Sunday, November 14, 2010

Alumni Update: Derek Dubois

The premiere of Derek Dubois' new film, The Kiss, opens an evening with the Ocean State Film Society this Wednesday in Alger 110. The RIC Media Studies Blog talked to Dubois as he was finishing the film.
SS: Tell me a little bit about your new film, The Kiss.

DD: The Kiss began as a short screenplay I wrote this past summer. The original inspiration came from a story on NPR’s This American Life in which a woman attempted to woo a man she’d never met by pretending they had known each other many, many years ago. I had written a script called Little White Lies but found that I couldn’t reconcile a decent climax to the material. So, nearly abandoning it entirely, I invested an afternoon trying to retool the idea and eventually came up with the film as it is now.

The Kiss tells the whimsical story of Olivia Adams, a female film student who has developed a mad crush on her nebbish professor. By casting him in her student film as (unbeknownst to him) her love interest, she aspires to generate sparks in reality. The final result doesn’t resemble the NPR story in the slightest but the shape and tone of it are there under the surface.

I’ve worked with a larger cast and crew on this film than ever before. We shot in real locations including a classroom at RIC and on the streets of Providence as well as designed and built proper sets.

SS: Some of the content of your site highlights your interest in the theoretical side of media and, more specifically, film. In what ways has your writing been informed directly by the RIC Media Studies coursework?

DD: I came up through RIC with an undergrad in Film Studies. My goal was always to pursue film further so I decided to go to grad school. At the time, I had quite a lot going on in my life with work, an upcoming wedding, etc. so I decided it would be easiest for me to simply continue at RIC. However, since RIC doesn’t have an M.A. in Film Studies, I hopped into Media Studies (which I’ve always held an interest in) and concentrated on film.

Through both my B.A. and M.A. I encountered tons of theory. I’ve found that the film program at RIC, unlike some other schools, is more organized around the principles of film analysis then filmmaking. Frankly, I find that far more interesting. To truly be a great filmmaker I believe that one needs to deconstruct films as well as examine how cinema functions within culture, ideology, society. That’s not to denigrate the importance of learning how to handle cameras, lighting, editing (RIC’s film program does have a wonderful workshop in filmmaking) but I think if you study enough film and you have the drive for it…the rest comes naturally.

Theory has a huge impact on my filmmaking. I tend to enjoy playing with genre conventions as well as placing my films (deliberately) under various theoretical lenses during the writing/shoot phase rather than just analyzing the text in such a way afterwards. That is, I try and construct my films in layers to be pulled apart and read by those familiar with theory.

For example: the last film I’d completed before working on The Kiss was a dramatic short entitled Curiosity Delay. Curiosity Delay focuses on a young woman in an abusive relationship who finds herself at a literal and metaphorical crossroads when her car breaks down on a road trip. During the writing of this film I’d been working for nearly a year on my Media Studies thesis, which focused on applications of feminist film theory. So few films rebel against the patriarchal order (in an entertaining way) and I wanted to give it a shot myself. So I wrote a film that centers on an active female character making a choice in which she rejects domesticity. I shot the film in such a way so as not to fetishize the female lead, not to eroticize her movements, and not to break her into pieces. I left the ending ambiguous so as to not force her back into domestic servitude at the end of the narrative. You can be the judge as to how successful I was in accomplishing these tasks and whether it’s even possible to shoot a feminist film in the system that was developed under patriarchy in the first place!

SS: You're currently a teacher here at RIC and you continue to write, produce and direct your own films. To what extent, if any, do you feel that theory and practice are at odds and even competing for your time and attention?

DD: When I was lucky enough to begin teaching at RIC I did not enter the task lightly. My extracurricular filming always comes second to my responsibilities to both RIC and, more importantly, my students. That said, per my earlier response, I don’t feel that theory and practice are at odds in my work. Rather, I feel that my theoretical base only enhances both my teaching and filmmaking abilities. That’s not to say every single film I write attempts to function within a theoretical framework! Sometimes for my own sanity (and the sake of the films) I need to ignore that [theoretical] half of my brain and focus on good storytelling. I find that immensely exciting too because then you can analyze your own work after the fact and try to see how this now autonomous being (independent from its creator once it enters society) reads as a text for analyzing…it’s an interesting form of therapy, of cracking open your own skull and seeing how your creative instincts cohere to, or rebel against, that which you’ve studied and whether this is due to, or regardless of, that knowledge….if that makes sense?

