KEEPING HIS PROMISE: A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXANDER CARSON

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By: Marcin Wisniewski

It seems that no other medium could showcase Alexander Carson’s appreciation and love for photography, literature, music, and theatre, as fully as cinema. Film’s time-space-audio specificity allows Carson to blend artistic disciplines into beautiful reflections upon the most human of ideas—ideas that have been with us since the ancients. Between 2009 and 2013, Carson has created four shorts: Last Communication With Laura, We Refuse To Be Cold, Braids, and Numbers & Friends. These films, with the exception of the recently completed Numbers & Friends, have screened widely at international film festivals. Visually strong, striking, and playful through a mixed-media approach, Carson’s films are quite literary. With their stylized language, poetry, and voice-over narration the films are imbued with a sense of literature. Carson creates a delicate tension between these elements and challenges us to reconsider relations between different modes of imagining.

We sat down one sunny afternoon for an interview, which turned into a conversation about cinema, music, literature and the making of a Carson film.

Let’s begin with the simple question of when or how did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I guess it happened sort of naturally… all through my childhood, growing up with a Video 8 camera and being obsessive about filming people’s birthday parties, and making movies with my friends. Using it as a social tool also, thinking that it was something fun I could do on the weekend other than playing sports or video games. And with my last few films I’ve basically gone back to that process—rediscovering the pleasure of brainstorming with a few friends or family members. Just doing something with available resources.

In your last few films there’s a strong collaborative thread, meaning that I recognize people (in your work) who figure in your life. How do you reconcile your role as a writer/director/editor and theirs as collaborators?

I usually start with a list of rough ideas—images or sounds or themes that interest me. And then I figure out who’s going to be in the movie or working on the movie. Usually these people influence the voice of the film a lot; I let them bring various aspects of their personality to the work and then I just fill in the gaps. It’s a process of discovery. For example, a lot of the dialogue in We Refuse To Be Cold, like the stuff with Amanda in the kitchen, the story about the hairdresser, or when we’re trying to put the snowsuits on—that was mostly improvised. Amanda was great at coming up with these natural lines and funny bits of business. And I thought, this is great! I could write content similar to that, but I could never pull it off with the same ease and natural charm. And with Numbers & Friends, a lot of the ideas came from conversations that I had with Atli during our travels over the last two years. For instance, the idea that his character’s fantasy team would be called “The Batmen”—that was his suggestion. So very often I think: “What would it be like to have a different voice in there?”, and then I borrow something directly from past conversations or jokes between the people involved with the project.

So in some ways the collaborative effort sounds really fluid to me. It’s just that the people who are involved may not realize how involved they are in the creation of the project, because as you say it’s snippets of conversations and remarks made here or there. There are probably some more explicit moments of that as well.

It’s funny because just before Christmas my parents took a flight and saw We Refuse…on Air Canada and they were like: “We were so happy to see your film on the airplane but we didn’t know we were in it!” (laughter) If that’s true then I really wonder what they thought I was doing shooting Christmas dinner on 16mm. “We were so unprepared!”

(laughter)

That’s amazing.

“You need to tell us next time we’re going to be in the movie!” my mother exclaims.

But you can’t because that would just ruin everything. They would start acting differently in front of the camera.

Yeah. But my dad is great. I give him very vague directions and he never asks too much what the film is about. I guess that indifference is part of what makes him so natural.

Right, but that means the camera is always rolling. I imagine it makes for an interesting atmosphere on the set, in that everything possibly is a set. Your approach is based more around the process. I imagine you don’t draw storyboards. 

