Notes on Process
About four years ago, on the nose, Coming to Terms was wrapping up – the shooting, and, since it was done as we went along, most of the editing. Most that actors had departed, and it was pretty much in the bag. The next few months involved mostly tiny little changes and fixes. It has no music, so that wasn’t something to be done. Some festivals were sent DVDs or files, and I waited to see if anything worth the while would give a nod. None in the USA did, nor in Europe. From Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, New York and others came the sort of anticipated “no.” No stars, no money, no pushing producers or other self-interested sorts; just the film and what minimal remnants of my once modest reputation.
My cynical view is that only a few of these festivals might accrue something tangible – a distribution deal, TV sales, or something that will convert into some modest money, directly or indirectly. Of these I’d say only Cannes and perhaps Sundance might have this effect. More or less all other festivals do more or less nothing, though some provide a ticket and hotel somewhere if you are in the traveling mood or have some other reasons to go there. And so having gotten the big nix to anything useful I sent to others:
Jeonju (S Korea) 2013, St Louis, USA; Rotterdam 2014, Rencontres Internationales, Paris/Berlin, BAFICI Buenos Aires, Las Palmas, (Canary Islands), First Look (Museum of Moving Image, NYC) 2015.
On the road in the USA, doing a tour to the remaining places interested in showing work such as mine, I went to 10 cities (Salt Lake City, Phoenix AZ, Santa Fe, Austin TX, Lincoln NE, Iowa City, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Columbus Ohio, and NYC) , and did 12 screenings. The cumulative audience was just under 100 people. I suppose after deducting the travel costs (van, sleeping in it often) I broke even or made a tiny bit.
And so it has been for four years: a handful of festival screenings, and maybe 15 or 20 in-person presentations, mostly in the USA. Money made? Oh, maybe all told, let’s guess $1000 or so. It cost a bit more than that to make (if not much more) and of course there was the little matter of labor and time and such things as that, not to mention the travel (in van) costs. And perhaps some talent and skill honed over 50 years or so.
Maybe, being very generous, some 2000 people might have seen the film. At the in-person screenings the responses were invariably positive, even with audiences who had not seen films anything like this one. I’ve received some lavish comments here and there, sent to me (and posted here). So, all things said and done, was it worth it? It is a question I continue to ponder, not just about this one film, but maybe all the ones I’ve made, and the life I have spent making them. I’ve had, in some views, “success”: received some so-called prestigious grants (NEA, Guggenheim, DAAD); won some supposedly hot-shot awards; had retrospectives at MoMA and a mess of Cinematheques around the world. I managed to do more or less what I wanted to do a whole life, and never let myself have to do any shitty 9-5’ers to do so. I managed to convert all this into a full professorship late in my career, which gave me an easy job for decent if not great pay for four years before I quit. Flip side is I’ve barely eked out a living, though these days I suppose I am better off in that way than many of my friends, thanks to a frugal nature or habit, and being willing and able to live really poor when necessary.
And still, in a belated sort of mid-life (more like end-life) “crisis” I find myself wondering if it (or perhaps anything) was “worth it.”
Like many others here at the tail end of things, I find what I do more or less has no value in the world. Like a blue-collar factory worker displaced by cheaper labor or robots; or like a middle-class management level person who finds computers deleted their job. Stranded in a changed world.
For me it is ironic that late in the game I am doing some of my best work – certainly Coming to Terms falls in this category for me – in a world in which this is more or less meaningless. Thirty or 40 years ago, had I made such work – as I did – in some modest way it would have been prized: given screenings at festivals, awarded perhaps, and most tellingly, have found a sales to some European TV and make a very modest bit of income. But, no more.
Since making Coming to Terms, I’ve made a handful of others – which have received similar or worse treatment in the bigger world:
And in editing process on several others. And somewhere back of my brain I feel another percolating away, trying to let me know what it wishes to be.
Why? Damned if I know. At this point I have to assume it is just a bad habit or an addiction. There doesn’t appear to be any practical or logical reason to proceed, and given the cacophony of our world, it really seems pointless to add another noise or image to the tsunami of media which overwhelms our senses. Perhaps the right thing to do would be to enter into silence.
A few years ago I got a request to buy a copy of Coming to Terms. On sending it off, as usual, I asked that once they’d seen the film, I’d appreciate any thoughts or comments, good or bad. A few weeks ago, the following arrived in my email (I asked for permission to post, and got the nod to do so):
I hope all is well. I ordered “Coming To Terms” from you back in 2014, and as per request (and my promise) here is my humble film buff review just 2 short years later!