SS: Tell me a little bit about your early interest in Media and Film Studies.

DD: Funny enough when I began my college career it was in Computer Science. I’d never had a family that was really interested in the arts. I can’t remember my parents ever reading for pleasure, attending museums, even just walking the streets of a city to take in the sights and sounds. Therefore college was just something I had to do for a stable and fruitful future and that’s what I assumed Computer Science would offer. It wasn’t until I stumbled into Film Studies (through an elective course: Eng. 116) that I realized how in love with the humanities I really was. My interests do not simply extend to cinema but to literature, psychology, sociology, history, and art. For some reason though, and I can’t explain why, film had this crazy gravitational pull on me and ever since that 116 course (the course I teach today!) I’ve never looked back.

SS: Other than shopping your new screenplay, Old Town, what's next for you creatively?

DD: As I’ve noted ad-nauseam The Kiss is almost completed! I wrote it in June so now that we approach the end of the year it’s really exciting to be bringing this thing into fruition. I know that Woody Allen has stated he judges the success of his films by how close the end result meets the original feeling and tone he’d had in his head when writing his screenplay. I feel that with this film we haven’t had to sacrifice anything and I cannot wait to show it to the world. And, of course, by the world I mean the very small and local community…All kidding aside, The Kiss will be submitted to as many festivals as I can afford. As for what’s next? Well, while shooting The Kiss I wrote two new short screenplays: Murder My Sweet-Pea (a burlesque-musical-murder-mystery) and Fallout (a psychological horror film). The former seems a bit resource heavy right now but the latter will enter preproduction shortly after this picture is wrapped.

SS: Are you planning on more school? If so, whereabouts?

DD: I love teaching at the college level. More than anything I’ve ever done, it just feels right. But the time commitments are so intense for attaining Ph.Ds that I don’t find it conceivable for me to embark on that leg of a journey right now. I’ve just recently picked up teaching a second course at RWU. They currently don’t have a film program but wanted to add a history of film survey course to their art history program. I designed the course from the ground up and can’t wait to get started on that. That’s excitement enough for me at this time.

SS: In a blog post entitled "The Paradox of 'Making It'" you discuss the ever-moving goal post of your own aspirations. What does "making it" look like to you these days?
DD: The blog post I’d written entitled “Making It” was always a little bit tongue in cheek. I mean, ideally (in an If I Won the Lottery kind of way) I’d love to write and direct my own films at a comfortable indie level. I’d love to have the career of Paul Thomas Anderson (my favorite contemporary filmmaker) or Christopher Nolan in his Following days. Small movies that allow for more creative control because the financial burden is so limited is what appeals to me the most. I would love to sell a screenplay as well. I wrote a full length this summer that I think with some tweaking could be a real contender. However, it’s breaking through, developing contacts, etc. that proves to be the toughest. I don’t think I’d want the life of a writer though. I couldn’t bear to watch my kids raised by other parents if the metaphor makes sense. I’m an egomaniac when it comes to my artistic projects.

Going forward I’ll write and I’ll shoot. Other than that I’d love to keep a strong relationship with RIC as I try to lure those English 116 students into the Film Studies program full time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Alumni Update: Ricardo Rebelo

