THE TAPE travels again: Missing

THE TAPE has been inactive. It was last seen covered in golden runes, bearing a message of warning. Those warnings were not heeded. The journey of the tape continues. In the second installment of this two-part series (read part one here), I will outline the process of creating the latest film.

THE TAPE, as you may know, is an ongoing correspondence between myself and Vvinni Gagnepain. Since 2009, we have been mailing a VHS tape back and forth in packages of ever-increasing complexity, each time adding an experimental short film to the tape. For the full background, you’ll want to read up on this collaboration in the archives: THE TAPE and on Vvinni’s blog: A Complicated Web of Paper and Lies. You can read Vvinni’s reaction to this latest film here: Missing.

Amgrot Gimnsp: MISSING

Vvinni’s last video ended with a photograph of me and the caption “MISSING.” That was three years ago. The reason I couldn’t respond was because, in fact, I was missing, and I still am.

Powerful Magics was the logical terminus of the conversation we seemed to have established. The montage section functioned as an editorial symphony, beginning with a remix of a scene from The Room and passing through a series of movements comprising a survey of my extant work and others’ reactions to it. It left me with some complicated emotions. For one, it demonstrated a level of mastery in non-diegetic montage that is so far removed from my own work that it almost seems like a different language. Also, it’s flattering to know that somebody—anybody—has paid close enough attention to my work to be able to analyze it and pick it apart in such detail, but it bothered me to have my work so cleanly summed up in a few minutes of screen time. In one sense, Vvinni was right: there are certainly conventions that my films follow pretty consistently. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that Vvinni’s analysis was superficial, and ignored the stark, genuine honesty that I have been able to bring to my best work, justifying the existence of some otherwise pretty stylistically unremarkable movies.

I had begun to understand the overall arc of our dialog. It, to this point, had gone something like this:

  • Andrew (I Got the Poops): Let’s have a conversation!
  • Vvinni (In Fridge): Okay!
  • Andrew (Happy Birthday, Murderer!): YOU.
  • Vvinni (Powerful Magics): No, YOU.

I had two options: I could either deflect the conversation from myself and back at Vvinni (“Nuh-uh, YOU!”), or I could say “Okay… me.” I chose the latter approach, meaning that I would have to make… AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. I’d never before considered doing an autobiography, because it seemed self-centered and indulgent. But what was THE TAPE if not self-centered and indulgent?

I knew I would have my work cut out for me, because every single volley in our conversation had grown more sophisticated and complex. We were speaking to each other in a coded language, and as we traded films, that language had begun to develop its own peculiar syntax. It was clear to me that this film, in order to be successful, would need to be deeply, almost inaccessibly personal.

My original plan involved a much more traditional narrative. Not long after receiving Powerful Magics, I began to write. But as I wrote, I found myself banging my head against the same old conventions that Vvinni had so easily identified in his montage. The script petered out, but I found myself intuitively shooting and collecting material for what would ultimately become Missing: a series of nesting episodes reflecting of the many ways in which I am both literally and figuratively lost.

Hand-processed 16mm, hanging in the shower to dryI cut and recut. I shot a bunch of really great material, then my hard drive died and I lost most of it. By the spring of 2011, I felt close to a finished cut. Then everything changed, and I had to re-cut. I decided to add in some 16mm. More cutting. Everything changed again when I moved to Iowa. Finally, in December, I redoubled my efforts to finish Missing and mail THE TAPE once again. The film was too good to languish, mostly-finished, on an external hard drive. At its best, it goes farther towards explaining my creative impulse than anything else I have ever made. At its worst, it is an insulting caricature of the person I am trying very hard not to be.

The long process of producing this film coincided with a pivotal period of my life. I received Powerful Magics a few short months before graduating from college. I spent the next two years as an underemployed and personally unfulfilled freelancer, struggling with my own identity. I traveled across the country for no reason. I got a front-row seat to an awful tragedy. I wrote and directed a feature film. I had my heart broken more than once. I finished Missing a few short months after landing a steady job and moving to Sioux City. The years 2010 through 2012 were perhaps the most eventful, formative years of my life, and the ongoing production of Missing bears that out. Much as erosion eats away at soft stone to expose the intricate latticework of harder elements beneath, Missing now stands as a testament to my transformation over the course of these three sometimes traumatic, sometimes exhilarating years.

Showing Missing to anyone is frightening to me, let alone putting it up online. There are things in this film that I do not want anyone to know—sections that carry a great deal of personal meaning for me, but which nobody else—not even Vvinni—will ever understand.

But if you want, you can watch it below:

The film ends with a call to action—or perhaps a reckless dare?

Dear Vvinni,

What are you going to do?

I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out.

THE TAPE travels again: How to Eat a Film

THE TAPE has been inactive. It was last seen covered in golden runes, bearing a message of warning. Those warnings were not heeded. The journey of the tape continues. In the first installment of this two-part series (read part two here), I will detail the construction of the package.

THE TAPE, as you may know, is an ongoing correspondence between myself and Vvinni Gagnepain. Since 2009, we have been mailing a VHS tape back and forth in packages of ever-increasing complexity, each time adding an experimental short film to the tape. For the full background, you’ll want to read up on this collaboration in the archives: THE TAPE and on Vvinni’s blog: A Complicated Web of Paper and Lies.

I was in quite a pickle!

My package for Happy Birthday, Murderer! was one of my favorite things—and perhaps the only bit of physical media work that I made at MCAD which I would actually consider art. It would be a difficult act to follow.

