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Why Read the Classics?: Ted Fendt Discusses "Classical Period"

Ted Fendt's unassuming style draws on a legacy of great non-directors, and in his second feature his erudition is matched by his characters.
Christopher Small
Ted Fendt’s fifth film—his second feature—premiered in the Berlinale Forum, rubbing shoulders with all sorts of more outwardly eccentric and ostentatious movies. Dorkiness has always been a central feature of Fendt’s cinema, as it has for his hero Luc Moullet. In his previous films, there was a gulf between the precision of the sounds, images, and edits and the relative formlessness of the dialogues. While the content of these dialogues was rarely involving, it was the de-dramatized nature of the players’ enunciation of them that was so original. Fendt’s actors are marked by a staggering lack of self-consciousness or, rather, a strange sort of freedom to be obtuse, to stand in a unphotogenic fashion, to slink around in a gawky manner reminiscent of the earliest days of the movies, when the relationship between performer and camera was decidedly less developed.
But whatever geeky grace existed in the previous four movies, it is taken to new extremes in Classical Period, about a trio of introverted Dante enthusiasts whose lives are lived—seemingly, at least—precisely for their esoteric, specialized interests in the literature of antiquity. It’s fascinating to encounter a film in which “the text” is also the text of the film proper (and the few instances where quotidian concerns leak into the movie are themselves astonishing); Fendt has no agenda other than to portray these passions with a schlubby finesse worthy of his heroes.
While Fendt’s organizing intelligence is always felt on the macro level, there's also a significant thread of entropy that runs through his work. Even in his high-concept shorts—a man breaks his glasses, another enters a competition, a third goes on a date—the narrative momentum is almost immediately stymied. Fendt sets up some driving concept, only to disband it several scenes in. Classical Period, then, is something of a departure: the intoxicating push-pull between the tediousness of the discussions and the rigor of the filmmaking has transformed into something else entirely. Fendt’s unassuming style draws on a legacy of great non-directors (the Straubs, Pialat, Moullet, Chaplin, early Garrel, et cetera); this time his erudition is matched by his characters, who have a purpose to their lives which was—at least ostensibly—absent for his previous creations. This parallel between movie-character and movie-maker is liberating, a revolutionary shift in sensibility from a once-entrenched stylist of the inarticulate. Exciting stuff indeed, and handily the most refreshing movie I saw at the festival.
I met Ted Fendt in a cramped cafe on Potsdamer Platz a few days after the film premiered in Berlin.

NOTEBOOK: Was the literature discussed in the film embedded from the start or did it develop from the actors’ interests as things went along? I heard that Cal is studying to become a Jesuit priest. 
FENDT: Potentially. He was told he’s too introverted to follow this one particular priesthood path but he might do something else. The translation of the Divine Comedy was something that I wanted to read for several years. I had read some of the Cantos in Inferno at the library and I decided that this would be a good motivation to finally read it. Then I also thought that Cal was somebody I could give this book to and he could read it and would have interesting things to say about it. The same with Evelyn, the girl from the film. From there it was just a case of asking Cal what he was reading, looking at old emails in which he had emailed me quotes—actually this play The Renegado, which is in the film, he emailed me that exact quote from out of the blue, maybe with some more written about the life of the priests at the time. Then from the other people too, I incorporated their own interests. The whole scene where [the characters] talk about Frank Lloyd Wright and Vitruvius, the guy from that scene, Mike, is an architect and that was based on a conversation he once had. Evelyn is more of a mix between me, her, and another friend of ours. The Denise Levertov stuff—that’s a bit more me, something I was reading and wanted to channel through her. All the thoughts about the Divine Comedy are hers, based on a conversation we once had in a diner in January. So it comes from people’s interests and I try to mold the film around that.
