HERE COMES EVERYBODY - ONDI TIMONER INTERVIEW
by Gerry Fialka
Ondi Timoner is the only filmmaker to ever win the Sundance Grand Jury Award twice. I first hooked up with her years ago. I screened her portrait of LA funksters Mother Tongue at Documental, my ongoing documentary & experimental film series. Having studied FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce for years, I see many similarities with the WAKE's protagonist HCE (Here Comes Everybody) and this significant documentarian Ondi Timoner. As well, my probing of McLuhan has taught me the importance of inventing new questions. Similarly, Ondi transforms cultural metacognition, especially in her compelling new film WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, which examines visionary Josh Harris, who invented Internet video streaming. Timoner's films stimulate us to look and listen anew. I was grateful for this inspired and inspiring time with her.
Gerry- What's the best thing for a human being?
G- What's your favorite form of information?
G- Why do we collect information?
O- It's one of the greatest things about us - our curiosity.
G- Are we hard-wired or do we learn this tendency to collect info?
G- James Joyce was the first projectionist in Dublin. He dropped out
questioning why he should go inside a building and see a film of a
tree when he could go outside and see a real tree. William Faulkner
said that the best fiction can be more true than journalism. Why do we have to recreate things in order to get them?
O- Because, in this world, there is so much too grab onto and take in,
sometimes we like it to be distilled down into digestible bits of
information. In the case of journalism, and in the case of ..... sometimes the meta layer, the interpretation of something, can be as
informative as the data. On a very basic level, we also like to be
entertained so we can sublimate our need to reproduce all the time.
G- Is perception reality?
O- Yes, unfortunately it is.
G- A screen writing professor told me that a great film is when you
can clearly see the intention of the maker. Stanley Kubrick said the
opposite. Please discuss intention in your creative process.
O- It depends on the film. In my first film THE NATURE OF THE BEAST, I wanted to get this woman's story outside of prison walls and bring justice to her case. However I was of the mind, at 21 years old, that the point of view of the filmmaker should not be in the film. My goal was to have the audience interact directly with the material as if they were a jury. By keeping narration out, introducing evidence and many points of view, they would come to their own conclusion. Now I feel differently. It depends on the film. In the case of WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, the punch line of the entire film is the questions and
statements that I myself make in the narration towards the end of the
film. It was important that my intention was clear. I was telling the story of Josh Harris in order to tell the story of all of us at this crucial time - to tell the story of our lives on-line. How are we reacting to technology? Is technology taking over our lives? If I was not clear about my point of view, motivation in making the film, then the whole film would be diluted or not nearly as effective as it is. More than anything, Gerry, I believe the form follows the content. Each film is its own unique organism. My job is to pay homage to that and be open enough to understand the form a film should take to be the best film it can be.
G- Peter Greenaway said that cinema is much too rich a medium to be left to storytellers. Any comment?
O- What should it be left to, if not storytellers? What would he suggest?
G- To clarify, I am writing a history of the oldest experiential film
fest, Ann Arbor. I often follow that quote by asking ask if
experimental filmmakers are telling stories a different way or doing
something completely different?
O- If you are not a storyteller, you should paint or take pictures.
They tell stories but don't require narrative. I am a real believer in
a narrative. All my documentaries are stories that unfold overtime. I
felt documentary films were missing that narrative element, that
moving forward, that suspense. I felt it crucial to attract people to
seeing documentaries. I made DIG! a story that unfolds over years.
Time would provide the greatest narrative. By DIG! recording the serendipity of life, I could recreate it....... That's what made DIG! a
breakthrough film at the time. HOOP DREAMS, which came out just before DIG!, and a few films from the 60's told a story over time.
G- I found DIG! to be a very engaging story. Marshall McLuhan said that every invention extends some human sensorium. For example, clothing is an extension of skin, the knife and fork are extensions of our teeth. What human sensorium does the camera extend for you?