Between teaching in Bristol and collecting awards for his Lizzie Borden documentary, Lizbeth: A Victorian Nightmare, Ricardo Rebelo set aside some time to answer a few questions about his career and his plans for the future. Lizbeth airs this weekend, on the 30th and 31st, on Rhode Island Public Television.
SS: Your film was your RIC Media Studies thesis but now, with PBS and festival screenings and awards from the Alliance for Community Media and the Rock and Shock Film Festival, it's taken on a life of it's own. When did the idea to make this film come to you?
RR: When I applied for grad school at Rhode Island College I knew I wanted to do something that I was passionate about for a project. I grew up in Fall River and have heard the tale of Lizzie Borden my entire life and felt strongly that there were aspects of the story that had not been covered. My hope was to look at her life and the fascination surrounding her as well as what she is as a pop culture icon. I knew that the story would be compelling and have very strong visual elements so I felt it would be a perfect fit for my project.
SS: The PBS promo for the film advertises "The Untold Story." Without giving too much away, what unique information do you think your film contributes to the Lizzie Borden narrative?
RR: Like I said before we look much more closely at her personal life as well as her family to get a better sense of Lizzie Borden as a person. You also get to delve into what I call "the culture of Lizzie Borden," which is this huge phenomenon which has grown around he mythology.
SS: When you entered the Media Studies program, how much did you already know about what you wanted to accomplish artistically and professionally? I know you're a teacher so I'm interested in hearing about your decision to explore production rather than theory for your thesis.
RR: I had worked in television for 20 years and taught for 3 years prior to beginning grad school but I felt that there were still aspects of my knowledge that needed work and I had never done a piece of work as polished as this documentary. Grad school also helped me better conceptualize the project and get some very good constructive criticism.
SS: In this Internet age of bottomless information about everything, it seems strange that a quick search of the name, "Lizzie Borden," leads mostly to camp, kitsch and a heavy metal band. Why do you suppose this is? Do you think the fact that Lizzie was female has anything to do with the silliness surrounding some of the historical treatment of the event?
RR: That is actually something we look at in great depth in the documentary. Lizzie means different things to different people. Her femininity is actually a large part of her fame. I feel that if a man had done the crime or in this case been accused of the crime that it would not have endured the test of time.
SS: What do you make of, Ghost Hunters (Sci-Fi) and MonsterQuest (History) and the idea that the Borden Bed & Breakfast/Museum in Fall River might be haunted? During the making of this film, did you have an opportunity to spend some time there?
RR: I am not a fan of the whole Ghost Hunter culture but it has definitely become a huge part of the mythology and the house itself. I have spent quite a bit of time in the house and as of yet not encountered anything Paranormal.
SS: What courses are you teaching Bristol Community College? Barack Obama recently called community colleges "one of America's best-kept secrets" and their instructors the "unsung heroes of American education." What do you make of the Obama administration's recent focus on community colleges?
RR: I teach Mass communications and digital film making, I feel that community colleges play an integral role in offering an opportunity of education for those students who are not ready or do not have the finances to go to a four year institution just yet. I am very happy that President Obama understands the value of community colleges and how they can help America going forward.
SS: How did you get into teaching and how has the RIC Media Studies M.A. helped you in that pursuit?
RR: I think like most teachers I always felt a desire to help others and empower them with knowledge, The Master's at Rhode Island College helped me become a more analytical thinker and not just a technician. I feel a masters degree affords one an opportunity to take a serious look at their discipline
SS: With the success of Lizbeth, do you think you'll continue to make documentaries? If so, what subjects are of current interest?
RR: I received a grant from the University of the Azores to do a documentary about Azorean immigrants of which I am one. This film is a very personal one for me as it allows me to look at my heritage. It is called Island of My Dreams. Once that is completed, I am doing a film based on a short story by Stephen King. I was able to obtain the rights from Mr. King this Spring and plan on shooting it next winter. It is a Sequel to the vampire novel Salem's Lot.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Women's Film Festival in October

Brown University is sponsoring a Women's Film Festival at the Cable Car Cinema this October 12-17. Admission is free, and the schedule includes a wide variety of films, from such early work as Lea Gunchi's 1913 Lea and the Ball of Wool and Alice Guy's La Glu (1907) through to Laura Mulvey's influential (but hard to find) Riddles of the Sphinx (1977). Contemporary women filmmakers will also be featured, including Samira Makmalbhaf, Sonya Goddy, Paige Sarlin, and Jocelyne Saab, an image from whose Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (2006) is shown above. There will also be a related symposium, at which some of the filmmakers, as well as Brown faculty and other film historians will be present; keep an eye on the site for details.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Set Yourself Free

On September 13, 2010, Britain’s Index on Censorship published Set Yourself Free, an essay written by Radiohead guitarist, Colin Greenwood. Regardless of one’s individual opinion of Radiohead’s music, the artists’ contributions, both theoretical and practical, to the potential of popular music’s present and future, cannot be overstated. The most obvious example of the latter, of course, is the release of their last proper full-length (CD, LP, album or your preferred proxy), In Rainbows. On October 10, 2007 Radiohead made In Rainbows available, initially in digital download format only, to the world. During that same year, having split from EMI, the label who released their first six full-lengths, the band successfully protected the unfinished work from significant leaks or other piracy. This, quite a feat in and of itself, combined with the complete absence of advance copies for radio stations, music publications and brick and mortar music retailers, would have certainly been news enough to the world of media culture and theory, if not for the mold-shattering sale price of “pay what you think it’s worth.”