But I think it’s true that they weren’t uninterested in the Divine Comedy; it’s certainly in line with the kinds of things Cal ordinarily reads. He reads Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish. Le Thomisme, which he reads at home in the first reel of the film, is a book he brought with him. I asked him to bring some books along that day so we could decide what he would be reading. He showed up with three boxes of books in different languages, usually relating to religion but almost all from antiquity, more so than anything modern. I don’t recall exactly the moment where we chose that book out of all the books he brought along but I think he went with Le Thomisme because Thomas Aquinas somehow was an influence on Dante’s theology. Cal would know more about that because he bought the book for that particular purpose. There was also this other connection that only occured to me as I was cutting the film. I was reading this book Mimesis by Erich Auerbach and there’s a footnote in the chapter on the Divine Comedy that refers to a book by Etienne Gilson, the author of Le Thomisme, to another book he wrote I believe about Dante. That connection was only something I noticed later on. 
NOTEBOOK: It’s so strange that in Short Stay, Cal doesn’t come across like that at all. Did your taste for which thoughts or interests to collect from your actors change? 
FENDT: There was already a thing I would do where I would ask people, like Cal, to repeat an anecdote they had already told me and use it as part of my writing method. As soon as I finish cutting a movie, I immediately begin criticizing things about it for myself, taking notes about what I would like to do on the next project. I already finished editing Short Stay at the end of August 2015 and I was immediately thinking of things about it that I would like to do differently in another project. And so onward and onward, everything I was seeing or reading was having some kind of effect in going into another project. So for this, I wanted it to be very talky because it felt like it would be superficial—I mean, usually when you have intellectuals speaking or so forth, it’s always the background of something else. I noticed this while I was projecting a movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, recently. The beginning of the movie is a lecture but it’s all just context to help you understand some of the concepts of artificial intelligence technology. Or you have a Woody Allen character who is a writing professor at Columbia and will get a 30-second scene—if that—where he’s teaching, while the rest of the film will just be him seducing a significantly younger woman. I wanted to take what is usually the background and make that the foreground. I began to think that maybe the only way for that to work would be to have really long, in-depth scenes where people talk at length about these things, the way that I would talk to my friends about books or movies or anything. And so I didn’t feel like I could write all that and still have all these individual voices. I wanted to use other people’s words.  
I was also reading a book while I was in Vienna, a trilogy of poems by Charles Reznikoff, an American-Russian poet. The book is called Testimony, and he takes American newspaper stories from the 1800s, thematically arranges them, and then re-writes them verbatim but in verse. And I had this idea that I don’t think made it through the movie but which was a kind of generating idea where I would take people’s words and transcribe them based on conversations we were having or loose rehearsals and I would then rewrite that into the script, giving it a verse form. I don’t know if that fully made it into the film but that would be a way of working with people’s words that would not be, let’s say, kitchen sink realism. Formalising the words a little bit so that when they were spoken again during the shooting there was some distance between the time they had originally been spoken and this artificial repeating of them for the camera. It was certainly a development of a method I had used before but I needed to take it further because I needed these scenes where people talk for a really long time.
NOTEBOOK: Was there an overlap between this film and your Straub-Huillet anthology for the Austrian Filmmuseum? 
FENDT: Was there an overlap? I think there was... We got the okay to do the book from the Filmmuseum in—I want to say the end of August 2015 or early September. Then I was working on that around the clock until January, which was when I was doing the group reading. Yeah. And then for this film, I had begun to conceptualize it around October 2015. But I feel like I was doing more serious work on it after the book came out since I had no time. It would have been March-April-May the next year when I was doing more serious organizing work and so forth. Which does then coincide with the Straub retrospective in May… and maybe further thinking about the kind of organization of scenes and of the lack of links between scenes in their works based on texts that are unfinished, like in Class Relations. There, it’s just a series of scenes—maybe in the book the links between them are stronger but in the film there’s nothing. You just have these autonomous scenes of characters who are suddenly appearing and disappearing and where the connections between them are not necessarily so clear. 
NOTEBOOK: I get the sense that the spoken text in their films as well as yours is very separate from just the sensual pleasure of watching somebody speak them, even awkwardly. 
