Star Rosencrans talks about his new documentary, FEATHER AND PINE, ambient films and more
Q: First, massive congratulations on finishing your documentary. Sounds like you were working on it for almost ten years?
[Star Rosencrans] Thanks! And yeah, the process of completing the film basically started in 2009 and ended in 2019, now into 2020 in terms of getting it in front of people. There were some dormant years in there, for sure, as life here and there dictated our ability to devote time to the film. The film was always going to be a sort of longitudinal study of some sort, though it did extend a bit beyond our initial timeline plan.
It's very clear that the documentary has an opinionated viewpoint. How would you describe the genesis of the project, 1) from a subject matter perspective, and 2) from a lens sensibility perspective?
My co-director on the film, Michael Beck, and I had a mutual friend who had grown up in the area where we filmed (Quincy, CA and its neighboring communities up in the mountains), and so she was very conscious of what was occurring there. A friend of hers had posted online "I'm a third generation sawyer, and it's all over this year." That felt like an interesting starting point to look at what occurs to a community as its main industry shuts down.
All of the choices in filming stem from wanting to observe and reflect — not just the people we were meeting — but also our own experience entering into this community. It's up in the mountains, a place where people visit to vacation in the winter and the summer; a real paradise in the midst of wilderness. But day to day life in that community is on a razor thin margin of sustainability. Things move a little slower there, so it was important to have that felt in the way things are framed and the way the camera moves through the space. Long shots, slow zooms; a narrowing of focus over an unpredictable amount of time.
Please correct my assessment of your work, but from my small-brained lens it seems like an anti-documentary — with such a small amount of dialogue. Is that accurate, as far as your artistic intent was involved?
I don't know who coined the term, but I'm a fan of "ambient documentary." We're trying to present the images and sounds that we experience and create some version of that community; to capture the ambience of this place and time. It's important to tell the story of what the town and its residents are going through, but it's also important to try to convey what life feels like, to understand why that matters on a deeper level, maybe, if we're at all successful. Obviously, film is limited, so we can't get you all the way there. But I'd rather walk with a logger through the woods and see what he sees more than hear him tell us what he does after the fact. There is insight to be gained, of course, through the interpretations of the people living these lives, and we include that too.
I don't think there's a whole lot to be gained for this story to just have people sit in front of the camera and tell you the story of what has happened — not when we had the opportunity to be there and see it, and record it, and try to bring an honest document of that back. It's a little messier, and a little harder to nail, but hopefully we've caught a piece of it, at least.
Where do you hope that this work will sit within the photographic, documentarian and cinematic scape? I.e. what influenced you and which influencers are you making a gesture toward with the documentary. Obviously it's not for everyone. I think that's what I love most about it.
Documentary is a broad term for essentially (and even this is probably too narrow) trying to capture some representation of "reality" and put that back on the screen. All of it is heavily mediated; our score is a very cinematic element that is a completely outside element of a musical ensemble's interpretation of what they see on screen cast back to the film, and yet it is part of the truth of what we feel we experienced.
But within that broad term there are many smaller slices of tradition that we've taken our cues from — things like Louis Malle's God's Country, or the Middletown film series from 82/83, Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles Brothers. We had just started this film when I saw 45365, a film by the Ross Brothers, and I was excited to see on-screen exactly the sort of thing Michael (my filmmaking partner on this) and I were already aiming for. We are very small potatoes, but those guys and many others were always in our hearts as we filmed.
I’m glad you mentioned the score, I think it’s bananas, humbly sophisticated and just awesome. Tell me more about the score and who was involved.
We had temped our score with a number of songs by Boxhead Ensemble, which is a sort of rotating lineup of musicians run by this phenomenal musical secret weapon of a guy named Michael Krassner. Back in the 90s, Boxhead Ensemble provided the score to a film called Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, and it's this really wild and unexpected sound for a documentary that has always been a huge influence on Mike Beck and I. We reached out thinking we could maybe afford to license a track or two, and Krassner responded really positively to the film and immediately suggested creating an entire score for it. He quickly put together a live screening where he improvised one version of the score with a group down in Austin, and then refined that and recorded it with a super talented group out in Phoenix, led by Joshua Hill and Max Knouse, both incredible singer / songwriters in their own right. It was remarkable to watch. Some of the score was played live to the film, and in some cases there'd just be a quick discussion about the memory of a moment in the film, and then they'd just play and really lock into something. We ultimately had more score than we had movie, and it was just about really placing it where it locks in.
Wow, what a trip. Did you end up with any behind the scenes footage of the score development and recording?
