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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"The perception of the American experience is a global commodity with real fiscal consequences the world over"; BARRY JENKINS INTERVIEW























images: a scene from Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins, MfM poster

"As far as low budget American Independent Filmmakers are concerned, hell yes they can change the world!" - Barry Jenkins
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Barry Jenkins is the writer and director of the new American independent film Medicine for Melancholy.
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I N T E R V I E W
The Can Low Budget American Indie Filmmakers Help Save The World question
Q1- Sujewa: Do you think there is a unique & positive (beneficial to the well being of a nation or a community) role that filmmakers - specifically indie filmmakers - can play in the world that elected officials, business people, and military people cannot do? As in, the entire human experience is heavily framed by story telling; people are taught about who they are or who they are supposed to be through stories - whether it is the stories of the Bible, stories about the Founders of the US, stories about the Buddha, ancient Hindu epics like the Mahabharata - narratives play a central role in human identity - that being the case - can low budget/D.I.Y. indie filmmakers tackle important issues and be in any significant way helpful (other than as entertainment) to everyone else? I personally think that they can. Like I saw The Band's Visit recently, and I thought that was a great example of using an American indie (Jarmusch) or foreign (Kaurismaki) model/style of filmmaking to advance or popularize some ideas that the Israeli politicians, entrepreneurs, or the military may not be able to do as well - basically revealing/reminding people of the human-ness of both the Israelis & Egyptians/Arabs. The positive ordinary-ness of most people on both sides - something that may get lost in the news headlines about the war & each side's grievances & agendas. And it was an entertaining movie. I'll stop here and let you share your thoughts on the positive or negative, if any, implications of filmmakers trying to improve the world through their works of independent, low-budget entertainment. Is it a good thing? Is it being done enough? Can it be done better?
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A1 - Barry: A film professor of mine once dismissed Godard by saying, "Godard is an inferior filmmaker because he believes film can save the world. Everything Godard does as a filmmaker stems from this, and because it's a fallacy (the idea that film could save the world), Godard has and will always be an inferior filmmaker." This was at a time when I was just deciding to become a filmmaker — I didn't grow up with a camcorder — I was a writing student who entered film school because there was one on campus. Godard was one of the first places I turned to study film language because I wanted to view film in a way that went beyond the pictorial embodiment of narrative…so to hear this man say this was like receiving a personal affront. Having considered myself a filmmaker for seven years now, I can see more of what that professor attempted to articulate. Film, in and of itself, may not be capable of saving the world. Not on a grand scale, as in, say, a movie like Fast Foot Nation taking down McDonalds, or, less fancifully, Sicko sparking a revolution in health care. BUT…without a doubt on a much smaller, personal scale, films can certainly effect the individual, causing a ripple that in some ways changes the world…though on a scale so minute (the individual) as to seem to not effect the whole of the world at all. Semantics. Whenever the question comes up I think of this professor and Godard. Of all the filmmakers in the history of cinema, you'd have to say Godard caused some change in this world.
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As far as low budget American Independent Filmmakers are concerned, hell yes they can change the world (see, I'm quietly stepping away from the word "save" and moving towards "change")! On the most basic scale, the perception of the American experience is a global commodity with real fiscal consequences the world over. To this point in cinema history, this "perception" has been primarily dictated by wealthy people in two cities: New York and Los Angeles. I mean think about it: for people in France, Europe, Thailand, Uruguay, et. al, Americans are what you see at the multiplex and on prime-time television. And yet, any person who's spent anytime in this country knows very well there are hundreds, thousands of Americas amongst these fifty states. Filling in the gap between the New York and LA experiences is the domain of the American Independent Filmmaker. "Regional filmmaking." The more we have of it, the less control these monolithic entities will have over our image. Seems grand in these words, but it can be something as simple as a teenager in Modesto, California knowing it's okay to not have a six-figure sixteenth birthday as seen on MTV because some regional filmmaker in Murfreesboro, Tennessee made a film about a simple, familial sweet sixteen ritual on a DVX-100…which said Oregon teenager downloaded directly from the filmmaker via the film's website using Pay-Pal!
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And I saw the Band's Visit at Telluride last year: the entire crowd loved that film, absolutely loved it. It's a wonderful example to site. Absolutely supports your point.
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The Mixing The Personal And The Political question
Q2 - Sujewa: I have not yet seen your well received feature Medicine for Melancholy, but I have read pretty much every review of the movie thus far - so I have a rough idea about what might be in the movie. Sounds like you decided to comment on racial identities and gentrification within a story about a romantic/sexual encounter and its immediate aftermath. Did you at any point think about leaving the politics out of the movie and just dealing with what two characters do on the morning/day after a hook up?
