Postcards from the Edge: An Interview with Jesse McLean

The Milwaukee-based filmmaker discusses her practice, teaching film students, and her latest movie, "Wherever You Go, There We Are".
Z. W. Lewis
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. Jesse McLean's Wherever You Go, There We Are (2017) is playing October 18 - November 17, 2017 in most countries around the world.
Wherever You Go There We Are
Jesse McLean works with dog barks and Céline Dion karaoke and Heidi clips and spam emails that solicit you for sex. She’s been making videos that appropriate media (usually pop culture, but recently Internet culture) to create moods and stories since 2008. Her work usually contains a friction of pleasant anecdotes and nostalgic media combined with the most anxious techniques of experimental film history. This means that watching a Jesse McLean film can often be a bit like watching a pop culture artifact run through several YouTube commentaries and projected from a Lovecraftian dimension. But each work remains taut, contains a story, and never relinquishes emotional heft for pure mystery. 
Her most recent film, Wherever You Go, There We Are recently played at the New York Film Festival’s Projections series. The first half is a road movie by way of old postcards and a sonorous voice reciting spam emails over a warm soundtrack. Then, the spam stops, the key of the music changes, and we’re left alone in a world of nature and technology. It’s a strange journey, but McLean is a confident driver who wants you to be comfortable with the unknown.
This interview was conducted during the New York Film Festival. 

NOTEBOOK: After living in Pittsburgh, going through the MFA program in Chicago, and living in several other cities, you are now based in Milwaukee. What’s it like to be an experimental filmmaker there?
JESSE McLEAN: Milwaukee has a very good film scene and art scene. The school that I teach at, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has a deep history with experimental cinema. One of the co-founders of the department was Robert Nelson. Even though the department supports all types of filmmaking, experimental is definitely supported. There is a lot of great programming going on between the school, festivals, galleries and microcinemas. I help program a series called Microlights, a microcinema that programs and hosts visiting artists, and I believe the series and the programming at UWM has made Milwaukee a regular stop for artists and filmmakers presenting their work. There’s a strong filmmaking community in Milwaukee, outside of and inside the including experimental. There’s definitely enough film activities going on that I feel like I certainly can’t go to them all.
NOTEBOOK: Is it more acceptable to do experimental work in Milwaukee or these other Midwest cities than in some of the bigger film programs throughout the country? Has the city built its own infrastructure to support these artists?
McLEAN: I think the ethos of the department and community has built a support system for filmmakers of all kinds but certainly artists and experimental folks. For a long time, the department has had an impressive collection of analog equipment for film, which can be a huge resource for certain filmmakers. Now, of course, it supports digital methods—I mean, I teach there and I’m not a celluloid filmmaker. But, regardless, that collection can be a huge draw for people. It’s kinda like Pittsburgh, where I’m originally from, another medium-sized city that has a strong history of supporting independent and experimental filmmaking, which can be a surprise if you’re only familiar with the experimental film communities in New York, Chicago, San Francisco.
NOTEBOOK: If San Francisco is generally known for of the more hippie, nature-filled films of the 60s and 70s and New York as a birthplace of more structural work, is there an evolving Midwest “scene” for experimental cinema?
McLEAN: When I think about all the people who taught or graduated from the grad program I went to at the University of Illinois in Chicago, some of them who still live in the area and others have moved, there’s just so many different kinds of moving image-making. I think of Dani [Leventhal] and of course Steve [Reinke] taught at Northwestern University for a long time. Deborah Stratman and Jennifer Reeder both teach at UIC, and Ben Russell and Jennifer Montgomery taught when I was there. Michael Robinson, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, Mike Gibisser, Mary Helena Clark: the list is really huge of people who came through that program and make a variety of excellent work. And then there are the folks at Northwestern, SAIC and the excellent programming going on. Plus Iowa City, Detroit, so much in the midwest. There is a scene, or perhaps a vibrant community.
NOTEBOOK: Some of your earlier work deals with the thoughts of another artist from Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol. Specifically with the nature of celebrity, or perhaps more interesting, near-celebrity, such as body doubles. Do you think the nature of celebrity has changed since Warhol’s time?
McLEAN: In some ways yes, in some ways no. There’s always this sense of elevation that we give celebrities; we look at them with admiration but also as something unreal. I think that’s still true. But now there’s a lot more access to their lives and a very blurry distinction between public and private. Of course, Warhol liked that idea: being famous for being famous. With his superstars, he celebritized those who would not be celebrities by conventional standards. Maybe he would’ve likely been interested in the Kardashians? I want to say that the dichotomy of the celebrity and the fan is exactly how it always was, but it does feel like it’s now more socially acceptable to have a very strong feeling for a famous person, or character.