No I don’t. And that way of creating just doesn’t seem fun to me anymore. Our company North Country Cinema does produce some films in a more traditional way. My partners Kyle and Cameron work like that: write a script, a shooting schedule, hire trained actors, a real crew, then shoot for 5 or 10 days or whatever. I have made films that way, but I find it very stressful. I prefer to work in the opposite manner, where instead of trying to make the film play out the way it is on the page, or trying to make all the elements conform to a predetermined structure, I like to have fun making images that are interesting or surprising to me. So part of the act of creation really involves being an engaged spectator myself. For example, with Last Communication With Laura, we really had no plan at all. My brother and I decided to make a movie on Friday at 6 o’clock, and we started shooting by 7. It began with us looking around my parents’ basement for leads, and we found these angel wings and this old family suitcase from Detroit. Figuring out that it was going to be a story about archetypes or about projected ideas of identity—these ideas came much later, months later, once I had spent time with the images, letting them show me where the story could go.

This is interesting because the experience of the film didn’t really come across like that to me. Watching it, I felt that there was a poem first and the images came after. The collaborative element of your process sounds quite intriguing, actually romantic and beautiful. And yet, the final voice-over, which for me is still you.

Well I guess this is how I get to have the last word. (laughter) Umm, and I’m ok with that. I love writing. It has always been very important to me but I’ve never had the focus to write in large volumes. I’ve written a bit of fiction and poetry, but I’ve never been able to pursue it with enough refinement to produce a body of work. So this is my way of satisfying that outstanding desire because the voice-over is very written, it’s very particular. There’s a distinct point of view, slightly different in each film, but always employing a certain kind of lyricism and an abstract way of speaking. And that fulfills my personal need to articulate through language. I mean, a lot of people have said to me “Oh, at some point you’re gonna have to make a movie that doesn’t use voice-over in such a strong way.” And that might happen, but, if so much of what gives me pleasure in filmmaking is derived from this very literary aspect, then I don’t really see why I should do something totally different. Does this make sense?

Oh, yeah it makes sense. Basically the voice-over, the final narration, is your written text. And there’s a particular kind of poetry in these films. “I’ll be your Celtic fairy” in Last Communication… or in We Refuse… “We wrapped ourselves in the warmth of English words”…so it just seems logical to ask: who are your favorite writers?

Well… I guess I’m pretty obsessed with the canon of American literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. This is where I’ve drawn a lot of my ideas, and some of my romantic sensibilities. The epic use of language goes back to Emerson and Whitman. This heightened rhetoric of self-hood. I think it comes across strongly in Numbers & Friends, and also in the quiet bravado of Last Communication with Laura. In many ways these films are engaged in a discussion of traditional Western ideologies, and this comes partly from my experiences travelling North America, but also from the literature I grew up on; so Mark Twain, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald also made big impressions.

 This is very American, yes.

Horrible, I know. But looking elsewhere, my favorite books are Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and Nabokov’s Lolita. And I love Leonard Cohen. I read his poetry all through my twenties. Romantic, but macabre…furtive, and sly, and sexy. I also love narrative music. I love Dylan, and Springsteen, and Townes Van Zandt, but I also love RAP and how explicit it is; so full of metaphors that are variously playful, or tender, or political. But always SO direct. It’s always at the front of the mix, the storytelling.

Yeah, it’s the voice. RAP is really an extension of oral history. Western civilization, any civilization, is based on orality, on the passing of stories through speaking. But cinema puts the image at the front and the voice recedes into the background. The music is still there – especially in classic American cinema the music, think of the soaring compositions of Lawrence of Arabia, for example – the voice kind of disappears.

There’s not a strong personal voice?

Yeah, exactly. But what strikes me about your work is that it almost subverts the importance of the image. I mean it’s there and you can’t deny it. It’s stylized with a wonderful aesthetic, but there’s the VOICE…

Yeah, I think you’re right. But I guess it’s just me trying to have it both ways. (laughter) Trying to do what the best narrative music does, like a Springsteen or a Biggie song, while also indulging my interests in photography and theatre. And I think you’re right, in each case there’s a character telling a story, there’s a performative aspect to it, an emphasis on the importance of personal narrative. As if there’s a need to tell, a need to speak. And the characters who vocalize these narrations are all linked to me in some way, some more closely than others.

