„To see details that would otherwise pass by in the bustle of one’s life.“ Talking with Ted Fendt about SHORT STAY

 

Alejandro Bachmann: At the beginning of Short Stay Mike, who works at a Pizza place in New Jersey, gets a call to which he replies that they do not deliver to Philadelphia. In the course of the film he will go to Philadelphia, as if the city had literally called him. One way to look at Short Stay then is as a portrait of a city which we encounter with Mike. Why Philadelphia and in how far was it important to have someone from the outside coming into the city? Did you feel that this allowed for a specific perspective that a protagonist from within the city would not allow for?

Ted Fendt: I had been making short films in this small New Jersey suburb (Haddonfield) for about three years with friends and friends of friends from that town. Nearby Philadelphia was always looming in the background in a way. To generate the story content, I have always tried to use incidents from my life and the lives of the people there, so it was natural that as most of them moved to Philly and made new friends there, the city would eventually become a location.

The city is located about twenty minutes away from Haddonfield, via a commuter train line or by car. What perhaps appealed to me most was the suburban/urban contrast in terms of landscape and lifestyle. The people still living in New Jersey all live with their parents and those in Philadelphia have their own apartments, whose interiors of course express their own personalities. By having Mike come from outside of the city, I was able to show both the environment he comes from, the environment my films have focused on so far, and the different environments of the city as he discovers it – different neighborhoods, different kinds of apartments, and a broader array of characters.

short_stay_2Which makes me wonder: You work with friends in front of and behind the camera, you shoot in their private and work spaces, you make elements of their lives part of your film. Nevertheless what we see is not a documentary but a fictional construction. How would you describe your interest in that respect – to show life „as it is“ and to dramatize it, to give it a narrative arc?

I’m interested in using narrative mainly as a structuring device. I like narrative best when it is the least noticeable. Like in Proust, where there is a structure but the mechanics of the narrative are not really visible. Instead, what the narrative can be doing is providing a foundation on which the characters and places can be presented. And this is the connection between the „documentary“ and the „fictional“ in cinema: the documentary-aspect, put into relief by the fiction, can come to the fore and give people an experience with people and places they would not necessarily encounter in their everyday life. And I somehow feel this is important, be it in the mundane experiences one encounters in my films or the serious, dramatic incidents of a Henry King or Charles Burnett film.

I would like to understand how you would describe your characters, since one is tempted to use clichées such as „normal“ or „everyday“ people, which I feel would not sufficiently describe who they really are…

Rather than reducing the characters in my films to adjectives likes „normal“ or „everyday,“ I think that to the contrary, the film’s focus on small events and use of basic, unelaborate film techniques allows them to be presented or to present themselves in all their individuality and uniqueness. The sound of Mike’s voice, his posture while walking down a street, the postcard-covered wall behind Meg and Marta’s kitchen table, the different ways people dress in this city in this particular time… These could all be described as „everyday,“ but that would miss what is so great about film: that it allows you to concentrate on and to really see details that would otherwise pass by in the bustle of one’s life. Not that the dramatic incidents of the narrative, slight as they may be, should be considered less important, but I am pleased during the moments when the „documentary“ takes a bit more prominence than the „fiction.“

One reason why we get an understanding of the specificity of these people and the places they inhabit might also have to do with your most dominant cinematic gesture – the pan. You use it in a variety of ways – to articulate relationships between people, you show how people move through space – always with a pan. Somehow this, I felt, gave the film a quite unique rhythm, that develops between the camera movements, the movements of people and the editing…

Panning is something that has always been present in my films, but here since we had decided to film each scene from one camera position and in one shot, it took on a much more prominent roll. It’s difficult for me to articulate how exactly the panning motions were decided, the direction of the pans, and how the panning would work in relation to the staging – these were things that my DP Sage and I tended to find intuitively on the locations during the filming. The idea is to coherently show the characters in the spaces they are in. But I also like how a pan can be used in a conversation between two people. The camera can show one person briefly as they say a line and then immediately pan over to the other person for the rest of the scene, creating an abruptness which is also related to the cutting. It’s all a question of rhythm, really.

To me it felt as if the whole film really took over the rhythm of Mike: The way he moves from house to house, the way he sometimes starts running to places, the way he sometimes does not communicate, does not answer and thus creates these moments of silence. And then there are these moments that stick out, such as the close-up of the hand picking up the wallet that really reminded me of Bresson’s Pickpocket in the way it was staged and emphasized…

I would hope so! He’s the nexus of the film. Or, rather, a confluence of me, him and the crew. I consider him as the center point of a kind of scale between the villains of Mark and Dan, who are almost like characters out of a B movie, and the nicer, warmer, more welcoming, almost Rohmer-esque characters of Marta and Meg. He expresses nearly nothing psychologically, but we can still, nevertheless, observe a lot through his exterior movements. With Mike, there is even a kind of Kulschov effect happening, I think, especially with the close-ups of him in Mark’s room. There is nothing happening on his face, but thanks to everything we’ve seen before, we can begin to interpret what is maybe going on in his head. Even if the film does not quite give anything to the audience so they can easily position themselves vis-a-vis the character.

Your film was shot in 16mm, in cinema we see a blow-up to 35mm. Both of these facts are relevant in the experience of seeing Short Stay, but also have consequences in a practical sense, for the process of filming. What interests you aesthetically? I felt that there was something the way light was present in the film, on faces and surfaces and windows which had to do with the analogue. And at the same time, I ask myself if you chose 16mm because the shooting process is different, more concentrated, maybe and if you blew it up to 35mm because the probability to be able to show it in cinemas is higher?

For me there is never a question of filming digitally. I’m only interested in the particular aesthetic experience of film. Filming with 16mm is far more practical than 35mm – I have friends with 16mm cameras who are willing to let me use them for cheap and the 16mm negative stock is less expensive than 35mm negative. I would prefer the film be seen in cinemas, but making a blow up is an insane cost that nearly brings the film to the point of impossibility.

I don’t quite know how at this moment to explain my faithfulness to analogue film technology, but there is at once something so essential and primal about how film negative records light and how projected film conveys something aesthetically, so directly to the audience.

Since I discovered blow-ups when I was 18 and Killer of Sheep was shown at a theater near my town, I’ve known this feeling of what the grain and the softer focus can convey and even though this industrial process has become obsolete in the past few years, I’m not ready to abandon it until it becomes physically, photochemically impossible.

Ted Fendt is a New York-based filmmaker, projectionist, and translator. His translations include film criticism by Luc Moullet, Mireille Latil-le-Dantec, Emmanuel Siety, and Louis Seguin and subtitles for films by Jean-Marie Straub, Alain Resnais, Marcel Hanoun, and Jean Epstein. He is the editor of a book on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet published by the Austrian Film Museum for a traveling 2016 North American retrospective. He works as a projectionist at Film Society of Lincoln Center, Anthology Film Archives, and occasionally at galleries and other venues. He has directed three short films. Short Stay is his first feature.

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