ED BOWES + JOAN SCHUMAN
JS: How do you go about the materiality of film, as well as the sense of time and association? And am I imposing the idea that these function as media itself?
EB: I think it applies to lots of media. All media that moves and sequences has a sense of time. Someone said to me a couple weeks ago, usually in a movie, A + B = C. But in your movies, A + B = A + B. I don’t try to pair things down, make them easier. I try to make them reflect the wild diversity inside myself, the huge number of things going on, sequentially, parallel.
One could think of media as sense, it is a sense. I’m aware of my many senses. It’s a way I make composition, in the work that I do. The composition isn’t A + B = C or 1+ 2 = 3. It’s more like A + 7; it’s the color blue; it’s the sound; it’s the shape and movement. They’re not meant to lead anywhere. They’re meant to describe, to be there, be experienced.
JS: How does the work begin: what comes naturally, easily, with challenge?
EB: I love paintings. I never start a movie without looking at a lot of paintings just to have them in my head. One thing about painting is that it doesn’t have time. You experience them over time. Time surrounded this moment, but there’s no time in the painting itself. It stops time, it’s a one-trick pony.
In the last three movies [Grisaille, The Value of Small Skeletons, and Entanglement], there has been more time where almost nothing is going on. There’s maybe a little movement. Over the past five to 10 years, I’ve been making things just go still and bringing in still images inside the film.
JS: Aside from this stillness and silence in your work, I can see the painterly quality.
EB: I probably went to the de Kooning show 15 times (I was on sabbatical). He’s a brilliant composer. Even when he’s representing, it tends to be very flat and soft. I was looking to go softer, a pastel palette, flatter. I was also wanting to allow for a series of brightnesses, but in fact the film doesn’t carry the full range of black to white. Most of it is below 60 units of lumination. To keep things darker, I flattened it out.
I’ve spent much of my career trying to create three-dimensional space on a 2-D screen. I just decided at some point to be focused on the 2-D. I came from the Renaissance as that has pulled me towards the 2-D. It’s like making silence, like making the films more quiet.
JS: Aside from absorbing yourself in paintings, what other things do you do as you get started on a film?
EB: I never start off with an idea. I may have some image in my head and want to get that image into the movie. I usually spend a couple months doing semi-focused reading. I do a lot of note-taking. For Grisaille I had four months to read and wound up with 70 pages of notes of stuff to explore.
I then write a script that doesn’t look like a normal script. It is in the sense that there are descriptions of activity, the words that the people who are there, on and off-camera, will be saying. I go through a typical pre-production, which includes casting. I don’t usually work with actors. I’m just as happy to work with those who have a visual presence on screen. I want to work with someone who just takes up screen space and you’ll like to look at.
JS: So then who ‘acts’ in your films?
EB: In Grisaille, out of the five characters, four of them were dancers. Dancers are comfortable with presence. They’re not trying to represent anything. They’re just dancing and they do it in space and tend not to play back and forth with each other. They’re aware they’re playing for a camera or those watching. They’re unreliable, but that’s good.
JS: Your work crosses in and around language of expression. There’s image, stillness, movement, sound, words. Is this a reflection back-and-forth of traveling within filmic and literary genres?
EB: The kind of language that I use changes over each project, but it’s not normal dramatic language. I like throwing drama around. I look for someone who can find patterns, coloring in the words, who can use them for their syntax and sound values.
Since I was 20, I’ve been close to lots of poets. They’ve been enormously helpful to me. They give you freedom to use language that is not purely representational. Poets don’t expect to make their living out of poetry. Folks don’t improvise in my movies. Rehearsing takes place enough to let the characters play with the language.
The shooting is the next step. Things change enormously during shooting. All the pictures in my head, the colors, movement, now come up against reality. The writing keeps going on and sometimes others are writing for me. In Grisaille, there are three or four poets writing for the project. The visuals change as well. In the past, I used to enjoy working with lighting. I decided about four films ago that I’d ween myself off of lighting and just work with natural lighting. I’ve gotten comfortable being completely lost with my original ideas.
The performances, words and the actions change a lot. So I go back to the script. For instance, in Grisaille, every performer did every line—their own and others. I can use it in editing as voice-over or off-camera.
So in editing, it all starts over. I have to make something that might give someone a set of ideas and feelings and experiences that they want to watch and are of some use in broadening their understanding and what they might ultimately remember.
JS: How does this experience (and I imagine it takes a long time to work through these stages) play out in terms of where your work is shown?
EB: Grisaille took me almost a year, maybe 10 months. And there’s another film called Spitting Glass that’s a good example of venue and process. It’s quite different from Grisaille (I made it 20 years ago).
That earlier movie for various reasons was made for TV, commissioned by Channel 4 in England and then picked up in the States by New Television. It was running an hour-and-a-half. The commissioners said if you can keep it under an hour, we can give you a good time slot in something like prime-time. I took another six months to bring the film back to that so that as many people could see it.