Here are random thoughts:
The first thing I thought of as I was watching ‘Coming To Terms‘ was Tarkovsky’s ‘Nostalghia‘, because both films require that you put away all preconceptions about what a film is supposed to be in terms of structure/ 3-act format/ pacing and rhythm conventions. As a result I found myself settling into the film’s own internal rhythms and ‘storytelling method’ and as such, received a much more rewarding experience. Both films are exquisitely photographed, breathtaking in many of their vista shots and beautiful lighting. And both films require that you bring something of yourself to the table in order to appreciate what they have to offer. What I mean by that is, for me, ‘ ‘ will not allow me to just sit back and wait for the film to tell me what to think. It respects me enough to work things out for myself. Example: after the beautiful opening of the bright, expansive clouds, a man (James Benning character) is seen sitting at a breakfast table eating a bowl of soup or something. He is in thought, but about what? There is no other context in the scene for what he is thinking, why he is alone, what is important about this shot, etc. Similarly, the external shots of the town where they live, which are intercut between scenes of interaction with the other characters, also offer no explanation, but taken as a whole, works to immerse me into the world of the characters both internally (spiritually) and externally.
The individual shots of various locations around the city are incredible. My eyes are allowed to take it all in, absorb the world of the characters, and in a sense feel the environment that they left years earlier. I get an idea of the soul of the place, and the soul of the characters, without one word being spoken. Something that cannot be described, just felt. As I was watching it I felt myself ‘peeling away’ any resistance to want to speed things up. The benefits of ‘resting’ into this rhythm was great.
Also, the placement of the camera and blocking of the characters in the discussion scenes emphasizes (for me) the strains that exists between them, and– along with the rhythm of their conversation– represents an emotional reality that is deeper than anything that can be done in the conventional 2-shot angle/reverse angle format.
The beautiful slow dissolves of the painterly deep rich tan mountainsides, and the tall trees in the forest alternating from soft to hard contrasty lighting as the Benning character moves from life to death, along with the patterns of light through the veil-like ‘cloth’ overlaid on his face, is an example of something that has to be seen to be appreciated for its beauty. It is poetry in images. No exaggeration.
The various dissolve shots of the white curtain slowly fluttering in the gentle breeze by the window near the end of the film with the voiceover of the Benning character was a brilliant visual that -again, for me, represented a picture of a veil coming down from between the remaining four characters, forcing them to deal with each other in all of their ‘naked’ feelings about what just happened. I hesitate to look at this as a representation, because I don’t want to abstract an image or a scene that wasn’t meant to be forced into some sort of meaning, however, in the spirit of this non-conventional approach to telling a story, this is what I gathered from it.
There are a ton more things I can say that I loved about it that I can put in bullet points if interested, but I wanted to get these main points out first. First rate film. Now, I’ll have to order others. I already have Homecoming and Sure Fire (yet to see them).
Question: what equip did you use to shoot this with? Would love to know….
(Answer: Sony XDcam1)
Anyway, should be ordering more stuff soon.
G Curtis Wilson
I then encouraged him to send along other thoughts, and received this:
A few more points:
-James Benning as the Father was perfect, a dead-on perfect match. As was Ryan Harper Gray, Roxanne Rogers, Kathryn Sannella, Stephen Taylor. There seems to have been a lot of room given for each of them to contribute their own understanding of their characters (assumption mine) because it felt completely unrehearsed, natural, an extension of the unforced pace of the film.
-The characters interaction with one another in terms of their placement and angle of view contributed greatly to the emotional impact, and was in prefect harmony with all the other elements within the shot(s): the lighting, the dialogue, their movement, all of which would fall apart if one emphasis was placed above the other.
-There are very few films I see that can convey the emotional power of the close up without relying a lot on the actors ‘convincing’ the audience to ‘feel what they feel’. Some masters of the close up for me are: Robert Bresson (‘Pickpocket‘, ‘Trial of Joan of Arc‘, ‘Mouchette‘), Tarkovsky (‘Nostalgia‘), Bergman (‘Sawdust & Tinsel‘, ‘Persona‘). A bad one for me would be Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. It occurred to me that it is probably easy to screw up a close up. However, while watching ‘Coming To Terms‘ I was really taken back by how effective your use of the close up was, and wondered just what went into your decision to frame them in that way. I suspect a lot of it was organic, as you worked out what the actors should say, how they should say it, pacing, etc. Anyway, LOVED the close-ups.
