Masters Thesis

Click here for a PDF version of my Masters Thesis

 

Somewhere West:

An Investigation of the Film and its Production

by

David K Marek

BA, BFA University of Colorado

 

 

A thesis submitted to the

Faculty of the Graduate School of the

University of Colorado in partial fulfillment

of the requirement for the degree of

Master of Fine Arts

Department of Art and Art History

2009

Abstract

 

Marek, David K (MFA, Art and Art History)

Somewhere West: An investigation of the film and its production

Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Travis Wilkerson

On May 25th of 2009, six others and myself piled into an RV and began a 28-day, 4,982-mile journey that would result in the production of my MFA thesis film, Somewhere West.  The 134-minute film chronicles the last days of Ian, a terminally ill young man who decides to forgo any further treatment and instead heads out onto the road in search of solitude and a beautiful place to die.  And yet, against his best efforts, Ian becomes the center of a makeshift family of broken characters who help him to open his heart, find peace and finally reach his special place.  As a road film, Somewhere West is expressly interested in landscape and visits locations such as Northern Michigan’s Grand Sable Sand Dunes and Porcupine Mountains, the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone National Park, as well as the Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah.

Because of the unique nature of this project, I designed a very unusual production method that allowed the execution of this tremendously ambitious project with a cast and crew of nine people in 31 days for a very modest $18,500.  The overriding intent of the production was collaboration, which meant the cast and crew worked as an ensemble, responding, improvising and adapting to the constantly changing landscape and ever shifting weather.  I chose to shoot the project on the Sony EX-1, in 1080p HD video with a Letus 35mm lens adapter for their aesthetic look, workflow and mobility.  Further, Ian’s condition allowed us to experiment with different optical effects that help to visually and metaphorically explore his physical and spiritual condition.  The postproduction utilizes an editing method that I have developed and call “Dissociative Montage.”  This method assumes five elements to narrative cinema, which are sound, image, time, space, and a narrative stream.  Unlike the predominantly used Continuity Editing, my method attempts to dissociate these five elements while constantly maintaining the narrative stream.  This allows for a much deeper exploration of dialectics and opens possibilities into what I consider a more poetic narrative cinema.

Contents

-Introduction                                       1

-Preproduction                                   2 – 12

-Production                                         13 – 16

-Post production                                  17 – 23

-Influences and Related Works           24 – 27

-Significance                                       28 – 29

-Works Cited                                      30


Introduction

Somewhere West, in its finished form, is a 134-minute, narrative film shot on the Sony EX-1 video camera with a Letus 35mm lens adapter, in high definition 1080p video.  The film chronicles the last days of Ian, a terminally ill young man who decides to forgo any further treatment and instead heads out onto the road in search of solitude and a beautiful place to die.  And yet, against his best efforts, Ian becomes the center of a makeshift family of broken characters who help him to open his heart, find peace and finally reach his special place.  To capture this story a cast and crew of seven traveled 4982 miles in an RV for twenty-eight days, with three additional days of shooting in Boulder, CO.  The project’s intended method of viewing is in a darkened film theater with sound and image.

Although this describes certain elements of this project, it does very little to describe the numerous phases, tools and methods used to create the film, let alone consider the content of its narrative.  To fully understand the scope of this project, I believe it is necessary to investigate each of its three phases: Preproduction, Production and Post Production.  By describing the work completed in each phase, I will in effect rebuild the project while highlighting the tools, methods, and theory used in the creation of the film, Somewhere West.

Preproduction

The early logistics for this project included raising funds, acquiring equipment and permits, hiring crew, casting actors, and effectively organizing all the people, equipment and transportation needed for the 4,982-mile journey of the production.  However, the two elements that will be investigated in this section of the paper are the script and the selection of locations.  In particular these two elements allow us a view into the major themes of the film and an opportunity to establish the narrative, which is essential for discussing all the remaining elements of the project.

Upon beginning the production, the script was one hundred pages, using standard screenwriting format, and was written by myself.  The story of the script follows the main protagonist, Ian, who has a terminal brain tumor and rather than accepting further treatment decides to seek isolation by setting out on a road trip in search of a special place to die.  The opening scene of the film places Ian in a cancer support group, which uses a box called the “Heart Box” as a therapy tool. Through dialogue, it is explained that upon entering the group each member brings a small personal object which is intended to represent the member’s wish to heal.  This object is then placed in the Heart Box, and in this way the group is joined by a single, communal “heart” and desire to heal.  At the end of the scene, Ian is asked to return the box to the therapist’s office, but on an impulse he decides to take the box and the next morning begins his road trip with the Heart Box at his side.

