Michael Almereyda, Paradise
As he himself puts it, writer-director Michael Almereyda loves to make movies like a fighter likes to brawl, and over the course of his directorial career he has sought out an intriguing variety of creative challenges. Born in 1959 in Overland Park, Kansas, Almereyda spent his formative years in the Los Angeles area, where he discovered cinema and became a voracious moviegoer. Almereyda attended Harvard as an art history student, but dropped out in order to pursue his film career. He made his debut with the short film A Hero of Our Time (1985), and in 1989 directed his first feature Twister, a rural comedy about an oddball family in Kansas. Another Girl Another Planet (1992), a relationship drama shot in Pixelvision, was followed by Nadja (1994), an offbeat indie vampire movie starring Elina Löwensohn and produced by David Lynch. Almereyda made a more conventional horror movie, Trance (1998), before making his most high profile film, a modern-day version of Hamlet (2000) starring Ethan Hawke at the head of an all-star cast. He tapped into a similar mix of experimental and mainstream in his Pixelvision-shot drama about modern identity, Happy Here and Now (2002), which was set in New Orleans. Following two arts-based documentaries, This So-Called Disaster: Sam Shepard Directs the Late Henry Moss (2003) and William Eggleston in the Real World (2005), Almereyda returned to New Orleans for the post-Katrina companion pieces, New Orleans, Mon Amour, a fiction feature, and the documentary Big River Blues (both 2008).
Almereyda’s latest effort, Paradise, sees him staying within the realm of non-fiction. The film is comprised of video footage shot by Almereyda over the past decade that captured the world as he saw it, often while traveling abroad. With no narration, captions or music, Paradise provides the audience with no clear context for each of the little episodes presented, yet one can detect recurring themes – the act of watching, children, innocence, the wonders of nature – which loosely tie together these snapshots of life. There are more recognizable episodes (a Sonic Youth concert, a visit to the set of Terrence Malick’s The New World), yet the most beguiling moments are simpler: old men going to swim in the Irish Sea, a man in a drunken stupor with dog faithfully sitting by him, a baby suckling his mother’s breast for the first time. Almereyda has a great eye for the beauties and idiosyncrasies of life, and while each episode is meaningful or resonant in its own way, the film’s different parts chime and resonate with each other to create an almost hypnotic emotional experience.
Filmmaker spoke to Almereyda about the decade spent shooting Paradise, the overlap of life and filmmaking, and the influence on him of the late Manny Farber, to whom this film is dedicated.
Filmmaker: The footage in Paradise was shot over a long period of time, but at what point did you get the idea to make the film?
Almereyda: Well, the film’s distilled from about 10 years of shooting. About five years ago, as my Eggleston documentary was almost finished, it occurred to me that this would be worth making into a movie, that it could be sustained and find a form and a shape to link all these fragments. The immediacy of the fragments could be retained, but these episodes might add up to something beyond their fragmentary nature. I applied for a Guggenheim Grant in 2004 and it was hugely helpful to have that. But the film took a long time to sift through, organize and edit. It really came into focus in the last two years.
Filmmaker: When you started filming stuff 10 years ago, how discriminating were you about what you were filming? Were there certain things that you were looking to capture?
Almereyda: I’d have to say no. It was all instinctive. It was truly like keeping a journal. I was interested in keeping track of experiences, people, places. Often as not, I carried a camera when I was traveling, visiting people I cared about. It was a way of holding onto things that I considered worth paying attention to. And over time these images and episodes become surrogate memories. Heightened memories.
Filmmaker: So it was like taking snapshots, but on video.
Almereyda: I guess so. A lot of my “professional” filmmaking would often be suspended — I couldn’t find money for movies — but my amateur activities offered a kind of cure. I sometimes feel like an out-of-work boxer who can’t stop getting into bar fights. But anyhow yes, basically, when something interesting was happening, I was glad to have a camera to record it.
Filmmaker: How many hours of footage did you end up with over those 10 years?
Almereyda: I would venture to say “countless.” [laughs] There were hundreds of tapes, and it’s fair to say that the most challenging aspect of this was the process of searching through them. Before I even worked with the editors, I’d have to review the material. It isn’t always easy to face your own messy life and camerawork.
Filmmaker: You said the filming was instinctive. Was it the same with the editing process?
Almereyda: I have a pretty good memory, so I’d be looking for specific things on the tapes – making an association, recognizing contrasts and connections. It grew organically over time. A basic element of editing is that you cherish things that are alive, that stand up to repeated viewing and, as Walter Murch says, you “Throw out the bad bits.” All the same, the film grew into four distinct sections, connected by dissolves to black, framed by a prologue and a coda. It’s meant to feel rough and loose, even slapped together, but there’s a structure.
Filmmaker: Once you’d conceived this as a film, did you find that the way you were documenting things changed? Did your focus widen or narrow?
Almereyda: I think inevitably there was more focus. I became aware of gaps that I wanted to plug. Specifically, there’s a scene from Poland in 2008. I realized my life was limited. I don’t have much exposure to working class environments or people, and when I was in Poland I specifically went out of my way to shoot people working in a factory, putting together some furniture. It was at Off Camera, a very generous, wacky festival in Kraków. Usually when I go to festivals, I do my best to escape, to experience the surrounding city. That was one of those occasions.
Filmmaker: With the exception of the segment on the set of The New World, the film is notable for the fact that its focus is on life beyond filmmaking, as opposed to your life as a filmmaker.
