By Daniel & Clara. Originally published in Film Panic Magazine, issue 7, December 2018
Dean Kavanagh’s films are experiences hard to describe. One could of course attempt to put into words the images seen on screen, we could speak of the translucent colour, shifting textures and wave-like rhythm, but this would fall short of ever expressing what it is to sit in the dark and enter the dimension of his cinematic universe. What is most affecting is more than what is seen and heard, it comes from what is evoked, what is activated in the body and experienced as a kind of sixth sense by the viewer. Dean himself says “I believe that the cinema is a séance with a shadow world and the filmmaker is the medium” and to watch his films is to be witness to this mysterious spectacle.
The world presented to us in these cinematic visions looks familiar, we see rainy landscapes, people silently sat in dim-lit rooms and the play of light on water and other surfaces, things we all can understand but at the same time something doesn’t feel quite right. Somehow it feels like we are alien to this world, seeing it from the outside, the reality we know has become something other. The observation of people, places and things has been severed from the crux of narration and conventional narrative forms, and it is this which seems to inject these films with a building anxiety – we are alienated from meaning, set adrift in the slow shift from scene to scene.
So as viewers we become seekers on a journey but we know not what we are seeking for in this wilderness of sensorial sound image experiences. Through the disintegration of narrative conventions such as plot and character identification we become conscious of how normally these things orientate us, how they are used to tell us what reality is and how we should feel about it, but as these things are nowhere to be seen here we must ask these questions anew – we must engage for ourselves, we must look and think for ourselves, and make up our own mind.
Throughout all the films there is present a desire to confront the image, to destroy it, break it open and see what is revealed from the pieces. Various formats including celluloid as well as analog and digital video are employed and in the hands of Dean Kavanagh they all seem fragile but it doesn’t necessarily read as a fragility of the materials, it is more the fragility of life, as if the film itself is alive, an animal that is held in the hands, you can feel its pulse, its body moving as it breaths – cinema as living organism that could fade away at any moment.
His most recent film Animal Kingdom is one of his most ambitious yet, a stunning two hour visionary experience resting heavily on all that he has explored in his earlier work but that also opens up into new territory. Here we see a kind of post-civilisation world populated by strange human creatures who have either evolved or devolved to inhabit the bleak and hostile environment. The film moves skilfully through a fever dream of visual and sound textures which interrupt, disturb and distort the narrative flow, sending its viewers spiralling down through the layers of cinematic-consciousness to an electrifying experience of primeval ritual drama.
D&C: Your first released feature film was History Of Water in 2012 but we understand that you had made a large number of films before this, including some unreleased feature films. Could you give us an overview of your earliest work, how you got started making films and what kind of things you were interested in with those first projects?
DEAN: These were more ‘attempts’ made to amuse myself than fully-formed films. By the age of ten or eleven my film viewing ran synchronously with my film-making with one informing the other, and by fifteen I had amassed several features and countless shorts. These projects mostly took the form of stop motion animation all captured on analogue tape. My father was a still-life photographer and so photographic equipment and other such paraphernalia were commonplace. I was quite enamoured by the work of Willis O’Brien and so I built small sets, wrote scripts and borrowed modest lighting equipment. Later, as children making live-action movies, we could only shoot on school holidays during the summer or religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. These productions would really drag along since everyone had holiday schedules. My family never took vacations and so I was free to shoot all non-dialogue sequences while my friends were away. This was very practical as I could capture establishing shots, effects cutaways, title plates etc, all in the absence of dialogue. Naturally I grew quite impatient and I desired for the films to be as close to completion as possible during this time. And so, I began to favour a more visual form of storytelling.
In the end due to various factors I decided to concentrate on writing, a suitably self-sufficient activity. I won a couple of awards in this field and travelled to London and Tokyo which coincided with my increasing interest in world cinema. With renewed interest I collaborated with friends on film projects and had minor festival experiences. It was at these festival events that I saw how dependent people were on the dominant commercial production model. I wanted to explore more lyrical and poetic forms of cinema and since I was not operating within that commercial system I had no reason to be bound by its inherently strict conventions and so I tried many things. At that time I was making films entirely alone with no budget or audience, driven entirely by my love of cinema. Not much has changed. I wanted to do something that excited me rather than become restricted by a template.