FENDT: Well Harun Farocki, in a memoiristic article he once wrote, said that he got the sense that casting for Straub-Huillet had very little to do with the attitude of, well, this person would be great for this role, this character. More that they would just say, well, this person is available, we know this person, we like them and we would like to work with them. I think this was the case with Class Relations. This person has their own voice, their own speech patterns, and so forth, that is informing how Kafka’s words are spoken. There’s one layer, the text, and then another layer, which is the person’s voice. There’s not necessarily a 1:1 relationship between them; it’s two things happening at once, with the shot partition happening on another level altogether. In effect connected—that is by virtue of being in the same movie—but fundamentally independent. We didn’t do any formal work on rhythm and stuff like that but I was trying to create an environment where people would feel comfortable to talk loosely without feeling the need to psychologize or anything. But I feel like if you are asking somebody to say something again, something which they have already said some period of time ago, a week, a month before, there’s already a distance there. You’ve already created something else, something that isn’t theirs fully anymore.
Another thing I was thinking of was, in using more of my own words in the scenes with Evelyn, particularly the scene where she’s talking about Denise Levertov, the scene in the bookstore, the night scene at the end of the winter part—I was taking my words, distancing them from myself, words that were a little more journalistic or diaristic, and filtering them through someone else, through another gender. You know, a little like those early ‘90s James Benning films where he has a female narrator read his own words. In Landscape Suicide he does this and—I feel like there’s another film where he uses a female narrator. Oh, yeah, it’s Him and Me. It’s told through a woman’s perspective but it’s his story. Anyway, they’re all ways to distance something personal so that they no longer feel quite so personal anymore. They become a little bit more of an objectified text. 
NOTEBOOK: When an actor flubs their lines in one of your films, it doesn’t strike me as a cynical ploy, which is the sense I get elsewhere… 
FENDT: Right, right. 
NOTEBOOK: It fires my neurons, forces me to think about the word’s composition, the way it emerges out of a human mouth, the difficulty of forming the sound itself. 
FENDT: I guess I could say that there are all these things that I organize much in advance. Sort of an idea of what the shot generally will be beforehand but the actual composition being decided in the moment. But then you have this time while the camera’s rolling and people are talking and when anything unexpected happens, a look that they do, a word that they stumble over—these are also things I find exciting. Light changing. Anything that is not planned. You can edit this out of your interview if you’d like—I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent [laughs]. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year is… well, in May Anthology [Film Archives] in New York was showing in their Essential Cinema program a bunch of Brakhage films that I hadn’t seen in a while, maybe 10 years. And I decided to go and see them again. Around this time, I heard that Anthology is beginning to do a restoration, which I believe will be shown in the next few months, of Michael Snow’s <--->. So I’ve been thinking about Snow and about Brakhage. In something I’m translating, there was a reference to an interview that I had to look up, of Brakhage doing a Q&A in the late 1970s where he makes this opposition which... I understand historically how you could make this opposition and if you’re Stan Brakhage I understand how you could make this opposition. But I feel like, retrospectively, it’s totally false. Between Brakhage on one end of the spectrum and Michael Snow on the other. He says Snow is a guy who makes a machine that he sets in motion and then he doesn’t do anything; there’s no subjective, artistic intervention at this point. Which, to me, seems so false because there’s all kinds of decisions he’s making in, say, Wavelength. He’s shooting on a different film stocks, with their different textures and colour qualities, the camera is moving in a certain speed. Even Michael Snow would probably claim that he’s doing something objective but even within a very objective thing a decision is still being made.
NOTEBOOK: There are all those different-sized typefaces in So Is This
FENDT: Yeah. What I feel is so similar about them under the surface is that they both make films—okay, maybe there’s a lot of intervention in the moment of shooting on Brakhage’s hand and less so on Snow’s. But they’re movies that don’t tell you while you’re watching them how to relate to what’s going on on-screen. You’re very free and open, watching those movies, to relate. You are observing Brakhage’s reactions in the moment to what’s going on with light but he’s not overwhelming you with how you should respond. It’s something I always find annoying about films, what I find irritating about films, what I don’t like about films are those where I feel there’s a moment where the movie is very blatantly telling me how I should be feeling. It’s then easy to check how I’m feeling, and there’s always a gap. The bigger the gap between the two is a sign that its not working, that I should get out of the theatre, feeling defeated. I like this kind of openness and freedom to relate to the film how I will and I find that this is something I was trying to do. There’s very little audience direction in my films.