While Radiohead were not the first group of artists to imagine a “download only” future in popular music, in could be argued that were, at the time, the highest profile act to ever take the idea past inception. Physical copies of In Rainbows were eventually issued but the initial release was available only as a download. However, it can be said confidently that the release’s “pay what you think it’s worth” price, an idea attributed by Greenwood to “a friend of our manager,” might be the more unique and revolutionary of these innovations. In some circles, it was imagined that Radiohead had perhaps found their model of choice. Though sales are hard to nail down for a release such as this one, and the band hasn’t released any data, it is said that Radiohead made around $10 million in initial sales (Wired). With sales like this — the band sold upwards of 25 million copies of their first six releases for EMI before the end of 2007 — why not continue with the In Rainbows model?

While Greenwood doesn’t give an answer in the Index essay, he states that the band has “started to think and talk about how” they will release these new recordings. The piece in its entirety can be found here. Again, regardless of how you feel about the band’s music, no other musical act has utilized the ever-expanding tools of new media to the extent that these artists have. For this reason alone, the release of Radiohead’s next full-length might be worth our attention.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Of, By, and For

If you’re planning a visit to the Boston area between now and November 19th, do yourself a favor and check out Of, By, and For: New Work by Dainel Peltz and Paul Notzold, presented by the Cambridge Arts Council in collaboration with independent curator, Liz K. Sheehan. By way of full disclosure I should note here that Paul Notzold is a friend of mine and I’ve been following his work, collaborating with and assisting him for several years. We’ve worked all over the country together, even campaigning for Barack Obama in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania during the final days of the 2008 election. Equipped with laptop, digital projector, and the text messages of accidental accomplices, Notzold’s ongoing TXTual Healing, has brought him around the world and back to Brooklyn.

Very simply put, Paul’s work cannot be put very simply. When you stumble upon “a Paul Notzold,” it’s usually not in a gallery or coffee table book, unless you’ve visited Of, By, and For or flipped through Street Art and the War On Terror. I suppose this condition isn’t exceptional considering other works from the monumentally famous, like the work of Christo and Jeanne Claude, to the nearly invisible, like all of the street art we ignore every single day. But you’d have a hard time seeing Notzold’s work during daylight hours at all if not for this exhibition and aforementioned book or the forthcoming Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art. Due to the ubiquity of the digital projector in Notzold’s work, a very low level of light is required to actually see a particular piece. Additionally, the inexpressible quality of nighttime and the element of surprise combine to absorb people’s attention, as Paul says, “when they come into a situation with a preconceived idea and then are met with something else that they don't know how to define.”

More importantly, upon initially happening upon this work, the viewer is invited to become a participant, one of many, in the accidental transportation from the world of potential and theory to the world of kinetic and practice. This act of participation immediately transcends the interaction, or lack thereof, we have with the art world every day. Unlike passively walking through an arched doorway, viewing a painting, hearing a song, etc., when an individual unwittingly makes the leap from zero to artist literally in seconds, he or she becomes an author of a soldier’s monologue, graffiti, hip hop, the thoughts of a woman engaging in sexual intercourse or, in the case of this work, the United States Constitution. Far from merely providing a massive, public-space message board, Notzold sees his environments as a stage upon which his intervention provides context by working with the surrounding architecture and utilizing some relevant content to create truly unique work.

SS: Tell me a little bit about your work in Of, By and For.

PN: The show, Of, By and For curated by Liz Sheehan, is about site specific public art/design, and in this case Cambridge was the site Daniel Peltz and I were working with. The work I did for the gallery involved showing documentation of a night of projecting in Inman Square. The gallery has photos from the evening and a large paragraph of all the texts chronologically ordered from the evening displayed as a framed poster. I also installed an interactive piece asking visitors to the gallery to finish the phrase via SMS, "We the People...," essentially inviting people to finish the constitution in one text message.

SS: I know there are those who hold the opinion that once a street artist, outsider artist or "urban hacker," as you've been called, has a gallery show, he or she then ceases to have what music critics might call "indie cred." How does this show differ from some of your other, specifically public space, projections or street art?

PN: The gallery will always be a part of the art world. I think it's a good place to show documentation, or to think about expressing your ideas and work in a different way that suits the space. I like to react to the gallery as opposed to depending on the gallery. I welcome the day when I can shake "indie credibility" and simply be credible in whatever space I am invited or want to work in.

SS: How comfortable are you with the labels, “street artist,” “outsider artist” and “urban hacker?” Do you think one suits you and your work better than the others?

