By DANIELA AGUINSKY, June 2022
It's Spring 2019 and I am traveling to the San Sebastián Film Festival to be part of the Young Jury. The plane makes a stopover in New York City so I decide to stay for a few days and visit my soon-to-be good friend Fred Riedel. During one of our long conversations about film and projects Fred tells me there is a collage artist I need to check out, a possible subject for a new film. “We should go to Rag & Bone’s bathroom. It closes at five.” It's four, so we start our adventure. I grab my camera and we walk from the East Village to Tribeca. We ask kindly if we can go in and see the store’s restroom. The saleswoman says no problem so we are now both inside the work of Michael Anderson. I see a flower pot on top of Barbara Streisand's head on a black paper background and I instantly know I like this artist and that image soons becomes my laptop screensaver. We spend half an hour filming and talking in the bathroom, appreciating the overflowing collage work while the saleswomen tidies up the store for clousure. Eventually we get kicked out, buy nothing and go for a drink.
A couple days later Fred tells me we are going to Michael's house/atelier on the Upper West Side for one of Michael’s creative dinners, which turns out to be bourbon meatloaf cupcakes. He still wonders if there is a possible film there. I bring dry purple flowers and my camera and we spend a great night on top of West 107th Street, eating the meat cupcakes with mashed potatoes on the side made by the artist. Michael is a rich, larger than life character. There is a bed, a TV that's always on with some Hollywood movie, great personal work on the walls and thousands of paper cutouts scattered all over his studio in an ordered chaos. Michael nevers stops talking or moving, he cooks, shows us the studio, his great collection of baseball cards, street posters and Monster Glue. At one point he plays the guitar and we all sing something. The food is unexpectedly delicious, so we ask for the recipe. “I love her, she is like a silent fly on the wall” he says about me to Fred since I film the whole evening. We leave late with our full stomachs, happy hearts and drilled heads. “Do you think there is a film here?” Fred asks me. I say yes without hesitation and we take the red line.
Back home a few weeks later I write this poem.
Cannot Forget About It
The velvet couch
gracefully aged, designer old
myself lying there with fever
same shorts everyday
getting lost in Stuyvesant Town,
a rambling corner of Manhattan
Talking Heads playing over and over
In my own private living room
while waiting for the dryer
Rox's tiny feet crossing the shades
tapping like a loud ghost
your lovable Brooklyn accent all around the East Village: punks' hair salons, Michael's collaged bathroom, Laurie Anderson's last Christmas party, pitching movies we will probably never make, an anecdote about a stunning drag queen named Vaginal Cream Davies.
looking now at the semi-unpacked luggage spread all over the floor,
me on a queen size bed,
body temperature normal
I picture that week
of us together like fake daughter and father, girl back home,
having brunch with dad, after a long tiring season of college exams,
smoke tobacco from a pipe
and smile big:
I can almost smell a freshly toasted bialy buttered till the edges
on a late New York summer morning.
It's July 2020, cold days in Buenos Aires and I am all alone barricaded in my apartment. Last time I talked to Fred he was shooting some of Michael’s process on the streets. He had been spending a lot of time filming with Michael in his studio as a new collage work was taking shape. Suddenly Fred calls. Michael had a heart attack and died. There will be no funeral due to Covid restrictions. Winter in my studio apartment gets colder. “What's happening with the film?” I ask Fred. “We will see," he says, still in shock.
I first met Fred at BAFICI 2018 when I was working for a big newspaper and crashed the press free inaugural party. He was there with his film Hello Hello Hello: Lee Ranaldo : Electric Trim. I had no idea about Sonic Youth but we hit it off right away and formed a group with other fellow forgein filmmakers with whom we went to more parties and screenings. We had a fantastic time. Four years and a pandemic later, Fred is back at BAFICI with No Compromise When It's Time to Die. He has grown a beard and I have my first book out. I crash the inaugural party once again, now as a published poet, as part of our anniversary ritual.
A few days later it's time for the world premier at the classic Cine Lorca on Corrientes Avenue. Fred wears a blue sweater on top of an orange shirt and presents the film. Some of his friends are there, but mostly the general public, expecting to see what there is to see. I save him a seat in the front row. You made it! I whisper, while the lights start fading. The film begins and I can't be more glad, hoping no one coughs. After all that happened these last two years, to be together in front of the big screen in my hometown seems surrealistic. But again, as the film rolls and Fred and Michael's twinned creative process unfolds before my senses, it reminds me: existence is a collage, one we are constantly finding ways to put the scattered pieces in their best extraordinary form.