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Do you think that without the voiceover, your stories would still be understandable?

I think they would be very different. There’s a lot of irony in the way the images and the words counter each other. And I get a lot of pleasure from using point-of-view to adjust the levels of irony throughout. This is a classic dramatic device inherited from literature, the idea of an unreliable narrator. In Numbers & Friends when you see me and Atli on the street corner making gang signs with this black guy, the voice over is saying “Are these the spoils of winning, or is this how we treat the losers?”. And in the context of the voice-over we’re clearly talking about fantasy sports, but visually we’re watching three guys on the street in a pretty irregular social situation. So while the story is explicitly about sports fandom, the juxtaposition of the image suddenly has you thinking about the text metaphorically in a socio-political context. And I guess creating a space for different readings is what’s interesting to me; allowing for this dissonance between what is said and what is shown.

I completely agree. I mean Last Communication…would be completely different without the narration because it would just be a series of images.

Yeah, it would be like a music video.

Yeah. Braids is interesting because there’s a written text. There’s a letter.

The main character imagines writing a letter, three actually, but we never see him go through with it. It’s a story about a man who has no method for coping with the trauma that’s just come through his life so he thinks he should write a letter. But then he can’t commit words to paper; he sits poised with his pencil, but can’t proceed. And that’s why the film exists. The film “speaks” on his behalf, providing some catharsis and illuminating his search for a way forward.

“Search for a way forward” sounds rather spiritual. Just yesterday I watched a Polish film, In the Name of, about a priest who is lost and looking to God for a path. This idea is a rather spiritual one. It brings to mind notions of following the right path and being righteous. It also seems rather religious. Can you speak about the religious and spiritual aspects of your work?

I love the Christian narrative. And the semiological power of Christian rites and imagery—taking communion, observing the stations of the cross, etc. For a child, this is such a powerful introduction to the idea of metaphor! Our family sometimes went to church growing up. My parents seemed to like the ritual of it, and the social aspect of it, but they weren’t devout so it was on and off. And because it was infrequent, it never felt oppressive, so I never learned to resent religion in the way that many young people do. And though I don’t necessarily consider myself a “Christian” in a tribal sense, I can’t deny the influence Christianity has had on my work, and on my worldview. I find the process of filmmaking sort of like an act of prayer. It’s a way of making sense of things. It’s also a search for beauty, and grace, and a way of forgiving myself for… everything, I guess. It’s also an indispensable tool for reconciling differences between the way the world seems to me now, as an adult, and the way it was fabled for us as children. So yeah, filmmaking is definitely a spiritual practice.

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Marcin Wisniewski is a writer and curator who is fascinated by beautiful images, words and thoughts. His latest curatorial project, IN YOUR POCKET: What’s Your Sex?, is an exploration of artistic possibilities offered by the intimacy of smart phone recording technology, he doesn’t make promises and airs out his thoughts on his blog morethanjustfilm.

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 Works Cited ( In chronological order)

i) Trailer for Alexander Carson’s forthcoming film Numbers & Friends (2013), a playful and amorphous cine-essay about sports fandom and cultural identity. Slated for a festival release later this year.

ii) Alexander Carson’s 2011 film We Refuse To Be Cold garnered numerous awards, including the Best Director prize from the Air Canada En Route Film Fesitval in 2012. It was presented widely across Canada, the United States, and Europe at venues such as the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto, and Telefilm Canada’s showcase at Cannes 2012.

iii) Alexander Carson’s 2009 film Last Communication With Laura screened at numerous festivals internationally, including the East End Film Festival in London, UK, 2010.

iv) Production still from Numbers & Friends; Alexander Carson (left), Atli Bollason (centre), unknown man (right); photo by Zachary Cox

v) Trailer for Alexander Carson’s 2012 film Braids, which premiered at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, 2012.

More information about Alexander Carson’s work can be found on the NORTH COUNTRY CINEMA website.

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