Interview with Scott MacDonald

Interview with Scott MacDonald by Lynne Sachs
Published in the Independent Film and Video Monthly

I’ve been teaching filmmaking and film studies for just about a decade, and nothing has helped me introduce my students to the wonders of an alternative cinematic vision better than Scott MacDonald’s three volume set of books entitled A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers.  These intimate, forthright and revealing conversations offer readers the chance to immerse themselves in the creative process and thinking of 63 different  contemporary filmmakers. With the passion and insight of someone who believes in the importance of avant-garde film,   MacDonald conducted his first interview in 1979 with Hollis Frampton.  He’s been listening to the reflections of makers such as Charles Burnett, Craig Baldwin, and Yvonne Rainer, ever since.   These in-depth conversations give readers the feeling that they have spent hours with  a filmmaker.  Autobiographical connections to moments in the movies, expansive explanations of narrative decisions, struggles in the realm of everything from finance (approach to the Remote Quality Bookkeeping for help in this field) to illness —  here is the life of an artist as told to a writer who believes deeply in the work at hand.   After twenty five years of full time teaching at Utica College in Central New York, MacDonald retired this year in order to devote himself to writing Volume Four in the series.    In August, I decided to turn the microphone back on MacDonald.

Lynne:    How and when were you first drawn to avant garde film?
Scott:    The experience that changed me with avant garde film was seeing Larry Gottheim’s Barn Rushes, Ken Jacobs’ Soft Rain, Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity,  Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes —  all on one Saturday afternoon in the Spring of 1972. I was teaching American literature and a standard film course (Griffith, Keaton, Murnau, Lang, Renoir)  at Utica College at the time; and I sat there so furious I couldn’t speak.  I HATED this stuff.  It just made me FURIOUS! Well, I kind of liked Barn Rushes; it reminded me of Monet, but the others, they were shit! I didn’t get Soft Rain at all. Serene Velocity totally annoyed me; and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes revolted me.  I remember being doubly steamed after the screening because everybody seemed to take this stuff seriously.  I  fomented against the films all the way home in the car and spent days bitching about this atrocity of a screening.  Then it hit me that I was still thinking about this stuff.   I actually couldn’t get it out of my mind.  By the end of the year,  I found I wanted to do it to my students because I knew it would energize the classroom incredibly.
Lynne:    Could you talk about  trying to have a relationship with this kind of work while living in Central New York?
Scott:    Thoreau talks about how every walk you take in nature is a pilgrimage in which you try to win back the Holy Land from the Infidels.   Going to the avant garde screenings in New York City was my pilgrimage   By the mid-1970’s I was planning my season around the schedules from Anthology Film Archive, Collective for Living Cinema, Millennium Film Workshop and Film Forum.
Lynne:    I noticed you dedicated one of your books to your students and the insights you’ve gotten from them.  What films have most excited your students and turned them on to this kind of film making?
Scott:    Window Water Baby Moving by Brakhage is as powerful now for undergraduates as it ever was, maybe more powerful now because they’re not used to looking closely at anything, especially a body and especially a female body in process. I use Window Water Baby Moving in virtually every class I teach, including written composition, and it blows classes away continually, creates incredible discussion.  The other one is Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line which for me is one of the great teaching films of all time. It’s a 10-minute single-shot film of fog lifting over a green Upstate New York landscape.  Beautiful.  A meditational film.  And food for fury for my students who are so frustrated with it after a minute or so, they don’t notice the tiny horses that cross the image halfway through, and are dumfounded when I ask them after the screening if they saw the horses.  “Don’s miss the horses” becomes a mantra for the course from then on.
Avant garde film is probably the best set of teaching devices in existence. That people don’t use these films more often in academic work, especially at the college level, is astonishing.  I mean, if you want to get students to think, argue, talk, really reconsider their media training, their whole experience of a consumer culture, nothing is better.  So, one of the ironies to me of this whole history is that here’s this pedagogical resource of unparalleled value that fuckin’ nobody seems to use. This stuff remains in the margin when it should be part of everybody’s introduction to American culture, to environmental studies, to art history.
Lynne:    Talk about an interview that moved you absolutely to the core, that changed your perspective on that person’s films, or maybe on film in general.