-This film is for me a cinematic version of Jazz, dissonant jazz music in particular, in that it is best felt rather than being guided through wth a melodic (conventional story) line. (‘The Cinema of Dissonance’? Hmmm…)
-Even though there still is very much a story with a beginning, middle, and end, the emotional impact is expressed in the ‘discordant’ phrases : the shots surrounding the characters relationship with one another. I just loved(!) the bold choice of remaining on James Benning in the beginning as he ate his meal.
In the 3 years since Coming to Terms was finished it has shown at a handful of smaller festivals around the world, and at maybe 15 to 20 in-person screenings, most of them very thinly attended. I’d guess that well less than 1000 people have ever seen it in that time. This in part owing to the cultural moment we are living in, in which the Magical Market Economy warps everything, and the value of all things is measured only in money. It has bent the current American election like a pretzel (the Donald = eyeballs for TV = $ for advertising), just as it long ago warped the arts world into the dazzle of celebrity and the ever so important matter of big big money. I accept that is the world as presently constituted – I accept and think it is a serious pathological situation, which expresses itself across our culture, and if not checked, is in effect our collective death notice. Coming to Terms obliquely addresses that.
Making work like this film, in the measures applied today, is more or less a thankless and losing endeavor. As little as the film cost to make – a few thousand bucks – I think I am still in the hole on it. And the actors didn’t get paid, etc. So certainly in those terms it is a loss. But, when receiving notes like the one printed here from Curtis – and it isn’t the only one – I get, and I hope my friends the actors and others who helped in making it, get a kind of reward. For me it isn’t a matter of ego, but some kind of indefinable satisfaction in making something serious about our lives, and knowing that the manner in which it was done penetrates others, so that it is shared in a profound sense.* So my thanks to Kate and Rox and Ryan and Steve and James, and to Marshall and Hal, and a handful of others, for helping make this work possible, and to the writer of this for having written these comments and sending them on to me. It does really make a difference.
* I really dislike superficial plaudits, which are endemic to the film world, and being uninterested in pats on the back, have sharp antennae for BS.
Back last autumn, 2014, I hit the road in new-old 96 Ford Aerostar van, having lined up a sequence of screenings, motivated a bit by good old money concerns, and a bit by whatever it is that drives artists to want people to see their work. So I had stops in Salt Lake City (the SLFilm Society), Phoenix/Tempe (classroom presentation and workshop at AZ State U), Santa Fe Film Society, Lincoln NE – 5 days at Ross Cinema, Iowa City, and Chicago (Film Center). At the end of this journey, with some 12 screenings of Coming to Terms having been made, I tallied up the headcount of spectators and figured it hovered around 100, max. I then headed to Europe where I managed to get robbed in the Barcelona train station (slick job I didn’t even notice until it was long over), had a few more screenings, and then went to NYC where there was a screening at the Museum of the Moving Image – to 20 people in the heart of our nation’s cultural vortex.
Naturally this prompted me to a belated mid-life crisis (at nearly 72 I am under no delusions that this time is the middle of my life – rather very near end-game). Surveying the slim audiences and the collapse of the tiny institutional base of cinemas that show my work and that of others working vaguely in the same realm – owing to the reality that it is not only my “difficult” work which fails to draw, but cinema itself – I naturally find myself questioning what I am doing and why. Visiting with older friends during this journey, this late-life perspective appears pretty common.
While I have never been driven by a desire for popular acclaim, or its usual partner – wealth – I do, I suppose, share the desire most artists have – at whatever level, successful or not – to have their work seen, if only by little specialized groups and audiences. To spend half a year on the road, doing screenings to virtually no one (as seen from the larger scheme of things, that film is a “mass media” form, or that this is in a country of 300 million people), is, to put it politely, rather dismaying. This is compounded by the view, shared by others and confirmed by the overwhelmingly positive response to the film – Coming to Terms – of those that have seen it, that I am doing my best work now. But, it is done in a world which could care less. The irony is duly chastening – less about my work, than about the world and our brief little passage through it.
That said, in another month we travel to Korea, there to screen yet another new film – They Had It Coming – at the Jeonju festival, and to then return to the USA for a few more screenings of Coming to Terms. All the while pondering just WTF?
Upcoming screenings of Coming to Terms:
Houston Texas, April 23, 7 pm, Blaffer Art Museum.
Austin Texas, May 18 and 19th (Last Chants for a Slow Dance 18th; Coming to Terms 19th), Austin Film Society.
And then, at the Jeonju Film Festival, screenings of They Had It Coming will be
5/3 (Sun) 1:30 P.M.
5/5 (Tue) 2:30 P.M.
Maybe it really is “the end.”
