After I discovered the Film Club screenings in college, I devised a ritual during breaks from school to satisfy my quickly developing film compulsion. I’d drive from Amery to the Maplewood Mall multiplex in St. Paul, Minnesota and buy a ticket for the first matinee at 10 a.m. When that show ended I would walk into an adjacent theater where a different movie was hopefully just beginning. In this manner, I could see three or four films in a day for the price of one matinee ticket. The endurance test was inseparable from the appeal of watching the movies. According to notes I took during a December school holiday in 1984, one outing included Night of the Comet, Johnny Dangerously and ended with The Terminator, which snapped me out of the end-of-day jadedness.
Cinephiles organize festivals around this same principle, but with bars and jet lag compounding the challenge. I travelled to the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2002 where my short Bike Ride played in competition. I flew from Minneapolis with a Belgian couple, Cis and Hilde, who had recently moved to Minneapolis when the Walker Art Center hired Cis as curator of film and video. We’d become friends 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 and attended every year.
On the train from Amsterdam's Schipol Airport to Rotterdam, 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 were led immediately to the bar. We drank a strong Belgian beer and, just as I was excusing myself to have a nap, Cis said, “Oh, The Fast Runner is showing in ten minutes. This is a fantastic film, my friend. Sleeping will be for another time.” We rushed to the theater, the festival director introduced the film and a three-hour story in the Inuit language with Dutch subtitles began. The one phrase that I knew 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 now 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.
Every afternoon in Rotterdam, the festival sponsored a happy hour for the programmers and directors at De Doelen's 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. They are identical twins, so I didn't know whether he was Timothy or Stephen. With a sense of awe I said to Cis, “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 nice 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 1986. I can’t really tell you how meaningful what you’ve done is to me." 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 realized that the implication was simply, ‘No nonsensical adulation here, please.’
Film festivals, especially during the period of my mid to late thirties, expanded my connection to the social world of filmmaking. At a festival, I was happily among my own kind: people who made films, programmed films, distributed films and wrote about films because they loved to watch films. I didn’t have to explain or justify my obsession; the festival subculture was the inner circle of The Congregation. In addition, casual interaction with my role models made my goals feel more accessible. I began to develop a confidence that I belonged in this creative culture.
Bike Ride also screened at Annecy, France in June, 2001. 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 world, animation tends to be marginalized as entertainment for children (due historically to the success and influence of the Disney Studio). In a hierarchy that starts with big budget Hollywood movies in the penthouse, descends a few floors to independent English language films and reaches the ground floor of art and foreign features, animation occupies a disreputable subsection of the short film ghetto across the tracks on the other side of town. Having internalized this prevailing attitude as a sense of inadequacy, 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 played, 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 well-informed questions about the influence of Jacques Tati and Norman McLaren on the style of my film. After the press conference, a festival photographer led me through a crowd of art students asking for my autograph to shoot an official director’s portrait. I’d been transported dramatically from my solitary life of drawing in Minneapolis into a personal version of La Dolce Vita, sitting 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 contrast between a boy’s subjective fantasy and the reality outside of his imagination for specific emotional effect. 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 that I'd seen printed in a book; there was an unreality about standing in a room with this legend of my discipline. I approached him shyly and said, “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 humble men whom I admired (and who were of my father's generation), felt like an arrival for me. At their best, film festivals give filmmakers a sense of belonging in an international community that deepens the meaning of the daily, often solitary, work.
Film festivals also promote the selling and buying of films and the directors themselves as a product; attention becomes a commodity. This is nowhere more apparent than at the Sundance Film Festival, where the parties are exclusive and the celebrities readily visible. The first time I attended Sundance, with my 2008 film The Yellow Bird, I walked the main street in Park City to locate the screening venues. One memory I have from that walk is an outdoor bar carved from a huge block of ice. At dusk, a faint light still lingers in the western sky behind the mountains. The ice bar is lit from within and packed with bottles of Vodka, chilling. A young woman stands at the bar wearing a skin-tight black leotard and furry white boots. She’s posed in a calculated contrapposto at an oblique angle to the sidewalk that best features her work at the gym, glancing nonchalantly at an iPhone while also maintaining a keen awareness in her peripheral vision of who passes near her. She reminds me suddenly of the head cheerleader in Amery who asked me if I would shoot her in one of my horror films, waiting her turn to be discovered, celebrated, sacrificed and consumed. Standing between the bar 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 invited to this party.
Over the years I've developed a group of 'festival friends,' directors whom I've met at film festivals and usually only see at other film festivals. In March, 2015 at the Holland Animation Festival in Utrecht, I ate dinner with Paul Driessen on the night before his seventy-fifth birthday. My film Isola del Giglio was showing and Paul was introducing a retrospective program of his work. He had been 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 the same sentiment. He said that his favorite of his films was Neighbors because it depicted relationships between people. 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, but I understand his point. Introverted creative types, left to our own devices, will pursue formal concerns to their logical conclusion. I could find it endlessly compelling to explore an esoteric relationship with my materials and ideas to the exclusion of the relationship with an audience. After my conversation with Paul Driessen in Utrecht, I've always reminded myself while drawing a film that the people I grew up with in Wisconsin, farmers and dentists and school teachers, should be able to relate their own experiences to my movie. My first filmmaking impulse originated, after all, in screening Super 8 films in my friend’s garage in Amery; the fundamental instinct was to gather together in public to share our enthusiasms and to make our stories accessible to others.