Canadian Art

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Daniel Cockburn: You Are Here

Across Canada Summer 2011
Anand Rajaram in a scene from Daniel Cockburn’s <em>You Are Here</em>. Anand Rajaram in a scene from Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here.

Anand Rajaram in a scene from Daniel Cockburn’s <em>You Are Here</em>.

There is no easy way to explain Torontonian Daniel Cockburn’s charming, sharply intelligent feature-length debut, You Are Here—which opens this Friday in Toronto, on August 29 in Edmonton, and at other Canadian venues in the early fall. Those familiar with Cockburn’s short films (video art by any other name) will, in part, know what to expect: wry, sensitive, meta-fictional vignettes about contemporary individuals and their various, elusive connections with one another.

You Are Here begins bafflingly, presenting an assortment of characters—a motivational speaker played by R.D. Reid; or “Alan,” a collective of people who all have the same job, the same condo and the same stymieing day—who appear to have no relationship to one another. Enter, after some time, the Archivist, played by late, great local actor Tracy Wright (Me and You and Everyone We Know, Monkey Warfare), who, it turns out, is absorbing and cataloguing these goings-on, functioning as a proxy for Cockburn’s inquiring audience, and for anyone who ever receded from the world in order to try to observe and understand it better.

At play throughout You Are Here is a keen attention to concepts of record-keeping and organization: modes of understanding life that function as narratives, in one sense making things cohere, and in another drawing attention, through the use of arbitrary systems, to the underlying chaos of the universe. This idea, in all its head-scratching poignancy, is perhaps best summed up near the end of the film, in a line spoken by actor Nadia Litz: “Have you heard about the dictionary for masochists? It has all the words in it. They’re just not in any particular order.”

Canadian Art’s assistant editor David Balzer recently spoke by phone with Cockburn; he was near the Canada/US border, returning home one last time with his partner, artist Brenda Goldstein, before moving to New York City.

David Balzer: I’m sure there are particulars about making the sort of film you’ve made, given the nature of where you’re coming from as an artist/filmmaker, and the potential challenges of managing the shift from short films and videos to longer-form narrative work. Could you tell me about the journey to You Are Here?

Daniel Cockburn: I graduated from York University in 1999 and studied film production there with a pretty strong personal focus on narrative filmmaking. After that I remained in Toronto and became quite involved as a spectator and filmmaker with a number of the Toronto-film sub-communities: Pleasure Dome, LIFT, Charles Street Video, Trinity Square Video and the Images Festival. What I’m saying is that I came from a place with a very strong focus on narrative but my experience of the Toronto scene after I graduated was one of absorbing experimental work—things more likely to show at Images than at TIFF. I always retained a love for narrative and storytelling; I think that was present in most of the short works I was making. Around 2006, I started thinking of a feature-length project—and I started thinking of it as a series of short films, something that would fool the audience into thinking they were watching a program of discrete shorts which, over time, becomes a unified, single thing. While writing, shooting and editing it, the concept of these separate short films fell away; it became a feature-length motion picture. But the spirit of that original intent is still there.

DB: Was it a struggle for you to try explain the project to producers, distributors, publicists and various other supporters? It’s so labyrinthine and at times ineffable.

DC: The language that I’m used to using is language that art councils are likely to engage with. The past couple of years have been a learning experience in any number of ways, among them using the type of language that will be effective on a sales agent or a distributor or a programmer or just a member of the movie-going public. As far as distributors and programmers go, I felt that the thing to do was to get them to see the movie. That can’t always be the first step while you’re shaking someone’s hand, but we’ve found that this is a movie that comes alive when there’s a group of people watching it in a cinematic setting. I’m sure everyone’s precious about their film to an extent regarding this, but we’ve definitely noticed it. On paper, You Are Here could look pretty cold and cerebral, but it does have these human elements—and humanity is required to engage with them.

DB: A lot of the press materials and existing articles about the film home in on the character of the Archivist, played by Tracy Wright. Was that always your intention, to build the film around her activities as a researcher and observer?

DC: My initial answer was yes for a very long time: to have a central character whom the audience wouldn’t even realize was one, or was even a character at all, for the first half-hour of the movie, and then have this protagonist slowly bubble to the surface. We wanted that process to sort of mirror the audience’s process of watching all of these disparate pieces of movie and gradually coming to a point where they are seeing things as a whole instead of fractured. There was a time very early on—I spent a couple of years writing the script—where the script was a series of chapters, and each chapter had a coloured page separating it from the next one, with a title and a little epigram. I showed the script to someone who said, “You’ve got all these coloured pages between the chapters and I think you need to figure out what those coloured pages are to you and what structure they’re standing in for.” I already had this archive thing glimmering in the script somewhere, but that comment really sent me latching onto that as a motif and as a central thread that emerges.