Yeah - it's hard to stop documenting stuff once you start. I'll probably keep capturing live score performances as well.
I want to go back to your comments about trying to show the viewer how something felt, as opposed to imposing your visual will, or imposing the narrative on the viewer. How much room do you think exists for that sort of approach in contemporary visual works — both documentary and film? It seems sometimes like Michael Bay has forever fucked up everything moving forward. I often feel so nostalgic for films that are just simple, without all the nonsense. Is that era dead, or are you seeing recent works that stand out?
I think there's room, for sure. It's hard to speak on this without sounding like I'm making definitive or grandiose statements, but the whole spectrum is still out there. Independent film will always sort of nurse quiet and simple narratives, I think, but it's hard to say if we'll see that return in wider-reaching media. You think of character dramas of the New American Cinema of the 1970s, and it's almost impossible to imagine a major studio putting out something like Five Easy Pieces now. It can be distressing to see how major studio filmmaking has almost completely squeezed out mid-budget filmmaking in favor of super cheap / highly profitable or massively expensive films and nothing in between. Those dice rolls get bigger, and the need to lead films towards massive blockbuster openings means that marketing a smaller film will still cost almost as much as marketing a larger film, so it just happens less.
That's clearly out of my arena, but it has led to a decided turn towards just spectacle in the mainstream. Or even worse, spectacle and pre-existing narrative — the Bay reference may be out of date, considering how his most recent film was sort of unceremoniously released by Netflix. He doesn't have recognizable comic book characters in his films, so there may not be room for him on some level, either.
But then you see something like The Lighthouse get a decent release, and at its heart, it's a film about two men just driving each other insane, and it fucking rules. But that film imposes a visual will, and it's also great. Actually, I'd say we're trying in our own film to present how something felt specifically through our visual will, really.
I just caught up with Hale County This Evening, This Morning, and it's great. Sketches of lives lived in short bursts, landing on human and emotional moments without providing you a clear guide or even rhythm to know when to expect something. It's inspiring that it's out there, and that people are receptive to it. I also caught American Factory, which won the Oscar, and it's also fucking great. I joked with my co-director Mike that they do in two minutes what we take forty minutes to do — they are not fucking around in getting that narrative to you as a viewer, immediately. Never any question what you're watching or what's happening, but within it there are incredible moments of serendipity, and real wild details caught and focused on, and staggering displays of human emotion. It's a triumph! And the world needs films like it and Hale County existing side by side.
I love the way you approach this. I want to ask more about this idea of spectacle in film. Maybe we call it the OLEC, or "One Liner Explosion Complex." I see this providing a pretty interesting allegory for contemporary society at large.
Of course there is always room across the spectrum for competing styles and narrative treatments, but this OLEC, do you think it's a sign of the times? We seem to have been locked in a state of just staggering global financial/investment growth since 2000. Even the big dips we've had since 2000 have felt like some strange dimorphic transition into the next Transformers movie. Sure, there are many people struggling out there, but it's hard to argue that the growth machine has been in absolute overdrive in the last twenty year. Perhaps we've had this aggregate optimism and faith in progress that many viewers are like "fuck it, tomorrow I gotta be back at work inside the machine, Avengers Infinity War FUCK YEAH! I love that godamm ferret he's clever like shit!..."
I think about this a lot as it relates to music, where Jazz, Punk, Electro, House and Hip-Hop really emerged to speak an incredibly sophisticated cultural and artistic language for an entire generation of young people. It went so far beyond boredom into artistic and philosophical realms. I don't believe that today's young people are really upset, I think they are just bored because there are too many helmets, street crossing signals with extra-safe countdown timers, and no more bullies to run from.
Is the shared language of our youth now the OLEC, trap music, vines and comedic IG videos? Or is this authentic narrative or feeling that many of us crave deeply, is it just weaving into a crazy complex digital and media tapestry that is moving into the future in a much more fragmented way? To your point, are these more ambient treatments and narratives going into the matrix and alchemically bonding to the information portal, where the authenticity and profound narrative is so nuanced and understated that it often goes unseen behind the OLEC and the clouds of puffy white vape smoke, or are we just in a cycle of growth and abundance that is part of the times?
Sorry, I really went on a ramble there. Maybe if I simplify this idea, will the space for more subtle and focused narrative and lens treatment increase again as society changes? Maybe viewers in aggregate sense that the OLEC is not fulfilling and is incapable of really touching the soul and the spirit like a Homeric adventure or a Francis Bacon painting, and its time is up?
