MUBI is exclusively showing Johanna St Michaels' The Inertia Variations (2017) from June 13 - July 13, 2018 in most countries around the world.
Johanna St Michaels and Matt Johnson. Photograph by Kari Jantzen.
When Matt Johnson and I started this project in 2004 it was intended to be a 30-minute art film based upon the poem The Inertia Variations by John Tottenham. We didn’t receive funding for it until 2010—after we had rewritten the project several times and added a live political radio station, a documentary storyline and an art sculpture. We re-launched it as a mixed media art project and received funding from several art and film funds in Sweden.
So this documentary is just one part of a much bigger mixed media project called Radio Cineola: The Inertia Variations where we experimented with film, sculpture, video installations, poetry, politics, radio and, of course, music. Matt and I worked with architect Jacob Sahlqvist, script doctor Karin Blixt, blacksmith Lars Lincoln and lighting designer Kate Wilkins to create an audio-visual exhibition at Röda Sten, Gothenburg in 2014 and again at Summerhall, Edinburgh 2017 to coincide with the UK premiere of The Inertia Variations at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
With this documentary I wanted to experiment with both fiction and documentary-style filmmaking. I didn’t want to make a documentary that was a regular portrait of a musician. It was really the opposite. I wanted to make a film where the lead character wrestled with the sort of dilemmas that a broader audience could relate to like sorrow, grief and inertia.
Despite the fact that the The Inertia Variations is actually written by Los Angeles-based English poet John Tottenham, when I first heard Matt narrate the poem I said to myself “this poem is Matt!”—the self-doubt, humor and creative blocks. I found it very effective as an editing technique to juxtapose his public persona—represented by his role as the radio host—with his private side represented by the poem.
After witnessing the flipside to being famous when I was in a relationship with Matt I became interested in society’s obsession with celebrity. What is it like to be a public person and what is the dark side of fame? I wanted to explore the angst of having to perform and write new material for a demanding audience. I tried to use the poem as a device to reveal the inner character of Matt.
Matt has always been one of the most private people I know. He is very reclusive and has a very ambivalent relationship to his own fame. He has long had a resistance to be a public person and yet he has a political longing to be able to change the world we live in, to be listened to, to be able to reach out to other people with his thoughts and ideas.
I have a shared interest with Matt in politics. We don’t always share the same views but what was interesting to me in the film was how political views are formed and shared, in this case through a small conceptual radio station.
To me, Matt Johnson represents everyone, in a way, in this film: One man’s struggle to understand the brave new world of the 21st Century. A world that is increasingly dominated by corporate media and the shadow powers that own and control it.