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Talking with Alejandro Adams, Part Two

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Talking with Alejandro Adams, Part Two

To read Part One of this interview, click here.

The visuals, as ever, are yours, and I would’ve recognized Babnik as your film without a credit. You’ve spoken online of your gleefully indifferent approach to space, which doesn’t seem quite true to me: it’s more like every room is its own setting with its own atmosphere. You’re connecting space through tone rather than geography. Thoughts?

Whatever I’ve said, it wasn’t false modesty. I corrupt space as much as I honor it. Most of my effects in all three films are achieved through disorientation. The unrecognizable is really important to me. Depicting the unrecognizable is difficult. I think the most unrecognizable elements in my films are the ones that people sense are most “real.”

I have to say I scoffed initially at the finale, one of those setpiece shootout things that’s impossible to execute convincingly on a small budget (a friend working with similar resources wasn’t nearly as fortunate), and then you turned it into a comment on why things that look implausible can be exactly what they seem, i.e. a sham. Anyone who enters your films knows you’re working with not that much, and I know whenever I see a very low-budget film I know certain things can’t happen: car crashes, explosions, et al., which adjusts my expectations accordingly. Do you ever think about this?

You’re displaying such specific blueprints of your viewing apparatus—you’re a sophisticated viewer but also predictable in your anticipation of predictableness. If I had a budget of $10,000, it’s conceivable that I could spend $9000 to blow something up in the opening scene and you’d watch the rest of the film in shock, waiting for the next thing to up-end your sense of the world. I’m not into that kind of gimmickry. The viewer who feels immune to surprise is no longer watching for pleasure and no longer knows how to derive pleasure from viewing. Why don’t we invert this interview and you explain to me why supercilious, grumpy, even burnt out critics tend to favor my films? I think there’s a kind of exhilaration which only supercilious, grumpy, burnt out critics are sensitive to.

Babnik is commenting on shams within shams, as you note—what you’re identifying as the budgetary limitations of the film could simply be the budgetary limitations of the characters in the film. Look at the disconcertingly charismatic personality at the center of the film. How he coerces, manipulates, cheats, keeps a lot of operations running with no money. He is all dynamic energy and conviction. The metaphor is transparent.

Why do grumpy, supercilious burnt out critics favor your movies? Let’s add here that’s it’s not only my breed that do: earnest Marxists and theory kids (neither of which I am) do as well, probably because both Canary and Babnik offer total worlds for systematic analysis and allegorical extrapolation, which isn’t really my bag.

I agree about allegorical extrapolation. I don’t want to reject positive reviews of my work, but these films aren’t intended to be as politically relevant as some seem to think they are. I work in a closed circuit. I have little awareness of current events or sitcoms. I just saw a film that referred to some viral video craze from a couple of years ago and I was lost. My work risks being horribly out of touch. But whatever its shortcomings, I can vouch for its sincerity. If you can find any gimmicks in my films, or any cleverness for its own sake, let me know and I’ll kill myself.

I enjoy your work (or at least admire it; Canary’s still rough on me) for your commitment to this weird kind of “reality” that’s both flawlessly convincing on its own terms, kinetic without the usual my-camera-has-no-tripod-feel-the-energy tricks. Although you don’t generally have one either, but your restlessness always makes me question what to focus on (and wonder how long I have to take something on) rather than act as a visual end in itself.

I’m using handheld in a seditious way—to make you insecure about your own ability to look for yourself, often by incidentalizing the so-called main action of a scene. So the vitality isn’t canned, it’s actual. It’s not a matter of camera shakiness but camera penetration. I am very particular about lens length. All these video cameras have variable lens lengths, and it’s nearly impossible to make shooters see the way I see. I get fastidious about where the top and bottom of the frame should be. Clearly when shooting handheld this kind of determination is self-defeating. Of course my vision is at war with common sense every step of the way—otherwise I wouldn’t be shooting an entire film in a language I don’t speak. Shooting 4:3 on Babnik was very important to me thematically, but I had to be really manipulative in order to get things framed right. No one wants to shoot 4:3. It’s like shooting on Hi8 video—the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I think Babnik is really gorgeous in 4:3. The aspect ratio is bound to the themes but also it’s just rudimentary in a way that corresponds to the duct-taped barely-organized crime depicted in the film. This isn’t something I can easily verbalize to others, but I think of almost every facet of the film in terms of “four-three-ness.”

I really don’t know, even after three films, when you’re going to cut, or where you might find (though I get a vague sense of your camera being closely hemmed in by borders that can’t be quite placed).

