At the same time that I discovered the Lawrence University Film Club, I devised a ritual during breaks from school to satisfy my developing film compulsion. I’d drive from Amery to the Maplewood Mall multiplex in St. Paul, Minnesota and buy a ticket for any movie at the first matinee screening time. When that show ended, I would sneak into an adjacent theater where a different movie was just beginning. In this manner, I could see three or four films in a day for the price of one matinee ticket. The masochistic endurance test of such experiences was inseparable from the appeal of watching the movies. According to notes I had taken during a December school holiday in 1984, one of these outings included “Night of the Comet,” “Johnny Dangerously,” “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” and ended with “The Terminator,” which snapped me out of the inevitable end-of-the-day jadedness.
Film festivals are organized around this same obsessive principle, with bars and jet lag compounding the challenge. I attended the Rotterdam International Film Festival early in 2002 with my short “Bike Ride.” A Belgian couple, Cis and Hilde, had moved to Minneapolis in 2000 when Cis had been hired as curator of film and video at the Walker Art Center. We’d become friends initially because we shared an enthusiasm for movies, avant-garde music and drinking. In addition to his job at the Walker, Cis curated a program of world cinema for the Rotterdam festival.
The three of us flew together late in January of 2002, arriving at Schipol Airport outside of Amsterdam and then taking a train to Rotterdam. On the train, I gazed at the scrolling, table-flat landscape, nodding in and out of sleep. We arrived at the main festival building, De Doelen, where Cis was well known and we were invited immediately to the bar. We drank a De Koninck beer or two and, just as I was excusing myself to go to my hotel room to have a nap, Cis said, “Oh, “The Fast Runner” is showing in ten minutes. This is a beautiful film, my friend. Sleeping will be for another time.” A few minutes later in a large theater the festival director introduced the movie, the auditorium darkened, and a three-hour story in the Inuit language with Dutch subtitles began. The one phrase that I understood in Dutch at this time was something Hilde had taught me on the plane, “Ik heb een kater” (I have a hangover). The only thing I recall from “The Fast Runner” is that the woman sitting next to me moved to a different seat because I repeatedly leaned against her and then jerked upright with a gasp as I struggled to stay awake.
Film festivals, especially during this period of my mid to late thirties, expanded my connection to the social world of filmmaking. At a festival, I was among my own kind: people who made films, programmed films, financed films and wrote about films because they loved to watch films. One didn’t have to explain or justify one’s obsession; the festival subculture represented the inner circle of The Congregation. In addition, casual interaction with my heroes and role models rendered them accessible and human-sized, and I began to develop a confidence that I belonged in this world.
Late every afternoon in Rotterdam, the festival sponsored a happy hour for the programmers and the directors in attendance at the main event bar. During the third day’s happy hour, I recognized one of the Quay Brothers across the room dressed in Victorian riding boots and cloak. I didn’t know which he was, Timothy or Stephen, because they are identical twins. I said to Cis with a sense of awe, “Wow, it’s one of the Quay Brothers.” Cis replied off-handedly, “Do you want me to introduce you? I knew them when they were doing set design for opera in Salzburg. They’re great guys.” Cis tapped the Quay on the shoulder (it turned out to be Timothy) and introduced me as an animator who had a short film playing in the festival. I muttered nervously, lowering my head in deference, “I make animated films now because I saw ‘Street of Crocodiles” in 1987 and I can’t say how meaningful what you’ve done is to me,” while Timothy Quay studied me with increasing irony over his glass of white wine. “Oh, shut the fuck up,” he said flatly after a dramatic pause. I stood staring for a moment in confused silence. Then he and Cis burst into laughter and he slapped me on the arm asking, “When is your film showing?” I smiled too when I realized that the implication was simply, ‘No nonsensical adulation here, please.’
I had had a similarly encouraging experience the summer before in Annecy, France. The festival in Annecy had originally been part of the Cannes Film Festival, but separated in 1960 to form an event exclusively dedicated to animation; for all practical purposes, it is the Cannes of the animation world. Within the broader film culture, animation tends to be marginalized as entertainment for children (due historically to the success and legacy of the Disney Studio). In a hierarchy that starts with big budget Hollywood movies in the penthouse, descends a few floors to English language films financed by independent production companies and reaches the ground floor level of art and foreign movies, animation occupies a disreputable subsection of the short film ghetto across the tracks on the other side of town. Having internalized this attitude as a sense of inadequacy about what I did, I was surprised by the royal treatment that the short film directors received in Annecy. Our films screened in a luxurious, thousand-seat theater. After “Bike Ride” was shown, I walked into a spotlight on stage to bow before the audience’s applause. The morning after my screening, I participated in a press conference with translators and reporters asking perceptive questions about the influence of Jacques Tati and Norman McLaren on the style of my film. After the press conference, a festival photographer took me out to shoot an official director’s portrait through a crowd of art students requesting my autograph on their programs. I’d been transported dramatically from my solitary life of drawing in Minneapolis into a personal version of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” lingering in cafes on a glacial lake surrounded by the French Alps, drinking wine and eating cheese fondue with the previous generation of established independent animators.