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A2 - Barry: I first got the idea for the film after watching Claire Denis' Vendredi soir, a film that chronicles a one-night stand during a transit strike in Paris. Initially, I thought to make a film that begins the morning following the one-night stand, rather than dramatize the act as Ms. Denis does. My reasoning was that, at my age (then 23), the characters would be much more naive and seek to forge a continuing emotional relationship rather than leave the experience unto itself. Now, I'm no Claire Denis, not even close! So I had to do some serious self-evaluation and admit that I was not gifted enough to posit an entire film on such a base premise (observing two people following a one night stand; Ms. Denis does so in the reverse). The idea lay in limbo until my experiences in San Francisco — my first interracial relationship, a painful breakup, my first extended stay in a city where gentrification was so obvious — more or less dominated my thoughts. Melding those experiences to the frame inspired by Ms. Denis' film, I felt there was enough to proceed with the premise. It just didn't seem worthwhile without them. Plus, as I said, I'm no Claire Denis!
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Q3 - Sujewa: And the second part of that question (Q2) is: are you happy with the balance you were ultimately able to strike between the political and personal content in MfM?
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A3 - Barry: I'm definitely happy with the balance, because at the end of the day the personal and the political are one in the same for these characters (just as it often is in life). The movie presents a wide range of political and personal issues, but they're all rooted in the city more or less, so there's a freedom to move between them engendered by this notion of place as an active agent, an active persona with definite causality. We tried as much as possible to always keep the characters front and center, to have the characters bring the audience into overtly political interludes. It's completely subjective, but I think we succeeded more than we failed in this area…though I'll also qualify that by saying I'm a young director and this is my first film, so we certainly do fail at that every now and again. For some audiences, these "failures" will be an asset worth more than all the rest of the film. For others, they'll inspire eye rolling. I'm fine with that. I'll own up to the film's imperfections.
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The Heavy Influences question
Q4- Sujewa: What I like about what I've heard about your movie is that unlike many recent fiction romantic-drama/romantic-comedy works by low budget, digital, young, American indie filmmakers, you decided to go ahead and include the political dimension of existence of your characters in your movie. I think that kind of entertainment might be a turn off to some, but it reminds me of punk rock - a lot of the bands I've liked over the years - Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, etc. (actually probably the vast majority of the bands on Dischord) deal with both personal/romantic issues and deal also with politics/social issues. Were you heavily influenced by certain music, and other art work, in creating MfM - as far as the melding of the personal & the political was concerned?
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A4 - Barry: I can't say that I was. As I mentioned in the other question, I shelved the idea years ago specifically because there wasn't much to it, no political consequence. Making a film is hell, especially for someone with no money. For me, there has to be more going on to make the project worthwhile if I'm gonna go broke on it (which I have!). The music I listen to usually runs counter to what I'm working on as an artist. I listen to the most mellow things when dealing with controversial subject matter. Somehow it works. I've never been into punk music or culture. Conscious hip hop? Can't stand it. It's a bit hypocritical, because here I am an artist mixing politics with my art, and yet I'm averse to those things in the music I listen to! With music, I look to lyricists who are more oblique, like Sam Prekop, Jeff Tweedy or Tunde Adebimpe. With musicians like this, just like with the cinema I like most — Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsay and Lucretia Martel — the "imagery" forms a more elusive narrative. In working to decipher the meaning of their expression, you come to political conclusions that are more dynamic than the expression of definitives.
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The Did The Punk/Indie Scene Give You Space To Construct Your Individual Identity question
Q5 - Sujewa: Re: race & individual identity & personal experience; I think race is a manufactured concept - a tool for controlling people (for both good & evil purposes at present, but at its inception an evil tool) - and not a natural division among humans as perhaps male and female is a natural division; race is a political tool. And as far as I can see - race in America definitely puts individuals - or people with a strong sense of who they are that is not heavily dependent on their membership in one or more social groups - in a difficult place because for centuries people were violently separated based on skin color and continent of origin and there is a whole mythology and set of institutions built on those ideas - so, as someone who may have felt a sense of identity separate from what the popular notion of who you were supposed to be - which is based primarily on your ethnic/physical heritage - did you find the punk/indie scene to be a liberating space - since that scene values & celebrates individuality/or thinking/behavior that may be contrary to what the majority in a given group may endorse?
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A5 - Barry: I can't answer this question because I don't think I've ever been in the punk/indie scene. Not to the degree that I could consider myself immersed enough to really be a part of it. For me, the conflict has always been in being in both places at once, embodying "the popular notion of who you were supposed to be" (because I DID grow up in the hood listening to Hot Boyz, playing football and obsessing over Chevy Impalas, and to a large degree the environment you grow up in does inform who you are) while at the same time embracing the scene that "values & celebrates individuality/or thinking/behavior that may be contrary to what the majority in a given group may endorse" (and to be honest, I'm not sure even the punk/indie scene fully embraces those values outside of the extreme end of the spectrum).