The Heart Box is a crucial narrative element that provides an investigation of two important themes within the film.  First, as a road film, Somewhere West is chiefly concerned with rendering the landscape and capturing its evolution over the course of the film’s journey.  However, I wanted the landscape to be more than a beautiful background, and the Heart Box provided a motivation to have Ian interact with and integrate into the landscape.  Upon arriving at certain locations, Ian would choose an object from the Heart Box, and then performing an impromptu ritual with the object, concluded by the object being left at that location.  These rituals forced Ian to physically interact with the natural elements found at different locations.  For instance, 40 minutes into the film, while visiting a series of waterfalls, Ian crouches on a rock in the middle of the river and holds out a feather.  After some consideration he sets the feather gently on the river and allows it to take its own course.  The feather and the ritual allow Ian to become part of the landscape as well as the human element unifying the four other elements, i.e. the sun on Ian’s back (fire) the feather (air) the river (water) and the stone Ian is standing on (earth).

This ritual and others like it lead to the second theme, in which I wanted to explore the use of ritual born out of a need and inspired by the landscape.  In this way, Ian sets out on a spiritual journey to find God in nature.  Without the support and structure of a spiritual practice and pressured by his limited time, he begins to create his own rituals out of a need to feel connected to something greater than himself.  Although these rituals are extremely minimal and often involve a moment of silence and then Ian burying, leaving or letting go of an object like the feather, the rituals signify his abandoning of the material world, as well as parting with his desire to heal, in an effort to accept his inevitable death.  Ian carefully places the objects in beautiful places in an attempt to rehearse his final goal, which is to find his own special place and leave his body.

Seeking solitude in nature while pursuing matters of the spirit is a common enough theme, and Ian sets out with this high-minded goal, hardening his heart for the tough road ahead.  However, as simple as this goal is, fate has something else in mind for Ian, and he is soon interrupted.  After finding Ryan hiding under his truck, Ian helps the drunken Ryan escape a few loan sharks by stuffing him into his truck and driving off.  Ryan serves three important functions within the story.  First, he provides the comic relief that allows the script to be emotionally dynamic and offers a release from the emotional gravity of Ian’s situation as well as from the conflicts between characters.  Secondly, Ryan is part drunken wise man and part trickster like the coyote character from Native American stories.  Through his own folly and in spite of himself, Ryan often helps Ian find what he needs rather than what he is looking for.

An example of this is how, for selfish reasons, Ryan refuses to leave Ian alone and endures rudeness and ridicule from Ian, who is uncompromising in his pursuit of solitude.  By the time Ian finally pushes Ryan to the point of leaving, Ian’s vision begins to fail, and he has to recant and ask for Ryan’s help to continue his journey.  Although Ian was seeking solitude, what he needed was a companion and help.  This points to the main spiritual theme of the story: the harder Ian tries to isolate himself in the pursuit of God, the more he is drawn into human relationships and community. Through these relationships he finds redemption and peace by surrendering his ego’s pursuit of independence and learning humility by allowing others to help him.

Thirdly, Ryan becomes Ian’s caretaker, best friend and the witness to his story. After Ian loses his sight and his health begins to decline rapidly, it is Ryan who finds Ian’s special place and pushes the wheelchair-bound Ian out into the great whiteness of the Bonneville Salt Flats, where they disappear and it is implied that Ian passes away becoming one with the whiteness.  Ryan is also redeemed through their relationship by becoming more selfless and putting Ian’s needs ahead of his own.  After pushing Ian into the whiteness, Ryan walks out alone in a symbolic rebirth and moves past the stationary camera to pursue his new life off screen.

Another important narrative element is the introduction of the two main female characters, Cheryl and Melissa, who are also traveling west.  This happens shortly after Ian apologizes and asks for Ryan’s help, and is another example of fate playing a role in the Ian’s journey.  After getting groceries, Ian approaches his truck and sees Ryan talking to the two women, but before Ian arrives, he has a dizzy spell and passes out at their feet.  Ian wakes in the women’s tent, and thus begins the “community” section of the film.  The women not only allow a makeshift family to form around Ian, they also bring hope.  Melissa in particular becomes an inspiration for love and allows Ian to open his heart in the face of his approaching death.   After Ian loses his vision completely, Melissa becomes Ian’s constant companion and eyes.  Not only does he shares the objects of the Heart Box with her, but she also helps him with his rituals and describes their surroundings to him.

The “wedding” scene at 109 minutes best exemplifies this opening of Ian’s heart, where Melissa leads Ian out into a field at dusk.  He then surprises her with two rings bought a few scenes earlier with Ryan’s help.  This symbolic wedding allows Ian, who is dying a very young man, to fleetingly experience this important rite of passage.  Even though they both know the “marriage” has no real future, it allows Ian to feel his life was more full.  It is important to note that Ian and Melissa’s relationship is not sexual; instead, they share a spiritual and heart connection.  This is most explicitly shown in a scene shortly following the “wedding” in which the group visits a hot spring and Melissa bathes Ian.  To highlight this theme, the scene contains various references to the story of Christ.  Melissa holds Ian by his feet, seeming to wash them as he floats in a crucifix position upon the water.  This brings to mind the spiritual love between Christ and Mary Magdalene, who washed Christ’s feet and was present at his crucifixion.