Scott:    One of the things I committed to when I decided to do interviews is that I didn’t want to be a journalist. I’m not after exposé. I’m not trying to catch somebody saying something that later they regret .  I really wanted to create a space where filmmakers could say what they wanted people to know about their work.  I tried to interview Yvonne Rainer in 1985 or so, for the first A Critical Cinema book, before I really understood her films, because everyone seemed to think she was important, and I guess I couldn’t resist the idiot’s urge to be stylish; but when I called her to ask “how she found” the edited interview, she said, and I quote — it’s etched on my soul– “I found it singularly boring and redundant.”  Ouch. I deep-sixed that interview!  But later in 1990, when I saw Privilege, I suddenly GOT Rainer’s postmodern aesthetic and her dispersion of so many of the conventions of both commercial and avant-garde film.  I loved the film in part because it helped me understand my partner Pat’s menopause, to be interested in it, to share the frustrations and the excitments of it. And Privilege helped me to understand the earlier Rainers that had befuddled me so. So I called her up and said “Would you be willing to try it again?  I loved Privilege.  I get it.  I want to interview you again.”  And  she said “Okay.” Talking with Yvonne about her films was a wonderful reward.
Lynne:    I felt like you got Ross McElwee to enter this revealing, very thought provoking space of reflection that I hadn’t seen in his films.  Instead of being glib and self-mocking, he seemed much more down-to-earth and contemplative. He says these really personal things to you about being a film maker and what the camera means to him philosophically.  He explains his movies ever so simply –“I create a persona; it’s not really me.”
Scott:    Well, I guess I felt very simpatico with Ross.  I’ve always felt that if I were born in North Carolina I might be Ross!  I thought  his creation of a persona  for his films that was him, but only one version of him, one aspect of the more complex individual not just behind the camera, but behind the film, was very much like what happens in some of the books I was teaching in my American literature class;  Hemingway’s character, Nick Adams, is based on Hemingway but he’s only a version of Hemingway that Hemingway uses to explore certain experiences.
Lynne:    Talk about your interview with Yoko Ono. I thought that reading it taught me a great deal about the conceptual vision.  She’s also just so funny.
Scott:    Yeah, she is. I really enjoyed the process. I think that her influence has always been very underrated.  Ono’s minimalist, structuralist aesthetic produced some remarkable work, especially No. 4: Bottoms and Film No. 5 (Smile), that can stand beside Michael Snow’s Wavelength as crucial works of the 1960’s.  Lots of people saw the work and when I looked at the stuff again it just knocked me out.  If you want to get a rise out of a nineties audience, show Bottoms. You realize when you see it how our butts have been colonized.  It’s a fantastic cultural document but it’s also a wonderful movie.  And I think almost everything I’ve seen of hers I’ve really, really liked.   I think she was glad to be able to talk about the work without talking about John Lennon.  Both she and John Waters, and later, Sally Potter–filmmakers much in the public eye– were unusually forthcoming, generous interviewees.  On some level, they were the easiest.  They were totally prepared; and they seemed to appreciate that someone had actually looked at their work closely and was willing to take some time and have some patience with it.
Lynne:    Where do people of color fit into the avant-garde for you?
Scott:    I’ve always been interested in ethnicity in film.  The film course I most enjoyed teaching at Utica College was African-Americans in Film, which I taught every other year for 20 years.  Like so many of us, I slowly became aware that there was an alternative vision amongst Black independents  — Oscar Micheaux and the Black Underground,  Melvin Van Peebles “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song”, Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground”, Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust”, Charles Lane’s “Sidewalk Stories”.  And the more fully aware of this history I became, the more I wanted to interview filmmakers whose work seemed to challenge viewers the most.  I had a great time interviewing Bill Greaves about “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm:  Take One”  and it was a pleasure to talk with Charles Burnett.  “Killer of Sheep” is a favorite of mine.   I never interviewed anyone who let it fly the way Christine Choy did — I can’t believe that shit she says and later admits to having said.  I admire her engagement with the confusions of ethnicity in America.  Chris is part Chinese, part Korean, and somehow a quintessential American.  What is she?  Her films sometimes deal with this kind of ethnic complexity in an  interesting way.
Lynne         What is Critical Cinema?
Scott:    When I was first seeing these movies, they were like critical notations on conventional film-going for me.  The films are also a form of religion for me.  In Lost, Lost, Lost, Jonas Mekas portrays himself and Ken Jacobs as the monks of cinema.  I’m not a Catholic but I certainly am a Protestant version of that. I believe in this work.  I believe that people who don’t make a lot of money in a capitalist economy who put thousands of what little money they have into making a film that they know cannot possibly make that money back, are doing something that is fundamentally spiritual.