When I arrived in Dublin I met likeminded people who were producing some fascinating, no-budget, alternative films and we collaborated. The more I watched my films with an audience the more my ideology developed; I wanted the viewer to be an active participant in the completion of a film and not a passive spectator. I began to revisit my childhood films and I discovered the power of retrograde formats, in particular the sense of time that seemed to be decaying in the very lines of warbling data. Initially I was incorporating the idiosyncratic properties of these formats into my cinematic agenda, just as one would use different film stocks. But my interest quickly developed past the inherent aesthetics of each respective format and I came to probe the strange relationship and connotations that the viewer can have with a specific format in a specific context. Throughout my filmography I play with these very ‘fixed’ positions and blur the boundary lines, this is at the very crux of my cinema: a system of decomposing narrative logic and a dramaturgy rooted in format migration.
While making a series of short and medium-length films that fixated on landscape, the human body and the elements I became intrigued by water and its inherent memory. I read that the smallest molecule of water held a memory or history by retaining elements of everything that it has contacted. This prompted me to consider the history of cinema and all of those who constitute it, in particular how amateur filmmakers and home movies consolidate this history. In 2011 I was working at a small, commercial film studio with access to space and equipment, and so I decided to shoot my first feature film there after hours. For History of Water I would once again utilise family and friends as performers in a fictional reality-play where everything is both real and imagined. Jean Pierre Gorin said that cinema is fictionalised reality and therefore the only ‘real’ element is our relationship to the fiction. For me, the membrane between documentary and fiction has always been permeable. It is this membrane that I am most interested in; the line between past and present, the real and the imagined, and the frailty of memory which sinuously holds everything in order. History of Water stems from this directly and reflects on a childhood of amateur movie-making.
D&C: We watched your first two features History Of Water and A Harbour Town back to back, they work beautifully as a double bill and we felt they could also be seen as two halves of a single film. Later when we watched the rest of your films we realised that all of your work could be considered chapters in one single long work – do you see it this way?
DEAN: Certainly. History of Water, A Harbour Town and Return of Suspicion are part of a ‘domestic trilogy’. These three interlinked films reflect on private domestic ritual, interconnectivity (hive mind, nature and the body) and dysfunctional recollection. History of Water begins at the source, ‘a family’, while the focus of the proceeding films become less microscopic in nature and we are presented with larger tableaux within which a certain theatricality is heightened in parallax. A Harbour Town draws attention to the surrounding town and inhabitants, their psychology and the notion of the town itself manufacturing these memories. Return of Suspicion pushes through these environs and toward the furthest reaches of this ‘narrative town’ and throughout we are confronted with a complete breakdown of image and sound. In this film we are presented with the disintegration of memory whereby narrative lines are spasmodically crossing and malfunctioning almost as if the ‘clean’ data has been replaced by the ‘corrupt’ data in a sort of operatic equivalent of a RAID array puncture. I completed my fourth feature, Polar Nights, directly afterward from a somewhat unrelated desire to make a classic adventure film. At that time I hadn’t two pennies to rub together so I cannibalised deleted scenes from my previous films as well as footage that clung over the years from abandoned projects. As Jean Renoir said, a director makes only one movie in his life and he breaks it into pieces and makes it again and again. Polar Nights is that sentiment taken to a literal extreme. Though aesthetically and structurally different it does feature many of the same faces and places, but it is more a film virus than anything else.
History of Water had its world premiere at Spectacle Theater in New York, as part of a programme of Irish Underground titles curated by Donal Foreman in 2013. A Harbour Town also had its world premiere alongside it and at that time I had completed some shorts and was shooting Return of Suspicion. These films share a very close narrative and thematic bond, hopefully in the future I could screen all three together. Then of course actively film that event and make a sequel to Polar Nights; therein lies the preponderant connectivity: ritual cannibalism.
D&C: We were struck by the consistent use of a unique narrative structure in your films, in most of them the form seems to operate like waves, images and sounds seem to roll into view and then recede giving way to the next set of sounds and images. They can go from being very gentle to very energetic and frantic but always in a constant state of flux. Could you say a few words about this approach and some ideas you have about narrative forms?