Paul Driessen, a Dutch animator whose career had begun on “Yellow Submarine” in the late 1960’s, had a film playing that year in the same program as “Bike Ride.” “The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg,” used a split screen design that was common to many of Paul’s films, though in this case the two panels created a distinction between a boy’s subjective fantasy and the reality outside of his imagination for specific emotional effect in the conclusion. As the directors gathered for the first shorts competition screening, I saw Paul Driessen standing across the room. He looked like a ‘director’s portrait’ printed in a book; there was an unreality about being present in the same room with this legend of my discipline. I approached him a little shyly and stated, “You’re Paul Driessen.” He replied with a self-effacing smile, “I was when I woke up this morning. Who are you?” I introduced myself and we took our seats in the auditorium for the show.
After the screening, he invited me to join him for dinner with a group of other filmmakers that included Michael Dudok de Wit, Georges Schwizgebel, and Piotr Dumala. These names probably aren’t recognizable outside of the art animation subculture, but in our tiny world they represented a formidable gathering of talent. The ‘masters’ treated me as an equal, with friendly curiosity and humor. It’s clear to me in retrospect how important such small moments of acknowledgement are to one’s confidence in an activity for which there is little public recognition. Just to sit at this table, to share dinner, wine, jokes and gossip with these decent, humble men whom I admired, (and who were about the age my father would have been had he lived) felt like an arrival for me. At their best, film festivals provide filmmakers with a sense of belonging to an international community that deepens the meaning of the daily, often solitary, work.
Film festivals also facilitate business, the selling and buying of films and, indeed, directors themselves as a product; attention becomes a somewhat dehumanizing commodity. This is nowhere more apparent than at the Sundance Film Festival, where the stakes are higher, the parties more exclusive and the celebrities more visible. The first time I attended Sundance, with my 2008 film “The Yellow Bird,” I walked the length of the main street in Park City to familiarize myself with the layout of the venues. One of the lasting images I have from that initial walk is an outdoor bar carved from a huge block of ice.
It’s dusk with a faint light still lingering in the sky behind the mountains. The ice bar is lit from within and is stacked with bottles of Vodka, chilling. A fit, young woman stands at the bar wearing a skin-tight black leotard and furry white boots. She’s posed in a calculated, but relaxed, contrapposto at an oblique angle to the sidewalk that best features her work at the gym, glancing nonchalantly at an I-phone while also maintaining a keen awareness in her peripheral vision of who is passing near her. Standing between her and me is a giant bouncer with a shaved head, his arms folded across his chest. I can still read his tee shirt through his muscles, “Fuck You, you Fucking Fuck.” Noun, verb and adjective, all accounted for. He stares through me as if I’m invisible; I’m obviously not a candidate for this party. The woman standing at the ice bar suddenly reminds me of the head cheerleader in Amery who asked me if I would shoot her with a shotgun in one of my horror films. She’s waiting her turn to be discovered, seen, celebrated, sacrificed and consumed.
In March, 2015 at the Holland Animation Festival in Utrecht, I ate dinner with Paul Driessen on the night before his seventy-fifth birthday. He had been about sixty when I first met him in Annecy and, when I’d subsequently seen him over the years at other festivals, he’d never outwardly aged. Now for the first time he seemed to me like a slightly frail old man. I asked him . . . of the dozens of films he’d made, which was his favorite. Without hesitation, he said “’The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg,’ because it’s not too concerned with being clever. It has direct human feeling in it.” I recalled a National Film Board of Canada documentary about Norman McLaren, shot at the end of his life, in which he expressed almost the same sentiment. He said that his favorite of his films was “Neighbors” because it depicted relationships between people and that he regretted the amount of time he’d dedicated to abstract experimentation.
I could creditably argue that “Begone Dull Care” has more direct human feeling in it than “Neighbors” does, but I understand the comment. Introverted creative types, left to our own devices, find it utterly compelling to pursue formal concerns to their logical conclusion, to explore the esoteric relationship with our materials and ideas to the exclusion of our relationship with an audience. Because of my conversation with Paul Driessen in Utrecht, I always remind myself while I’m drawing a film that the people I grew up with in Wisconsin, farmers and dentists and school teachers, should be able sit down with the film purists and be able to relate their own experiences to my movie. I shouldn’t forget that my first filmmaking impulse originated in screening Super 8 films in my friend’s garage in Amery; our fundamental instinct was to gather together in public to share our enthusiasms and to make our experience accessible to others.