NOTEBOOK: Even outside of celebrity, the way in which we interact with pop culture has changed. Does pop culture as a monoculture even exist anymore?
McLEAN: It’s actually more and more around us than it used to be, since we can carry it around in our pocket. But pop culture and any other media experiences are a lot more blurry than they used to be. Since we do have the technology, it’s easier to find these niche groups or cater our experiences a bit more. I can listen to Democracy Now! and never go on CNN or Fox News. Or I can get a bit of all of it. We don’t have as many grand narratives, but a lot of little ones. But I think the ways in which there was a monoculture, radio and television, et cetera, was the exception to how people gathered information for a long time.
NOTEBOOK: One thing you seem to value is stories. Little anecdotes often work as the glue for sounds and images in your work. What makes for an interesting story?
McLEAN: Yes, I definitely value stories and storytelling. I do think my work has a narrative, but not conventionally—it’s definitely a blend of fiction and nonfiction. Some of those stories in my work I’ve overheard. I’m a very curious person, I like to ask a lot of questions, and if I hear someone telling an interesting story, I'll ask them to repeat it! Some of those stories I’ve remembered for years. If you’ve seen I’m in Pittsburgh and It’s Raining (2015), the woman told me that story about the body double years before I made a piece about her. Same thing in Magic for Beginners. It’s often happenstance. One of the things I love about my murky documentary approach is that you just don’t know what’s going to happen, and I think that’s very exciting. You could be shooting or interviewing and your subject says something else, and you can immediately react, “Oooh, tell me more about that.” It’s pretty intuitive. When you’re given people to work with, it can all be surprising.
NOTEBOOK: Do you usually work off memory for these stories, or do you get the storytellers to retell them?
McLEAN: I usually get them to retell it. But, I’m straightforward with them. If I’m planning to modify it, I tell them I’m going to shrink or edit it to sound more compelling. I don’t ever say that it’s going to be “observational” or a portrait of them. But sometimes, I’ll transcribe what they say into text, and that can work differently.
NOTEBOOK: Wherever You Go, There We Are is kind of an opposite Jesse McLean film in that these stories are email spam. Yet they perform the same function as the anecdotes in your other work. What spawned your attraction to spam as this subject?
McLEAN: I’ve been thinking a lot about humans and their relationships to non-humans. It’s a constant throughout all of my pieces. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about computers, digital culture, and things that are presenting as human. So, artificial intelligence is in that world, but spam is also in that world. It’s usually sent under the pretense that it’s from a friend or somebody that knows you, and obviously it’s not the case. I was intrigued by that duplicity, but also the language is fascinating to me. There’s something novel and curious about it in its effort to seem authentic. In its effort to seem more real, it comes across as even more artificial. So I also appreciate the unexpected creativity of it; it can be so strange. I mean, I always like to see what’s getting trashed—I like the vulnerability of it, that you’re not supposed to see it, that it’s supposedly dangerous. But some of it is really boring. I have read a lot of spam at this point, and most of it’s just money offers or Viagra offers.
NOTEBOOK: Since you work with primarily found material, the editing process takes a pivotal role. What is that process usually like for you?
McLEAN: I have an intuitive editing process, although I’ve recently been doing more pre-visualizing before digging into the edit. And teaching editing is helpful, as I have to review different styles of editing and different approaches, and of course that factors into whatever I’m working on at the time. But before the process of cutting begins, I usually know the pacing of the piece. I’ll know if something should be fast or slow, and I’m constantly thinking about how the viewer will respond. Using an effect to lull the viewer in, then immediately ending it. So I do agonize over the frames and where to cut, but that’s a mainstay of the craft. Sound design is also a huge part of my process, and that can help with a lot of my choices.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of those editing techniques, one thing I noticed while revisiting your films is the use of the flicker effect. In Magic for Beginners, it’s used as an emotional climax, and in Wherever You Go, There We Are, there’s a slight flicker effect used as a structural break between sequences. What draws you to this effect?