After the wedding there is a short honeymoon period where this odd family enjoys their new sense of community and the natural beauty surrounding them.  However, this Edenic period is short lived because Ian’s health takes another turn for the worse, which leads to an argument between Melissa, who insists they take Ian to a hospital, and Ryan, who has promised Ian there would be no hospitals.  This argument is symbolically a representation of Ian’s own struggle and the internal debate he has been having since he learned of his cancer.  The argument is between hope combined with the desire to live (represented by Melissa), versus acceptance and cold reason, portrayed by Ryan.  As Melissa screams that she doesn’t want Ian to die, Ryan explains that he is going to die anyway and that he must take Ian to his special place.  This argument is now irreconcilable and forces the women to leave, which ends the “community” section of the film as Ryan drives Ian further west into the “dark night of the soul” section of the film.

As they travel southwest toward the Great Salt Lake, there is a drastic and sudden change in the landscape.  In general, I wanted the landscape of the entire film to metaphorically parallel not only Ian’s health, but his spiritual journey as well.  To capture this, the film begins in Northern Michigan, a very green, lush and alive landscape which mirrors the fact that Ian’s health is at its best during the beginning of the film.  However, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is a landscape of deep woods, where the horizon is often blocked by a tangle of underbrush and trees also represents Ian’s spiritual journey.  In this regard the landscape mirrors Ian’s clinging to the material world as well as his idea of what his spiritual journey should be.  The two main exceptions to this densely overgrown landscape are at the Grand Sable Sand Dunes and the Kingston Plains, which is a six by six mile tree graveyard from the unchecked logging of the late 1880’s that clear cut large sections of Northern Michigan.  The barrenness of both of these locations starkly and almost frighteningly contrasts with the surrounding landscape, thus making them perfect locations for Ian to perform a “letting go” ritual with an object from the Heart Box.

By the time Ian asks for Ryan’s help, they have traveled through Wisconsin and into Minnesota, where the landscape begins to open up.  Thus it is here that Ian apologizes to Ryan for his earlier behavior.  This apology happens on the steps of a very unusual church at the Saint John’s Abbey and becomes a confession-like unburdening, as Ian attempts to repent in the hope of starting their friendship anew before entering the church.  The church was designed by Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus member, and is as barren as it is impressive.  Its massive walls and ceiling are bare cement and still hold the imprint of the local lumber used to hold the poured cement.  It was important to Breuer that the builders use all local materials, so he left the cement unfinished as homage to this fact, which resonates with my interest in rituals born of a need and location.  The church is also unique as the only Christian and architecturally constructed spiritual site in the film, which I felt was important in an effort to avoid visiting solely natural and Native American sites.

As Ian and Ryan pass through the plains of South Dakota and enter the desolation of the Badlands, they have their most open and personally exposing conversation of the film.  From here they enter the Black Hills, where they meet the women, who bring hope, and the landscape again becomes tangled and full as Ian begins developing reasons to cling to life.  At this point the group visits Devil’s Tower, which is a sacred spiritual site and a place of prayer.  Ian climbs through the boulder fields at its base to perform a ritual letting go of another object and then rests against the tower itself, asking God to take away his tumor.  The tower is also a visual metaphor for the tumor that grows inside Ian’s head.  As the heart of an ancient volcano, Devil’s Tower was a destructive force that has now become a source of spiritual insight and healing.  This is similar to Ian’s tumor, which has forced him to confront his mortality and has also put him on this spiritual journey.

As the group moves through Wyoming and into Yellowstone National Park, the landscape is lush and beautiful, with the exception of the scene on top of the barren and snow covered mountain in Wyoming where the Big Horn Medicine wheel is.  The scene at the Medicine Wheel is unique in both its landscape and the way it enters the film without context.  In the scene prior, all four characters are sitting around a picnic table at night, and as Ryan begins reading a poem, the image fades out with Ryan’s voice continuing.  As a new image fades in of the landscape at the Medicine Wheel in daylight, we continue to hear Ryan reading.  This is the only scene in the film with snow on the ground and oddly, Ian is now alone.  He has climbed to the mountaintop to desperately confront and question God. His health has seemed to improve and now, with his hope and love for Melissa growing, he has more of a reason to live.  Ian’s angry cries turn into a violent seizure, which we learn later has taken Ian’s vision permanently.  In a way, this seizure and its result is God’s answer to Ian’s plea at Devil’s Tower to take his tumor away.