NOTEBOOK: Well, there’s a very pointed way that certain sequences are blocked. The omissions can be quite bold. I’m thinking of the shot of Cal discussing with his friend the architecture of a building, peering up at it with the sun in his eyes, reflecting on his glasses. The decision not to show the building or the speaker felt like a Lubitsch joke in a minor key. 
FENDT: That was a whole sequence that came out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. At some point, I was looking at Hawthorne for some kind of inspiration and there was a story I read—I forget which collection it was in—about some guy who was going to old historic inn and talking to some guy who hangs out there. And so I wanted to do something with an old house and Cal running into someone knowing something about the house. That evolved into a friend of mine talking about this famous house that he knows a fair amount about. I think he read up about it for the film. But he’s an architect who used to give tours of the city and knows a lot about this sort of thing. Actually it was always—in the initial conception of it, that scene was just going to be a long shot of the building. But when we got there, after looking at it a few weeks before, it wasn’t… I mean, whatever abstract idea I had in my head of them coming up the street, walking over to the front of it, and talking had nothing to do with the actual location. So standing there and thinking “how should we film this?” ended up being a wide shot of them walking up and then that close-up on Cal. Because at that point, I didn’t want to just have insert shots of the building or whatever. And then I didn’t really want to show the guy talking about it because it was more about Cal listening, wanting to learn about this subject, and his reactions to hearing about it. We didn’t take another shot. Just that wide and Cal’s closeup. Which also relates to something I like: coming up with something intuitively, in the moment and sticking to it for better or for worse. If I’m not happy with it, I cut it out of the movie.
NOTEBOOK: Is the editing just like that? I mean, a case of arranging things in a simple way.
FENDT: Yeah, the order of things really doesn’t change too much, definitely not within scenes. There were more things we filmed of Cal walking around the city that I’d initially thought would be transitional shots, but I don’t think they made it into any cut of the movie. Straight away I just thought that it didn’t really go along with my aesthetic conception of things. There were also a few more shots of him at home that I didn’t end up using. And then there was a long scene at the beginning of the movie that was still there very late into the cutting. I think I was too much into the movie and lacked perspective. And it was also one of the first things I thought of to film. It was this way to introduce the characters. Eventually I realized it didn’t really fit with the rest of the movie and it was a funny scene. We re-shot it twice—I wasn’t happy with the staging, the writing. We shot it again. And then again. And it was never very good. But it would just stay there. The movie would have been fine with it still there but it would be less dynamic of a start. In terms of rearranging things, not too much—in fact, not really at all. It’s all the shots I would decide the day before or the day of. Then we would shoot it and after it would just be a question of takes and some scenes became a little shorter. 
NOTEBOOK: Is it a long process? 
FENDT: You know, I edit very intuitively, actually. Very quickly in comparison to some friends I know who take a long time. I do a lot of cutting, maybe over two days, and then I take a break and won’t look at it for a week. And then I’ll project it and try to feel whether the rhythms are right or wrong. And I’ll immediately go and cut some more. But based on my reaction to that cut, and then I’ll take another break. It goes over a number of months but the actual cutting work is kind of—if something doesn’t feel right, I don’t deliberate, I just remove it. I trust my instinct in that degree. I read a Robert Frank quote that said something like “first idea, best idea.” I don’t know how committed I am to that but I also think there’s something about intuition that’s important to how I cut. And also to how I decide everything with the film. I feel like I tend to be very critical with myself, for better or for worse. But if I don’t like something—anything really—I don’t spend much time keeping it in.


BerlinaleBerlinale 2018Festival CoverageInterviewsTed Fendt
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