Jacqueline Goss’s new film The Observers (2011) follows two climatologists through their daily routine of recording weather patterns at the top of Mount Washington. This work has a distinctly different feel from Goss’s previous animations and new media pieces. In some ways, what is new here is readily apparent—the live action, the use of (non)actors, the emphasis on landscape photography—but these technical changes also serve as a broadening of concerns from the solely epistemological to the ontological as well. Goss’s interactive works push players to reexamine how they sense and apprehend the world. She has used animation to bring hidden geopolitical issues and subterranean identities to light, as in Stranger Comes to Town (2007) where the interviewed subjects are depicted onscreen by their World of Warcraft avatars. Her interest in individuals’ phenomenology has not disappeared in The Observers, but rather the experiencing subjects, the observers themselves, seem to be as inscrutable as the phenomena they observe. We peer curiously at both them and the objects that surround them, as their internal lives remain cut off from our view, not unlike the mysterious contents of the sealed box the scientists attempt to open in the film. I sat down with Jacqueline after one of her screenings at Anthology Film Archives to talk about her film, Robert Bresson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and science fiction.
Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa (Rail): I thought we could start by talking about “The Great Carbuncle,” the Hawthorne story, which inspired The Observers. What drew you to that story?
Jacqueline Goss: I actually got most of the books that I read as research for the film from the library up at the weather observatory. They have a little library and museum in North Conway, New Hampshire, which is in effect, my hometown, where they have contemporary histories of the meteorologists who work there, kind of like memoirs. There were these Hawthorne stories that have a certain tenor that you almost immediately recognize as of his time. I think “The Great Carbuncle” has something that feels really contemporary about it. Maybe its structure feels more heightened. It’s a strange story with a denouement that’s a little unsatisfying, and that of course was really appealing. The Observers is only loosely adapted from the story. There’s not much left from it. Probably more than anything, I think I was looking for an object. I felt if I had some object that could be a talisman, it might be the thing that ties the two sections together and also gives the film some sense of being concrete so it wouldn’t just be these wafty character studies. I actually thought it might be funny to have this box that you couldn’t open. Really, the box also stands in for the mountain itself for me. The way they treat it is the way the real observers treat the mountain. They’re really respectful. I showed this film in Boston and the first scene you see where Dani Leventhal is carefully trying every combination, the guy sitting behind me turns to his partner and says, “I would’ve had a hammer out in a about five minutes.” Of course, that’s what anybody would do but that’s not these scientists’ way. They would just respectfully note that none of the combinations work. So it was kind of a nice, concrete simplification of what I thought of the way they worked.
Rail: On that note, can we talk about your interest in the scientific process and observation? That style of taking notes and recording is beautifully shown in this film. You also get the sense of the labor involved and not just the observations themselves.
Goss: That’s been interesting to me for a while, this kind of labor and why we love to do it as humans. What’s the attraction? In some ways it seems like the ultimate human folly to think that you could measure the weather, or that the fact that you might write down the data of the weather would mean anything. We can’t control it. Maybe it’s one of the few things left on the planet that we really can’t control. It’s making me think of this one anecdote. At Mount Washington, they still hold the record for the highest wind-speed recorded by a human being, but last year, a month after we finished the winter shoot, the wind-speed record was broken by a typhoon in Australia. I was so bummed out. I thought, “There goes my film. Couldn’t they just wait until my film came out so I could use this?” [Both laugh.] I remember talking to the observers about it over the summer when we were back for the shoot, and basically their line was, “We’re really glad somebody has that data.” Their narrative of that mountain is a long wave and our little narrative is a tiny slice. So they kind of don’t give a shit. I mean, I’m sure they do, but in a way they understand that it’s inevitable. Things are going to change. We’ll be gone as a species and that mountain will still be there with its weather, you know? I think in some ways you have to reckon with that when you think about the storytelling of data. It’s there. It’s totally different from your idea about it, whatever three-act structure, or climax and denouement. It’s not the same.
Rail: The film feels populated by two individuals and then these huge forces that are way beyond the scope of individual humans. It seems like these forces are often natural ones like the weather. But then there’s also something about that shot of the digital landscape that cuts to Katya Gorker’s face. I kept thinking about these human forces that are also beyond the human, these kinds of cultural forces that the scientists have no control over. You know, we have climate scientists today screaming for us to change how we’re doing things, but it feels beyond the scope of the individual to stop this. And how human waste is a force like the environment—that is—we can’t rein it in any longer.
