by Janne Barklis
It should be no accident that the term “internet” begins with the letter “I” as this first-person singular pronoun encapsulates the independence and the capacity for self-impelled action that the Internet has enabled users since its birth. In simpler terms, the Internet offers singular voices around the world a direct link to potentially boundless sets of ears and eyes, the Web Hosting Hub of the world is the proverbial I.
In terms of art—and for our interest, film—we see the same opportunity for direct delivery. What was once handed to us, with much deliberation, on the velvet seats of the local movie theatre can come to us—albeit often in a shorter format and with a lesser sound system—through an indiscriminate click or a friend’s Facebook post.
This has created, and continues to create, a leveling affect. On the bright side, it levels the playing field—a new democracy where one person with talent can find a voice without ascending a tiresome ladder of executive approval. On the more dismal side, it can make the journey too easy, presenting us with a cacophony—all those voices suddenly trying to occupy the same humongous, but crowded, stage. It is overwhelming. A viewer cannot focus.
Because it is a common affliction that great work is uncovered daily while other great work falls through the cracks, I want to help create space to delve into three shorts and the talented filmmakers behind them.
At first glance, these films do not go together. Gary Nadeau’s Pizza Verdi may be the most traditional of the three, proving that in less than 10 minutes it is indeed possible to feel the complete arc of a story accompanied by complex characters. Danny Sangra’s I Know highlights a filmmaking style that keeps us on our toes, making no apologies for jumping in and breaking barriers. Thibaut Duverneix’s Gravity of Center proves that short films can, in fact, capture different art mediums, stay true to them, and enhance them. All three leave me with the satisfaction of being in capable cinematic hands.
Like the best love affairs, all three filmmakers hung in the arms of other art forms before exploring their relationships with film. Danny Sangra spent a frugal childhood with the much more affordable supplies of a notepad-clad illustrator and became, and still is, a successful visual artist.
Gary Nadeau shared this art school start, excelling in the visual image and struggling with the written word—an irony that would present itself later when his first script, Jack (1996), was sold, launching him alongside big hitters like Francis Ford Coppola and Robin Williams.
Thibaut Duverneix started in computer programming—unabashedly saying, “I don’t [program] so much anymore because I have found better programmers than myself.” He has since pursued a career in digital art, melding filmmaking with technology. Though, in our discussion, he admits, “I was always against making something because of the tech. I just want to incorporate the technology to push it somewhere else. I like to hack things. I like to use technology that is not meant to be used that way.”
“This short is a great example of what you can do with three actors and an apartment. It’s a clever, wonderfully crafted piece that blurs the line between reality and cinema. It has a Gondry-esue playfulness to it.”–Gary Nadeau.
I spoke first with Danny, early on a weekday morning while he sat with his fiancé in their hotel room in New York. While the trip was not for work, Danny let me know that, “I tend to make any of my trips into work. If I’m in Paris, I feel comfortable there because I’ve got people that I know and we can make something. In America it’s amplified even more because we’re such a tight knit little group. We can make stuff at the drop of a hat.”
While I didn’t know it before our interview, Danny does most of his work with what appears to be a family of young, attractive, creative, self-starters who seem worthy of a film themselves. Two models turned actors, a prop stylist fiancé who has been known to hold the boom for a shoot, friends’ homes for sets, costumes pulled from collective closets—in my opinion, it might be this community that “just keeps breeding more creativity” and that infuses Danny’s films with such exuberance. He comically adds, “It’d be so sad if no one wanted to work with you. You know, I’d be like pulling teeth saying, ‘No I’ve got this idea.’ Then you really know you’ve fucked up somewhere.”
I am not surprised that play is work and work is play for Danny Sangra because he is prolific—last year he made 13 short films. It may help that his work is vignette in style, often introducing characters, dynamics, conflicts, and ending them abruptly. Each short leaves you wanting to explore his library, unsatisfied with just the snapshots.
When I asked him about this abrupt style, he said, “You can look at it in a different way as well. I also start straight away within the action. There are a couple of exceptions but generally I start immediately—there’s no build up. You’re in it. And then I end in the same way. And that’s mainly because I know my own impatience. I don’t want to put that in my own films. I like to just start immediately in the action and I don’t like wrapping things up.”
Most entertaining is how Danny riffs off the tropes of common filmmaking constructs, drawing our attention to the screen accessories we tend to ignore and exploring a world where our lives have the rules and freedoms of film. In I Know , Danny presents us with a recognizable relationship and then surprises us by acknowledging the artifice—or rather having the characters’ acknowledge it, like they would anything else. Danny explains, “There’s a freedom in the film world that I’m trying to do as well. It’s annoying because you know some people see it as me just breaking the fourth wall—which it is, but, at the same time, I just want to let it go.”
“I found it hypnotizing, which was amplified by the clever editing. Everything flowed very naturally.”–Danny Sangra.
“I loved Thibaut Duverneix and Victor Quijada’s beautifully crafted film Gravity of Center . I was immediately struck by the film’s duality. It’s simultaneously sensual and aggressive, awkward and graceful. You really get the feeling you are viewing a work of art here. Technically everything is top notch. The dancers dance together but always somehow maintain identity. They accomplish this all without a single word. Camera placement and movement is stunning. We’re always circling, observing never obtrusive. It gives us the feeling that we are one of them, that we are part of their herd. I love the opening musical movement, haunting with thick ominous tones. It really sets the mood. So many great directorial choices, the long takes, the desolation, the pacing. There is an abundance of love in these images.”–Gary Nadeau.