DEAN: In cinema there are films that empower the audience to search within themselves and contribute to, or construct a narrative, and there are films that don’t. Though use of the word ‘narrative’ has always been problematic in relation to my films there are certainly narrative elements at work. The latin translation means “to tell” but my films really don’t tell you anything, in fact, I like to play on the given role of the film in the commercial model as ‘informer’. In this way my films are not reliable sources of information because they fantasize, lie, retcon and in most cases actively present unreliable narration. And so I use certain narrative techniques in order to decompose or call into question the coherence or consonance of a ‘story’ in the same way I might manipulate light and sound. In my filmmaking the narrative element is another layer in a complex object, and since it is impossible to remove it entirely I have chosen to develop it. In experimental and academic hierarchies my work has often been referred to as ‘too narrative’ to be ‘experimental’ and on the festival circuit ‘too experimental’ to be included in a ‘narrative’ programme. I’m aware of the obvious benefits to having a label or category and that being compartmentalised in such a way assists in a more effective dissemination. But we must embrace new forms and more often than not the most interesting work defies simple categorisation. There is a quote by the late great Tobe Hooper where he says that it is more important for a film to do more than tell a story but send a physical sensation through the audience and “not let them off the hook.” Through my filmmaking I am exploring the language of cinema and how meaning is constructed. I agree with Nathaniel Dorsky when he says that cinema’s strength is in its narrative form but I don’t use narrative to reinforce or pay due diligence to any ‘plot’. The narrative in my work, as Dorsky says, is ‘one that unfolds through its own needs and develops out of itself’. In the case of Animal Kingdom there is a certain logic and a possible chronology but it has been dismantled entirely. By the end the audience is left suspended in a sensory zone and the journey throughout is very psychosomatic. What we are presented with is a narrative ‘snakes and ladders’ schematic whereby the snake is seeing itself eating itself.
D&C: Could you describe your creative process for us? Do you begin with a script, image, process or idea in mind or do you simply begin by recording footage until something clicks?
DEAN: I usually work from a treatment. To begin I see a scene or a sequence of images in my mind and I write it down without trying to asphyxiate anything with form. Later I return and see what still works or what I like or don’t like about it and I start to slowly shape it. I spin this into a treatment but the detail of this document depends on the intended reader: is it for me or is it for a performer, financier or technician. I have worked from a traditional screenplay but I’ve found that it isn’t always necessary. Institutions really insist on this template regardless of necessity, some people just love the bureaucracy of it. In situations where camera blocking is quite elaborate I’ve used storyboards. All of these processes are great but if they are not necessary then I don’t bother. You can rationalise it financially: you don’t have a sound recordist therefore you don’t have dialogue therefore you don’t have a script. My background is not in fine art or photography so I was never intercepting cinema from an artworld lane, I started by writing and you can see that structure in the work. My method is similar to a composer or a musician and I’m open to what is on the page but I also allow for the freedom of the moment and how that can shape the material. At a certain point the film begins to dictate what it wants and you can either restrain it by the page or see where it will lead. As Godard proposed, the screenwriting occurs in post-production, with the sound and the image, and this is where the majority of my writing is done.
D&C: You frequently use both found footage and filmed footage, could you say a few words about your relationship to found footage?
DEAN: When working with found or archive materials I try to build a connection through the recapture process. When integrating my own material I attempt to eliminate the connection to that footage – rendering it alien. Only then can it be subjected to the same processes and techniques as the archive material.
In a short film titled Abandon (2012) I staged a series of non-interconnected moments and treated them like ‘found’ materials, and in this case I refused a narrative throughline. Inversely in Friends with Johnny Kline or The Curse of Johnny Kline 3D I created a murky network of associations which pervades the commingling images, pulling them in-line with a new agenda but also allowing their original context to glimmer through. In a way these films have a dark secret to tell and we are witnessing the cloak of amnesia falling away with the synapses firing. Marguerite Duras wisely said that sometimes it is best to destroy everything and start again – and these words seem to hold great significance when we consider the reappropriation of images. I’m not interested in taking whatever found material I find and placing some ambient or drone sounds underneath, I’m interested in the meaning and the connective fabric between images, how they dialogue and through what syntagma. I often favour the (in)appropriation of materials.
In the Book of Revelations there’s a disturbing passage which refers to an eternity of pain where one dies not once – but twice: “this is the second death”. With found and archive materials we recompose, deconstruct and propose a second death for the images. This is quite appropriate when you consider the very fantastic and eerie descriptions of early cinema as a ‘train of shadows’ or as ‘motion’s soundless spectre’. With cinema (in particular when working with archival material) there is the idea of making visible what is not or inventing a series of possible histories. In this sense I believe that the cinema is a séance with a shadow world and the filmmaker is the medium.
D&C: Your most recent feature film Animal Kingdom uses processes and techniques that have been present throughout your previous work but added to this is a greater use of performance, giving the film a more theatrical style. Tell us how you worked with the performers in this project and what did this process bring to you creatively that differs from previous work?
