Resident Video 10: In Search of the Miraculous

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to short films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you Sam Kuhn’s In Search of the Miraculous.

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In Search of the Miraculous, this month’s Resident Video, feels like it’s from a different era. Something from the past maybe, or perhaps even from the near future. Or possibly from another dimension entirely. It’s a film that’s deeply coded in a visual language that’s mysterious and foreign but that also feels eerily familiar.

Miraculous is a dense film that demands careful unpacking, but it’s also so thoughtfully constructed and cinematically charged that even upon first view it feels spellbinding and spectacular. Shot on 16MM film with an array of gorgeous cinematography, Miraculous seems at times organic and peaceful, but its darker undertones  are unnerving from the start, as if something truly terrible is looming amongst all the beauty.

We interviewed In Search of the Miraculous‘ writer and director, Sam Kuhn, about the film:

In Miraculous there is a great moment after boy meets girl: an intertitle informs us “DIALOGUE MISSING”. For us, what is interesting about the intertitle is that it pushes the viewer to focus more on all the wonderful nonverbal cues that cinema provides – which is something you have experience with through the music videos you directed for Aerial East and Okay Kaya. Was Miraculous originally conceived with dialogue, therefore legitimizing the intertitle in a different way, or was it always already missing? Follow-up: And, like, why?

First of all, thank you for writing such thoughtful questions. I know Miraculous is a pretty strange film for most people, difficult in a number of ways, but it took me nearly four years to arrive at an edit I was satisfied with, so there’s really a lot of thought behind the decisions you’ve hit upon.

To answer your last questions first, there was once dialogue but I was never in love with the things the characters said. To me it was always more interesting to watch them like a cartoon—there’s something to experiencing a world absent of spoken language that’s really pure and direct, almost nostalgic, but of course we can’t live in that type of nascent reality, so naming the elephant in the room with “dialogue missing” is both a joke and a conceptual stance.  It harkens to the linguistic origins of the medium, film of course began mute and musical with pianists in the theater—only later was dialogue added to the language.

If there is indeed something miraculous about the world, I think we come closest to it near origins and endings. This is why I find children and elderly seem to really understand the mystery, they’re closer to the curtains of death, in touch with some alien thing the rest of us have forgotten. For some reason in middles we believe in costumes and fictions and the drama of life becomes very convincing like an actor playing a mailman in a play that’s gone on for so many years he actually believes he’s a mailman. As if anyone could actually be a mailman, mailman is just an idea. So you see, words, the gap between words and the world, the whole aesthetics and gameplay of language are all interests of mine.

For the Kaya video you mentioned, she invented a fake sign language that was so beautiful. I love the way invented languages can touch new places inside, seemingly invent new emotions even though it’s all the same stuff—music is really exemplary in this regard. Most emotions we have no words for, but occasionally an emotion takes over an epoch and is bestowed a name and a lifespan. Swooning meant something viscerally different in the 1920’s than it does now. I wonder if FOMO was a thing back then, I wonder if technological progress has exacerbated it, or if it’s timeless, how long we might have to continue living with it, etc. I wouldn’t mind if FOMO died soon, nobody should have to feel FOMO, the here and now is really quite sufficient.

Anyhow, I have a feature script I wrote about a secret cult that’s excavating forgotten emotions through researching and inventing languages in an archipelago on the waterways bordering Canada and America. I’m also working on a project with my friend Z Behl that will involve a lot of fake language like a Fellini film where characters speak in numbers. In 8 1/2 there’s that scene where the kids keep repeating the phrase Asa Nisi Masa, it doesn’t really mean anything but the way it’s presented feels like a magic incantation, sort of like Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

Cinema is full of such linguistic nonsense, in fact it’s often the nonsensical ruptures that make the deepest wounds on our psyche and become the most memorable. David Lynch, one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, made a short film when he was getting started titled The Alphabet about how terrifying letters can be. He really understands the menacing power of words.

Yah. Language is dangerous, and magical! It’s the reason we use the word spelling in reference to the creation of a word. Words literally cast spells. Which is why what one says is of tremendous importance. You should always speak what you mean and in the absence of anything to say, recognize silence is golden, you know, the wind never chimes a false note, I really think that. I often take as much satisfaction in the abstract shapes of letters on the page as any meaning a book might claim to proffer. Shapes have power and there’s an electricity to a letter like X, Y or Z.

I should also mention the question of whether we “read” or “experience” the world. Language is rife with a politics experience is free of. To read an experience is often throwing the baby out with the bath water—sometimes it’s best to just experience a thing and not press it into language, not say what it is. Sometimes saying a thing can mint a false coin, words just don’t quite capture experience. A character says “I love you” but we don’t feel the “I love you” behind the words. We say “baby” but that word will never contain the infinite knot of ideas and feelings one experiences in the presence of an actual baby.