Ironically, after Ian has lost his sight and while the group is in Yellowstone, Ian seems the most free and happy.  As mentioned above, the landscape is beautiful and varies from pine forests to open fields of sage to mountains and the iconic Mammoth Hotsprings.  This varied landscape is the Eden in which Ian finds love, opens his heart and the community enjoys a beautiful harmony.  However, once Ian’s health takes the downward turn mentioned earlier, the women leave and the men head southwest.  At this point the landscape changes from the rolling hills of Idaho to the desolation of Utah.  Once they reach the Great Salt Lake, we don’t see a single tree for the remainder of the film.  Consequently, Ian has nothing more to cling to and must work toward accepting his death.

As Ian and Ryan stand shin deep in the Great Salt Lake, the landscape again becomes a metaphor for Ian’s health and spiritual condition.  The lake is a dead lake, and although it may appear from a distance to be like any other, in truth very little grows or lives in the intensely saline water.  Salt can be a powerful disinfectant, and we can imagine the waves of the lake cleansing away the last of Ian’s clinging to this world.  Once they leave the lake, we never see Ian stand again, and he is incoherent until the final shot of the film.  Ian’s condition leaves Ryan to drive through the desolate landscape, frantically attempting to decipher Ian’s journal in the hope of finding Ian’s special place.

Although I call this entire section of the film the “dark night of the soul,” the meaning of this phrase becomes most evident when Ryan chooses the leeward side of a cattle ramp for a place to wait out the night.  As the sun sets, Ryan holds Ian while he screams in pain and shudders as his body is racked by a series of seizures.  The abandoned structure, which includes three enormous wooden pillars toped by a single horizontal beam, is a rough-hewn monument to man’s struggle with nature.  Although the structure is massive in comparison to Ian and Ryan, from a distance it is barely noticeable and seems to be swallowed by the vast emptiness of the valley and the Salt Flats that it borders.  After the seizures subside, Ian appears to sleep as the light fails and we see lightning off in the distance as a reminder of the tortured electrical signals running through Ian’s tumor ravaged brain.

The next morning we find Ian sitting in a wheelchair with Ryan standing next to him in the middle of the incredibly flat and white expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats.  Ian is coherent but very weak as Ryan pushes him into the white nothingness, where they eventually disappear as described earlier.  With such a purely white and barren landscape, we understand that nearly everything has been stripped from Ian both physically and in regard to his ego.  Further, whiteness has always been a strong symbol of purity, leading us to believe Ian’s spirit has been cleansed, as reinforced by his faint smile while Ryan begins to walk him toward the barely perceptible line separating land from sky.  Once they dissolve into this line, we can assume Ian has crossed that other line, the one between life and death.

Production

To capture this film, I chose to use the Sony EX-1 high definition video camera combined with a Letus 35mm lens adapter, which allowed the attachment of 35mm still camera lenses onto the front of the video camera.  The effect of this is a remarkable reduction of the depth of field in the image, which normally is only possible with film cameras.  In addition the Letus adapter has a piece of ground glass inside its body that vibrates and provides an organic grain to the image that again, video is incapable of providing alone.  With the optics described above and the resolution of a true 1080p HD image, I am able to project the film onto a large screen and maintain its integrity and beauty while at the same time avoiding what would have been the prohibitive cost of film stock, developing and processing.

The Letus adapter also allowed the use of an unusual lens called a “Lensbaby.”  The Lensbaby is a lens that allows the independent manipulation and alignment of the lens elements to achieve a small area of crisp focus while having the rest of the image blurry.  This lens was used sparingly to portray Ian’s point of view as his eyesight began to fail and to create images of Ian that seemed to portray his psychological and/or spiritual state.  Predominantly, the Lensbaby was used immediately after Ian had been physically ill or at times when he experienced heightened spiritual awareness.  The effect of the lens helped to create a visual equivalent to an altered state for Ian.  And even though the visual effect is very apparent, the intended expression of the connection between Ian’s sickness and his spiritual euphoria is appropriately understated.  I wanted to visually portray that while Ian was at his lowest physically he could also be at his highest spiritually, and that the horrors of his illness could make the world all the more beautiful.

However, the Lensbaby was not the only method we used to create the visual sense of an altered state for Ian and his communion with God.  We also used small mirrors to reflect the sun into the lens of the camera in an attempt to create organically moving lens flares.  I call these flares “baubles of light,” as they often look like dancing balls of light that flutter around Ian.  I see these baubles as messengers or angels that gather around Ian in moments when he is simultaneously close to death and God.  With this technique, Ian was most often positioned and framed in a way that was out of context for the scene, out of focus and with his back to the camera or in profile.  The point was to subtly separate Ian from the normal diegetic world of the film and create a timeless space for the audience to share Ian’s experience of separating from the reality of this world.[1]

An equally unusual approach that this project explored was its overall production method.  This method began with the 33’ RV, which transported the cast, crew and equipment as well as towed the #1 “Picture Car” (the car that Ian and Ryan drove in the film).  This mode of transportation was not only cost effective; it was an essential part of the production method I’ve outlined below.  First, by isolating the cast and crew in a semi-controlled environment (traveling in the RV) I created an unusual responsiveness to the environment and the ability to have an around-the-clock production schedule without distractions and schedule conflicts.  This method of travel relied heavily on having a very small crew of 5 that included a director, camera operator, sound recordist, production manager and a cook.  It was essential that each member be well trained to do several jobs on the crew, so that we were able to move fluidly from job to job depending on the production’s requirements.