DANIELA AGUINSKY: How does it feel to be back in Buenos Aires and BAFICI with this new film?
FRED RIEDEL: I love Buenos Aires and glad that I'm here at BAFICI due to the interest in this film. I came for the first time with my previous film about Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo (Hello, Hello, Hello : Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim) in 2018 and had a great reception and a great time. The festival is very special in my opinion, especially its main focus on international independent film as opposed to more obvious feature fare. And the audiences are very enthusiastic and turn out for all kinds of films in the fest. It's really something to behold.
BAFICI called you an artist’s detective and I agree, you portrayed Lee Ranaldo, Michael Anderson and now Ken Jacobs. Can you tell me more about your filmmaking process?
Haha, that's an interesting term. I hadn't thought about my process in that way but it's true that my approach is to collect lots of scenes that could be thought of as evidence or clues of the artists' creative process. I'm not sure what the crime is yet, so to speak, but I can build a case for something about what an artist does once I've been around them long enough and collected enough footage. That is to say that I don't really work backward from a conceived idea of what the film will be or even reveal. I find it in the many scenes I end up collecting over many months of observing the creative process and life of my subject.
What's the connection between Lee and Michael?
I met Michael Anderson while working on the Lee Ranaldo film. We were all at an art opening that they both had work in (Lee does other kinds of artwork besides music and often shows in galleries) and I was struck by Michael's piece in the show and by him in general. We instantly got along, though other than exchanging Instagram contacts, we didn't keep in touch. Months later Michael saw an image on social media of the poster I'd made for the Lee Ranaldo film and dm'd me to inquire about using it as the basis of an original collage artwork. Needless to say I was flattered that he was inspired by my graphic design and arranged to get him the many copies he would need to start ripping up and incorporating into a work of art. I visited him a few times while he worked on the piece and we became pretty friendly. The finished work, Incomplete Portrait of Lee Ranaldo, is fantastic and when I asked Michael if he'd consider letting me replace the original poster with it he became excited by the idea. We designed the revised Hello, Hello, Hello poster together which features his finished collage.That whole process and developing relationship exposed me to his work and creative process and stirred the idea of making a film about him. I was particularly drawn to the idea that, in addition to his large personality, the dynamism of his image making, and his use of pop cultural imagery, especially from films, he was on some basic level editing disparate images, not so much unlike my process. Though my work looks nothing like his collages, we were both assembling our work in a similar way and I felt that gave me an interesting opportunity to treat his work and process via my own filmic process.
Watching the film we don't know much about Michael’s biography and also we don't listen to him much. The portrait here seems an excuse for something else.
In general, I don't like listening to artists talk about their work, or to others talking about their work. In fact, I've yet to involve outside experts or witnesses to comment on the subject I'm making a film about. It's just not something I have much patience for, or feel is particularly filmic, and I don't think of myself as an educator with film -- my films are more about the intimate experience with the artist and the work. Originally the Lee Ranaldo film had almost no interview scenes and it wasn't until the editor made a strong case for it that we went back and did the interviews. That film was more of a collaboration with Jerry Fried, the editor and co-producer, and it was quite a tug-of-war at times. I think, however, that he was right about adding the interviews though we kept it to only the actual artists making the work that we interviewed, and they happened to be unusually articulate about their work. And the fact that the film was technically about one artwork, so to speak, a single album, it was very focused. Neither that film nor the new one are surveys of the artists' careers and so I didn't feel it was necessary to cover their biographies in much detail, or at all, even. In the case of Michael, little of his pre-artistic career, had much bearing, in my mind, on what we were witnessing in the film, and the conversations Michael and I did have about that and other aspects of his life and work didn't really click, or feel like they added, more than detracted, from the experience I was creating with the film. Many people, I'm sure, would disagree with that kind of approach, but I have to make the film the way I think best conveys the concept I have of the experience of the subject. There is a very erudite, somewhat academic expert about Michael's work who very much wanted to do a talking head type of interview but I just couldn't see how it would work within my approach. I really didn't feel that the audience for this film, if there would be one, would mourn the loss of such a scene.
The film is taken by collage, not only in topic but structure. What appealed to you about that form?