PN: Well I think labels tend to work as marketing devices, I like to think of my work as public space interventions, asking people to perhaps behave or think in a way that they may not have expected from being out in an urban or public setting. But I think Street Art is the label that the mainstream has been given to qualify uncommissioned public art, and I'm fine with that.

SS: As an artist myself, I've had to field some version of the question, "What's the point?" or, as Cynthia Freeland's book title asks, "But Is It Art?" So, what is the point of this specific work and your work in general?

PN: To paraphrase Philippe Petit right after being brought down from wire-walking between the twin towers, "'What's the point?' is a very American question." And he couldn't believe that was the question all the reporters wanted to ask immediately following one of the most amazing public performance pieces ever. Now, I'm fully aware that I'm not wire-walking between two towers, but what I do get from what he said is that feeling of pulling something off in public space that isn't advertising, or evil, but still wasn't supposed to happen, creating an experience that doesn't conform to expected behavior. And [in my work] by involving the public in the creation of the performance that happens in public I think they get to share in that feeling of looking at public spaces a little differently.

SS: But is it art?

PN: Of course it is.

SS: I remember when I was traveling with you, doing our little part for the Obama campaign, we got yelled at a lot. I understand that people express their political beliefs in a number of different ways. Some hand out pamphlets. Others (I'm looking at you University of Cincinnati Bearcat fans), like to scream "FAGGOT!" in the faces of total strangers.

PN: Well the funny thing with the Obama roadtrip is that we had a tight reign on what was allowed to be displayed. But seriously, I enjoyed seeing just what happened when the public was asked to participate in such a clearly one-sided political discussion. When I typically do these projections, there's no filter and everything can be seen. I love all the content that comes in, from the banal to the insulting, to the profanities, to the profound, thoughtful messages. I like to think that I'm capturing a moment of what we are thinking about and the language we use. For the most part things go very well, but occasionally I think it blows some people’s minds when they come into a situation with a preconceived idea and then are met with something else that they don't know how to define. It's like people that hate to be surprised, they get almost violent or aggressive because something is out of place and unexpected.

SS: How did you start doing this work?

PN: I started this work as an interactive theatrical exploration. What happens when you hand over the creation process to the audience? At the same time I was playing with the mobile device as a medium for story telling, not just through SMS, but through all of it's media capabilities. And what kind of stories can be created when these devices are networked. I've always been active in performance and music. But with TXTual Healing there was a maturity to the purpose of what was being done, something I felt others would be able to participate in that shifted typical thinking of public space and the device in their pocket.

SS: I know you and your wife are expecting a baby. How does this imminent arrival change the way you think about your legacy? Your work doesn't live, except in the thousands of photographs snapped by passersby and participants all over the world. How much do you care if people remember you or your work?

PN: I really like the idea of having a part in the evolution of technology art, or street art. Especially with so much imitation that I see now, you'd hope you get a little credit for what you did, or how you may have influenced someone. Most importantly, if I can influence people to get out and start taking more control over their environment, we may all start to get more active in shaping what is happening around us, and not just leaving it to those with access to more powerful media.

SS: It's funny. Rereading the last question, I began to feel like your work is in a large way like every other piece of art in the world with one key difference. My wife and I have a print of a painting I'm very fond of, El Jaleo by john Singer Sargent, outside our front door in the hallway that's about 17" x 26", tiny and virtually lifeless compared to the original. But there it hangs, a vague pretender to the throne, a copy like much of everyone's art and music collection. If I wanted to go visit it, I could literally get into my car and go see it right now. Depending on traffic it's about an hour away. Does it bother you that you have no "originals?"

PN: I think you are referring to the ephemeral nature of the pieces. That's where the documentation comes in to show the originality of the whole concept.

SS: Would you say it was a goal of yours to have a permanent installation in a collection somewhere? Keeping in mind that your work has a shelf life, how much do you have to think about topicality when planning a piece?

PN: I think everything is site specific, including the subjects that I want to emphasize. And because the work is interactive you really have to think about the audience and what they might react to that will bring out more profound or surprising results in the piece. The documentation of the creation of the work is as important as the work itself, to have a running installation in a collection would be great, but most likely it would be an expression of the documentation. What did Munich say? What did they text in Beijing? What was being texted that summer in France? In my case I think the body of work is growing much larger than one particular night of projecting.

More information about the show, artist bios, hours and directions can all be found here.