DB: Another thing a lot of people are responding to is “the room that speaks Chinese,” a concept from American philosopher John Searle. It’s an undecorated room with a shelf of books containing all the characters of the Chinese language, which a character (Anand Rajaram) mobilizes in order to answer a series of questions, which he can’t read or understand. It can be seen as a key to how you’ve structured the film—to the kinds of resolutions and frayings that happen within it. Tell me about how that emerged.

DC: I was probably 12 years old when my mom brought home this book called Labyrinths of Reason. It was a compendium of summaries of philosophic mind-benders through the ages. It had a summary of Searle’s Chinese-room thought experiment. I was prepubescent then, but it stuck with me. I thought it would be interesting to make a movie adaptation: a short film about somebody who doesn’t understand that this is just a thought experiment—who actually has enough hubris to try to do this for real. And because it’s a fiction and anything can happen, it would be great if he could actually see this out; and it’d have some tragic effects on him. That was one of the ideas sitting in my notebooks when I started working on You Are Here, and it seemed so ideally suited—to the point where it could be a concept other things orbit around.

DB: There are indeterminate qualities of time and place—of setting—in the film, and a fascination with antiquated modes of documentation, such as VHS and cassette tapes. It’s always struck me that digital culture hides process from us, Apple products being a good example, where you’re not encouraged to learn about how data is stored and organized on your own device. What is your take on the differences between digital and analog culture, and the possibility that analog culture can be more of an existential metaphor than digital?

DC: I don’t want to reduce it to an analog/digital binary. Even with older analog technology, there are so many ways in which process or content is hidden from us. A VHS tape, for instance: if you don’t have the playback device for it, it could sit there to the end of time containing this event or information. It’s not like a book where you can just pick it up and read it. If you don’t have the decoder, you will never know what is in this little container. It’s a very strange, evocative situation. And also kind of freaky and creepy. You could also say there’s something beautiful about it, although generally I haven’t been using that perspective. I certainly think that line of thinking is quite relevant to where I was at when working on this movie. There’s also the fact, which I’ve alluded to elsewhere, that the movie is so easily applicable to contemporary digital life that had I set it in an explicitly digital realm, everything would be so blunt that there would be no room for metaphor. It would have been so much the thing it was talking about that it wouldn’t have had any breathing space to become anything else.

DB: One of the ways to explain your film is to compare it other things. In the press materials there’s a lot of talk about the post-structuralist experiments of Jorge Luis Borges and Charlie Kaufman. You say you were schooled in narrative filmmaking, and I’m curious to get your take on two influences that I saw in the film: old Hollywood film noir and the cinema of Jacques Rivette.

DC: Wow, everyone has glaring gaps in their cinematic education that they shouldn’t admit to at cocktail parties, but I must say I have not seen a single film by Jacques Rivette! That’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, right? I’ve been told that movie is up my alley.

DB: Your film is short and that film is long, but in both it takes a while before you discover what’s actually going on—that everything hinges on a kind of superstructure. Also, your use of Toronto reminds me of Rivette’s use of Paris: there’s a strong sense of place and yet an abstraction of place. What about film noir?

DC: It was hardly conscious, but with the scenes in the office [a Kafkaesque intelligence agency where various characters are tracked through the city], I don’t know that we were talking about film noir so much as about what it became: the 1970s political-paranoia films. My cinematographer and costume designer and I talked about that a bit when we created the look of the office.

DB: What about film-noir narrative and the idea of the red herring—exercises in narrative for narrative’s sake? The more diverted you are, the more pleasure you feel in watching; bewilderment is part of the pleasure.

DC: That makes a lot of sense to me. It makes me think of a lot of genre filmmaking: film noir but also westerns and other crime movies. Something about genre lets filmmakers paint this picture of humans within or outside of a system: individual humans as they relate to a large and possibly incomprehensible system. Filmmakers get to have their cake and eat it too. As the plot fulfills the function of the story, the machinations of the mob, it’s also fulfilling the functions of an individual-relating-to-systems allegory. I think of Miller’s Crossing, which I watched obsessively in high school. It’s totally a gangster movie, but the Coen brothers are so deft at picking apart the language of movie plot and motivation that the Gabriel Byrne character’s motivations are a mystery to everyone. Even though he’s the protagonist, they’re a mystery to you, the viewer, and at the end you wonder if they’re even a mystery to himself.

DB: You are about to make a move to New York. What are you up to there?

DC: My wife Brenda Goldstein is doing her Master of Fine Arts at Parsons. I’m following her. We got an apartment in Brooklyn. She’ll be doing her film/video/installation work; we have plans to collaborate. I’m mainly going to be trying to focus on writing the next feature, or features, and also on short videos, the type I used to make before You Are Here happened. I’m looking in both directions at once. I hate the idea that one should make shorts and then once one has made a feature, keep making features and never look back. That may have been the dream, but that was by no means the only goal.

This article was first published online on August 18, 2011.

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