DEAN: The more you collaborate the deeper the bond grows between yourself and your collaborator, it becomes like tuning-in to another frequency. Eventually communication is wordless and through this intimacy you can achieve certain things. With those I’d been working with before the process was no different and for new members of the team there were meetings and a number of preparatory conversations. I started employing theatrical make-up and exploring a more heightened performance style while shooting Return of Suspicion but in Animal Kingdom I wanted to go further. Obviously I take inspiration from the great operatic work of Werner Schroeter, in addition to Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, Peter Brook and Robert Wilson, as well as the Theater of the Absurd. For Animal Kingdom I told each performer a different narrative while allowing for moments of bridging or synchronisation but mostly encouraging complete divergence. One character was told that they were hypnotised and had to meet character X before fully turning into an animal. Another was a corporate suit who was on their annual deprivation safari where they could act out their wildest fantasies after shedding their human form. I told another performer a different story in every shot, even in the gentle scenes there is a quiet detonation. From the beginning I wanted the film to assert itself as protagonist/antagonist and so everything intertwines and the chaos ensues. It is an orchestrated chaos which actually begins to harmonise. Cillian Roche is an incredible actor whose work encapsulates performance for stage and screen as well as expanded cinema, butoh and dance. He can play it larger-than-life and in a swift moment retreat into minimal and intimate gesture. I attended several of his live performances in abandoned industrial spaces, he describes himself in these performances as a ‘metamorphic erratic’, which could also provide an honest reflection of this film. Anja Mahler is a precise and intuitive performer and we have collaborated on several of her own visual art works and expanded cinema performances both prior to and proceeding this film. She brings a strength and power to what is essentially a very spectral and potentially passive role, whereby her character becomes a vessel for bloodlust, narcissism and the carnal. Anja also served as producer on the project and without her talents the film couldn’t have been completed. I first met John Curran in college during and after which we embarked upon several film collaborations. He is a gifted performer and really goes to fascinating and troubling places. John is also equipped with a very dry sense of humour and the amalgamation of his talents makes for something very unique. While this film is a new departure for me, it is also a culmination of several key characteristics. I wanted the film to be larger than life and you can see and feel that in the performances, the canvas and the sound design. Perhaps in some ways it is as large scale as you can get with a low budget.
D&C: The Animal Kingdom synopsis refers to elemental magic, ritual, spell-casting and witchcraft. Could you say a few words about your interest in ritual and magic and its relationship to cinema?
DEAN: Cinema contains within itself many forms of ritual – and it was the great Georges Méliès who defined the single cut through which we could achieve an infinity of (im)possibilities. And so it is not whether you believe in black magic or wizardry but rather appreciate the detailed system of trickery in force; it does not matter if it is real or staged, as Orson Welles said “it’s whether it’s a good fake or a bad fake”. Filmmaking for me is a séance activity and one that connects the living to a past or what Maxim Gorky called the “kingdom of shadows”. In this way cinema and filmmaking could be seen as an equivalent to a form of sorcery or necromancy. I create films that prey on the atmosphere of the ‘cinema space’, activating those moments in the dark in an attempt to utilise the cinema theatre to its fullest sensory potential.
We live in an age without the mechanical shutter and my filmmaking is really about finding and interpolating that rhythm and exploring the darkness of the theatre where we sit ‘alone together’, transfixed by this pulsating void. Chris Marker was referring to the shutter when he noted that two hours in the cinema theatre includes one hour in the dark and “the nocturnal portion stays with us” afterward. When we see a film projected we are in fact glimpsing at another world, one that is under the surface intermittently present at a frequency almost beyond our perception; a nocturnal world between the frames. My films are an incantation to that realm.
D&C: Time in your films is a tangible element, night becomes day and day becomes night in the flicker of a frame, and moments are jumbled out of chronology as if half-remembered or mis-remembered. Is the way we experience time and memory something you are interested in investigating and expressing?
DEAN: I want to set in motion a series of elements that could produce an anti-film. Time may flow in one direction while the drama in another because in cinema I don’t feel the need to have the two synchronous at any given moment. Sometimes the passage of time is layered into the drama as a leading narrative element and therefore immediate character development is peripheral. It is a layered object like a piece of music where there is consonance or dissonance and in some cases the ‘musicality’ of a specific note (shot) reveals itself many notes later, like ‘outside’ notes included in a scale. I’m intrigued by counterpoint in Baroque music where all of the lines are developed with equal importance and can crisscross and harmonise unlike a very basic polyphony of melody and harmony. This is also something Anja Mahler has been exploring in great detail in our collaborations. In my cinema I prefer when the melody and harmony are not easily defined. I want the viewer to experience time as a complex part unconstrained by a given moment.