O- I used to say in my 20s, that the camera was an extension of my
right arm. It was so much part of my body that people and my subjects could not tell the difference. They got so used to seeing me and my camera, they could not tell the difference. That was me. As for the actual senses, I'd say it extends my brain because it is a bridge into worlds that I would never otherwise entered. It is a way to ask questions I could otherwise not ask. When I first started shooting, I was in these convenience stores across America with the camera in my hand asking questions like "why do you think of gays in the military?" and "what do you fear the most?" Suddenly, because I had a camera, people were answering me. I was blown away by all these dialogues starting. It was a bridge from my brain to other people's brains, from my heart to others' hearts because of the camera.
G- Marty Scorsese said he edited faster because of MTV. When I asked Michael Apted why music video makers felt so obliged to edit fast, he told me we can take in information faster. Do you think we can, or are we just convincing ourselves we can?
O- I was raised in that MTV generation. I'm quite not the kids of
today with critical ADD. I think as a society we are evolving to take
in information faster. That is a product of our society. We put info out at a faster pace and we've all adjusted to that. Now we are conditioned to expect it. I think he's right. I have been accused of editing too fast. I think fast and I cut fast. But when I don't cut fast and leave a scene to play out, then it really stands out. On either side, you're on a roller coaster ride, then all of a sudden you are sitting in this uncomfortable scene, like with my main subject in WE LIVE IN PUBLIC and his girlfriend. Suddenly you are waiting to see what happens, it almost implicates you as a voyeur. You are glued to the screen at this still moment, dying to see what happens between him and his girlfriend. Then the ride takes off again. Sometimes it can really work as an effective tool for pacing. Almost like a Led Zeppelin song dynamics.
G- What's more important- conviction or compromise?
O- I am one to compromise. I'm a pretty reasonable person, whatever
you may have heard. All really passionate filmmakers have a reputation that precedes them. We are all considered trouble. I can take in a lot of feedback from my peers and a lot goes into my work. But ultimately I would have to say the most important thing is conviction over compromise in the creative process. You've got to stick to your guns. If you are the maker, you’ve got to listen to others. Believe in whatever your gut is telling you. You got to stick with it. With criticism, you get to determine whether or not you believe enough to stick by it. If you don't, then maybe it wasn't a good idea. I believe conviction is important. If you have it, you are sure. My whole team was trying to get me to drop the last few years of the story on WE LIVE IN PUBLIC because it felt like a 2nd or 3rd ending. How are you going to work it in? You can't work it in? I stated my case. It's not my job to cut three years off the story to make a perfect bell curve out of Josh’s life. Life's not perfect. It's my and our job to make these 3 years entertaining. If I got to cut it down to a minute, it stays. Screw you if you are not with me. You are either going up with me or down with the ship. They were all shocked, but I am very glad I did. It's very important to the film. The story should not have ended with the predictably full circle to mom. It ends with surprise levity, one last curve ball. It’s absolutely what the film required, and totally works. It got rave reviews and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Nobody seems to mind my multiple endings at all.
G- Did you get this conviction tendency from the way your parents raised you?
O- Sure, my father, Eli Timoner, is an entrepreneur and an incredible
human being. My mom is as stubborn as can be. My dad innovated the airline industry by introducing deregulation, hot pants, and desegregated unions – creating the fastest-growing airline in history of the world at the time. He was taken out by a stroke caused by his neck being cracked during a weekly massage. He's had absolute conviction before and since that time. My mother had the conviction to stand by him, but she could have left him. He's been paralyzed for the last 30 years. She's had the conviction of love. They supported me, my brother, and my sister with whatever we pursued. They never told us what to do at all. They encouraged me to go to Yale, for the opportunity. They did not want me to go to California with my guitar, which is what I wanted to do. That was the only time they intervened.
G- Did they raise you a particular religion?
O- My mom converted to Judaism from being Christian. We did celebrate Christmas and other holidays - an excuse to celebrate. My older sister was just ordained as a Rabbi last week. Judaism became more important to her personally. She's an incredible force as a human being and decided she could make a real difference as a Rabbi. She's practicing at Leo Beck off Sepulveda sermonizing to some of the most influential people in Hollywood. I saw her speak at Yom Kippur. It was like watching Martin Luther King. For me, I celebrate life every chance I can get – I believe being grateful and appreciative is the key to happiness.