Yeah, that's a lot. And Tik-Tok and Instagram and Twitter feeds are gamified to keep you pulling down to scroll to see more — social media doesn't do a lot for our attention spans. I find myself telling friends "yes, everything is better on a big screen, but really try to check out X in a theatre because it's gonna suffer at home." One of the more recent X'es was The Irishman, which is not without its problems, but I know most attention spans (including mine!) aren't going to handle a 3.5 hour film (even with lots of violence!) without checking their phones now and then. And that fractured attention makes anything seem longer, or more drawn out than it actually is, because who knows what you're missing when you do whatever muscle memory social app checking on your phone you end up doing every twenty minutes or so.
Strictly in terms of film, viewership context is sort of the main issue at a point — a lot of the more attenuated and nuanced visual storytelling seems to be finding a home in TV, or prestige TV, or whatever you want to call it now. But those are often still at the mercy of ad breaks or else just bullshit filler to stretch a smaller story out into 12 hours (think of how many tv shows - even ones you've loved - that just sort of grind through repetitive non-events from episodes 6 to 10 of 12). We are a society of people increasingly quarantined, stratified, lonely, and that reflects in some way across the media we can consume as an audience together versus alone. As a filmmaker, it's hard not to think of the theatrical experience and the impact it has on viewership. Even our film, as small and fragile as it is, just played to pretty big laughs (at appropriate times) in front of a large audience where, as a single viewer at home (and god forbid on a laptop or phone), those moments are likely just not going to play.
So yeah, gimme bigger, louder, faster; not a new theme. But you're on to something else with global growth. But I see it not as optimism and faith rather than pessimism and stress — larger financial growth means that people who were already struggling are struggling even more. We're in the midst of wild market swings due to the impending coronavirus threat, but that's just a nice big rug with which to sweep massive structural inequalities under — "low" unemployment meaning people have multiple jobs to get through, or super precarious "gig" economy jobs that don't provide any benefits, massive debt bubbles in every sector (student and home mortgages for sure, credit card debt higher than it's ever been and check out what's happened with auto loans in the last ten years, with more and more people securing loans over six years), a completely crumbled social infrastructure. Most of America has been living with these things and I think a real understanding — even if only on a subconscious level — that most of us are a health scare or medical emergency away from bankruptcy. So in a sense, yeah, who wants to watch something that isn't cosmic and exploding all over the screen? Who wants to see something quiet about the human experience, or something without some massive fantasy release, when the human experience as so many currently see it, day to day, kind of sucks?
Or in the case of younger generations, why would you want to engage with anything produced by everyone who set this shit up in the first place? If postmodernism is what we saw in the 60s, what do we call what's happening now, where everything is fractured and spread across all media and served up into small, quickly replaced chunks of "content"? I think we're eventually going to see this era as a real benchmark of loneliness and come to understand so much of the culture that filters through the internet — all of these devices of creation manned by a single person, refracted, reflected and resent back into the world — has to do with an entire generation (or two, or three) that has just been atomized away from the notion of a shared cultural context. And maybe that's good! I'm a sucker for nostalgia but also realize it's a fucking trap.
I've come this far in trying to articulate something, and realize I'm ultimately without a real sense of what's next, or how to even talk about what's currently happening. I don't know where the authenticity is — and I don't mean that I think it's missing; I'm just completely ill-equipped to understand and recognize it. Everything you mentioned in terms of music — Jazz, Punk, Electro, House, and Hip-Hop — were all fights for cultures to find a voice in the mainstream and push back against the narrative. There's a clear message coming from Miles Davis or Black Flag or the early Detroit house scene or Public Enemy about what's at stake, and what it means to culturally occupy a space that you've been excluded from. So much of today, by contrast, feels like a shrug. And maybe it should? I don't know.
Everything dies, eventually. But vestiges always remain. The spectrum will hold, I think.
Everything dies, indeed...
So in the spirit of the friendly and character-imposed death of this conversation — now that we've established that film is doomed to the electro-https fate of micro-exploding puns, and we've established that we can't quite figure out what's happening inside of our new digital firehose, what's next for you after FEATHER AND PINE? What are you looking at? What is romanticizing your stream of consciousness?
Man, "after" FEATHER AND PINE maybe is here already. We had a couple of fests lined up, but everything is just getting cancelled. Pretty hard to focus on anything other than survival and making it through this insane quarantine / lockdown situation we're in.
I've got a number of things sort of set out in front of me as potential documentary subjects — it's really just about shooting until they either click or they don't, and then following through. Stream of consciousness now is just about some more input in the meantime — read more books, watch more films, weather the current storm, and be ready on the other side to move quickly to make stuff. Shoot photos. Find quiet.