I definitely felt freed up to maybe go a little more into a kind of collage aesthetic with this film than I might have in one on another topic due to the nature of Michael's method of making art. All films are technically a collage of shots and scenes and in this one I felt I could push that notion around a bit. It was liberating. I"ve never been much of a fan of story arcs or beholden to the idea that one scene needs to organically grow out of the previous scene, etc. These kinds of models for storytelling structure aren't very exciting, or even elucidating, for me. That's not to say that they're not viable or useful, but I don't feel that not adhering to them creates a negative experience for the audience, especially for this kind of non-traditional film. For many film audiences this could conceivably be a problem, but I never imagined that I was going to be encountering a mass popular audience with these films and that awareness gave me the freedom to feel more comfortable about following my instincts in this regard. I had some resistance to the structure of Hello, Hello, Hello when I was "testing" the rough cuts, but I found that once I got in front of festival and theatrical audiences that there was no concern about such things, that viewers weren't confused or put off by a lack of adherence to a more traditional storytelling structure. I was even somewhat surprised that it seemed to free people's experience of the film and confer an air of intimacy and closeness to a process that felt freshly revealed to them. Maybe it was because they hadn't come to such an experience in quite this way before. It did seem that people were alluding to this kind of idea during the many q&a's and post screening conversations I'd had while traveling with the previous film and now with this one.
I have to ask about Roberto Bolaño and the film's structure. Was his work a subject of conversation between you and Michael?
MIchael was a big fan of Bolaño's book, 2666, and it fit right in with his other big inspirations, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and the Book of Enoch from the Old Testament. All of these are visionary works and deal heavily with excessive, existentially disruptive levels of violence and death in order to convey their meaning and, especially in the case of the Bolaño novel, question the nature of the artistic form itself. I feel strongly that Michael's artwork shares these ideas though rather than being literary or spiritual relies on popular culture's distillation of these tropes in their pulp manifestations. I was reading through all of these as I was shooting the film as Michael was often referring to them during that time, he even mentions 2666 in a brief scene in the film while he's working on a collage. As I was coming to the end of filming and beginning to think about the structure of the movie, Michael and I were often discussing and arguing about the structure of 2666, especially the disparate nature of its "parts." Suddenly it clicked for me that it could suggest a way, a guide more than a schematic, to assemble the film about Michael and would allow me to reinforce the idea I'd been developing about what a sort of meta experience the film would be. And while the film definitely borrowed and somewhat mirrored sections of the book (in the beginning I substitute the viewer trying to figure out who the artist is for Bolaño's academics trying to identify the writer that they study; the large, profoundly sad story of the hundreds of prostitute deaths based on actual events in Mexico that is the core of the book is reflected in the film in a brief, somber scene related to the real life deaths from the 911 attacks in NYC; and the large reveal of Michael at the end of the film is also connected to the ending of the book where it moves completely into the territtory of the sought after author the academics were searching for), it's not an attempt to film the book, so to speak, or to dwell deeply on it. I felt that it connected with Michael and the film that was bubbling away and I just went with it. I thought it might very well cause confusion and maybe even resentment when I first started showing the rough cut of the film, but in fact it seemed to work, and again I had a film structured against the grain, so to speak, and I was happy with the result and the personal connection it provided to some of my final conversations with Michael just before he died.
Michael died while you were making the film.
Regarding Michael's death, which happened early during Covid, though not related to the pandemic, it was completely unexpected. He was only 52 years old and there was no indication that I could see that he wouldn't be around for many more years. We had pretty much finished the main shooting of the film at that point, though there were a few things we had talked about possibly filming together later that summer (visits with collectors of his work and some site specific pieces installed in NYC, etc.). I had actually been filming with him a few a couple of weeks before he died. It really was a stunning and sad loss. I really can't believe he never even saw a frame of what I'd been filming with him those many months. It was very hard to wrap my head and heart around this loss and made it extremely difficult to even engage with the footage in post production for a long time. I literally put the project away for months before I felt comfortable being so intimate again with him on my monitors for the long stretches of time required for logging and editing. That was difficult. It was also very strange to me that I, as opposed to the many people he was much closer with, had this opportunity to sort of live with him posthumously in such an intimate way while they had mostly memories and bits and pieces of intimacy with him via photos and social media posts. He was so present in the footage I'd collected and I felt it was they, rather than I, that should be spending time with the material. Of course, that was unreasonable, and I had to plunge in and find a way to be with him again, but it never ceased to be strange and emotionally complicated.
