JAMES N. KIENITZ WILKINS with Herb Shellenberger
James N. Kienitz Wilkins can turn a phrase. The dynamic works of the Brooklyn-based writer/director are distinctive in their investigation of language, unconventional approach to performance, and exploration of conversation as a potent transmitter of ideas. Among his various cinematic endeavors, Kienitz Wilkins has recently developed the “Andre” trilogy, a suite of short videos based around the absent protagonist of the same name. While these works abound in eloquent and precise verbal details, their main subject is obscured, pixelated, held just out of reach. The three videos, Special Features (2014), TESTER (2015), and B-ROLL with Andre (2015) have screened separately at festivals—including NYFF, 25FPS, Ann Arbor, and Rotterdam—and they will be presented together for the first time as the closing screening of Migrating Forms 2016 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The trilogy also screens alongside his minor-key, shot-on-16mm portrait film Occupations (2015).
Herb Shellenberger (Rail): Let’s start with Andre, the through-line of the three videos. We only ever know of Andre what other people say about him. Can you talk about how you developed his character in relation to the speakers? Have you looked to any other works that use the absent protagonist as a device?
James N. Kienitz Wilkins: I made Special Features without a conscious plan to make related work. The trilogy sort of evolved through inspiration and chance. Andre kind of took over. As the character(s) in Special Features recount, Andre is a dream-specter taken from a real dream I had. I was interested in crafting a scenario where characters tell me my own dream. While this is not the subject matter of Special Features, it provided a starting point for the interview set-up and my role as interviewer, which seems peripheral, but is in reality super controlling and central.
In fact, my role as filmmaker is something I’m always considering. I feel that the devices of narration and off-camera interview share a kind of disembodied presence: the filmmaker as an absent protagonist. Every film communicates this invisible presence in some way: like traces of a crime hastily covered up. Most films try to ignore the evidence of the filmmaker’s bumbling. The better ones integrate it. Not saying my films are necessarily the betters ones, but you get my point.
Anyway, as the trilogy expands and begins to redefine the individual components, there’s definitely an ongoing concern with absence in mainstream cinematic history, from The Sixth Sense to Gone Girl to The Thin Man (filmed in Culver City like the tape from TESTER) to mutable qualities of some of our most celebrated action stars. A lot of this was conscious and a lot I’m just realizing now in answering your question.
Rail: I like the idea of a crime scene. Chris Kraus made a film called How to Shoot a Crime in which a crime photographer demonstrates how to properly contextualize corpses in New York apartments. I think the biggest way you, as a filmmaker, contextualize or integrate your presence in these works is through writing. Your writing ultimately becomes a vessel for the performances: the intricate wordplay, narrative progression and relatability of the personalities peeking through all connect with the viewer. How did your writing process shape these works?
Wilkins: I’m a dummy and didn’t know Chris Kraus made films. I mean, there’s a natural reason why mysteries and procedurals dominate filmmaking: they are made of imprints, impressions, bits, pieces, fragments that must be put together. There’s something deeply forensic about making films, with the court of judgement being the theatrical presentation to that jury we call the audience.
But will all the specificity of images and sounds, you’re right that I find writing ties it all together. I’m increasingly annoyed by the pursuit of visual or experiential beauty in films. And I love to write. I’m not sure if I’m a good writer and my grammar is terrible due to early experimental schooling, so there’s something really appealing about the spoken (or supposedly spoken) voice. I just learned the word “heteroglossia:” the presence of multiple voices/perspectives in a text or work, sometimes even contradictory. The point of course is to get at ideas. Writing is the one art form that will reliably do this and won’t ever go away. I can’t be as confident about my reels of 16mm film and Lacie hard drives.
Rail: You have a unique approach to integrating the filmmaking apparatus in your videos. Instead of something super formalist, you regularly have the characters commenting on some technical aspects of digital video. These prosumer characters are constantly occupied by their handheld gadgets and GoPros, and muse on HD resolution as a moral issue. Andre apparently wants to make a magical film with no B-roll.
Wilkins: I’ve spent my whole life with these objects, and always on the low-grade side of things. Considering cameras and filmmaking tools as “objects” feels right. The value of an expensive new camera has such a rapid half-life. For instance, Special Features was shot on a MiniDV camera being tossed out by a major TV network. TESTER has a similar provenance. Beyond aesthetics, the more important thing to me is the political dimension of access. I don’t have any money. I make films. What do I do? How do I self-define? This is sort of where Occupations comes into play: directly calling out a personal predicament. Being literal about it. Through words. So the pontifications of the characters have direct real-world relationship to the restrictions and challenges and fantasies within my own practice. I’m not saying these characters are me, but to avoid talking about what is directly in front of us—the image-making vessels, the power structures, relationship to money, delegation of labor, branding, construction of impossible fantasies, the things that are overlooked or obnoxious—is not only false, but just boring. And if I ever get rich, I expect to be very boring.
Rail: I think the “special features” of all three films are the details, the tangents that you weave through. In TESTER we hear the gumshoe narrator’s take on Panera Bread as high-low culture mashup. A break in the action in Special Features turns into an opportunity for the interviewee to ask where the film will be shown. (“Maybe I’ll show it in France. French people love black people, they love to study them.”) B-ROLL with Andre introduces the imaginary screenplay for eBoyz, an ensemble heist film about art theft. These elements pop up in unexpected places and though the style and visuals of each video are different, the overlapping threads are shared elements that unify the works. How did you conceive this shared space between the works after Special Features, and the split between the following Andre and creating something more free associative?
Wilkins: Good question. I’m pleased that you interpret the connective tissue between the films, because I strongly feel the ideas in the movies determine their style, and not the other way around. I would hate to keep making films of a certain style, although it’d probably help my career. Relating to what I said earlier about money and resources, in an unstable and unevenly distributed world, ideas are kind of all we have (assuming we have them). There’s something appealing to me about dream-characters having their own dreams and ideas. Once created, they are free to create. And then it’s a question of looking closely at the details, reviewing the tape or whatever, and figuring out patterns.
And I see what you mean about how these elements seem unexpected, however, they make a lot of sense to me. The free association is more following ideas to their logical destinations and not being shy about just “going there,” wherever I need to go. In our rather politically correct culture, we often ignore basic facts like we are staring at three black men, not three white men, or that I’ve never shown my films in France and why is that? I’m very interested in what lurks in the shadowy folds of our brains. The Andre Zone.
Rail: The audience at Migrating Forms will be the first to step fully into The Andre Zone. Are you planning on touring this package of films? What are you working on next?
Wilkins: I’d love for more opportunities to screen the three films together. There’s something pleasing and exciting about a group of short films forming an unofficial feature-length experience. At once separate but equal. Though my priorities lie in the making of new work over distribution. I’m working on a few new projects, none of which feature Andre. I think B-ROLL with Andre settled his hunger for a little while. I think Andre might open a distribution company and lend me a hand.
Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer who recently moved to London to study in the MRes Art: Moving Image program run by Central Saint Martins and Lux. He has curated programs at International House Philadelphia, Light Industry, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.