Outside near Saratoga NY. View from Steve & Lilly’s back porch. Tomorrow, February 8, screening of Coming to Terms at the Saratoga Arts Center, sponsored by the Saratoga Film Forum. 7:30 pm, Monday night. If around the area, and you can manage through the predicted snow fun, come by. I’ll be there.
This coming weekend, on Jan 18, 2015, at the Museum of the Moving Image, Coming to Terms will screen at 2 p.m. in the First Look festival there. Here’s a paragraph review from a longer item printed in Art Forum magazine, covering the films shown there. Written by Tony Pipolo.
A quite different focus on death is found in Jon Jost’s Coming to Terms, as a terminally ill old man (played by the filmmaker James Benning) asks the largely estranged members of his family, two ex-wives and two sons—one gay and one a Jesus freak—to help him die before unbearable pain sets in. They do so and debate the consequences afterward. Jost, who has conjured a number of unusual visions of Americana since the 1970s, manifests the same straightforward, unadorned cinematic style—static shots, long takes, no camera movement—alternating impressive vistas of the Montana landscape with intimate, though dissociatively framed and edited, encounters between mothers and sons. All of this is characterized by Jost’s predilection for deafening silence that allows the natural world to speak and suits the subject all too well. However stark and somber the film seems, one discerns an underlying bleak wit in the filmmaker’s farewell to a world he no longer recognizes and seems somewhat relieved to depart. As Benning, close in age and cut from the same cloth as his director, dissolves into the landscape near the end, a doubly resonant experience comes to a close in this paean to the American pastoral filmmaking tradition.
And here is another review, drawn from a screening in Cleveland last year.
The last six weeks have seen me in Europe, initially in Italy and then in Spain. Very mixed journey.
In Rome I shot and edited a short film, Inside, for my friend Eliana Miglio, which is more or less done now, though it needs now a re-do owing to later incident. Visited with friend Christian Ravaglioli in Piangipane, near Ravenna, where recorded some songs, and got stuff with local cuisine. And had a short visit with another friend, Pina, in Bologna before moving along to Cassina Amata, near Milano, to visit again with the Rebosio family who took me in in 1962 when I was hitch-hiking. A wonderful time, as last year.
And then flew to Barcelona on a misguided save-money jaunt which ended with a robbery (large scale pick-pocketing is more like it) in the Barcelona train station. A back-pack was whisked away literally in front of me, while I stood asking about a croissant at coffee bar at 6:00 a.m. I’d slept on the airport floor and was obviously a bit groggy and the thief saw his white-haired mark. In order not to forget, I’d consolidated everything really valuable – NEX camera, very good lenses, computer and a wad of cash into the bag. A very bad hit, 6 or 7 thousand bucks worth. Partially now recouped from a funding thing set up by Austin Saget of Kennewick WA and Joseph Garza Medina of Corpus Christi TX: http://www.gofundme.com/jopd7w. Thanks guys – I was skeptical as you know, but it’s gone a good way further than I imagined it might, and it is very helpful.
(Portraits not quite finished of several people from here in Nijar)
Iowa City, after the polar vortex dropped down on the mid-west, and stumbling to the conclusion of this leg of travels – coming up in a few days the Orpheum in Fairfield Iowa, home to Maharishi Vedic City, and a lotta TM (and that doesn’t stand for Trade Mark), and a haunt of David Lynch. 7 PM, the Orpheum, Thursday Nov 20.
Here in Iowa City had a nice Sunday afternoon screening at FilmScene, a very nice small cinema in the center of town. A modest audience, but very engaged, for both Last Chants for a Slow Dance, and for Coming to Terms. Very good post-screening discussions that continued over beer and a dinner afterwards. (Thanks Andy and gang!)
And then, found on the website for Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, a little review from 2 years ago that had eluded me. Screenings there this Saturday, Nov 22, 8 pm; and again on Monday, Nov 24 at 8:15.
This December I’m off to Europe for a bit – primarily to do a little artist’s residency in the small Andalusian town of Nijar, near Almeria. There I’ll screen a few films with Spanish subtitles – La Lunga Ombra, and Coming to Terms – exhibit pastels and watercolors, and mount some video installation pieces. Return from that on Jan 16, 2015, to attend – finally – a New York City screening for Coming to Terms in the Museum of the Moving Image’s showcase, First Look. that will be 2 pm, Sunday, January 18. In/around NYC to mid-February. If anyone reading this can arrange anything else on the East Coast and down to the deep south, contact me please and let’s set something up. From NYC in mid-February my wife and I will be heading to the south to shoot for Plain Songs, aiming for Austin screenings at the Austin Film Society by early May.