The Focus Turns to Sean Price Williams

One of the great names in contemporary American cinema is that of a bold New York cinematographer.
Caden Mark Gardner

MUBI's series Shooting the Hip: The Cinematography of Sean Price Williams is showing June and July in many countries.

Above: The Color Wheel

The work of cinematographer Sean Price Williams has become synonymous with contemporary American independent cinema. What separates his filmography from his peers is his ability to shape shift with his various collaborators whether in different film frameworks of fiction and non-fiction, different genres, or just different aesthetics altogether.  He is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Josh and Ben Safdie (Heaven Knows What and Good Time), but his credits include over ninety feature-length films and shorts— a body of work that when investigating further yields some of the most impressive images in the medium. With his versatile camera Williams brings an electric personal energy to wildly different films, making his name in the credits an enticement to any project.

Often the stories about Williams start with him at the now defunct but legendary Kim’s Video and Music, located in Manhattan’s East Village. Williams had gained notoriety in cinephile circles for his regularly updated 1,000 greatest films of all-time list (since preserved online by a Letterboxd user). Canonical favorites like Fassbinder and Antonioni are listed alongside obscure one-offs, exploitation films like Savage Man, Savage Beast, and the avant-garde. Williams also served as an archivist and cameraman for the late documentarian Albert Maysles, later serving as cinematographer for Maysles’ last film, Iris. Williams would call working with Maysles “like mentorship… a real connection,” crediting Maysles in terms of learning from watching him and developing a more organic sense of where to move the camera. 

Williams’ earliest films include Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland (2007). Shot on 16mm in low light, the picture is dark and grainy, conveying the spiraling, manic hopelessness of its tortured main character who is struggling to maintain his cramped urban squalor.  One clear feature of this film existing early in Williams’ career is the way various faces and facial reactions are captured. Close-ups in Williams’ films can often feel like an interrogation and probing of the inner workings of the psyches of the characters. That similar uneasy energy continued with his former Kim's Video and Music colleague Alex Ross Perry, whom Williams had met when Perry was an NYU student looking for work at the video store. The Color Wheel (2011), Williams’ second feature with Perry, had the veneer of indie film clichés: road movie, dysfunctional family, twenty-somethings in an arrested development.  Yet, like Frownland, it looks and feels like nothing of its contemporaries. In fact, the film best functions as a deliberate subversion of those aforementioned indie clichés. Estranged siblings Colin and JR (played by Perry and Carlen Altman) are two enfant terribles consistently entangling themselves in a series of awkward situations and interactions with acquaintances, exes, and small-town yokels.  It plays like a screwball comedy but mannered with irony-poisoned characters who cannot help but play into their worst juvenilia and cruelties towards others. Williams shoots again in 16mm—but this time in black-and-white. Perry’s decision to be in black-and-white was inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans, a photography collection full of anonymous motels, rest stops, and greasy spoon establishments, and those allusions do pepper throughout JR and Colin’s travels. But what makes this film remain so polarizing to discuss is its most repulsive climax. To refer back to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s glowing piece on The Color Wheel on MUBI in 2011, “The Color Wheel seems to have been made on a dare.”  This ending sequence, a long and unbroken scene, recontextualizes the characters. It begins as a two shot that shows a change in body language and tone, an unwinding, resigned sigh for these two characters’ outlook on life. But then it still builds and builds until you see a tight shot of just the faces of these characters. As the camera lurches, the viewer is repelled. Where with Frownland, you have a character that cannot hide his insecurities and frustrations, The Color Wheel becomes how people wear masks in complete performance until the very moment in which their ids are revealed. These characters have been posturing all along, and with Williams and Perry’s daring precision they are unmasked. 

Above: Fake It So Real

Performance and the existential question tied to performance is a common thread with many of Williams’ collaborators, especially non-fiction filmmaker Robert Greene, a former associate of Williams at Kim’s Video. Greene’s Fake It So Real (2011), a film shot over a week about wrestlers in the independent Millennium Wrestling Federation in Lincolnton, North Carolina, is about how these average men in a small town can transform into heroes, villains, and more importantly, compelling characters in the wrestling ring. These men are not just actors on what is, for them, a big stage, but also storytellers. Greene and Williams, who also present these men outside the ring, also follow these performers’ narratives within their wrestling personas. Nearly all of Greene’s work defies the standard documentary framework, and Fake It So Real is no exception with slow motion footage and dream sequences, not to mention dramatizing the matches play up these wrestlers and their storylines. Williams and Greene present a small but tight knit world of underdogs, outcasts, and outsiders dealing with hardscrabble lives, toxic masculinity, and wanting to carve out a place in the world. 

In Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009), Williams must convey a national obsession with beetles that comes in a smaller package but also imbues something more intangible and powerful.  Oreck presents how the densely populated but small country of Japan collects insects in the way baseball cards, vintage automobiles, and vinyl records are collected and sought in the United States. Insects are currency, and for Oreck, a representation of Japan’s national character and perhaps best represented in the mindset of mono no aware—the pathos of things, including bugs. Williams’ MiniDV Panasonic camera gets as close as possible to these insects. The film is also about the process in how these bugs are harvested and cultivated and for various purposes that stretch from professionals to the everyday Japanese citizen.  Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is entrancing in its shifts of perspective, Japan itself becoming a miniature of urban landscapes cast small, just as there are moments where the bugs blow up in size when shot by Williams. The power of these bugs, not just as objects or collectors’ items, is not lost on Oreck and Williams’ filming of the insects. It is less a stuffy, dry ethnography from a Western outsider than a reverential presentation of transfixing creatures.  

The Great Pretender

Above: The Great Pretender

Williams’ fictional work has managed to evolve over time. His images have often had a shimmer effect due to the film material of 16mm, but his recent work has taken on an almost rainbow-like color filtering effect. The image effect of this intense color palette is potently used in the fanciful New York film The Great Pretender (2018) by Nathan Silver. How this film looks comes from the ingenuity of working on a low-budget film. Unable to afford a matte box on the camera, Williams instead uses cheap plastic for the lens and shoots primarily in one of the most neon-coated parts of New York, Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood. This look adds to a hazy feeling of the unreal, the film following French playwright Mona (Maëlle Poesy), a foreigner in a big city who tries to writing a play on the downfall of a misguided relationship with an American married man and turn it into art, played by overzealous actors Chris (Keith Poulson) and Thérèse (Esther Garrel), who are clearly too involved in this scenario.  In this comedy of highly questionable manners, these four characters are practically soused in the colors that heightened the emotional stakes of this film. These cloistered colored worlds that conjure Fassbinder’s Lola and Douglas Sirk Technicolor melodramas are absent of natural logic, presenting each character’s insolence and egos as they freely enter the realm of the ridiculous. 

Jobe’z World (2018), by Michael M. Bilandic, also follows that colorscape to great effect by presenting nocturnal mayhem as a viral internet story chases a drug dealer with acid yellow hair (the eponymous Jobe, played by Jason Grisell) out onto the streets in his rollerblades, constantly looking over his shoulder. Jobe’z World is akin to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours meeting cult classic Liquid Sky and New York City public access television, with colorful characters popping up in this kaleidoscopic journey through personal hell. It is also supported by the unusual stream of consciousness voiceover by Grisell’s Jobe, injecting even more anxiety into Williams’ kinetic imagery. In Williams’ work, sometimes visuals of the abstract and expressionist can occur within the very same film as beauty and wonder shift gears, sometimes abruptly, into full-on chaos. Jobe’z World is a dirty, muddy, and jagged sketch that can still quite often be entrancing in its neon halls and evening cityscapes. It is a unique, compact film that rarely spares a moment, remaining in a mad dash state of motion. 

Recently Williams has indicated plans for directing a feature film (his last solo directorial credit was the 2004 short Sean’s Beach, a dreamy, improvisatory pastiche). If completed, that will be one of the most highly anticipated works in American independent film. The ways Williams can make anything from an actor’s face to a piece of a fabric become a series of colors, permeating and enveloping an entire film’s atmosphere, has remained remarkable and peerless within independent films. As American independent film continues to bend towards the Instagram age of the clean, heavily filtered digital image, Sean Price Williams becomes an even more indispensable artistic force behind the camera today. 

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Sean Price WilliamsNow ShowingRonald BronsteinAlex Ross PerryRobert GreeneJessica OreckNathan SilverMichael M. Bilandic
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