MUBI is partnering with the New York Film Festival to present highlights from Projections, a festival program of film and video work that expands upon our notions of what the moving image can do and be. James N. Kienitz Wilkin's Indefinite Pitch (2016), recipient of the festival's Kazuko Trust Award, is showing on MUBI in many countries around the world from October 18 - November 16, 2016.
I’ve come to the conclusion that movies always communicate the circumstances in which they were made, and most of the time, these circumstances are unconscious influences. If one identifies with movies, or has dedicated one’s life to, or expects to make a living from, movies, then circumstantially, one's personal ambitions, dreams and memories get riskily exposed. Indefinite Pitch tries to pinpoint this.
But not everything can be pinned down. In music, not all instruments make notes with a clear pitch. The rising and falling background sound in Indefinite Pitch is variably music, white noise or a call for alarm, derived from a MIDI synthesizer "siren" sample which had its frequency modified, or pitch shifted. A siren in a classic example of a regular everyday device with an extremely indefinite pitch. The same shifts were applied to the voice-over. With these relatively simple combinations, themes were uncovered and literalized, and the movie was made.
The following is the transcript for Indefinite Pitch's narration:
I’ve never been to Berlin. It’s gotta lotta history behind it, but I’ve never been. Never been to that Chinese restaurant on Main Street, never seen the waterfalls behind NAPA Auto Parts (the one under new management), never checked out Burgess Biomass at the center of town. I hear it’s a beautiful and ugly city. You know, seen better days.
And that’s the point. Times are tough. You see, a string of mysterious fires is plaguing a paper mill owned by a widow and her granddaughter. They suspect the boss of a rival mill is stirring trouble. They hire a private investigator, but problem is he’s more interested in investigating the granddaughter, y’know, got a crush on her. Meanwhile, a peculiar stranger has moved to town and charms the community with his attractive, unmoving face. As the arsons intensify and hundreds of thousands of dollars are stolen from the grandmother’s business account, it becomes clear a mystery is afoot: a dangerous game with many players where all is not as it seems. Indeed, still waters run deep in Berlin, New Hampshire.
Did that make sense? Damn. That wasn’t good. That was a bad pitch. I’m so bad at this. Did that make any sense? Probably really confusing. I’m talking about Berlin. New Hampshire. You know, “Paper City.” “The City that Trees Built.” Both good titles for a movie. Or I can’t decide if I call it “Still Face.” Maybe it should be a TV show. I don’t know. You see, the thing is, I need money. I need to pitch something that sells. I hear Netflix and Amazon.com are all about producing movies these days, and I use both of ‘em, I buy stuff on Amazon all the time. I figure if they produce one of my films, it’ll be a good equilibrium... like a river returning to its source. I make a movie, they pay me, I buy some toothpaste, make another movie, they pay me. Market equilibrium. Or am I being naive? Rivers don’t return to their sources. Not least without getting evaporated as fuck.
Money and mountains. Why Berlin is a good location. For all it lacks of the former, it abounds in the latter. Steep conflict. The basis of all drama. Yeah, Berlin is an archetypal American town. Once thriving with logging and paper mills, now crumbling and past its prime. Berlin. New Hampshire. That’s a state in the USA for you foreigners. It’s in New England. Berlin is. That’s a region. New England. A lotta French speakers there. In Berlin. Near the border of Canada. French-Canadians. I know, I know. It’s confusing. They jabber in a patois called “Berlin French.” I’ve never heard it. Cause I’ve never been.
But I grew up nearby, like two hours away, and I can only imagine Berliners possess that particular New England countenance: the still face. Like staring into the eyes of a black bear (although statistically, it’d be a white bear). Yeah, it’s a controlled self-possession rooted in the puritanical origins of colonial America. These days, it’s an attitude manifest as deep libertarianism. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. A “live free or die” sorta thing.
You know who grew up in Berlin? Jack Torrance. From The Shining. I mean, I know he’s fake but it’s in the book. Another interesting thing: the casserole. Invented in Berlin. Yeah, I’m talking about that classic one-dish wonder. Also: the flower pot shelf. The tape measurer. Wet strength Nibroc paper towels. You know, the brown kind, comes in stacks, see ‘em in institutional restrooms all over the place. All this and more came from Berlin. If you’re interested, just Wikipedia it.