I had the chance to see a first cut without music and then at the premiere I was surprised by this amazing score by Joe Diebes. Is it true you met him at Michael’s memorial?
Near the end of production, while I was developing a very collage oriented idea about a possible musical score, Michael mentioned to me that his friend Joe Diebes would be the perfect composer for the film. They were extremely close friends and artistic partners and he felt that no one would get him musically as Joe could. I agreed to pursue the idea but hadn't gotten to it other than a meet and greet email via Michael just before he died. Joe and I, and Rubin Kodheli, the cellist, met up for the first time at Michael's memorial reception in a park in NYC and began discussing the idea of working together on the score. Michael also played guitar and a Rhodes piano and often jammed with Joe and Rubin (Michael also hung out and jammed with Ornette Coleman, who is the source of the title of the film), and there really turned out to be a deep, musical connection between Michael, Joe and Rubin that only added to feeling that they should be involved in this venture. The process was that Joe was the composer and created situations in which he recorded with Rubin over a period of months to, again, collect material that would eventually be sliced and diced into a score, via a recombinant aesthetic structure that Joe created which he refers to as "algorithmic reformulation." Nothing was really recorded as songs or sections to simply be played alongside scenes that I'd assembled. Rather it was yet another level of collage assemblages that Joe constructed from these sessions in addition to many layers of his own keyboard playing and incorporation of drum machines and found audio that became an artwork in and of itself, that could even live outside of the film. That said, Joe was very keyed into what I was doing with the lack of dialog, or speaking in the film, and the reliance on ambient sounds I'd recorded in the studio, etc--sawing, drilling, banging, sloshing, breathing, etc.--as a backbone for the rhythmic structure of his score. He even relied on overtones from a scene of sawing to create the harmonic structure of one passage. Most importantly, Joe understood Michael's aesthetic better than anyone and created a complimentary track that I don't think anyone else could have, as Michael had insisted. Though Joe had sent me some small samples of what he was up to at the beginning of his process, a process that was seriously disrupted and elongated due to the pandemic, he pretty much worked on his own, 3000 miles away in Los Angeles, while I edited in NYC. I had more or less completed the film and was screening rough cuts sans music for months before the final sections of score began arriving and expanding and changing the experience of the film. Even now I'm still hearing it like a fantastic new album that I just found in an obscure record shop and can't stop listening to. It's very complex and beautiful and really could make for a great discussion with Joe about his creation of the score and working on the movie.
You are now working on a new film about Ken Jacobs. How’s that going so far?
I recently started filming with experimental film legend Ken Jacobs, now in his 88th year of life, 60th + year of ongoing creative output. What an incredible force. Also intimidating. Fortunately, I've known Ken since I was a student and assistant of his in the 1970s, and later as a distributor and exhibitor of his films. We've stayed loosely, socially aligned for more than 40 years! Suddenly, during a screening he presented of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC last summer it occurred to me to approach him about making a film about him. He had seen the NYC premiere of Hello, Hello, Hello in 2017 and was very complimentary about the film, which made me feel it wasn't too unlikely to think he might be open to the idea. I had also cast him in a cameo role in a Lee Ranaldo music video (Blackt Out), that he wasn't initially thrilled about doing but I think was not entirely unhappy with in the end. We certainly had a fun time filming that with him and Flo in their loft late one night back in 2015. But at that MoMA screening I was still editing No Compromise, and had no thoughts yet of a next project, but during the screening I felt some kind of necessity to pursue a documentary project with Ken. My first thought was that there were likely to be other films already out there on Ken that I wasn't aware of, or that he wouldn't be receptive to committing to the amount of time a project like mine might require of his presence in front of the camera, but I found that there weren't any documentaries about him yet, and he was immediately receptive and supportive of the idea of working together on one. Soon the artist's detective work started up again. I've been back on the beat, filming with him sporadically for the past few months. There are still plenty of clues and evidence to collect. Stay tuned. WM
Daniela Ema Aguinsky (Buenos Aires, 1993) studied film and literature. She directed the shorts Virtual Guard (BAFICI 2019), Hurricane Bertha (Asterisco 2020) and 7 Tinder dates (FIBA 2022 winner). Her first book Terapia con animales (Paisanita Editora 2022) won The National Poetry Prize Storni in 2021. She is also the Spanish translator to the California based poet Ellen Bass.view all articles from this author