JS: These alternations between doing what the work calls for and what the venue demands is a common theme many of the artists in the WHY series are exploring. Do you consider how constraints make the artist, make you work?
EB: I give myself time constraints and they help me be more productive. But the constraint of not lighting anymore is something I want to see happen, to see if I can do it. A new palette happened, something new is happening.
JS: And how does that manifest where you show the work and who sees it?
EB: The movies are fictional essays. They always have been, really, unreliable fictional essays. The first one I made was three hours long. I don’t know how many people even saw it, maybe under a thousand people.
But the next three movies were accessed via something that was originally called New Television and it was a commissioning vehicle out of NET in New York and then were part of a regional public TV network. So, in New York alone, a quarter of a million people saw it. That’s a privilege. But then that stopped. I don’t make movies for film festivals. So the museums were kind to me for a while. But they just don’t fit.
In the last five movies, the audiences have gotten smaller. Now I’ll show in a couple of places, and I’m privileged that projection is available because it’s so great. But primarily you’ll see it on the Web site or because I give you a copy. That changes what it is. What’s suggested about them is that the films are becoming more book-like. I’ve always liked that idea. Why can’t movies do things that books do? Now it feels like they can. There’s a loss of audience for me. But this change really interests me.
JS: I love this idea of the film functioning as a book and certainly my seeing your work via a laptop might lend it a kind of book-like experience. Do you think you could get someone to make you a prototype ‘reading’ device?
EB: I talked to someone recently about how to generate the films such that you could slow it down, pause it, but I couldn’t figure out the text. She said the viewer could just touch part of the screen and that would trigger the text. it wouldn’t be that difficult to make that device.
I love the idea that people could hold these pictures in their hands, in a tablet-like device. I’d love it if they could stop it, slow it down, return to re-view. It’s the way I read books. I go back to a section. It used to be that film was tactile. It would be great for film to become tactile again. Books have time, but you’re in charge of the time. It’s hard in sequenced movies to be in control of time.
It’s funny, I live in a building and next to me these people have taken over part of the floor below and they’re all writing apps. I hear them from time to time all tapping on their keyboards. In the main room, there’s a long table with 16 or 17 monitors with people at these computers all day writing this stuff. All under the age of 25.
JS: Eventually that’ll be everyone’s job. And we’ll just be sitting around reading books, you and me.
EB: Ha! I’ve read that e-books have leveled off in sales and print books are doing better than ever.
JS: What baggage do viewers bring to your movies?
EB: Television. That’s what they do four or five hours a day. I make gestures that are television-like. I don’t have a problem with television. Twenty-five years ago intellectuals were decrying television. I never thought that was true. What they hoped would happen is that it would all go away.
JS: Given all this looking back, Ed., is there an epiphany to your current approach to your medium, maybe a light-bulb that went on when you were younger?
EB: I can tell you four or five light-bulbs. The first was when I was four-years-old and it was a Sunday. Mom told me my aunt would be bringing a picture. I got all excited. And she arrived with a pitcher. I was heart-broken because I was expecting something that I got so much joy from—visual images!
When I was a little older, I wasn’t crazy about going to school, it was sort of like prison. I tried to stay home a lot and watch TV. I was about 10 and was watching soap operas and thinking, I could write these. That was the first time I thought about writing and images.
In college, I was writing for the paper. One of the teachers had a radio play writing contest. That was when I also realized I could write drama.
A class at the New School made me realize I could take pictures then I thought maybe I could make movies.
JS: How do the various media advance your concepts, your ideas, what it is you want to say? How do they challenge the message?
EB: What became evident to me was that my scripts weren’t commercial and I knew I wasn’t going to get money from anybody. So, I was thinking fiction, but not plot-driven. I was thinking, well, if I could find $3000, I could make a three-hour movie. And I got the money. But not so many viewers. But I’ve been at the practice ever since.
There was about a six-year period when I wasn’t making movies regularly. I wanted to make a really big project so I worked on it all that time. Big, meaning $100,000. But I realized I can’t make that kind of money. One of the reasons that my movies look the way they do is that I make them for $20,000.
JS: Ed, this has been such a rich conversation, is there anything else you want to leave us with?
EB: Cocteau says cinema would become a great art form when the means of making it were as available as pencil and paper. They are as available now today. But what I think he meant and what applies today is that if it takes this much money and these many people to make it, then you’re going to have to get a lot of people involved and get people to pay to see it.
This medium is an infant language. It’s only 110 years old. For a long time, films were not terribly innovative. Most were just deadbeat fiction, with only about ten different narrative stories. Some were terrific, but all they were was this corporate notion of fiction.
As more people get to do this stuff, the language just becomes richer. So I can explore things that don’t have to make their money back.