I’m starting to ramble here, it’s a lot of ideas cast haphazardly into a short space, I know, but what I’m trying to say about the film is actually very simple: it’s about direct experience and trying to capture in a movie something like music where words are secondary to the invention of feelings.

I always think of films as architecture. The fact that each scene should occur in a room or location, quickly leads the filmmaker into problems befitting an architect or urban planner—the poetics of hallways, mirrors, windows, roads, car interiors, meadows, etc. How one thing leads into another, blueprints, etc. The first really intuitive editor I ever worked with was an architect, Michael Harmon, he plays the axe wielding friend in the film—a fellow who knows how to cut things. Haha.

Miraculous is rife with oblique and personal jokes that I don’t really expect anyone to get.  It’s a labyrinth of cryptic film references with no real cipher, like in the scene where the kids are running up the tower and we hear Nino Rota’s theme from 8 1/2 (a film that ends with all the characters ascending a tower) something happens when the camera shifts below. The perspective modifies how we read the action, we no longer see the characters ascending a tower, but instead see a sort of spiral they’re trapped in like rats in a maze, the music consequentially morphs from Rota’s theme to that from Vertigo (another film which ends in a tower ascent). In Vertigo Scotty accidentally falls to his death from the tower, but in 8 1/2 the characters willfully descend to a circus-like pantheon where they hold hands and dance. It’s the same broad stroke, the final ascent and descent, some kind of afterlife, but approached with different specifics.

Directing is all a matter of perspective and choice, where to put the camera and what sounds to use—in other words the construction of an experience. The same actions and plots play out endlessly in the history of cinema, we’re doomed to repeat ourselves, trapped on this whirling globe all experiencing the same thing through different words and eyes, but this whirl to me has a luminous translucence, a glow, that’s what I’m looking to capture. 

Nature has quite a role in Miraculous. The narrative itself creates a sort of island: opening with water, then trees, and closing with trees, then water. The characters that inhabit this island are surrounded by nature – most notably our protagonist, who has a penchant for inventively submerging himself in water. What is striking is the “natural” performances the actors give, almost as though they are unaware they are being filmed. What is your philosophy when it comes to working with actors? 

I don’t know that I’m mature enough as a filmmaker yet to espouse any specific philosophy towards working with actors, though I do love nature and naturalism. I love things as they already are.

For this project I basically just cast my friends and asked them to do things that seemed like they would lead to cinematic emotions, it’s hard to disguise the thrill of careening down an enormous hill on a tandem bicycle or the terror of leaping off a seventy foot tall ferry. I always try to include a variety of emotions but certain ones are hard with what one has access to.

For instance, my friends often feel strange about kissing each other on camera—it’s kind of a cute problem to have now that I put it on paper. The problem is usually that someone is kissing someone else’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Which is actually kind of a big problem, wars have been fought over such things.

Some people have told me Miraculous feels to them almost like a documentary, which I think odd because in my mind it is completely the opposite, the most staged and performative thing I’ve ever made. I think perhaps what people are responding to is an accessibility they aren’t accustomed to.

I always like it when you see something and feel like you could have made it, that the technical aspects don’t eclipse the imagination or bravery. When that’s the case I find myself feeling inspired, which is the ultimate point of making anything in the first place. The greatest compliment is when someone tells you that experiencing what you made in some way inspires them want to do a thing.

We should all try to inspire the best in each other. I’m inspired by inspiration. It’s really just a great feeling, very timeless. It comes from the Latin word inspirare which means “breathe into” because it was once believed that inspiration was literally the gods breathing into you.

In directing actors I suppose you get to play god a bit and breathe back and forth with a group of other artists you call friends. That’s a pretty good way of describing making a movie.

“Nostalgic” seems to be becoming a dirty word now-a-days, something that even millennials are cringing at. While your work definitely draws from the past — kind of like if early Noah Baumbach was filtered through early Philippe Garrel – there’s nothing flimsy or passé about your (nostalgic) aesthetic. How do you see the pull between the past and present working in Miraculous and your other films?

That’s very kind of you. Nostalgia is a wonderful emotion, though it’s defined as a ‘wistful affection for the past’ the way I’ve always experienced it is as a sort of homesickness or melancholic yearning for a happier time and place.

I’m frequently frustrated by the cynicism of Western Society, we too often feel good feelings should be relegated to other cultures or supposed golden ages. I don’t like this war on the present, on ourselves. Anyone who has a positive thing to say about the way life is now or has been, lacks the revolutionary spirit and must be some kind of liar because the world is a horrible place where nobody is spared from tyranny and suffering.

