiment of loss undergirding their responses.
Filmmaker: Speaking of that format, the locked-off, hotel-room formalism of the earlier versions, and Wenders’s original, is replaced here by the vernacular of the webcam, a form of communication familiar to all of us on a personal level that is now the default form of cable news. How do you feel the webcam format affected this version as a film?
Reichert: We think it added a really lovely textural quality to the film. The preceding movies were shot in crisp HD — taking into account changes in natural light, most sessions generally look like the others. The viewing experience is somewhat seamless and static. On purpose. Here, we had no idea what would be in store when we rung a participant up on Skype. And very early on we decided to lean into highlighting the material qualities of the sound/image we were capturing — leaving in blemishes and disruptions as opposed to trying to work around or elide them.
Smith: In some instances, those degraded images and connective disruptions yielded happy accidents in sound and light play that amplified or added extra tonal qualities to the material our participants gave us. Todd Chandler’s post-musical excursion through his home, Courtney Stephens’s quietly composed, open-hearted reflections in her mother’s living room, and the shifting sunlight and screen contrast in Lisa Rovner’s long meditation are instances where a kind of elegiac texture became apparent or sonically present in the image due to irregularities in the transmission. The fragility of connection and the loss of stability that so many of our participants were speaking about is literally stitched into this film material, which we found moving.
Filmmaker: One of your interviewees refers to how all anyone is doing right now is making movies at home. But are they? I’m finding this moment is affecting everyone so differently. Some are leaning into a kind of productivity culture, while others are having to disengage in order to preserve a kind of mental sanity. In terms of your reachouts, what percentage of those you asked responded and wanted to be involved? Did people for the most part welcome the invitation? And, a related question, how does this latest version fit into your own pandemic self-coping mechanisms?
Reichert: For me, having this project over the last few weeks, as stressful as it always is to make a movie — any movie — was definitely a self-coping mechanism to stave off the doldrums. And hearing from participants that our sessions with them, which forced them step outside of their own quarantine-induced situations for just 10 minutes was therapeutic, is an amazing thing. I understand that impulse to actively fill the time in a moment like this…making an H.264 was the right cadence and workload for me personally in this moment.
Smith: I spent a year working as an orderly in a Dallas emergency room, so my immediate response to crisis is action. So I donated money for PPE and food relief, delivered insulin to a buddy of mine, and spent hours talking friends through sad and difficult situations. Rather than despair, which was certainly haunting the edges of my conscious thoughts, I discovered a surplus of energy that fueled my interest in taking on this project with Eric and Jeff. Most everyone we reached out to responded enthusiastically to our invitation. And filmmakers seemed grateful for an opportunity to meet online, discuss the project and the parameters, and then have a go at it. I think it was an unburdening for many of concerns and feelings they had not yet had a chance to articulate or even process. As Jeff mentioned, it ended up being therapeutic for everyone.
Hynes: It’s true that most everyone agreed to participate, but it should be said that we reached out to people who might not treat an email from the three of us as spam. Since we wanted to turn this around quickly, to address the moment in the moment, and since we didn’t have the commonality, as we did with the three previous versions, of a single film festival in which we’re all partaking, we did have to favor invitees with whom we had at least a glancing familiarity. There are negative implications of that, but I think what’s gained is some level of trust that we’re not out to make anyone look bad, and for us, it was very meaningful to encounter some familiar faces amidst the isolation. It was also the first time I’d met some of the filmmakers whose films I’d programmed for First Look.
Filmmaker: Finally, where can, or where do you want, this series to continue?
Reichert: I feel like after all the chapters, it has been an open question among us as to where this could go next and if it should. Especially after the Columbia film, which seemed to round out the “trilogy” nicely. But now that we’ve done four in a variety of different circumstances, and featuring a variety of different tones, I’m wondering what someone else might find in all the material we’ve captured thus far. Is there a ROOM H.264: REMIX that could productively interrogate the main question about cinema the series is asking and the work that Eric, Damon and I have done? Challenge the choices we’ve made of what to include and not…
If not that…it does still feel like there’s some gas in the tank of the basic concept, so I can imagine future iterations on similar premises. Some friends go on motorcycle tours or take fishing trips, we get together every now and again and make an H.264 and I can’t imagine a scenario where, if the right opportunity presented itself, we wouldn’t try it again.
Smith: As Jeff said, we’re never sure when or if the series should continue, or how engaged we might feel operating under the same precepts for yet another iteration given how complete it sometimes feels as a formal exercise. One thing we have discussed is finding a permanent home for this archival material — the films as well as the full, unedited sessions with 80+ filmmakers. So we might spend a bit more time with the current batch of H.264 films before we think too hard about what’s next.
Hynes: We’d always intended this to be a gallery installation as well as an iterative film, and after mounting three previous installations — two at MoMI and one at the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri — I’m convinced our project only gets more compelling as we add “rooms” and channels to both the archive and future spaces. And after capturing footage that can’t yet play in a physical space, I’m eager to present it that way, to stand in an actual room with other people and revisit these quarantined spaces, and this quarantined moment, from a meaningful and resilient remove.