In an otherwise empty cinema, two young Victorian teenagers sit, far apart. It is probably a weekday and they both want to kill time and rest their legs. They have passed each other earlier in the day and are nervously aware of the other. They don’t appear too engaged in what they are watching. Eventually she leaves, probably out of boredom. He is quietly taken aback and not sure what to do; it’s now just him and the flickering, cold, abstract light of the screen. After some hesitation, he changes seats and sits next to where she was, inconsolably clutching the packet of chips she left behind. He too soon leaves.
This is one of the sublime moments of Ben Speth’s latest feature, Satellite (2005), which screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year. Satellite defies categorisation and is part actuality film and part narrative as it follows a security guard, a young out-of-town boy, and a wandering young girl over 24 hours as they pass through the Melbourne CBD and the suburbs, all seemingly looking for something or someone, mostly alone but at one point or another crossing each other’s path. Occasionally the film veers away from its human characters and becomes a piece of dizzying moving-image abstraction, utilising unusual angles to focus on buildings and laneways so that familiar landmarks take on surreal graphic characteristics, an experience akin to staring at something for so long so as to become hypnotised by its geometric qualities and to lose all sight of its function or meaning. A film about watching, seeing and noticing, through its long, elegant takes it heightens awareness and constantly “notices” the inconspicuous. Satellite reminds that in any city there are as many stories as there are people – and not just people but buildings, laneways, groupings, intersections. It is a Mandelbrot set of experiences that is full of infinite possibilities.
An over-abundance of stimuli, the very physical denseness of our major cities, the pressures of work and relationships can be all-consuming if we let them be. Ben Speth’s films are almost Zen-like in that they are concerned with this very same world but illustrate that life does not have to be this way. They affirm that not everyone can afford the luxury of constant material satiation and gratification, whatever the form. His films are intrinsically concerned with space and letting the elements – space, sound and especially time – breathe. There is almost never more than one diegetic aspect in focus at any given time: for instance, when there is audible dialogue in Satellite, the visual image becomes blurry.
Speth’s Forever (2004) is a very detailed look at the quotidian life of a real-life mother and son, but is not a documentary. Its quiet, composed mise en scène lulls the viewer into a special intimacy with this suburban Footscray family, making its “did that really happen?” ending all the more shocking. Dresden (1999) was shot in New York on 16 mm, before the filmmaker relocated to Melbourne, and centres on 24 hours in the life of a female dancer.
As well as these films, Speth has also worked as director of photography on The Delta (Ira Sachs, 1996); Roddy Bogawa’s films, Junk (1999) and I Was Born But … (2002); and the documentary, My Friend Paul (Jonathan Berman, 1999). He has created art installations, such as Dummy for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and regularly collaborates with artists, and dance and theatre companies. This interview was conducted by email.
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MICHELLE CAREY: You are originally from New York City. Can you tell us a little about your work prior to moving to Melbourne, why you moved here and what were your first impressions of this city?
BEN SPETH: I lived in Brooklyn on and off for 19 years, near the river. I spent most of my time painting portraits of friends, drinking, walking, lurking and shooting other people’s movies, documentaries, music videos, commercials, etc. I started as a production assistant in 1983 and worked my way through art departments, and as a grip and an electric.
In 1987, a friend of mine at NYU asked me to shoot his thesis project. It was the first thing I ever shot. I enjoyed it; the nature of the craft – the organization and rendering of images as a means of arranging then conveying information – came easy to me.
I shot more; directors I had worked with, for one reason or another, kept hiring me. I shot a film called The Delta that was successful at Sundance and was also included in the Melbourne International Film Festival. This occasioned my first visit to Melbourne in 1996. I was encouraged to visit because my girlfriend [Becky Hilton] was from Footscray and, at the time, much of her family still lived there. She came with me; it was a holiday, of sorts.
We went to the Whitten Oval and stood in the rain on a gravel bank with our backs to Geelong Road clutching cans of beer watching the Bulldogs lose, and heaped abuse on the umpires and visiting team. I hadn’t understood a damned thing; I thought it parochial and barbaric, in a good way.