This of course is true, but only in part. Storms can be wonderfully enjoyable when taken in the right frame of mind.

I would like to someday map out a nostalgia not tied to temporal direction, a way of feeling that same yearning for what is here now or yet to come—even if they happen to be totally apocalyptic, willing things to be exactly as they are, saying yes to life, a yearning for one’s own life as lived. Sometimes nightmares are really beautiful.

That isn’t to say my aesthetics are rooted entirely in the present or absent of criticism. In my life of twenty seven years I’ve seen a lot of supposed progress with communication technologically, but it seems like mostly the point of this is to prevent anyone from actually communicating anything deep or important—it’s quite a perplexing moment in history to be born into, to watch certain things degrade under the banner of upgrade. The medium is just not conducive to meaningful interaction unless you get incredibly creative with it, but even then it’s a clown’s game.

Those who’ve tried to have a serious conversation with a person they love over text message know what I’m talking about. Anything you say is preserved in a log, you’re always on record and limited in expression. I feel the directness of live music surpasses basically all other modes of communication, it’s totally primitive and timeless, it expires entirely in the moment. That’s freeing.  Musicians are allowed to express tremendous joy in ways that filmmakers are not expected to—we’re supposed to be serious and political. We’re supposed to take issue with the world.

If I have a politics, it’s this: it’s abundantly clear how crappy Apple products and AT&T are, yet we’re forced to contend with these tyrants lashed to their prison systems.

Make no mistake, the cellphone is a drug habit structurally forced upon us. This is to say that certain tools of communication from the past are actually just better and freer than what we have most recently invented. I don’t think it’s necessarily nostalgic or anti-revolutionary to use the better tool.  Strategic engagement is different from willful naiveté. We don’t have to make decisions on the basis of something being new or cheap or charming—those are the barbed hooks of salesmen.

For an artist, or really just anyone interested in doing a thing well and with joy, it’s very important to work with the best people, tools, and materials. What that means, is of course different for everybody but for me it means shooting on film and never working with AT&T on anything ever, not that it’s on the table, but really I think the world would be a better place if people decided to explicitly refuse working for AT&T.

I was disappointed that Werner Herzog decided to make a commercial for them. No matter how noble his message was, artists, especially of his caliber, should never associate with that entity. They benefit nobody. They are not your friend. Do not be fooled, AT&T exists only so long as people agree to work with and for them.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen their headquarters on Church St. in New York but it is pure evil architecture. Designed to blot out the sun. How are you supposed to create tools to communicate if you can’t even see the world outside? Don’t be fooled into following the blind. The building is nearly windowless!

But I digress, inspired by some wonderful conversations with the DP Fantavious Fritz, Miraculous was shot on full frame 16mm. It’s unfortunate that the distinction between film and video is being framed in mere aesthetics, it’s much larger than that. Shooting on film engenders a different more careful and planned way of working, it requires patience and sacrifice, it’s difficult and expensive in ways that digital is not, it may seem illogical but the rewards are really worth it, it forces upon you a seriousness and rigor that’s instructive. Film being a chemical medium that actually physically exists and responds organically to light means it bears a totally different relationship to reality. It allows one to capture a different palate of emotions.

The end of the romantic comedy genre and rise of the apocalyptic epic map almost perfectly onto the shift in technology. Granted there are socio-economic/political reasons for this, but I think Marshall McLuhen got it right with his ‘medium is the message.’ When you film with digital and compress the visual world into binary, it is reduced to such a horrible looking place that the movies you make must reflect. When you shoot on film, the medium itself is alive! A film frame is organic and has resolution down to the molecular level. Not that it’s even a debate about resolution, it’s about something much more profound, about feelings that transcend binary systems.

But yeah, even when you film someone operating a smartphone, if you shoot it on film, it will feel nostalgic to someone, but I think what they’re really responding to is the return of feelings of beauty and positivity that have been thieved from them by wealthy technocrats in windowless architecture. Film allows you to depict happier times and places more effectively and perhaps in this sense it feels nostalgic.

Long live Kodak and the joyous world of living!

Your next short, Möbius, was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign this past October and is now in postproduction. Very exciting. Overall, how has this process been and what’s next on the docket for you and Lion Attack Motion Pictures?

Möbius was something of a crucible, I really don’t want to say much more, or speak of the future, because plans and expectations can be the devil—the future’s truly unwritten.  But let me just say this, things happened, and continue to happen, at an alarming rate, and I wish everyone interested in doing things well the best of luck.  I’m rooting for anyone who wants it to be good because we’re all eternally in this together, don’t be duped by weathermen.

AT&T's HQ -- not friendly

AT&T’s HQ — not friendly


For more about Sam Kuhn, visit his website, Tumblr, and follow him on Twitter. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.

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