Goss: No, it’s true. It is interesting to think about specifically those issues like global warming vis-á-vis this enterprise. Again, I think it’s about that timeline. There’s something suggestive about the inevitability of it, in a way. Again, the mountain’s been there for millennia and will be there for millennia. It’s just this little human folly, just this little moment where we’re like, “We’re going to have this little enterprise on top of a mountain. There’s going to be a train, and there’s going to be a road, and there’s going to be a weather observatory.” You know? It’s just going to get erased; it’s inevitable. So it’s hard in some ways to think about that in relation to things like climate change. It’s hard. In some ways maybe it just points more quickly to the destruction, that those things are not going to be there. I don’t know.
Rail: I think there are these great moments where that comes across, almost the absurdity of these efforts. Especially with all the tools—we don’t really know what they’re used for. There’s this hidden element of what the actual scientists are trying to do, how we perceive them, their motives, and their inner lives—it’s all hidden. You’ve said that Bresson was a big influence on your dealing with actors. I was just interested in how you navigated the limitations of the medium and those types of questions.
Rail: Sorry that was like five questions.
Goss: That’s okay. I’ll start with Bresson, who is kind of the go-to guy. I mean he should be the go-to guy for people who haven’t worked with performers very much because if you try to mimic his style, what it does is it forces you to create emotional tension. Any kind of narrative tension you have to create as a filmmaker through camera position, duration, editing, and sound. The pressure is on you, instead of asking for it from a performer. So that was appealing to me. I love his films; I think that maybe they’re an acquired taste, but for me, as a viewer, they give me a chance to respond emotionally. In some ways it also pushes the job out to the viewer. It’s like everything gets radiated back out to the filmmaker and the viewer. I really love that. I don’t know if The Observers ends up feeling Bressonian, but that was definitely something I wanted to try. It’s interesting because I’ve been looking at Bresson a lot this semester. [Goss teaches at Bard College.] The thing I’m realizing is how fluid his films are. I wasn’t anywhere near them in terms of composition. Something you don’t realize about Bresson’s films is that the camera is moving all the time. One’s memory of his films is that things are locked down and sort of artificial or awkward, but they’re really fluid. It’s a weird mismemory or something; I don’t know what it is. But that was certainly one of your five questions. [Laughs.]
Rail: Thanks. I mean, one thing I think that Bresson does in a really interesting way is that he’s always very aware of what the camera can and cannot convey, like even the wind in your film. There’s that moment where Dani is moving around in the wind in this ridiculous fashion, but that wind is something that we can only experience visually through her, not through feeling it or seeing it.
Goss: Yeah. Well, that’s because anything that could’ve blown away did blow away. So nothing moves in the frame. It’s really interesting; there’s no visual referent for the wind up there at all unless you put a flag out or put a scarf on someone. We had to learn that. You can’t really tell how windy it is unless something’s blowing around. The oft-quoted Bresson note is you can’t give the eye and the ear something at the same time; you have to divide the work up between them. The ear definitely is doing a lot of the work there.
Rail: I’m interested in hearing how the landscape interjected itself on each stage of the production.
Goss: Completely. It was maybe more palpable in the winter. Even the real observers say “the obstacle in the winter is the weather and in the summer it’s the tourists.” So that became, in some ways, the structure. In the winter we were so lucky. We were up there for five days and each day the weather was remarkably different. We were given this gift of a range of weather. There was an overcast day, there was a really, really windy day, a really, really foggy day, and then the incredibly beautiful clear day with hardly any wind. I guess we had to learn how to adapt to whatever was given to us. We could only really shoot for an hour at a time. Either we got too cold, or the camera batteries died, or the camera would lime up with ice. What we would do is we’d have a UV filter that we used as a lens cap. We’d get everything set up and be like, “Okay, go,” pull the UV out, take the shot, and put it back on because the lens itself would ice up so quickly. We learned how to wait for things and we learned how to anticipate things. Often there were these sun events where you wouldn’t really be able to see each other but we’d have this sense that in ten seconds we’d be able to see to the ocean. And that’s what would happen. It was amazing. It would just be completely sacked in with fog and then ten minutes later you could see 120 miles.
Rail: It sounds great. For me, when I go to locations to shoot, it sets so much of what the film is going to end up being. It’s nice to have a practice where you’re open enough that you can do that.
Goss: And also trapped.