A lotta these inventions came from the Brown Company Paper Mill, formerly known as Berlin Mills. Up until the turn of the 20th century, the town had lots of active mills and factories, but that’s all changed. Declining industry. Death of American manufacturing. You know, the old story cliche. The set story. But they’re tryin’ to recover. Just built a biomass energy plant over one of the old mills. Supposed to be clean energy. Converting waste into power. Heard it was a tricky sales pitch. Big controversy about how much the energy will cost ratepayers. Sorta like organic eggs or something. Shouldn’t something all-natural be all-cheaper? But here we go again with market equilibrium. What do I know… I’m probably being naive.
The reality: it’s a different sort of biomass which fuels Berlin today. I’m talking human beings. The biggest employer in town is a correctional facility. That’s technical for prison. You know, the slammer.
This is what’s called “backstory.” Sets the tone.
There’s a phrase, it’s very New England: “You can’t listen your way into trouble.” I believe that. You talk all this stuff and you don’t know where it’s gonna land, how it’s gonna settle.
Well, let’s settle on thing. I’ve gotta be honest. That pitch. In the beginning. I stole the scenario. It’s based off something that’s already been done. Something that’s real. Also. Look, I was pretending to deliver a bad pitch. I’m not interested in making that movie. Or that TV show or whatever. Yeah, I need money, but I’m not interested in making that movie. I’m interested in making this movie. If you can call it a movie. I mean, I thought I’d try a new way to get out some of the things on my mind lately. I guess. I’m not really that dumb. At least I don’t think. What I mean is: I’m trying to tell the truth. Nothing but the truth this time.
So truth is: pitch was inspired by The Masked Menace. The Masked Menace was a ten episode serial. Filmed in Berlin in 1927 by the French company, Pathe Exchange. Starred Jean Arthur as the young woman. Based on a pulp story called “Still Face.” That’s the villain. His very stiff, very attractive face turns out to be a mask--a mask of living flesh. One of the episodes is called “A Half-Wit’s Fury.” The half-wit is his sidekick, Job, who turns against Still Face after Still Face kills his cat. That part sticks out to me. That’s retard revenge. I mean, literally. Imagine: How do you make a little kid the angriest? Really stick it to him? You kill his cat. So weird. And I mean, let’s be real, okay, we all know “half-wit” is a euphemism for “retard.” Anyway, reportedly, the scene when Job pulls a knife on Still Face, that was cut from the movie cause it was deemed too violent for the times. A chop job. Although I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen The Masked Menace. No one has. At least no one under eighty. It’s a lost film.
So all that remains of The Masked Menace is a few images and written memories. It was a big deal for Berlin. A pulp story filmed in a pulp town. And it wasn’t even set in Berlin. Berlin was a stand-in. For Connecticut. Like so many movies, it was a pastiche, y’know, the power of montage and all that. Berlin offered those mountains, the classic mills, the Androscoggin River… combine the best features of every town to create the American “every-town.” The movie did horribly at the box office. You just can’t trust appearances.
Speaking of stand-ins, I read Jean Arthur was supposed to jump off a forty-foot cliff into the river. The producers got a local kid to do it. Raymond “K.O. Kid” Ashley. Local boxer boy. He put on her wig and dress and took the plunge. Paid $25 dollars to nearly kill himself. Water was only six feet deep. I wonder if he wore lipstick.
That’s funny to me. A real funny moment in a film no one’s seen. Split second with a teenager dressed in drag. That’s movies for you. Time keeps moving, and no way to nitpick the details. Why movies are so effective, and why people often think they’re cheap: When something represents something but it’s not. But it’s also good enough. A thing put in the place of: a substitute. A euphemism? Maybe just a memory.