At first glance, Thibaut’s Center of Gravity pairs strangely with Danny Sangra’s punchy humor and Gary Nadeau’s more traditional short. Originally from France, Thibaut Duverneix spoke to me from his home of Montreal. Some of Thibaut’s filmmaking has taken the form of large-scale installations. His work enveloped the stages of the 2008 Nine Inch Nails’ Lights in the Sky Tour and his installation Locomotive took over a corridor between the metro station and the street. Thibaut says, “I don’t see my art as intellectual. I like it to be more visceral and playful.”
This visceral quality is prevalent in Gravity of Center along with a palpable intensity. The film begins with high stakes and ends with them. What gets me through is the precision of the camera as it focuses and spotlights incredible body work. It explores a world that communicates solely through music and visual intention.
It is not new for dance to stake a claim in the more accessible world of film—and if at one time it was, Pina ‘s buzz was strong enough to reflect in 3D glasses around the country. What I find refreshing in Thibaut’s work is the way the film toes a difficult line between honoring the dance medium and enhancing the themes of the piece using tricks only possible in the editing room. He pleasantly adds “this does add an element of sci-fi” but has made it clear that Center of Gravity , a collaboration with choreographer Victor Quijada and RUBBERBANDdance Group, continues to explore a theme that comes up in his other work. “I’ve always been interested in transformation and identity and swapping people in a flawless way.”
Though I discovered Gary’s film first, we spoke last. I caught up with Gary Nadeau right before the Fourth of July weekend. Residing in New Jersey but originally from Ohio, Gary talked me through his start, from high school to art school to NYU. “Really I went for four years but it took me eight years, if that makes any sense. I left knowing exactly what I wanted to do.” And he did. Garnering widespread attention for his directorial debut, Red , his thesis short film, Gary launched into the Hollywood scene with first screenplay Jack directed by Coppola and starring Williams. When I ask about working with Coppola, Gary is candid. “It was more of a Willy Wonka thing. Where you got a peek into the chocolate factory for a little bit.” He adds, “The one thing I learned was that, okay, it’s all the same. It’s a director and he directs kind of how I direct. It wasn’t as intimidating as you think it’s going to be. But ultimately there’s a camera and there’s a person on the other side of the camera.”
For Gary, “the trick is I never moved to LA. I was doing it all from New York, which probably hurt me a little bit and helped me a lot.” It helped because, despite an initial career writing and directing what he kindly refers to as “saccharine family films” for Disney, he now enjoys directing constantly, making films for Dwell.com and highlighting musicians like Rufus Wainwright. When I ask about his move into documentary-style work, he says, “I think if you look at the Dwell stuff and if you look at the Rufus stuff, you can see some sort of narrative; that I come from a place that’s not true docu-filmmaker. There are cinematic flourishes. There are smaller dolly moves. Everything is a shot. Nothing I set up is like, ‘Let’s just hit record and see what happens.’ Everything is planned. I’m not really making up a story. I’m just seeing it through the eyes of a director who’s done narrative filmmaking.” This is best seen in his stunning short documentary, Kenyan and Grace , which I found first, before Pizza Verdi .
“I’m a sucker for really well composed black and white films. I was really taken in by the compositions and the photography. What I like is that some people think that building up pace is having one long shot, a lot of people have been doing that recently, one long beautiful shot, but what I liked was it was sequential build up.”–Danny Sangra.
Where Pizza Verdi excels is in its precision. Bringing together a black man and white woman, Gary presents us with two stereotypes, and lets their small movements and interactions speak for themselves. There is “very little fat, at least in dialogue. Everything between the two [characters] is a reveal.” Not only that, Gary mixes subtlety and silence, shakes, stirs, and adds a twist; a twist that forces us to re-perceive the details we let feed an imagined—yet communally experienced—narrative that, as it turns out at the end, was never there to begin with.
When asked about this twist Gary says, “I find it fascinating. We’re all shoulder to shoulder and we are all so different. You never know. I have a friend who lived in this beautiful New York dream apartment and the building next to him was a halfway house, for the Salvation Army I think. I went to his back window and I looked at the window of the building that was connected. There was a guy who looked like he just came off the streets. His bed was literally two feet from my friend’s bed separated by a single wall. That’s New York, you know. I just like the idea of these two people kind of coming together. That was the original idea: these two different people from two walks of life being in the same space. And it was only through working through that, that I came up with the clever twist.”
In some ways, it’s like a metaphor for the online platform itself—artists and amateurs side by side, their work a click apart. Regardless of their initial incongruence, these three directors share a flare for polished detail. They support duel narratives, stretch the imagination with tricks of the eye, and force us to look at what we typically ignore. They do this in different ways with different techniques—and frankly different interests. But together they show us what can happen when creativity comes first and distribution is left to discerning individuals spreading the word.
Janne Barklis has a background in writing and experience both on and off stage, and is passionate about coupling her interests in meaningful storytelling and multimedia aesthetics. You can see one of her first endeavors of writing, travel, photography, and performance in the multimedia exhibit Short Spine at www.jannebarklis.com. Her most current project is preparing for a six week jaunt through Eastern Europe where she plans to eat well, drink abundantly, and converse with eccentric strangers.