I wandered around town, down the laneways and alleys I later used in Satellite; the city was so small and quiet. At the time, I couldn’t imagine leaving NYC and living here. But Becky kept at me; she said she wanted to go home. One cannot reason with Heimat. Besides, NYC had change: all my friends were getting jobs; I’d spent over $80,000 on rent; NYC was a market for art, but it didn’t support artists. I thought, “What the hell, I can always move back if things don’t work out.” This lit a fire under me; I quit painting.
Before I left, I wanted to make a film that summed up – or attempted to, anyway – my relationship with NYC; a love story: boy meets city, boy falls in love with city, city breaks his heart, boy leaves city in despair never to be seen again.
That was Dresden, sort of. I chose a dancer – an artist, an improviser in an ephemeral form – as a protagonist because that practice – dance – is probably the least susceptible to commodification. Not that commodification is bad; I’m only suggesting that that kind of performance is for the most part ignored by the marketplace and that that is what NYC had become: not a forum for art and ideas but a marketplace. The protagonist spends her day looking for a job and talking with other artists about their practice; they drink and talk about sex and/or about how difficult being an artist is, and then drink some more. I was being a bit reductive – and I haven’t seen the movie in a while – but that is what being an artist in NYC had become for many people. The durational shots of street corners and houses and places were an attempt to say “meanwhile …”, that life goes on here and there – in the memory as well as down the street. I should have probably called the movie “Meanwhile”.
Living here has had an enormous influence on me and my work. First, living amongst a different people is a shocking, frustrating and eventually enlightening endeavour. Australia/Melbourne does not compare with America/NYC: it’s apples and oranges. I still very much miss NYC, but I also know that the NYC that I miss is the NYC of 20 years ago. But even then I remember wishing for the NYC ten years prior. Perhaps I moved here at a propitious time.
I have found support from other artists and institutions here: Shelley Lasica, Stephen Bram, Ross Gibson, Clare Stewart and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the Australian Film Commission and the venerable Melbourne Cinémathèque. These people and places – to name just a few – have encouraged and supported me and taught me a great deal. I would not be making the films I am today without them.
MC: The films you direct, especially the Australian films, have a very different feel to the other films you have worked on as a DOP. Did being in a much smaller city make you more aware of a mundane, suburban culture, of community, of the insignificant?
BS: My films are different to those I shoot for others simply because – for good or ill – I’m not working in collaboration with anyone. Whilst in NYC, I had been spared the æsthetics of suburbanisation: discreet houses, yards, garages and driveways, the nature strip, cars, cars, cars. On the sidewalk here, everyday feels like Sunday morning coming down. This has been hard to get used to. Still, it has its charms … at least Footscray has, anyway.
It isn’t so much the place. I’ve been interested in the durational – in both performance and film – for some time: Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman et al. Dresden was an attempt to make News from Home [Chantal Akerman, 1977] and Lives of Performers [Yvonne Rainer, 1972]. Wherever one may live, if there is transcendence, there is the possibility of the mundane, and vice versa.
MC: Forever is a fairly “interior” film compared to your others, and more harrowing.
BS: We moved into a little house in Footscray in May 2000. My desk was in the front room, and every morning as I was looking out the window, writing, I saw Helen and Josh walk past. Josh was six then. They walked slowly, deliberately. Helen had a very upright carriage and an untrained dignity. She was walking Josh to school. On her return – unhindered by six-year-old legs – she walked at the same pace. This I found captivating. Conscious or not, I felt it was a performance, that Helen would be an interesting performer. I puzzled over how to make a film with these two: how do you render honest intimacies without being intrusive? How do you graft a story onto the actual? Why bother? I went back to NYC, made a film for a dance company; I wrote, read, wandered. Becky and I had a child – Hugo, now four – and this as much as anything helped to make me aware of the profundity and peculiarity of the mother-son relationship. Eighteen months later, I introduced myself and asked Helen if she and Josh would be interested in working with me on a film. To my surprise she immediately assented.
