Meetings with Remarkable Men (and a Woman)

(Ethan Gates)– The past few weeks have been a pretty spectacular time at Amherst if you’re a film snob (aka me or Professor Johnston). I’m not sure when the college noticed that it’s supposed to have a Film Studies major and hey, there might be some students around interested in meeting filmmakers, but considering the all-star lineup we’ve had I’m not going to complain about the delay.

On April 10, experimental animator Lewis Klahr came to display about eight short films from his ongoing series, “Prolix Satori,” which the Internets tell me means “Prolonged Enlightenment”. I didn’t know anything about Klahr until Professor Johnston showed us a few films in his animation seminar, but I was intrigued. A lot of the things we’ve been watching in that course have been (forgive me if you’re reading this, Professor) obscure and frankly inaccessible. I personally despise impenetrable avant-garde work that doesn’t make any sense without a 200-page written explanation/manifesto/diatribe. But Klahr’s stuff is a little different. He refuses to call himself an animator, rather insisting on the term “re-animator” or simply a collage filmmaker.

His definitions are pretty nit-picky when you get down to it, but I understand the desire to dissociate oneself from “animation.” Even though it’s really a medium unto itself, animation has been pretty thoroughly ghettoized to a sub-genre of cinema, and even those who appreciate and experiment with it on those terms are often relegated to animation-specific film festivals and collections. Klahr wants his work to be considered within avant-garde cinema, alongside live action pieces, and that’s a fair desire.

Pieces like the one here (“Altair”) are still hard to follow in that avant-garde way, although not as hard as it might seem – there are basic narratives, and whatever you think is happening probably is. And even if the plot is lost on you (“Altair” is a sort of noir tale), I think most people can pick up on the basic themes Klahr is going for with his decades-old cutouts: nostalgia, memory, “the present-ness of the past,” as he likes to put it. I was lucky enough to drive Lewis to and from Boston, and he’s incredibly intelligent and incredibly self-deprecating. He knows he’s very lucky to make a living doing these films, and unlike most experimental filmmakers who will rail against Hollywood, he just doesn’t care. He’s the least famous of the three directors Amherst brought here recently, but he’s probably the most down-to-earth for that. If you can get a hold of his short film “Pony Glass” anywhere, it’s worth seeing (it’s about Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s comic book hero sidekick, descending into a world of cross-dressing and gay sex with mobsters).

April 19 brought John Sayles, whose most mainstream film was probably “Eight Men Out,” but he’s been cranking out tons of quality, under-the-radar indie movies (“Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Matewan,” “Lone Star,” “Silver City,” “Brother from Another Planet”, or his latest, “Amigo”) for decades now. Sayles was the most practical man of the bunch; most of his lecture consisted of how hard it is to find the money to actually make movies if you’re not interested in cranking out the usual Hollywood studio fare. I always figured that, of course, but I had never really thought about just how many creative decisions on a film are limited by the budget. During shooting for “Eight Men Out,” for instance, Sayles and his cinematographer could only shoot the baseball game sequences from certain angles, depending on how many extras had showed up for that day – they had to make the stadium look full, and if only 100 people turned up, that could prove very problematic.

Sayles is sort of a renaissance man of filmmaking: he’s written, produced and acted in pretty much all the 20-30 films that he’s directed. I wondered how he had the time to do that, but it became clear pretty soon that his wife, Maggie Renzi, handles just about all the practical elements of making the movie: wrangling the crew, arranging for food, lodging and transportation, scouting locations, negotiating with actors. Sayles handles the creative decisions; Renzi does everything else (though I’m sure she has a say in the creative decisions too). Considering what a pain in the ass it clearly is to make a movie on a tight, independent budget, I have to say I came out of that lecture admiring Renzi more than Sayles.

All these people, of course, were the warm-up for the big one. You may have heard that last night, a guy named Werner Herzog spoke on campus. Unless you saw the monstrous crowd outside Stirn Auditorium at 8:00, you might not have realized what a big deal this was. Herzog is, in my opinion, the greatest director alive on the planet today. No qualifications. The man’s a genius, and the documentary he showed us, a 50-minute film from a series about death row that he recently made for television, confirmed that. He has a keen eye for locations and how to move the camera through them, an accent that makes everything he says sound like goddamn poetry and is such a straight shooter that even hardened criminals and psychopaths find it easy to open up to him in interviews.

He’s also possibly bat-shit insane. The man has eaten his shoe on a dare with a fellow director, threatened actor Klaus Kinski (an equally bat-shit insane man) with a rifle and barely even blinked when he was shot by an air rifle during an interview in L.A. He made a film once, “Fitzcarraldo,” about a basically insane businessman trying to move a steamboat over a mountain in South America. How did he do this? By trying to move a steamboat over a mountain in South America. Again, he’s so straightforward that you can’t even tell he gets the irony there.

I was again lucky enough to be invited to the dinner held for Herzog at the Lord Jeff and had a seat reserved for me at the overflowing 8:00 screening. Being in the room with the man is something else – I never even had a chance to introduce myself, but I could see the effect that he had on everyone around me. Several of my professors were reduced to giggling fanboys/girls. Most filmmakers do a Q&A for about half an hour after they show a film – Herzog went for almost two hours and showed no signs of slowing down. He dismissed the entire field of psychoanalysis, all modern art, and basically the entire 20th century with the same emotion with which one would usually express a distaste of brussel sprouts.

Most impressive, though, was his complete and utter confidence in his own abilities. At one point, he even admitted that he simply does not self-reflect. At all. It’s useless to him, just obsession about the past: if he made a mistake, so be it. Only he doesn’t make mistakes. He firmly believes that he can get interviews and make movies that no one else in the world could make. Such confidence is infuriating, really, and I would want to punch him in the face if he wasn’t absolutely right.

I have no idea if I’ll eventually end up like one of these men, or like Maggie Renzi, putting in all the work and getting none of the praise. But I appreciate Amherst reaching out to film-savvy students and finally giving us a glimpse of everything we could do, and everything we dream of doing.