Secondly, I am a fervent believer in allowing the environment (weather, landscape, non-production people, etc.) to play an active role in the process and visual aesthetic of my films.  When combined with the production style described above, this method allowed the film to both tell the scripted story, and be infused with the essence of each location as well as the cast and crew’s experience of it.  Even though we were shooting fictional scenes and scripted drama, the cast and crew was carrying with them the actual weariness of the road and the wonderment of working in these breathtaking landscapes.

Thirdly, as we traveled from location to location, the RV provided the opportunity to continue rehearsal and deepen character development in a way that was responsive to the actors’ actual experience of the journey and the environment.  Further, the film was shot in sequence so that the crew and cast lived, in a physical/temporal sense, the story they were helping to create.  This had the added benefit of allowing the actors to stay in character without the pressure and distractions of leaving the set and returning to their normal lives.

Lastly, the RV allowed us to be entirely self-sufficient by providing sleeping accommodations for 7 as well as a shower, full kitchen and dining area.  Gas was a major expense, but the money saved by avoiding other lodging and by preparing meals in the RV more than offset this expense.  Also, having the cast and crew actually take the journey of the film compressed all the expenses into one very efficient and cost effective production.

Postproduction

In his book Into the Silent Land, Paul Broks wrote, “A human being is a story-telling machine.  The self is a story.”  Broks, who is a neural physiologist, believes that we make sense of our experience from moment to moment by constantly linking the moments into a story, which we call the self.  I find this fascinating in relation to early film theory and in particular Lev Kuleshov’s early experiments in the late 1910’s and early ‘20’s.  Kuleshov took one image of an expressionless actor and placed it in a filmstrip next to an image of a bowl of soup, and then repeated the same image of the actor next to an image of a child and then next to an image of a child’s coffin.  What he discovered was that the audience not only believed the actor’s expression changed in relation to the image that followed, but that the audience seemed to project their own emotions and assumptions onto the images and their relationships.  This became known as the “Kuleshov Effect” and was a major influence on Sergei Eisenstein’s own theory of “Dialectical Montage.”

Eisenstein’s theory proposes that when two images are placed next to each other there is the possibility of a dialectic relationship, where the first image is the thesis and is followed by the second image, which is the antithesis.  Upon viewing the two images in order, the audience then creates the third term, which is a synthesis of the first two.  What is fascinating about this theory is that the synthesis is never shown on screen but only occurs in the viewers mind.  Further, he conceived his theory before the advent of synchronous sound, which he believed was a waste of sound’s dialectical potential, and called for a contrapuntal use of sound with image rather than synchronizing of the two.

Perhaps because of his time or perhaps because of his political focus, I believe Eisenstein missed the greater implications of his theory, which relates back to Broks.  The way we actually perceive a film as a “moving picture” is by a trick of the mind and eye.  In general, a film is a succession of 24 still images a second, and by presenting them in a darkened room, we take advantage of first, the eye’s natural tendency to maintain a persistence of vision.  This means, especially in a dark environment, if a bright image is flashed briefly, the image tends to persist in our vision even after the image itself is gone.  Secondly, the cinema takes advantage of a trick of the mind called the “Phi Phenomenon,” which is well exemplified in a child’s flipbook.  Basically, if the mind is presented a rapid succession of still images of a ball falling to the ground, the mind will apply its own experience and expectation to fill in the spaces between the actual images.  The effect is that we perceive an optical illusion that the ball is actually falling when in reality the ball is still in each separate image.

I believe Broks is basically applying the Phi Phenomenon to our moment-to-moment experience.  To maintain a sense of self, the mind strives to maintain a constancy of perception, sometimes making illogical or untruthful leaps, as in seeing the ball falling in the flipbook, in order to satisfy the story of the self.  In much more extreme cases, such as experiencing trauma, the mind can choose to disassociate itself from the reality by forgetting what happened (amnesia) or by disassociating the self from the body (depersonalization disorder) so that the person does not perceive the trauma to be happening to themselves, while simultaneously experiencing it happening to their body.  Understanding this potential and our innate desire to maintain a constancy of perception or story is, I feel, the key to a much more poetic narrative cinema.