McLEAN: Since I come from an experimental film tradition, the flicker effect’s history from European and North American experimental and avant-garde cinema was ingrained in me. But outside of that, it’s just a really effective device. It’s either gonna repel the audience or overtake them, so it’ll always offer a visceral response which is interesting. In Magic for Beginners, that’s what I was going for. I wanted it to be an overwhelming experience. You can always talk about what it’s like to have an infatuation, but you can’t experience someone else’s infatuation. So I thought that maybe this could be a way of evidencing and giving the audience that feeling rather than talking about something they can’t understand. And in Wherever You Go, There We Are, I wanted a feeling of entering into another space. I also felt like the audience is kind of entering the screen, so the flicker can give a vibe of an electric current passing. Again, it’s a moment where the audience can be overtaken by the film.
NOTEBOOKWherever You Go, There We Are uses postcards—all illustrated—to play with both a landscape and road trip genre, and, by extension, takes the United States as its subject. How do you feel when traveling across this country?
McLEAN: I love to travel. It’s been decades since I’ve done an actual road trip. I mean, I live in the Midwest, so I end up driving a lot, but nothing like an epic road trip that for a long while. But, I do love it. I think those postcards are interesting because of their era and the techniques by which they’re produced. They’re showing a lot of scenes of canyons and spectacular landscapes, but all the infrastructure stuff is also there: the highway, the turnpike, et cetera. Considering the era in which the postcards were made, all those things had a new excitement. Of course, we’re not so thrilled about the turnpike anymore. They’re crumbling. So these postcards can be evidence of things that we’ve gained and lost.
NOTEBOOK: I saw the description of their process of being made. They’d take a simple layer of black ink, then go over that layer with an early color print.
McLEAN: Yeah, I’m really intrigued by this process. They’re hard not to be attracted to, since they’re odd and beautiful. But I’m also intrigued because though they’re clearly photographic, it’s not a photograph. It’s this weird middle-ground between photograph and illustration. This early photochrom process added color, which gives it this unique, vivid look. It’s supposed to look more "real", but instead it looks artificial. Kind of like spam.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve frequently collaborated with your husband, the artist Thad Kellstadt, to make the music for your pieces. What is that collaboration process like?
McLEAN: It’s an easy collaboration since we live together! But this piece was a little different. What will usually happen is that I’ll do most of the sound design, but I may need a certain sound or something closer to a score, so I’ll ask him for help. He’s an enormously talented artist and musician and can turn work around really quickly. Sometimes, it’ll be really down to the wire. He gave me some final sounds for See a Dog, Hear a Dog (2016) right at the last minute. A lot of times I’ll have the individual stem files from the songs so I can arrange and mix them to my liking. This was different, because he had written this music beforehand, and I built the film around it. I was thankful to be able to use his compositions.
NOTEBOOK: It’s a pretty warm sound for a lot of it.
McLEAN: But then it gets darker, right? I did want that. I wanted that driving, happy music. Originally, we wanted to do a sort of rock cover to the Kraftwerk song “Autobahn,” but that was a total train wreck. Thad had these songs he was working on, that had the right feel, and were more contemporary.
NOTEBOOK: I last viewed your work on Vimeo, which is quite a different distribution and watching process than when you started making films on 16 mm. Do you think about these new ways of viewing when making your work?
McLEAN: I wouldn’t object to someone watching this on an laptop or iPhone but it is very nice when viewed big because of the postcards; they look great when scaled. I would object to laptop speakers! But, that being said, I’ve watched a lot of films on a laptop (not phone so much, too small). That aside, I’ve never done anything specifically designed for a device. In See a Dog, Hear a Dog, there are a lot of computer aesthetics including a smeary laptop screen. Some people have told me that they enjoy watching that video on their laptop, because it can be very confusing to differentiate between the video and their own machine. I think that’s interesting. I also like seeing those aesthetics when they’re huge. I like to see it computer aesthetics transposed to the cinema.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like your experimental filmmaking students are latching onto nostalgic ways of making films, or are they looking for new ways of making art?
McLEAN: Since I teach at a large public university, I have quite a mix of students. I have students who want to immediately go into the film industry and others who’d identify as artists. But in that latter category, I think they’re interested in what they’re being exposed to at the university. They’re seeing a lot of experimental film for the first time, and they’re seeing a lot of work from a lot of visiting artists. I see a lot of use of VHS, which, I get it, but it’s interesting to me that they feel an affinity for that medium. But of course I’m constantly doing the math in my head: “Was that around when you were a kid?” But they are, of course, skilled in working with internet materials, and often do complex and intriguing blends between technology they briefly or never experienced and digital culture. I feel like this generation is aware of so much, and has access to so much, both in content and form. I'm excited about the work they are making.


Jesse McLeanNYFFNYFF 2017interviewlong
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