G- Do evil people exist or does evil use people as a vehicle?
O- I don't think either one. I don't think evil is an entity that uses
people. I would not say people are evil. I think people do bad things.
It's like Roosevelt said, "The only thing to fear is fear itself." Fear is an awful crippler of our society and of us individually. Our government, up to now and most of my years on the planet, utilized it
to get whatever agenda they wanted to get through. It was horrific.
Thank God for Obama. I did a film about mind control culture,
joinusthemovie.com. It's all about mind control in America, and this whole family who leaves a church realizing it's a cult and they check into the only accredited live-in cult treatment center to be deprogrammed. It's about our need for a purpose to live by, and what people will give up to feel some higher purpose, some plan. Cults are epidemic in this country. There are over 5,000 and they look just like us. They don't always look like the Hara Krishnas, or what you expect them to look like. There's great misunderstanding about that aspect of our society. There's millions of people who have ceded their freedom. Charismatic leaders have given them hope that they can’t otherwise find in the daily grind. Families are broken down. Our news is filled with fear. Our economy is in the dumps.
G- Alan Watts said if you acknowledge your enemy, you empower them. Ram Dass said that he's having a hard time loving George Bush (to update, say, Cheney or Madoff). Coppola got the line from the Mafia to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. How do you deal with enemies? Back to Watts, if you acknowledge them, do you indeed empower them?
O- I agree. I don't waste time on my enemies. I know who they are, and issue them cease and desist letters. (Laughs) Then move on. The longer you are on the planet, the longer you realize people will like you. Those determined not to will come up with any reason. Usually, it’s something they feel they don't have. It's the acknowledgement of them that wastes your time. Because if you are an artist, you don't look back. You got to stay positive. Keep creating. Don't pay attention to that stuff. You should have your own ethical meter and make sure you are fair to everybody. Especially when something looks like it's going to be successful, everybody just grabs whatever titles they can argue for, money they can argue for. You got to keep a moral meter. Go in your gut. Be sure as you can. Be fair to everybody. Never shut anyone out. This is what I think. I've been up nights, thinking about this. I don't think you are the producer of this film. I think you are the co-producer. People say screw you. I say OK, bye. There's nothing I can do. You take from Peter to pay Paul. You can't function by following everyone else and what they think. So enemies form.
G- Is loyalty based on reason?
O- I think it's a healthy mix. Generally not, but I think it should
be. Some reason should be in there. Blind loyalty is reserved for your
children and parents. Is loyalty always good? No, not if you are loyal
G- Can anger be a productive emotion?
O- Yes, if its not directed to another person. If it’s like - damnit
I'm 4 days late on this report, I've got to get this thing done. I'm
angry that my time has been sucked up. I'm completely running ragged. If it motivates you, then fine. Anger towards a person is generally a waste of time.
G- Well put. Beautiful. Can satire be destructive?
O- Yes, anything can be destructive if it hurts someone. Satire can
hurt people too.
G- Why is it so difficult to for humans to consider the possibility
that life may be pointless?
O - Man, you are like right at the heart of all my work. I really feel
that there is something in us that we need to feel we are significant. We need to feel that we matter. In the larger scheme of things, we may not. We are just particles in this universe. I think it is what drives us to create. Some cave painting to carve a lasting mark. It's not a bad thing. It also drives us to join cults, to seek fame. We see
celebrities and they are not alone. If I can matter to lots of people
for just being me, then I won't feel alone. Let me go expose myself
and get famous. It's driven so much of what cheapens our society; at
the same time it causes us as humans to cede our privacy and our
rights. It's human. From the second our umbilical cord is cut, we are alone. We spend the rest of our lives trying not to feel that way. We wonder if our name matters? If our life matters to lots of people, then we won't be alone. This is what We Live in Public tackles too.
G- My friend upgraded Andy Warhol's aphorism to "In the future everyone will have privacy for 15 minutes."
O- (Laughs) Who said that?
G- Robert Dobbs, McLuhan's main archivist. Someone else said, "You create what you resist." Any comment?