Several days later we met. I extemporised a scenario: mother and son living alone, together, mother loses son, mother seeks son – a sort of neo-realist Orpheus in suburbia. I shot Helen’s search for Josh in the underworld entirely as reflections in the windows of downtown Melbourne. This proved both difficult and unwarranted. Their relationship alone and the structure of the film proved compelling. This I discovered while I was editing it. The script was two pages of notes, mainly to myself. We chose a wardrobe: this is, what they would wear on “Day One morning”, this on “Day One afternoon”, and so it went. I would call Helen up and ask if I could come over and shoot ‘day two night’ and she would say yes and I would walk to their house and shoot for three or four hours. I shot a total of 19 hours of tape. It took me almost four months to cut it. It was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever carried out, mainly because it was just me and them, then just me. Art is fundamentally about confidence, I suppose.
MC: What was the impulse behind your latest feature, Satellite?
BS: Several years previous to making Dresden, I wrote a libretto about a day in the life of an artist based on Les Fleurs du mal, a book of poetry by Charles Baudelaire. There was one poem in particular, “À Une passante”, that I felt summed up and celebrated city life.
The traffic roared round me, deafening!
Tall, slender, in mourning – noble grief –
a woman passed, and with a jewelled hand
gathered up her black embroidered hem;
Stately yet lithe, as if a statue walked …
And trembling like a fool, I drank from eyes
as ashen as the clouds before a gale
the grace that beckons and the joy that kills.
Lightning … then darkness! Lovely fugitive
whose glance has brought me back to life!
But where is life – not this side of eternity?
Elsewhere! Too far, too late or never at all!
Of me you know nothing, I nothing of you – you
whom I might have loved and who knew that too! (1)
In a city, you see so many faces – faces like screens. There are stories behind them and surfaces on which one may project one’s own hopes and fears. I wanted to make a movie about that kind of looking, that kind of desire. In this regard Dresden and Satellite share a similar theme.
Because Dresden was two movies shuffled together like a pack of cards – I’m still ambivalent about whether that strategy worked – I became interested in how I could put those two seemingly disparate forms, narrative and actuality, together. This is what I tried to do with Forever, which I think was successful due in great part to the performances of Helen and Josh. Still, as with Dresden, the audience are never challenged as to who is looking at whom: they look at each other and we at them, but they never look at us and we never “see” the world from their point of view.
With Satellite, I thought I could further this conflation of forms – narrative and actuality – by trying something I had never done before: use a character’s POV. This is nothing new – films have been using these kinds visual rhetoric for 60 or 70 years – but I was going to do it with respect to celebrating the banal! A sort of Rashômon [Akira Kurosawa, 1950] of the mundane, if you will, all in the hope of tuning the eye of the audience, alerting them to forms social and built; the prospect of community. (This, of course, has a limited appeal to people who go to movies to escape; it’s also something that theatre has been investigating for some time.)
Like the dancer in Dresden, I needed a person – or persons – that could take me, the camera, the crew, the audience, us, through the city, to everyday places as well as to places that we wouldn’t ordinarily have access. The primary interest here, as well as in films past, though slightly muted in Dresden, is to represent the mundane. This in and of itself might seem mundane but I take it as a political act: to represent the everyday is an investment in the everyday, is to stake a claim to the present; a celebration of what we all have and are capable of: community.
Communities can be defined by as little as an investment in time and place: you put the camera here, you point it there and turn it on for … how long? I am here, you are here, we are here. What is “over there”? In order to mine these themes, I needed characters/people whose use of the city constituted a drifting or a route through the city. It also helps to engage us if these people are looking for something: a security guard whose job is to make sure everything is where it should be; a kid from out of town looking for his cousin and a girl killing time, window shopping, playing video games, bumming change.
People often fail to make the distinction between being alone and being lonely. I like being alone, I can people my solitude; I assume others can, too. This is where art and the experience of art come from. I don’t think the characters in Satellite are lonely, a bit disconnected perhaps, but we all have days like that, when no one answers the phone. Satellite covers one day only for these “people”. I have great hope for them and trust everything will be all right.