Lynne:    You rarely compare these films to mainstream cinema, you rarely bring that up at all.
Scott:    Well,  commercial film is certainly an understood context for all my work.  One of the themes of A Critical Cinema 4 will be filmmakers who have worked as part of the avant-garde and as members of the Industry. My interview with Sally Potter in A Critical Cinema 3 is a premonition of this theme.
Lynne:    Talk about some narrative directors who interest you.  Do you also rush out to see mainstream movies?
Scott:    Sure.  I like lots of commercial filmmakers and films:  Jonathan Demme, Carl Franklin, often Spielberg. I remember calling up a filmmaker friend of mine after seeing Titanic and saying to her “Have you seen Titanic?” and she said, “I’m not going to support that shit!”  And I said, “You mean you want it to fail?” And she said, “Yes, I want it to fail.”  And I said, “Well, if Hollywood fails, you’re out of business, too.  Kodak’s not making film stock for avant garde filmmakers.”
Lynne:    Have you ever thought about making a movie?
Scott:    The thought fills me with horror.  I would rather dig a hole. But I hope my interview books reveal an element of creativity–I just need to be creative in the service of other creators; that’s my MO. The Critical Cinema books have always been nonfiction novels.  When I was studying American literature in graduate school, one of the dimensions of modern American fiction that interested me most was the fascination of Gertrude Stein, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Erskine Caldwell and Richard Wright with writing narratives that take place entirely in dialogue.    Also, my graduate studies in the 1960’s brought me into a lot of contact with James Boswell’s documentation of Samuel Johnson’s career; Boswell Life of Johnson is an early nonfiction novel.  Like me, Boswell was Scottish (well, I’m just partly), and he made himself a kind of country bumpkin character who came to London to meet the sophisticates — sometimes I play the country bumpkin card too.
Lynne:    What’s your interview process?
Scott:    I see my interviews as a reaction to the usual sense of an interview as a quicky:  you know, you tape the person, have someone transcribe the tape, and do some editing and, bam, an interview.  I want to honor the independent filmmakers I admire by taking time with them and their work.  Some of my interviews take as long as five years. I begin, whenever it’s possible, by looking at every film an interviewee has made, as carefully as seems justifiable.  Once I feel I know the work well enough to be able to surprise the interviewee, I begin recording tapes.  I talk as extensively as possible with the maker.  I used to transcribe the tapes myself, by hand, so that I’d internalize the way the maker talks, so that I could create their evocation in the finished interview; but that wore me out.   Speed is virtually never a factor. Sometimes an interview passes back and forth between me and the filmmmaker many times–a different level of conversation. One of the reasons I waited so long to interview Stan Breakage, for instance, is that I couldn’t figure out how I’d ever look at all the work, and even if I did, he’d have made so much new work that I’d still not be able to start talking.  I’d be like Sisyphus in the Greek myth.  But I do have a Brakhage interview underway; it will be in the fourth volume.
Lynne:    Which film makers do you see taking risks  aesthetically or politically today?
Scott:    There are all kinds of risks.  Cameron took a hell of a risk making Titanic.  And in a culture which tells us all the time to consume as much as we can, making films that ask for quiet, patient, loving attention–the way so many of the filmmakers I interview do–is also a risk.  Of course, in a culture where you can’t get attention unless you eviscerate a nun, it may not seem like a risk; but beauty IS a risk in film.  In the classroom, most of the avant-garde remains risky, in the sense that it confronts, annoys, angers students–which of course gives a teacher something to work with.  My students sometimes complain that the avant-garde filmmakers I show them are pretentious.  Sure!  I’m all for pretentiousness–if you’re NOT pretending to do something important, something worth my time, my life, get out of my face!  Go be a regular guy or gal somewhere else.  I want you to try to do something that moves me, shocks me, makes me fell like the moron I often am, teaches me, helps me grow.
Lynne:    What’s the weather report for avant-garde film?
Scott:    As usual, it’s the worst of times AND the best of times.  One moment it seems as if the avant-garde will be gone and forgotten in a week; the next moment, I’m thrilled by how alive it is.  Film itself may be gone someday, not just avant-garde film–but we can sing it as it goes; hell, we’ve been enjoying the demise of the novel and of painting for centuries.