O- I think that's probably true. Nothing is 100% true or false, in my
opinion. I think you create what you resist. I think I have a real
problem being on time. I create that problem in various ways. It's one
of my greatest enemies. That's my fault. I'm trying to figure out how
to conquer that. I don't resist my child though, and I created him. I worship my child.
G- Good come back. If you were walking down the street and met
yourself as a 12-year-old, what would you say to your 12-year-old
O- (Laughs) Don't start smoking. No, I'd say, "Follow your heart."
G- Lewis Carroll said, "I believe as many as 6 impossible things
before breakfast." Have you believed in any impossible things lately?
If so, what?
O- What does it mean to believe in an impossible thing?
G- Keep in mind Lewis Carroll, and put it in your own context.
O- I'm pretty pragmatic. I don't know if anything is really
impossible. I don't have any solid answers from God on down. I don't
have an answer to that question.
G- What was the motive of the cave artists?
O- To express themselves. To communicate. And to leave a lasting message that they were there.
G- How do you find peace of mind?
O- Cuddling with my child. Playing with my son on the bed on a weekend morning.
G-What's the most significant difference between men and women?
O- Maybe the rigging of our brains for multi-tasking. Women can talk at the same time they are listening to another conversation. Men aren't doing that.
G- Why do women live longer than men?
O- That's changing. It used to be because we were not as stressed out. Now we’re taking over leadership in many areas and dying younger.
G- McLuhan probed FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce by saying we all have creative powers we use while we are asleep. Artist use them when they are awake- dreaming awake. What roles have dreams played in your creative process?
O- Two or three in the morning is when I have a lot of
breakthroughs. A lot of time, I'm awake for those. I think there's a
.......... between being awake and sleeping. You hand over the steering wheel .... from one to another being. There's a certain
threshold when I am editing. Concentrating my time and effort toward
something long enough, I will have these incredible breakthroughs.
They don't feel they are coming from me. They have so much integrity. They feel they are coming from the work. Speaking through me. It's like a dream-state almost. People can talk to me and I can't answer them. I don't even hear them. I am completely at one with the work. This goes on for hours and hours – puzzles unfolding, my hands moving seemingly on their own. I love it when that happens, but it’s tiring. Tired but inspired.
G- Film as an art form has been swindled by capitalism. Any comment?
O- Yeah, but never fear, the Internet is here.
G- (Laughs) I offer a workshop: How PBS & HBO have hijacked the
Revolution. We have seen a slew of political documentaries over the
last two decades, from Michael Moore to AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Bottom line, do they activate or pacify?
O- It's not either or. Some people are motivated to go and do
something after seeing these films because they are those kind of
people. Then there's passive people who see a good film, chat about it and do nothing. It depends on the film and the audience member. Some films are more effective as a call to action than others. There is
that sense that people feel good have watched something. They feel
they've participated by just paying for a ticket. That's not the case.
You may be right. They are pacifying. But they bring up what wasn't
there before. Afterwards, people may be more receptive to other calls to action in their daily life, in their email box. They've been turned onto the problem by Michael Moore.
G- Werner Herzog strives for the ecstasy of truth, where we step
beyond ourselves like the Medieval monks. He says Ken Burns is
emotional truth, and Michael Moore is physical truth, belly laughs.
What realm of truth are your films?
O- Mine is the truth that burrows in the fine layers between sanity
and insanity. The truth that exists when black and white turns to
gray. Mine allows you to interact with them and put yourself into the story – to find your own truth after taking a wild ride. That's what my films are about.
G- McLuhan said you can't prove you are sane unless you have discharge papers from a mental hospital.
G- What give you the most optimism?
O- My interns. Seriously, these students have an endless amount of
energy to figure out how to make the most of this life. It's also the
people, and the connections I make directly with those who have seen my films. After a screening, the dialogue and smiles, the sharing that happens as a result of the work that I make. It gives me a lot of hope, something that matters in the world.
G- Ondi, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's been an honor.
Ondi Timoner & Gerry Fialka at USC "We Live In Public" screening. Photo by Philip Marion.