Almereyda: That’s fair to say. But I wouldn’t exactly say “beyond filmmaking,” because as you can see from this movie, life and filmmaking can get intimately tangled.
Filmmaker: One of the themes of the film is the act of watching, which somewhat comments on the relationship between filmmaker and audience.
Almereyda: John Berger wrote a line, and Chris Marker, probably independently, wrote something similar, that when you take a picture, part of the act of looking and taking the picture has to do with the response of the person being photographed. Part of what it means to take a picture is tied up with how you respond to people, the exchange, the interaction. At any rate, the film is meant to be about looking as an active part of life, rather than a passive one. It’s about consciousness, awareness. If you’re awake and alert, a lot of your life is more interesting than if you’re not, [laughs] and that for me is a way of defining Paradise. If you can be excited about small details and commonplace events and the people around you, then life isn’t so bad.
Filmmaker: One of the great issues of documentary filmmaking is the influence of the camera. Was that something that you gave thought to on this film?
Almereyda: Sure, you can’t really argue with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – the notion that the observer changes the event. That’s old news. Not really a dynamic debate to me. Of course, the camera changes reality, but it doesn’t necessarily warp it. For all that, I’d say a common flaw in most contemporary documentaries is tangled with the use of music, the score pushing or milking an emotion, revealing an underlying impatience or lack of faith. Reality TV is, of course, a sham, wallpapered with music. So this film makes the most of natural sound – or the illusion of natural sound – with just a bit of music, courtesy of Paul Miller, to bracket the beginning and end.
Filmmaker: The film has a very rich subtext, because we’re never given much context for each little scene and so are left to imagine the circumstances surrounding what we see.
Almereyda: In photography books, you’re presented with a world of images that are seldom connected directly, but you feel and understand that the person who made these images is expressing a view of the world – reflecting a world of experience, but also organizing it, reshaping it. And the titles of the photographs seldom give you anything more than the place they were recorded. Paradise came out of that model, and the basic impulse to record things like in a journal. Other influences were Jonas Mekas’ Walden and Sadie Benning’s Pixelvision shorts – they have an immediacy I love and was hoping to emulate. Whether the people recorded are strangers or friends – and Paradise is evenly divided between them – as long as there’s that immediacy, a connection, an emotion flares up from it.
Filmmaker: The film is hypnotic and enthralling, but very different from mainstream cinema.
Almereyda: But it’s meant to be accessible. Something about the length of the episodes and the pacing, the constantly re-starting rhythm – it’s meant to be fun to watch. And then the layers of meaning and emotion should sneak up on you. Some people are going to be more patient than others. Of course, there’s no story, strictly speaking, but it’s the nature of movies: you throw narrative out the door and it comes in through the window or up through the floorboards. There are narrative elements, repeated themes.
Filmmaker: The film’s hypnotic quality and its fragmented nature made me think it could also work in a gallery as an installation.
Almereyda: I wouldn’t mind straying into that world. It’s not completely foreign to me, but I think – like everything else – that it’s a bit of a racket, and I don’t know the people who might be inspired to smuggle this work into a gallery. But my very first movie had a clip from Bill Viola’s early work, and it’s not like I’m oblivious to video art. Paradise is a kind of hybrid, and it wouldn’t be out of place in a gallery.
Filmmaker: On the subject of its hybrid nature, I find there’s a will to explore in your work generally that I think makes you difficult to categorize.
Almereyda: It’s worth talking about Manny Farber here – he died last year, and this film is dedicated to him. I met Manny when I was a teenager and he had a big influence in shaping the rest of my life. Manny, of course, set up an aesthetic standard that’s been simplified as the “termite” versus the “white elephant.” He was on the side of the termite, the artist who explores and crosses boundaries, heedless of classification. This was also something of a curse for him as an artist – a writer who was equally invested in painting. I’d like to think that I’m working inside Manny’s tall shadow, guided by his example. When you look at my movies, it’s not like they’re esoteric, it’s not like they’re hard to uncode. That is, I hope they’re not wilfully complicated but rich, because life is rich.
Filmmaker: Why exactly did you call the film Paradise.
Almereyda: When the title came to me, it seemed that it fit. I’m not convinced that there’s much beyond the immediate life that we’re living. Paradise is what we’re in – this is the best we’ve got, here and now. It goes back to the idea that if you’re awake and aware, life is very rewarding. But it’s always vanishing, it’s always slipping away, so there’s an ache in it, a sense of yearning in the title. Derek Jarman wrote: “All home movies aspire to a vision of paradise.” How’s that for back-up?
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Almereyda: I’d rather, glibly, quote Robert Frank, when he answered that question last year at Lincoln Center: “Keep your eyes open.” Simple, but you can forget to do it.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Almereyda: I don’t think I’ve ever wished that. It’s part of my curse: I like my job and wish I was working more.
Filmmaker: When you were a teenager, whose pin-up poster did you have on your wall?
Almereyda: I think I had the walls blank. I was an odd teenager.
Filmmaker: Did you have idols then?
Almereyda: Yeah, too many of them. One of my biggest was James Agee – that’s an unlikely one to have at 14. I would have had a big poster of James Agee. [laughs] Like Manny Farber, he wasn’t only a critic, he was a fierce, unclassifiable guy, and something like a recording angel. When I first met Manny, I asked him about Agee – they were good friends – and he invited me to San Diego to talk more. So that was the spark for that life-changing encounter. It all connects back to Agee.