Rail: [Laughs.] That’s right.
Goss: Nobody could leave until the snow tractor came back up, which is kind of great. It’s something I’d been telling students is the best idea for a film with a crew. Go somewhere nobody can leave, even if they’re pissed off at you. [Laughs.] And there’s nothing else to do but make a movie. A lot of this has to do with, frankly, having a kid. I think the wonderful thing that happened by becoming a mom is, in some ways, it just killed part of my brain. I got a little bit dumber and that wasn’t a bad thing. It makes you much more, not emotional, but what’s the word? Empathetic. You just feel more empathy for people. Not just your kid, but also the world. I really opened up. Also spending a lot of time alone with the baby and wanting to have some sort of adventure with people I admired. Yeah, really that was it. Just get out of my head a little bit and experience something, and try to make something out of that experience.
Rail: So you’ve mentioned before that you were inspired by science fiction films. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit.
Goss: Sure. Probably the one I looked at the most carefully, shot-by-shot really, was this Duncan Jones film, Moon. It’s a simple film and you don’t feel this overblown sense of production. It’s quite contained. I also looked at Solaris and I looked at 2001, and at a lot of films from the ’50s—what is it, Robinson Crusoe on Mars? Actually, a real range of stuff, even Nanook of the North, any narratives of isolation. It seemed like there was a way to tell those stories, even just compositionally. It’s mostly about objects, because that’s obviously what a person in isolation is going to interact with. When you start to mine some of those sci-fi films, the good stuff is really people’s interactions with objects.
Rail: And what do you think is the nature of that relationship with objects?
Goss: Yeah. What is it? Well, I mean it’s probably more prosaic than we imagine. I don’t think we spend nearly as much time talking to people as you would think from the movies. So it’s about observing how people really are in the world: you realize that all the time things are happening with stuff. Part of it is about that process of narrative filmmaking which seems to put a lot of emphasis on the idea of the script. So, when people write scripts they think of dialogue, or they are thinking in terms of language. Objects don’t really come to the surface as quickly when you are working that way. It’s really only through observation that you see them. We were watching the scientists, and that’s what they’re doing all day long out there, interacting with these objects.
Rail: I was also interested in hearing about you using this observational approach, this very different kind of filmmaking than you usually do. Usually there are many more layers of mediation between the documented object or subject and the audience. It seems like you are more interested in the indexical qualities of film here.
Goss: If there were any model of making things that feels the most appropriate to describe it, I think it’s a musique concrète piece. There are these chunks, but each chunk does have this indexical quality. Sometimes those chunks get lined up in a way that suggests a narrative and sometimes they line up in a way that suggests music. So you are right, they’re indexical. You’re not given an abstraction, really. If there’s an abstraction, it’s a naturally occurring abstraction—like, the fog came in and erased everything. It’s very satisfying to do that because it takes the pressure off you in a way. I think in animation you’re really constructing the meaning because you are constructing the images and there’s no one else to blame when it goes wrong. But in this case you can always say, “Well, that’s just what happened.” That looseness is important for viewers because you get to move around in the image more than, say, in animation. I mean I still want to do animation. In the next two things I make, one will for sure be animation and one will be live-action. I think that you can’t scratch all the itches with one or the other. Animation has started to feel so much more like writing to me. It literally feels like writing to make an image that way.
Rail: What’s the animation going to be?
Goss: For a long time I wanted to do a project about the history of the meter. It’s an incredible story. The meter came out of the Enlightenment. In France before the Revolution—I’m probably going to get the number wrong, but—there were over 100,000 units of measurement, just in France. Every village had its own. So the savants of France said, “This is silly—we’ve got to have a common measurement.” They didn’t want it to be the length of the king’s foot, or the length from the arm to the nose, and so they decided they would come up with this objective measurement called the meter. They decided the meter would be exactly one—I’m going to blow this, too—but it’s like one ten millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. And everyone’s like, “That sounds great!” But then they had to figure out what that was. [Laughs.] It’s incredible. So these two guys measured the meridian of France during the Revolutionary War. It took seven years. It’s an amazing story. I shot some stuff along the spine of France a while ago—maybe like six years ago. I imagine shooting these shots again, probably locked down as long shots, and then rotoscoping them. If I can do it right, the rotoscoping can move between abstraction and representation. This could be a way of talking about that same stuff: human subjectivity, what’s objective, and what’s not.
The Observers completed its theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives from May 10 – 16.