I have basically fused Broks, Kuleshov and Eisenstein and developed a method of editing I call “Dissociative Montage.”  Eisenstein proposed a dialectical collision of image against image and then added sound as a second element with its own potential for a dialectical relationship with the image.  Rather than just two elements, I am proposing that there are five elements to narrative cinema: image, sound, time, space, and what I call the narrative stream.  The predominant method of editing in narrative film today is called “Continuity Editing,” which presents the narrative by using image and sound to maintain the illusion of a constant time and space.  This method tends to fuse together image, sound, time and space in service of the narrative, and by so doing, tends to be very literal in its visual syntax.

Inspired by what I have learned about dissociative disorders from Broks, I am proposing that as long as the narrative stream is maintained by at least one element, the other elements can disassociate from the narrative stream and from each other.   This, in effect frees them to make their own statements or work in a dialectic relationship with another or several elements.  This potentially stretches the Kuleshov effect to cover all five elements and relies much more on the audience’s innate desire to make a cohesive story out of the separate elements it is presented.  I believe this desire and the audience’s proficiency at synthesizing dialectical elements have greatly increased, keeping pace with the evolution of our visual language.  However, I think modern narrative cinema has failed to take advantage of this proficiency and has only begun to test how far the viewer’s mind is willing to stretch to maintain a cohesive experience.

I must reiterate that it is essential for the film to maintain its narrative stream in order for Dissociative Montage to work effectively.  I chose the term “narrative stream” carefully because what I intend is something more than simply the narrative story and its characters, actions and plot points.  Yet at the same time, the narrative stream is more ephemeral and hard to put one’s finger on.  Like its namesake, a stream is in itself a thing, but its borders are fluid and it is made of a collection of elements, none of which are a stream on their own.  In this way the narrative stream becomes a mysterious element that is redefined by each film.  But in general I believe it is the sense of a story being told and progressing even if the story is not being presented chronologically.

The important point is that the audience must never completely lose its connection with the narrative stream.  Once this connection is broken, the editing method becomes something other, and in my opinion devolves into confusion and endless arbitrary interpretation.  There must be a through line, something the audience can follow from moment to moment to feel a sense of continuity, much like the rhythm in modern music which may evolve within a song but holds the song together so that the other instruments can work in harmony, discord or improvise on their own.  However, I believe this continuity or narrative stream can be held together by much less than modern narrative cinema has realized.

Dissociative Montage does not have new or unique techniques, and its execution is going to be different for each filmmaker.  As I have put this method into practice, I use techniques such as the jump cut that other filmmakers have used, but I will argue that I use them with different intent and effect.  The jump cut is an excellent example in this case as it highlights another way Disassociative Montage breaks from the past.  A jump cut is defined as “A cut between two shots that are so similar that the subject appears to jump from one position to another.  A disjunctive, disorienting cut . . . that – unlike the match cut – calls attention to itself” (Mast, 648).

Jean-Luc Godard is often credited as the filmmaker to first use the jump cut artistically, but he was using it in a very different context and, like Eisenstein, he was interested in its political implications.  Godard was attempting to interrupt the audience’s identification with the characters in an attempt to push the audience out of the film and back into their theater seats so that they may remain objective and view the film for its political content.  This modernist idea was likely influenced by the dramatist, theatre director and poet, Bertolt Brecht, who became know for his principle called the Verfremdungseffekt, which translated means the “defamiliarization effect,” or “estrangement effect.”

I bring up Godard and Brecht simply because we use similar techniques and the term “dissociative” may seem dangerously close to defamiliarization, but again these men were interested in the political and I am more interested in the psychological and perceptual.  As I stated above, I don’t believe Dissociative Montage works if the audience looses the narrative stream.  I am not looking to estrange the audience from the drama, nor am I hoping to fight their natural tendency to identify with the characters on the screen.  Rather, I am counting on the audience’s identification, suspension of disbelief and need to make connections where there is little support for them.  I am attempting to dissociate the five elements making up the film while maintaining the audience’s immersion in the narrative stream.  Often I find that the effect of Dissociative Montage is to reorder the individual elements that are maintaining the narrative stream in a way that reveals the emotional or psychological truth of the scene, a truth that otherwise may not be present.  Or, another way of saying this is, allowing the interior truth of the moment to trump the physical/temporal reality or logic of the scene.

An example of this from Somewhere West is at 41 minutes and 45 seconds.  Ian is returning from the waterfalls and has refused help from Ryan after tripping and falling on the path.  As Ian arrives at the truck, Ryan is sitting in the passenger seat when Ian opens the driver’s side door and begins verbally abusing Ryan who finally agrees to be dropped off at the next town.  In this scene, I alternate between having the image and sound synched and non-synched along with using a series of “L” and “J” cuts.  In a “J” cut the audio from the next shot begins before the image does, and an “L” cut is when the audio continues as the image from the next shot begins.  The scene is also entirely made up of jump cuts, as there is only one camera position and the perspective changes very little from shot to shot, causing Ian to seemingly jump in space.