Movies as memories. Memories come to life. You know, in The Masked Menace, the grandma widow character reopens the paper mill to recoup the family fortune. And there’s this subplot with Still Face and Job stealing $200,000 worth of Liberty Mutual bonds from the mill… Well, I read this new Burgess Biomass plant (which is supposed to rejuvenate Berlin’s economy) is dealing with familiar, evocative stuff. For example, in 2014, Burgess argued they accidentally wired $140,000 to an old bank account belonging to a competitor who used to have a stake in their company. They asked for the money back, and the guys were like, “Hell no. We were owed this money. Thanks for the reminder.” There was a lawsuit and competitor guys lost the case, but I mean: what would you do? $140,000 as if from thin air? Damn. I could make a lotta movies with that money. Forget all this pitching nonsense.
Another parallel: In 2009, a half-wit was apprehended for a string of arsons. Guy named Tibbetts. Burned a bunch of buildings as revenge for abuse he suffered as a child. Maybe somebody killed his cat, I don’t know. Tibbetts was deemed unfit for trial. Berlin actually had a huge fire problem in 1904 and 1905 until they mandated masonry construction in the downtown district. Fire is a big deal in a logging town. You know, “The City That Trees Built.” All that wood. All that paper. All that pitch. I’m talking pitch pitch. Wood resin. Very sticky substance. Gums up machines. Sometimes very flammable. How they prevent the accumulation of pitch, they call that “pitch control.” They say Tibbetts was out of control, but I think he knew what he was doing. Had to smoke out his memories. The history of his hometown was alight in that feeble mind, his brain pitching with bubbling, oozing, incendiary goo, thick like General Gao’s chicken at Wang’s Garden (you know, the Chinese place down on Main), burning him up like MSG, flushed and ready to explode...
I get the sense a lot of arsonists come from the north country. It’s so cold. If you already got a fiery predilection, the hypnotic draw of a good blaze is intensified by the promise of its warmth, like a big bonfire. In late 2013, some teens offered essentially that as an excuse and they burned up the Princess Theater. It was a night with a windchill temperature negative 35 degrees fahrenheit. The building ended up a block of ice. All the water from the fire hoses, you see. Imagine that. A frozen movie theater. Motionless and ruined and lost. Like The Masked Menace. That’s where they screened it, too. Its local premiere in 1927.
There was fire trouble in my hometown recently. Or hometowns. Auburn, Maine. Lewiston, Maine. “Twin cities.” Cities of the Androscoggin. Split right on the Androscoggin river. Lewiston/Auburn. L/A. In Maine. That’s a state. In the USA. For those who don’t know. You gotta pass through New Hampshire to get to Maine. They call it “Vactionland.”
If you trace the Androscoggin far enough north, you get to Berlin. About two hours. Berlin is near its source. River’s got an average drop of eight feet per mile, which is quite a steep pitch, making it an historically powerful river, good for economic development and mill towns and such. That’s also what polluted the shit out of it. Filthy troubled beautiful river. Once one of the 20 most polluted rivers in America. Helped inspire the 1972 Clean Water Act. You know, that’s the reason they used “K.O. Kid” Ashley in The Masked Menace--a local boy to the do the dirty work--‘cause the stunt man from New York wouldn’t jump into the Androscoggin. Said it was too dirty. Took the next train home.
Yeah, the Androscoggin. I grew up right there. Once, one late winter day, I hung out with my friend Brandon when it was frozen over. Back when there used to a thing called winter. When it wasn’t 60 degrees in March. When rivers could actually freeze. Thick ice. Completely still. Except not. Could hear movement. Beneath the surface. The deep water… pushing and gnawing to break free. Days like that, the river creaks and moans. All sorts of strange ghostly tones. Slowly, invisibly melting. And it moans.
So back to the fires troubles where I grew up. Well, I guess you could start with the huge fire in 1933 which wiped out one-twelfth of the homes in Auburn. That’s why, today, they call it “New Auburn.” Tenement buildings with mostly foreign millworkers right along the banks of the Androscoggin. But I’m more interested in eighty years later: 2013. A string of blazes in downtown Lewiston. Like five apartment buildings, nearly 200 residents evacuated. Again, mostly poor people and refugees. One blaze was traced to some tweens. Little fuck-ups. One of them “confessed” but it didn’t count cause the cops failed to read him his Miranda rights. I mean, he was only 12. The other big blaze: these two itinerant dudes. Both named Brian. Brian with an “i” and Bryan with a “y.” Brian with an “i” claimed Bryan with a “y” was a serial arsonist. Full name: Bryan Wood. Can you believe that? A serial arsonist named Mr. Wood? Anyway, turns out Brian with an “i” was the main guy. He went to prison. Bryan with a “y” had his case tossed out: incompetent for trial. Psychologist report said “mild retardation.” Another half-wit.
