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“Preparing for a Future that is Hard to Recognize Yet…”: DP Sean Price Williams Enters Time Capsules of Cinema

Clouds have finally arrived after almost three months of the most uncharacteristic bout of sunshine here in London. What brought them? I have been asking for some of that rain and gloom to give me comfort in closing myself off into the bedroom cave that I turn into our private cinema and do nothing but watch movies. 

I abandoned the fantasy that I could just watch movies all day and night during quarantine. It turns out movies are best enjoyed with a side of life. But, we can’t have too much living for now, as we are strapped down awaiting further orders from the experts and leaders. And what imagination they have dazzled us with! Once again, music has been the greatest escape. The act of reading feels unnaturally reserved for news. I hate this. I just want to read this Jim Henson bio, this Derek Jarman diary and this Woody Allen memoir, but I can’t focus.

In these months, I have gotten to know at least two birds and their songs. I have watched two shamefully barren trees put on their shiny green coats. What else? America seems intent on making up for lost time in a very big way. I am watching. It’s been hard these months to turn the anxious energies into creative endeavor. Setting small goals that I have largely not met has made me frequently blue and extremely aware of time and age, more than ever.

Only this weekly “radio” show that I have been assembling for Saturday nights at 7:00 PM EST has brought shape to the time. And this week, there is no show as elara.fm has gone dark in solidarity with the protests. More time to reflect.

Preparing for a future that is hard to recognize yet, I decided to watch movies made in times and places that I have never known beyond the time capsules of cinema. Focusing specifically on some underground NYC films of the 1980s has been soothing. Only because I have been away from home (NYC) for so long do I allow myself to fall into this trap of absorbing myself in the “good ol’ days” of the East Village as the center of the universe. When MoMA did their no-wave exhibition, I really couldn’t be bothered. And when Jake Perlin at the Metrograph programmed the occasional New York unknown classic, I also found myself unintrigued. Perhaps when I am in that city, I don’t want to be reminded of the change. Even in my 20 years there, I have seen all but one of my subcultures evaporate. The repertory cinemas have remained. Will they still?

Stumbling on an index online from the book, Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975–2001, by Joan Hawkins, I was stunned by the bushel of names that I was unfamiliar with. So many organizations, troupes, collectives all separately making curious pictures and noises. The streets are all recognizable, and usually there is at least one person I have known, which, combined with the totally unfamiliar narratives and realities composed makes for a trippy trip: No Picnic by Philip Hartman, Agent of Paradise by Mary Bellis, Dead End Kids by JoAnne Akalaitis, It Don’t Pay to Be an Honest Citizen by Jacob Burckhardt, Doomed Love by Andrew Horn, Strong Medicine by Richard Foreman. Multiple videos posted by Colab Tv on YouTube.

I am hopeful for a very new way to live. Having missed the “good ol’ days” by some time, my nostalgia nourished by cinema and music is enough for the past. I have no financial investments. I do not have a house. I do not have a car or a kid. I do not belong to any union. Small crews: yes, please! Let’s bring common sense and honest respect to a set and see what happens. Let’s experiment a lot. Let’s make sure everything we do isn’t what was done. Let’s switch our instruments like Portsmouth Sinfonia. It would be so tragic for new films and television to look and feel the way they did in 2019. Lifeless. Plastic tubs of fake blood, filled with corrupt intentions and zero taste to fool a population of confused baby birds desperate for food of any kind. Have audiences recognized how limited these shows are? Have they given up on us? Can we catch them and give them something worthwhile, finally? I have faith.

We watched Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets by the Ross brothers a couple weeks ago. I think it’s one of the finest new American movies I have seen in quite some time. I was reminded how I felt after seeing their first film, 45365, saying to myself, “Could there be a new wave here?” Probably wishful thinking. I would have been similarly excited upon seeing Rob Nilsson’s film, Signal 7, in 1983, had I been old enough, and then similarly dispirited to witness its singularity in time. It’s very much a contemporary film. It is romantic. Most important, it exists on the road to liberation from typical structure and character. And it looks wonderful! Ten years ago, we, in the no-budge festival choir, were trying to make this kind of thing and mostly failing to captivate. Hale County, This Morning, This Evening was stronger than any of our sketches. These films are casual, musical and organically expressive. The corny librarian that I am suggests further reading: A Poem Is a Naked Person by Les Blank, Stranded in Canton by William Eggleston, Moment to Moment by Robert Downey, High School by Frederick Wiseman, Ornette: Made in America by Shirley Clarke, I Heard it Through the Grapevine by Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley, On the Bowery by Lionel Rogosin, Muhammad Ali, The Greatest and The Little Richard Story by William Klein, We Can’t Go Home Again by Nicholas Ray, Seventeen by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, Personal Problems by Bill Gunn, Câncer and The Age of the Earth by Glauber Rocha, most of Robert Kramer’s films. Pretty much the entire cinema of Johan van der Keuken. 

Sean Price Williams is a cinematographer.

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