In this scene it is impossible to determine if all the shots are diegetic or if some of them are imagined.  An example of this ambiguity is when Ian stands with his back to Ryan and is physically not speaking but we hear his voice.  Or perhaps the best example is a very powerful moment after Ian has said “What are you going to do with your next month, next year, five years? Nothing . . . nothing.” Then there is a jump cut to Ian in a slightly different position but in an entirely different emotional state as he angrily yells the same word for a third time: “NOTHING!”  This shot is also unusual in that it is the only shot in the scene where Ian seems to lose his composure completely.  Further, I believe the diegesis becomes unimportant in this moment as we understand the emotional truth of the shot and understand that regardless of whether or not Ian has actually spoken the word a third time, the anger he expresses is what he is feeling and thinking.

Space is relatively clear in this scene in that the characters don’t change location but they do alter their position, which conversely makes the continuity of time unclear.  However, what seems to hold the narrative stream together is the audio.  Even though we aren’t entirely sure if the audio is all diegetic, there is a continuity to it that carries us through the scene, allowing us to feel the unsettling dissociations, but in the end revealing an emotional truth as well as a great deal about the characters.

Influences and Related Works

Obviously, as discussed above, Eisenstein and Brecht are influences in relation to Dissociative Montage, but there are a few filmmakers who I believe are already working with this method and were very influential in my conceiving it.  Primarily these are Lars Von Trier and Terrence Malick.  First, Von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves (1996) used some of the editing techniques I have described above, and thus created a sense of dissociation while maintaining its narrative stream.  Von Trier has also been very influential in his use of broken characters such as Bess in Breaking the Waves.  Bess’ relationship with God and how she verbally communicated with Him led me to consider Ian’s own interaction with God and how I could include it overtly and implicitly within himself.

In the end I chose to have Ian verbally address God only twice, but there are several moments in the film where I believe he is either praying silently or in spiritual rapture.  Also, Breaking the Waves was unclear as to whether Bess was simply mad, which seemed to be the opinion of the other characters in the film, or had a divine connection, which I would argue is the opinion of the film.  I find this ambiguity and the idea of leaps of faith essential to parables, and consequently it is how I justify Ian’s giving up treatment against all reason to blindly search for God in the wild.

As much as Von Trier seems to use disassociation to express the psychology of his characters and to bring the audience into their often distorted and dark worlds, Malick seems to use dissociation to achieve a removed omniscient perspective and, I believe, a more poetic visual syntax.  Malick’s use of “L” and “J” cuts helped me to loosen my own sense of time and space and allow the narrative stream to flow without being overly concerned with how characters move from place to place or how much time has passed between scenes.  Another technique I have adopted from Malick’s films is their tendency during a scene to cut away from the characters to either intense close-ups of nature or vast landscapes.  I believe the intent behind this is to engage the audience in the human drama portrayed by the characters and then, at certain moments, cut to the larger drama of the natural world in which the human drama is just a small part.  In this way, Malick’s films ask us to both identify with the human drama, and then, without breaking our identification with the characters or with the scene, ask us to understand that this drama is no more important on the grand scale than a grasshopper’s attempt to reach the top of a blade of grass.

Further more, Malick’s vast landscapes make us aware of time and how it is perceived.  As his shots linger, we are allowed to observe the movement of clouds and the wind in grass, and by so doing gain a different sense of time.  We feel the pace of the natural world and, by contrast, the desperate urgency of the character’s lives.  This goes hand in hand with Malick’s dedication to location shooting and the use of natural light, which were all goals of my own for both aesthetic and practical reasons.

Finally, I share Von Trier’s interest in the parable and stories in which characters have conflicts of the spirit or faith, as well as Malick’s deep interest in morality and human nature.  One film in particular that was influential along these lines was Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007).  Thematically, this film fits in well with the work of Von Trier and Malick and aesthetically is quite similar to Malick’s work.  However, unlike Malick’s films, which have an abundance of dialogue and voice over, this film is incredibly quiet and has very restrained dialogue.  Silent Light was perhaps the single most influential film for my project, even receiving a loose homage in my opening scene, which is a moment of silence in a cancer support group not unlike Silent Lights’ breakfast prayer scene.

Reygadas also uses an abundance of extreme close-ups and very shallow depth of field, which were production goals of my own in the hope of escaping the way we normally see.  This meant we attempted to stay away from the 50mm lens, which most effectively recreates human vision, and instead using a very long 150 – 300mm lens, or a wide-angle lens such as the 17mm we used predominantly for landscapes.  In the pursuit of seeing things anew, our intent was to show familiar things from a perspective that was unfamiliar.  Silent Light was also the main inspiration for the “baubles of light,” as Reygadas seemed to embrace and incorporate lens flares, which are normally avoided.  This led me to consider how lens flares could become a more integrated visual element, even to the point of becoming a character.