Crime. Poverty. Mental illness. Substance abuse. Conflagration. You find it everywhere but some places really got it goin’ on, might seem hidden but it’s there… the slow burn. Right now, New England is suffering from a heroin thing. Must be the economy. And cheaper, easier to get than pills. Read in the paper this kid I used to play guitar with in high school… he died two weeks ago and I think it was heroin. The facts line up. Reminds me of this other kid I knew: Scott. The son a former police lieutenant in Auburn. Got into dealing drugs, flipped his wig. Kicked out of school ‘cause he pulled a steak knife on somebody, that’s number one, and number two, he threatened to cut off some girls’ ears. So weird. Probably heard that in a movie. Cut off their ears. That’s what I call a childish reaction. Like he was deeply frustrated that they weren’t hearing him. Anyway, tens years later, he got a disease and died. A star baseball player in his day. My friend Jeff and I wrote a screenplay loosely based on him, long before we knew he’d completely flame out. I guess we sensed it. And that reminds me of another old acquaintance: Todd. He was a nice kid. Fat funny kid. His dad looked like a skinny Hulk Hogan. Kinda scary dude, actually, his dad. Anyway, we were in little league together. For a bit. Todd was a really good pitcher. Had a terrifying, heavy hand. Then we all grew up, went our separate ways, then he killed a baby a few years back. Allegedly. Is it allegedly if you’re tried and convicted? In the legal sense? All it means is a judge and jury think so. Shaken baby syndrome. I don’t think he meant to kill that kid. Just freaked out or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Only one there was Todd and... that kid’s still face.
These days I’m like, what the hell is going on? Is everyone going crazy like Jack Torrance? Like all the rest of ‘em, male and female alike, but mostly male? Maybe I’m cherry-picking the worst stories to create drama, though I think something’s in the water. Trouble runs downstream, I guess.
Crazy thing about Todd: I was poking around on the internet and found a court decision. From 2011. Turns out Todd litigated against the Maine State Prison for failing to protect him. The Aryan Brotherhood threatened him. And he got stabbed. They wanted to kill him for killing the baby. My question: what moral ground does the Aryan Brotherhood stand upon? So slippery. And I should mention that Todd is white as a roll of toilet paper.
Actually, a few years back, the prison in Berlin had some problems with a white supremacist gang: Brotherhood of White Warriors. These guys organized a sort of loser crime syndicate. It was mostly for self-protection. While I won’t say they weren’t racist, facts suggest they used racism as an excuse. Something to get them organized. Motivated. Isn’t that always the case? It’s kinda funny since the new warden, Esker Tatum, is a black guy from New Jersey. Also, since the prison’s up in the White Mountains. Makes a certain aesthetic sense, these White Warriors. But the guys, the B.O.W.W. boys, they admit in a little manifesto: it’s not about hatred for other races, rather, love for one’s own race. Maybe that’s the same reason Todd got shanked: for killing a white baby. An enemy of his own people in their logic. Of course that’s a ridiculous and politically savvy inversion, but I think it’s fair to interpret it as desperate desire to stay alive. Do whatever it takes. These guys are all poor. Terrible upbringings. Poverty. Mental illness. Crime. Substance abuse. Recidivism. Everything we’ve been over. I’ve seen so many guys like this. There was a series of newspaper articles tracking the Brotherhood, trying to figure out if white supremacism is on the rise in New England. If some new menace is on its way. You know, whisperings of nighttime KKK rallies against new immigrants and refugees and stuff. The Governor of Maine, a guy from Lewiston named Paul LePage, is all freaked out. Blamed the heroin problem on drugs dealers named: “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty”-- you know, guys coming up from the south to impregnate white girls. All this from a guy named “LePage.” That’s Franco-American. Persecuted immigrants in their own time. None of this surprises me. Of course people are racist. Prejudiced. In the same sense that everyone is inherently insecure. Whenever I meet someone, I’m like, yeah, you’re racist. That’s normal. That’s the history of the world. Nothing new, just a matter of containment and self-expression. When we hear of a “masked menace,” we always rush to think of the KKK or some stereotypical hoodlum. A mysterious threatening thug who can embody everything in ourselves we don’t want to admit. A stand-in. But it’s so twisted to think that the mask is our own faces, you know? The living flesh. Like we’re born with our masks.