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To me this is a lot simpler than we're making it. I'm that dude C-walking to the White Stripes at Pash. And you know what? That's where I want to be and I want everybody to be cool with that. It's all more or less fucked because we attach choice to things that aren't at all relatable, as in, listening to the White Stripes is choosing to denounce black culture and embrace white culture. I mean, what the hell do the White Stripes have to do with culture or ethnicity? But we tie these things to notions of ourselves, especially hip hop to the notion of the African American experience, and one's opinions of these things becomes a lightning rod for things that deserve much more scrutiny. Ha! Did you catch that? I used the word opinion purposely as a ruse. Music to me is not an opinion, but a taste, and here we are in 2008 and a young black kid in the ghetto must be afraid of exhibiting a taste for rock music for fear of "acting white" (and of course, it goes without saying, who the hell decides what behavior is "white"). And a taste?! A taste is so much less than an opinion, but as I began, in 2008 we take these things and allow them to dictate so much about ourselves. This is where the character of Micah in the film stems from. He's a guy with feet in what he sees as two worlds, but he can't be comfortable in either because he's always afraid that having a foot in one will negate his authenticity in the other. It's a total mind job.
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I see where you're going though. And unfortunately, you're speaking from a place I've yet to reach. It goes without saying that a lot of me is in these characters, especially Micah. If I could see my answer to this question through clear eyes, the movie wouldn't exist. For now, all I can offer is the convoluted mess above. My ex and I had a conversation once. There'd been a discussion in a class of hers where the professor argued that race is a social construct. When the argument came home to me, I agreed that, yes, race is social construct, but…it's a social construct so prevalent it's become reality. Ideally, I'd like to be a person who sees race as a social construct and thereby eradicates it from their social interactions but…I'm not sure I can. Medicine For Melancholy is partly a portrait of that tug of war.
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The Does It Look Like MfM Is Gonna Be A Cross-Over Success question
Q6 - Sujewa: Let's finish up with a film scene related question. Is Medicine for Melancholy the Barack Obama of indie films, as some (OK, perhaps just me at this point I think :) have suggested? Does the response you've seen thus far at SXSW and from reviewers make you think that MfM might be popular beyond the indie/punk/alternative African-American & others community, and even beyond the multi-ethnic but largely "white" American indie scene (the collection of consumers, film fest programmers, bloggers, print reviewers, small distributors & the like) and on to the mainstream indie film or just mainstream film scene? Of course every director wants his or her film to be a massive success; but I think I see some elements in MfM that, if properly marketed, can be interesting to lots of movie-goers in America. Like breakthrough indie films of the past, MfM can be an introduction to an interesting segment of the population (indie/punk/alternative African-Americans in MfM's case) that a lot of people in America & beyond that probably do not know much about. What do you think?
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A6 - Barry: "The Barack Obama of indie films." Man, that's some shit. But you know what, Barack's doin' alright for himself so I'll take that, I'll take that. And to go farther down the rabbit hole you've opened, I'll take a page from the Obama playbook and stress that Medicine For Melancholy isn't a race based film, nor is it an anthropological study of black hipsters. The issues of race are present because they drive the character Micah, and in so much as he's a character we come upon in a moment of intellectual crisis, whatever notes on race that can be gleamed from the film are chaotic and shifting, not at all a thesis statement. Class politics drive the film just as much as race, but the issue of race is such a provocative subject it overwhelms all else. That's fine. It'd be untruthful of me to say the issues of race discussed in the film aren't important to me, but I think what comes across in the reviews —which thus far have nearly ALL been written by white reviewers — is that the film is about identity above all else, about resolving one's perception of class and race within the rubric of a setting, the city we choose to spend our lives in (something often taken for granted when we discuss identity), in this case San Francisco, and coming to a point where you're simply comfortable with yourself. What human being on this planet hasn't at some point struggled to come to terms with their identity? It's in this way that the film reaches some notion of the universal experience, and I think that's why the people you mention, the supposed "cross-over" crowd, have responded so favorably.
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And man, I've gotta say, we're talking about the film in very heady terms, but in some ways it ain't that deep. While I don't deny these intellectual elements are integral to the film, it's also a visceral depiction of two strangers coming together, sharing a moment of romance. There's humor and sexual tension, simple human interactions we all experience. It's uncomfortable for me to talk about the film this way, as a "seller," but as much as it's a treatise on the issues we've discussed, it's also a genuine piece of entertainment. Like a smart parent, we're supplying a sugary chaser with the Cod liver oil.
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Thanks Barry!
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For more on Medicine for Melancholy, go here.

And here's the MfM trailer:




- Sujewa

4 comments:

"Cookies & Cream" Movie said...

Absolutely can't wait to see this. It's at the top of my list this year from the SXSW bunch. Thanks Sujewa!

The Sujewa said...

glad u liked it C & C, glad u liked it.

- sujewa

must love movies said...

hey is it possible to buy this dvd anywhere from a legit site.

The Sujewa said...

don't think it's out on dvd yet. you may still be able to see it from IFC on demand, on cable tv.

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