Another important influence on Somewhere West as a whole was Dr. Kübler-Ross’ model of the five stages of grief.  She describes five discrete phases a person moves through when dealing with grief, tragedy or when confronted by a terminal illness.  These five stages are:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  She believed that although there is a progression through these stages, a person may experience more than one at a time and may also return to an earlier stage after having passed through it.  As I was writing the script and thinking about Ian’s illness and journey, I used this model to help maintain my perspective and to guide Ian’s ever shifting emotions, as well as his successes and failures in attempting to accept his mortality.

Finally, one of Ian’s rituals also brings to mind the artwork of Ana Mendieta, who made “earth-body sculptures” in which she would outline her body by using various materials such as sand, leaves, flowers, fire, and blood.  These sculptures were transitory and considered performance pieces as much as sculptures.  Mendieta was interested in challenging the traditional male representation of the female nude and combined this with traditional Mexican folk traditions and Icons.  Although my intentions were quite different then Mendieta’s, there is a somewhat similar result in one of Ian’s impromptu rituals.  While in the Black Hills, Ian collects small pieces of white quartz that are very common to that area, and outlines his body with the white stones while lying on the earth.  For Ian, this is an attempt to tap into the sacred energy of the Black Hills.  As quartz is an excellent conductor of energy, Ian surrounds himself with it, hoping that it will help to transmit healing energy.  This is also another instance of Ian attempting to integrate himself into the landscape as well as a visual reminder to himself that his body is a shell and life is finite.

Significance

Through its use of landscape in general and the western landscape in particular, Somewhere West has obvious connections with the Road Film and Western genre.  It also has the common final goal of reaching a distant and often idealized location, not to mention a buddy or sidekick motif.  Also, the film treats the Jeep pick-up driven by Ian and Ryan as another character in the same way that Westerns often personify a horse, making them more than simply transportation.  However, I believe Somewhere West’s significance is more aligned with the not often discussed and under-theorized style of Transcendental Film.  Paul Schrader, who has written one of the few texts on the subject, wrote, “Transcendental expression in religion and art attempts to bring man as close to the ineffable, invisible and unknowable as words, image, and ideas can take him.  Like the artist, the critic knows that his task is futile, and that his most eloquent statements can only lead to silence” (Schrader, 8).

I believe Somewhere West aspires toward a transcendental style on both the aesthetic and thematic level.  Aesthetically, the film’s preoccupation with light and the use of soft focus attempt to avoid representation and push the mind to let go of its connection to the material world.  As Schrader writes, “Human works, accordingly, cannot inform one about the Transcendent, they can only be expressive of the Transcendent” (6).  In this way, the “baubles of light” are an attempt to present something wholly other, something seen but not physical, something that may or may not be in the diegesis of the film.  Further, the fact that the baubles are present in moments of heightened awareness or communion with God attempts to connect them to the transcendental.

Throughout the film there are images that are intentionally out of focus.  Sometimes these images are still recognizable, but at other times they begin as completely non-representational and then become recognizable as the image is brought into focus.  The point of these shots is to make the familiar look new to the audience, to invite a sense of wonder into seeing the world, and to subtly remind us of all that we cannot see or know.  Similarly, I believe many of the landscapes I chose, combined with the way they were framed and shot, invite the audience to experience awe by attempting to visually grasp the unfathomable.  I strongly believe that this is heightened by the sheer diversity of the landscape captured in the journey of this film.  Many of these locations are awe inspiring on their own, but to experience so many of them in a mere 134 minutes is staggering in its effect and invites the audience to move their awareness beyond its normal human-centric point of view.

Finally, Schrader writes, “The proper function of transcendental art is, therefore, to express the holy itself (the Transcendent), and not to express or illustrate holy feelings” (7).  As I mentioned above, I made an attempt to have a diversity of sacred sites, and although I use some Christian iconography and references, there is no discussion of religion, any religious practice, or even faith in general.  Further, the references to the story of Christ were meant to access the common knowledge in our western culture of its expression of spiritual love.  I wanted Ian’s transcendence to be a personal journey greeted by silence, and similar to the philosophy of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, to be in relation to and inspired by the natural world.

Works Cited

Breaking the Waves. Dir. Lars Von Trier. Argus Film Produktie, 1996.

Broks, Paul. Into the Silent Land. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

Kawin, Bruce. How Movies Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth.  On Death and Dying.  New York: Touchstone, 1997.

Mast, Gerald, and Bruce F. Kawin.  A Short History of the Movies. Needham

Heights: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley: Da

Capo Press, Inc., 1972.

Silent Light.  Dir. Carlos Reygadas.  Mantarraya Producciones, 2007.


[1] I am using “diegetic” as defined by Bruce Kawin,  “Adjective for the conditions and events within a fiction; any part of a recounted world (the diegesis) that is accessible to the characters, capable of being part of their experience” (543).

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