Maybe this is a buncha bullshit. Who knows what the truth is. I’ll admit, these are just thoughts… thoughts rooted in facts that have been freed by time, flowing like a polluted yet very attractive river, touching everything along its path. Reminds me of that saying, you know, during the presidential election primaries: “As New Hampshire goes, so goes the nation.”
I confess: I’m going with the flow.
One last confession. The images. In this movie. If you can call it a movie. It’s not Berlin. It’s where I grew up. It’s Lewiston/Auburn. Cities of the Androscoggin. Sort of like Berlin. Close enough. Figured I’d get away with. Gets the point across. Like I said earlier, like I’ve been trying to tell you: I’ve never been to Berlin.
Maybe I’m too tired to travel. Traveling is so expensive. Moving is so expensive. Moving images are so expensive. I’m kind of tired of moving images these days. Everybody’s making movies. People who can’t afford to be making movies are making movies these days. But there’s something about movies that’s really good at expressing what our world is all about. Which is poverty. The flow of money. Financial struggle. Poor people are always on the move: Getting kicked out of their homes. Laid-off from their jobs. Struggling with drugs. Shuffling to the courts. But rich people are also on the move, while denying the essence of change in movement: flying first-class and waking up on the other side of the country. Shopping in identical chain-stores. Ordering an Uber anywhere anytime. Syncing up to the iCloud. What’s so crazy about movies is that they speak to both worlds: rich and poor. My friend Robin pointed this out recently: how movies resonate with the masses through movement itself. Unlike the art world, which is obsessed with preservation and stability: objects you can walk around; objects you can buy; objects you can control. Like I said before, everybody love movies but also distrusts them, like staring at a huge crashing wave about to engulf you.
But I understand the desire to slow down, you know, to a standstill. Live in a privileged world. Relax and get one’s thoughts together. Deny the movement. Do it Powerpoint style. Concept pitch style. Get the idea across. I want that, too.
Funny thing about still images--still images in movies, that is--is that they’re still moving. Kinda like the frozen Androscoggin. Which never freezes anymore. There’s still a framerate. Still something going on beneath the surface. I mean, if this movie was projected on film, you’d see a flicker, and you’d be aware of its latent aliveness. But with the digital projection, everything is immobile, you know. But there’s still a framerate. Data is still flowing… but it doesn’t reveal itself. It’s a framerate without motion. Just exists so the computer knows what it is: that it’s a movie. That is isn’t dead. 24 frames per second no one sees. No, actually 23.98 frames if you’re watching this in HD, but everyone says 24. It’s easier to say 24. It’s close enough. Saying 24 reminds of us film. We pretend it’s 24. It reminds of us of all that’s passed.
Actually, if you’re watching this in a movie theater, there’s a chance it’s been converted to 24. Shifted. For the DCP. That means “digital cinema package.” That’s what they show movies on nowadays. In theaters. It’s the new standard. Data streams. These DCPs run at 24 frames per second. Again: to mimic film.
So if a movie is 23.98 frames per second, it gets converted to 24. Does that change anything? Well, yes and no. Nothing you can see. Mostly just the sound. Ever so slightly. Those extra milliseconds are slowly lost over time... slowly but surely. That means image and sound slowly go out of sync. So what they have to do: they shift the sound. Pitch shift it. So the sound matches. So it doesn’t get weird. So it all seems real. You know, intentional. And when it seems intentional, maybe it’ll show in a theater. Maybe in a film festival even. Yeah. It’s all about the pitch.
Begs the questions: Where’s this thing gonna show? Well, I’d like to try the Berlin Film Festival. That makes a lotta sense to me.