My scenes are like matches. They ignite, the flame flickers briefly, it approaches my fingers and then I shake it violently. I don’t mean that all my scenes are short—some are painfully long and I relish that caughtness. Every long scene is like some tangled nightmare from which I can’t extricate myself, I can’t cut away, and I feel the viewer’s scorn mount with every passing second and I feel exhilarated and ashamed. But, yeah, shorter scenes are like matches and I extinguish them violently. In either case, a great deal of anxiety and fear accompany the fascination with my own creation. A cut is a violent thing. I do it violently, as it should be done. If you could sense when the cut was coming it wouldn’t be a cut which resulted from my process. And I’m not totally immune to influence, so there are probably some cuts that have been handed down to me.

I suffer from a really peculiar kind of boredom I once saw described by Monte Hellman; he was introducing It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books, Richard Linklater’s first film, in which large portions of time involve a dude sitting and staring out an Amtrak window and so forth. “I get bored easily,” he said. “I rarely finish a movie. I finished this one.” I get what he means, sort of: many people might take that kind of description indicative of their personal hell, but I find that kind of challenge fun (done correctly, natch, with “correctly” meaning “pleases me”). Someone recently suggested to me that I have ADHD, which makes a lot of sense (all the speed-freak chatter and so on), insofar as it explains why a lot of twisty mainstream fare is mindnumbingly boring to me: it doesn’t make me focus. Your films do, and that kind of boring-in quality is hard to come by. I like even better that I can’t home in on why that is exactly.

Funny that the phrase “boring in” has the word “boring” in it. I’m very pleased to hear that my films make you focus. Rian Johnson said something to the effect that my films seem all loose and improvised but by the end you realize they’re mouse traps. I think that’s profoundly sensitive to what I’m doing. Of course it’s also the highest form of compliment that a critic as perceptive as yourself can admit that he doesn’t know why my films work like they do. I don’t know either—I think that’s a big part of the recipe. And maybe some would call that “getting lucky.”

As far as expectations born of budget: well, you’re right, I guess, but how could I not factor expectations in, no matter what they’re related to? In fact, you surprised me even with (or because of) them. Ditto the jelly in Canary; I spent a lot of time (probably too much) trying to get past seeing what you were using and wondering what it actually was in your film. That’s enough italics for one paragraph.

There’s an element in Babnik like the blue jello. The secret sauce. You have no idea how hard they fought me on the secret sauce. The phrase, the orange bottle, all of it. How could they be menacing while holding this child’s toy and calling it “secret sauce”? Most of what you see on screen was rejected by everyone at least a few times. Often I’m not even sure they’re going to do it my way on camera until they actually do it. I can work with a mutinous spirit on set—I prefer that energy to the kind of lethargy that comes from a project toward which people are indifferent. The lead in my fourth feature Amity would make the DP or AD shoot his version of a scene whenever I stepped away for a few minutes. It takes a lot of practice to be oblivious to personalities as machinating and devious as these. In any case, I’m not threatened because I’ve won this battle before it begins.

I work with Michael Umansky over and over again largely because his resistance is on his sleeve and our chemistry is so volatile. He hates almost everything I want to do, he challenges me in front of cast and crew, and then in the end he does exactly what I want. We stop cameras and he says, “I know that’s how you want it but it’s ridiculous.” He’s so overbearing that I forfeited the participation of some longtime friends as a result of tensions on the Babnik set. But I’m loyal to him above almost anyone else. Someone so ready to throw everything in your face is much less likely to be duplicitous or destroy the production behind your back. I should clarify that Mr. Umansky is personally warm and generous and I consider him a friend away from production. I rarely stay in touch with cast or crew after shooting—no wrap parties, cast and crew screenings, etc. I’m not in this to make friends. But Mr. Umansky is a friend.

In closing, let me ask: what percentage of Canary is supposed to be funny (or, alternately, how comfortable would you be with people laughing where you see nothing to laugh at)? I’m generally a big believer that you’re going to have to laugh not to cry; the Romanian New Wave is hilarious for the sheer amount of largely unprovoked, over-the-top rudeness, and Canary also made me laugh quite a bit. This seems morally wrong, but it’s the same kind of frisson provoked by an appalling drinking story, only with entirely different stakes. Maybe not?

When one of the jumpsuited Canary agents is picking up the organs at the clinic for redistribution, a receptionist gestures to one of the containers and says, “The sushi’s in that one.” You can barely hear it among all the overlapping dialogue. But you’re right: that’s not funny. Canary is profoundly unfunny. I’m glad it upsets you. I’m glad you have reservations about it. I’m a very sensitive person and my films are just elaborate seismographs. In my day job I fire people pretty regularly. I’m in the middle of a divorce which is crushing my kids. I was barely able to get out of bed for a few months last year as a result of this unexpected obliteration of my life. The films are where I allow myself to feel something. And what I feel isn’t funny. So thank you for not laughing.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.