MC: You have a sensitive eye for the supposedly mundane aspects of city life. In Satellite, these elements are brought to life and the film has a cast of thousands, not all human, each passing through the “interstitial” moments of their week. The viewer notices so much – and even more so after they leave the cinema. Are you an observer?
BS: [Jean-Luc] Godard said there are two types of filmmakers: those that walk around with cameras taking pictures of everything they see and those that walk around staring at the sidewalk, looking up occasionally only to see something truly miraculous. I’m in the latter camp.
MC: Many of the film’s shots are seen through the widescreen windows of moving vehicles: the security car, the suburban train. The train trip taken by the security man returning home in the morning is one of the most beautifully memorable shots of the film and recalls a similar shot in Dresden. Trams also figure prominently in Satellite.
BS: When I moved to New York, I thought the subway was magic: you walk into a hole in the ground in one part of town and pop up from another. They were filthy, noisy monster metal snakes that wormed their way all over Gotham, bearing flesh and blood: a civilising force, really. All forms of public transport are such forces; they are trundling communities in and about transport: they take you places so you can see things; and that is really just a beginning …
MC: Can you tell us a little about the other work you do with dance and theatre companies and how you approach this work differently to your filmmaking? Do you have a preferred mode of expression?
BS: In New York, many of my friends were dancers, choreographers, actors or performers of some sort. I saw many performances and did some lighting for them. There, however, the focus was on the body in space; what a body or bodies can do in a room. The reasons for this are many but primarily economic and historical. There just wasn’t much funding; getting images on stage is expensive. And much of the downtown dance in New York at the time was – and still is, to a degree – continuing the work done at Judson Church in the ’60s and ’70s, the focus of which was a sort of flesh and blood corollary to the various structuralist/minimalist practices at the time.
I’ve always been wary of the use of film and video in performance. The first thing one must ask is “Why?” Why put these things together? What sort of effect do you expect? I look at live performance and images quite differently. I have a different set of expectations for each; they have different histories and trajectories through cultures and societies. I find they often undermine each other; reveal formal, fundamental weaknesses inherent in each. That said, when they do work together – and they can and have – the results are often sublime. My approach is to find out first what the performance is about – not definitively or categorically – but to get enough of an idea of an intention then make sure whatever I make is in the service of these theme or themes. I enjoy it for the conversations; my work becomes secondary and often it’s a chance to try things out.
MC: Are you interested in making more story-driven films?
BS: I have a problem with stories; it’s one of my many faults. Stories, I know, have been around a long time. For millennia they have conveyed culture down through the ages to the present. Still, I can’t get my head around a conventional three-act structure. The first act – man, that’s something, you know? And then the second – isn’t that enough? A third just seems gratuitous.
That said, I have written a play that has a definite three-act structure. I got it out of the newspaper. It’s even, almost, “genre”. And I’m writing a feature-length script about E. J. Eyre, John Baxter, Wylie, Joey and Yarry. and their ill-fated walk along the Australian Bight in 1841. The past, when seen from far enough away, can seem to have a structure. This relives me, somewhat, of the burden of imagining it; one can just fabricate it and then document it.
MC: Do you see your cinema work moving in a certain direction? Will you ever work with film – 8 mm, 16 mm, 35 mm – again?
BS: I see geography as destiny. I’m interested in what constitutes intimacy, identity, community; how we communicate … with ourselves, with our surrounds, and how these human phenomena/constructs can be rendered in image and performance … this is kind of like saying everything and nothing, isn’t it?
I would love to shoot one of the above projects – expedition – in 35 mm. It would look good, it’s an all exterior shoot in the Australian outback. There is a multiplicity of formats from Pixelvision to IMAX; it is essential that projects be properly matched to a medium. I could not have shot Forever on anything but mini-DV. Film, 16 or 35, would have required lots of support and that would have queered the tone.