D&C: Animal Kingdom presents a film that is conscious of itself, not a film within a film but a film as a conscious thing. Could you say a few words about this? Do you see film in this way, as both a recording/constructing device as well as being a sort of living unit in itself?
DEAN: I like when a film breaks free of its restraints and crashes forth like a storm or force of nature. Not all films function in this way, nor should they, but in my own work I attempt to wire a self-destruct clock into the belly of the beast. While we have a research period, a treatment and many other preparatory devices the film must shed this formative skin and begin to metamorphose into something a little different and from there dictate the next step. And so it could well proceed like a Frankenstein’s monster turning back on its creator with murder in its eyes; after a certain point you must run for cover. In Animal Kingdom we have characters that are on a mission, it is a kind of murder mystery but one they have already solved. There are Pirandellian qualities to this narrative execution but the film, by its very construction, dissolves all boundary as well as all motivation and comprehension until nothing is left but light and the faces of those adjacent to you in the theatre. While I am interested in certain narrative and dramatic elements I am mostly concerned with that world between the frames, that black infinite void created by the very machinery that is manufacturing the image we are seeing. Raúl Ruiz summed it up nicely: “whenever we see a film, we in fact see two films: the one we watch, and the one that watches us.”
D&C: What are some of the key films and filmmakers who have inspired and influenced you?
DEAN: There are many filmmakers I admire and who are a constant inspiration including those I’ve mentioned throughout and others such as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Takeshi Kitano, Robert Bresson, František Vláčil, Tsai Ming-Liang, Walerian Borowczyk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Evald Schorm, Larisa Shepitko, Joseph Bernard, Roy Spence, Roger Corman – I could go on and on and I have contributed to brief lists in the past. But I really cannot stress how much music has been a constant influence, right from the beginning. Perhaps it would be more fun to list a small number of these tracks, like a random playlist:
> Airproofing by Leo Kottke (from Sessions At West 54th., 1997)
> Suite for Piano Op. 25 performed by Florent Boffard (2012) [composed by Arnold Schoenberg 1921-23]
> Piva (from il Libro del Cortegiano) performed by Paul O’Dette (1997) [composed by Joan Ambrosio Dalza, 1508]
> Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 (Johann Sebastian Bach, c. 1704)
> Symphony No.2 in F-minor, Op.36 performed by Kölner Philharmoniker, James Conlon (1992) [Max Bruch, 1870]
> Rickover’s Dream by Michael Hedges (1984)
> Tannhäuser “Overture” performed by Leopold Stokowski Symphony Orchestra [composed by Richard Wagner, 1835]
> Classical Gas by Mason Williams, featuring The Wrecking Crew (1968)
> Non-brewed Condiment by Allan Holdsworth (“Then! Live in Tokyo”, 1990)
> Funky Fingers by Buster B Jones (1998)
> The Scythian Suite, Op. 20 by Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra, Theodore Kuchar (1994) [composed by Sergei Prokofiev, 1915]
> Variations on ‘O mamma, mamma cara’ from ‘Carnival of Venice, Op. 10’ by Salvatore Accardo, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1984) [Based on arrangements by Niccolò Paganini)
> Prelude, Fugue and Allegro by Redmond O’Toole (2008) [composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, c. 1735]
> Two to Your Right, Five to Your Left by Okkyung Lee (2013)
> Hair Pie – Bake One by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band (1969)
> NNNAAAMMM by Einstürzende Neubauten (1996)
> One Hand Loose by Charlie Feathers (1956)
> Ananga-Ranga by Merzbow (1994)
> Hamburger Lady by Throbbing Gristle (1978)
> Ejercito Militar by Ry Cooder (2005) [song by Rita Arvizu]
> Spiral by Vangelis (1977)
> Askesis by Robert Fripp & The League of Crafty Guitarists (1991)
> The Spectacular Commodity by Glenn Branca (1981)
> Delusion Of The Fury – A Ritual Of Dream And Delusion, an Ensemble of Unique Instruments conducted by Danlee Mitchell, supervised by Harry Partch (1971) [composed by Harry Partch, 1963-69]
D&C: What are you working on next?
DEAN: Recently I’ve been working on projects in collaboration with the IFI Irish Film Archive. I’m also working as a cinematographer and editor for hire. Beyond this I’ve been developing my next film project, an operatic film set during the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague. For the past two years I’ve been compiling the diaries and various medical publications of the plague year while completing the screenplay.
Find out more about Dean Kavanagh’s work at www.deankavanagh.com