The one element that I felt had been really lacking in any previous iteration of THE TAPE was a sense of narrative. I hoped with this epistle to fold in a bit of a story. I also wanted to continue the theme of food which seemed to have become a constant in our volleys, and since my film was not very food-related, I would need to do something culinary with the packaging. The title of the package, I decided, would be How to Eat a Film.

The first thing you need for a story is a good central character. I found mine in a one Mr. Vedislav Andreyushkin, an experimental filmmaker and Russian immigrant to Iowa. The package would center around a series of letters he wrote in 1959.

What do I do? I was amazed, but is it enough to merely be amazed? I have hope, at any rate, that my research will at last provide me with some real insight. It really is a remarkable mechanism. It would be unwise if me to reveal in writing the true nature of its mechanics. You do understand, don’t you? It would be very technical anyway, and truth be told, I don’t understand some pieces of it, that once belonged to Cecil. He’s getting worse, spreading himself too thin. His doctors don’t know the real extend of the damage. I’m afraid it won’t be long now, although he himself can’t see it. but his eyes are dull. His latest has been too much, on top of his work with the Machine… When are you coming back to Iowa? I want to see you again. I was in California for the year, but I’m back now, and with my latest project in turn-around, there’s nothing to do but hunker in my laboratory and tinker with the Window. Please come and visit me. I miss you.

Vedislav's second letter, February 1959Vedislav's willVedislav's will – reverseVedislav's will – detail – witness signatures
Vedislav's doodles
Vedislav's doodles – reverseVedislav's listVedislav's list – reverseVedislav's list – detail – cake schematicVedislav's list – detail – cake diagram

The letters narrate Ved’s exploits with some kind of device (“the Window”) that allows him to meet and speak to other filmmakers from various different times and places, and the death of his friend Cecil. Ved’s research becomes more dire and he is forced into an existential crisis, before he suffers a mishap with the Window and accidentally transforms himself into a cake.

After appropriately aging them (green tea and an oven yield pretty good results), it was time to consider the rest of the package.

I let my students in on the work in progress last fall. They had worked with Vvinni when he came to Sioux City for the production of Write In 2012, and they were quite taken with his surreal intensity. Two of my students wanted to make their own short films to include in the piece (I may or may not have offered some extra credit for such an endeavor), and I decided to include those films as solid-state appetizers to the analog main course.

I put one film on a stripped-down USB drive, coated it in a thick layer of wax, and froze it in a jar of beet vinegar, along with the page from Vedislav’s will. I put the other film on a MicroSD card and baked it into a cookie. I baked one of Vedislav’s letters into another cookie.

USB drive and will in beet vinegarCookie with document

Furthermore, it was my students who gave me the best idea for the whole package: I had to bake the tape inside a cake. Brilliant! How could I not have seen it before? Of course, this raised a few logistical quandaries, not the least of which being that the Curie point of videotape (the temperature at which it becomes demagnetized) is roughly 266 ˚F, so actually baking a tape into a cake was not a realistic option.

As an aside, I should mention that I have some experience with cakes. I have eaten a lot of cake in my life, and last summer I was shanghaied into taking a cake decorating class. It’s a long story.

I solved my melting/demagnetization problem by sculpting an already-baked cake. After concealing the tape inside, I gave the cake a generous icing of tempered chocolate and inscribed it with the lovely, heartwarming sentiment “I AM DEAD.” Finished off with a trio of black roses and a couple calligraphic swirls, the end result was downright beautiful.

Cake: "I am Dead"Tape concealed inside cakeCake writing practice runA beautiful hard shell of tempered chocolateI remember how to make roses!Cake in shipping crateI knew that the long silence between Powerful Magics and How to Eat a Film obligated me to make a grand gesture of some kind. I settled on destroying THE TAPE and transplanting its brain. The original tape was a Kodak T-180 containing a home recording of the SciFi miniseries Earthsea. It was quite recognizable due to some messages and runes that had been applied to it in previous epistles.

So what I did, see, was I dubbed the contents of the original tape onto a copy of Home Alone 3 along with my new film, then I smashed the original tape with a hammer. That new tape was what I had concealed inside the cake.

Aside: Did you know that you can record onto a write-protected VHS tape by placing a strip of Scotch tape over the square indentation on the tape’s spine? Apparently Vvinni doesn’t!

My care package was almost complete: a cake, cookies, and pickled paper were all packed up and nestled with care into my handmade shipping crate. But it still needed one thing.

It needed a Jello mold.

I took the pieces of the destroyed tape and suspended them in a cloudy yellow aspic, molded in place in a compartment directly above the cake. I actually didn’t use gelatin, for two reasons:

  1. Vvinni is a vegetarian. If he decided, in some fit of rage, to actually eat part of the aspic, I didn’t want him violating his own moral code.
  2. Gelatin melts at room temperature.

Instead, I opted for an agar agar solution. For those of you not in the know, agar agar is a powder derived from seaweed that can be combined with water to produce a gel that remains non-liquid in temperatures up to 87 ˚F – hopefully just enough leeway to prevent the package from becoming a wet, gooey mess in transit.

The smashed tapeThe smashed tape, reassembledFirst pour of agar. Orange juice added for color.Solidified aspic, complete with title.

The package was, at last, complete.

To see how it survived the journey, see Vvinni’s unboxing below:

And read Vvinni’s analysis of the package on his blog, right here.

My next post will take a look at the film component of this project .

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