Sometimes after I’ve watched an experimental kind of film, I know whether I’ve enjoyed it or not, but I can’t quite articulate why that is. If I attempt to talk about the mutual experience with someone else, the conversation can halt at “did you like it…yes (or no)” and not progress much further. Maybe it’s a deficiency of my language. Thankfully, Boston-based filmmaker Billy Palumbo thinks a lot, and deeply, about meaning, representation, and audience response to his own experimental-documentary films. He recently screened three of these on 16mm film at the first installment of our Caffenol Film Series at Brassica Kitchen + Café. They were quite good (and silent to boot!), which is why I wanted to ask him some questions about them and his filmmaking practices in general. You can find links to the films described below on Billy’s website.
BOSTON HASSLE: You projected the short films, Memoir (2014), Document (2014), and Semioptics (2013) on 16mm at the Caffenol Films screening back in May. I thought it was a really physical viewing experience…hearing the projector strain to process the tape splices, clearly seeing the deformities of the film surface, etc. Watching these films had a visceral effect on me that I don’t think the digital versions can quite replicate. Why do you think these three films specifically work well on the 16mm format?
BILLY PALUMBO: Yeah, there are a lot of qualities that would be lost if it were transferred to video, even high quality. The biggest reason I think these films work on 16mm is that the images are physically manipulated. Memoir has bleach marks and scratches, and the texture and color of that is what the focus is. That film and Document have a lot of hand-processing, also, which creates some unpredictable chemical artifacts of various density and colors (both are technically black and white, but some of the developing chemicals left a blueish-green tinted mark that I decided not to bleach off).
Semioptics doesn’t have that physical manipulation, but the shots were rephotographed in an optical printer, sometimes two, three, four times over, so the affect on the grain parallels the idea of over-working, over-thinking the image. Another reason Document works on 16mm is that all the images involve some kind of digital format– phones or cameras– that people are interacting with, and the difference of how digital and analog media can impact people’s experiences in and with the world was the original intent (and since the analog re-presentation of the world ends up broken down and unintelligible, it isn’t suggesting either is necessarily ‘better’).
BH: You wrote in your bio that your films interrogate authorial control in the filmmaking process. Could you say more about that intent? The moments you capture in Document and Semioptics seem like arbitrary snapshots of strangers’ lives in public. And they’re wonderful to watch because they’re unscripted glances into people just behaving as they would if they weren’t being filmed. What’s appealing to you about this objective camera perspective?
BP: I guess the authorial control of these films relates to the fact that I see the film stock itself as a parallel to my brain and how it processes memory. The audience isn’t given a chance to independently consider the meanings of different facial expressions or gestures that the people in the images make– they are stuck analyzing along with me what I decide to obsess over.
I’m not sure that I’d call the camera perspective “objective,” though I understand what you mean– I wasn’t directing any action or even worrying so much about the framing in a lot of the shots. I see it more like glancing around an area really quickly– for some reason, the eye ends up remembering specific flashes of images, and then the films are trying to figure out why those images were held. Why did they stand out to me? And what do they mean? (The logic, of course, is flawed. Just because there’s a visual relationship between me and the gesture (the camera and the image) doesn’t mean there’s a significance to it, which is why these interrogations break down or are fruitless.) The emphasis for the observer (me, the camera, the audience) is on a gesture or moment so tiny that for the subject it is almost definitely very insignificant, quickly forgotten.
BH: Your idea of the film surface being analogous to the brain in terms of image processing is really compelling. An idea like that might not be readily apparent to most people who watch these films. But even if they’re not aware of the comparison, I think just that intent of yours—to manipulate an image as it might appear to someone transformed as a memory—can have powerful, sub-intellectual effects on the viewer.
How important do you think this kind of rationalization is to an audience’s appreciation of experimental films like the ones you make? Or can it be enough to just positively experience the film and not further analyze the meaning in one’s experience?
BP: That’s a really great question, and it’s something I think about a lot. I don’t really mind if the audience has a different experience with the films than what I’m thinking about– with these in particular, a lot of times the reaction is entirely about the aesthetics, the surface, just the look. But even when that’s all that is discussed or even consciously considered, my hope is that there is at least some connection being made to the motivations that I had. So I work in the editing (and shooting/selection of shots) to create a clear thread and trajectory, but then once I’m done I’m done. Does it ruin it to not get what I was thinking about? No, I hope not. I’m not going to say that someone’s reaction to it, especially a visceral one, is wrong. I’m happy to have an audience engage with it however they want to. For some of my films, and these ones are an example, I’d rather be unclear than too obvious. If it’s unclear, the audience can maneuver around it and its meaning however they want, and if it’s at least interesting then they’ll think that process is worthwhile. If it’s too obvious then it’s over, the conversation is done.
BH: Back to your point about the camera tracking your gaze: I would assume that many people encounter frequent moments in their daily goings-on when their eyes fall on something or someone that’s striking for reasons unbeknownst to them. These moments usually dissipate quickly and are forgotten, but sometimes I think it would be cool if you could store and revisit these occurrences to see patterns in your ocular wanderings.
To that end, would you say that one of your general goals in filmmaking is to elevate certain characteristics of life’s minutiae? Do you think that something (e.g. a place or a face) can cease being mundane and insignificant by merely presenting it in a film, or is attempting to inject meaning where there’s usually none not the point here?
BP: Well, for Document and especially Semioptics, it’s really the latter, that these films are trying to show that we (or really, I) over-analyze things (gestures, facial expressions, words, relationships, etc) even though these don’t really result in any clearer understanding of the world.
However, in other films of mine, like Curley: A Historiophoty by Billy Palumbo, challenging the idea that a moment (person, or place, or event) can be “insignificant” is really critical. That film loops all of it shots, each shot is roughly 5 seconds long, and the repeated playing and viewing of those short moments is supposed to trigger reconsiderations of the moment. Rather than just be background imagery, they reassert their own existence– THIS HAPPENED AT THIS TIME. And hopefully it suggests this unspoken question, what happened right before the camera was on or right after, or five feet to the left, or three miles south, or fifty years earlier, or ten years later? It’s all history, waiting to be written or photographed or talked about so it can be elevated to History (with a capital H), but a tiny portion of events ever get that treatment. But they still happened! And to me, that means they are still worth considering and reconsidering.
So I guess those are two contradictory answers to that question. Maybe it depends on the film, on who I think the audience would be, or maybe it just means I’m not sure yet. But as I type that out, it occurs to me that I don’t really want to end up with one as my goal or the other– I don’t like binaries in terms of tactics. I don’t want one way of filmmaking or thinking to “win” over another. There’s a way that two approaches that seem mutually exclusive can coexist and help to fill in the gaps of the other, illuminate aspects of life in unexpected ways. So just because Semioptics says “don’t overthink things” doesn’t mean Curley can’t say “don’t forget to think about things.”
BH: Are you making any film(s) now?
BP: I’m working on a couple of projects now. One is following the essay film mode, somewhat similar to Curley but a little bit looser in format and subject. The other is called tentatively called Bound, and it’s an exploration of how the camera and simple movements can create a space unlike anything we can see with our eye. It’s pushing against any attempt to speak rationally through or about it.
Billy Palumbo is an experimental filmmaker and writer. His films interrogate authorial control in the filmmaking process, explore the limits language places on political and self-expression, and display an irreverent sense of humor. Billy is a faculty member at Emerson College and visiting lecturer at Tufts University Experimental College.