INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Robert Koehler
As Azazel Jacobs describes below, he went through a teenage phase in which he rebelled against his parents. But these weren’t any parents: He had been raised in the heady and fecund atmosphere fostered by his filmmaker-father Ken and mother Flo, where conventional cinema—or conventional living—of any kind was simply not an option. What happens to the children (not the artistic children, but the real children) of experimental filmmakers? In Aza’s case, he went sort of flag-waving crazy—“super-patriotic,” he calls it—which is particularly funny given the title of Ken’s most enduring and sprawling film legacy, Star Spangled to Death (1956-2004). But while little if anything has been seen from the offspring of the previous generation of independent experimentalists, Aza is unique, flowering into a fully mature writer-director in his very own way. Not that Ken’s films could ever be imitated, but it is startling to note how far the son has stepped away from the father, while developing an exceptionally personal and distinctive voice that—true to the Jacobs household—has nothing conventional in it.
Aza’s three features, Nobody Needs To Know (2003), The GoodTimesKid (2005), and his newest, Momma’s Man, are the central part of a 17-year project (including shorts, some made during his training at SUNY Purchase and the American Film Institute) in which a young man raised in the shadow of non-linear cinema has been finding his way through linearity, with a twist. Another form of rebellion perhaps, but one processed with a sense of Chaplinesque comedy that’s always trickled through Ken’s films, most physically with co-actor and Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo as Aza’s counterpart in the near-silent GoodTimesKid, most comic-tragically with Matt Boren in Momma’s Man as the son of a New York experimental filmmaker and loving mom, finding that he can’t leave their loft after what was meant to be a brief visit from Los Angeles.
So, yes: Momma’s Man is autobiography of a sort, filmed in Aza’s family home, a crazed warehouse/library/toy emporium that can swallow a person whole if one’s not careful. But it is also cinema drama that derives from Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962); this is a film about someone who’s emotionally arrested and has failed to yet make the necessary breaks with his romanticized teen past that Aza himself has clearly managed. Momma’s Man is not a document of an artist making a film as an exorcism, but a memoir of recent things past, when the act of doing away with childish matters was confronted and done. It’s also importantly distinct from the recent obsession in American movies with man-children, reaching its probable Waterloo with the generally castigated Step Brothers, movies that want to appeal to audience men-boys—many of them of the lower sub-species of fan boys, that sad, sad type plaguing the land—and invite them to both laugh at, and laugh with, the bizarrely stunted culture they’ve created for themselves in a Lucasized Hollywood. In fact, Aza has made the ideal counterpoint film to that whole decrepit phenomenon, since Boren’s Mikey—after burying himself for days in comic books, pages of horrible song lyrics he penned to his first lost love, and losing himself in a now-vanished New York—finally, with a little nudge from Ken and Flo, leaves his old home and returns to his wife and baby. Responsibility, contra infantilized Hollywood, is the new life force.
CINEMA SCOPE: Did you intend some deliberate confusion by depicting a setting in which a fictional son visits his mother and father, combined with the autobiographical, non-fictional reality that these are your parents, living in their actual home?
AZAZEL JACOBS: Yes, in the sense that my biggest influences in terms of narrative storytelling are Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and their techniques of intentionally leading the audience in the wrong direction. I also wanted to set a challenge for myself, which was to write about somebody who I don’t want to be. Mikey was a jumping off point for me to explore what I was at ages 13 and 14, when I was pushing against my folks and just wanted to be normal. My friends would ask me what my dad’s films were like—were they like Spielberg, were they art films, were they non-linear? It would be so hard to describe them. And then I would see him showing his films in public, watching people leave in the middle, and it would be so painful. Watching those walkouts was such a heavy thing that it may be why I make comparatively easier films, although I’m not making easy films at all. There are parts of me that are inside of Mikey and parts that aren’t.
SCOPE: Matt Boren plays Mikey in such a way that he seems at first to be a well- adjusted person, with a wife and child, and then he begins to regress. This becomes very mysterious. I think the key is that, like the rooms in The Exterminating Angel, his parents’ loft is like a giant memory box sucking Mikey back into his past.
JACOBS: I agree. I divided the story into three acts, starting with the person who doesn’t want to leave, leading to the person who can’t leave, and finishing with the person becoming able to leave. Mikey is sure in himself, I think, that he really wants to leave each day, and then for some reason or other, he doesn’t. He’s been on this track in his life, and he’s beginning to think that maybe he took the wrong turn.
SCOPE: The place itself is so extraordinary, because it’s a bizarre combination of loft, warehouse, Willy Wonka factory, a bookstore—and so stuffed that the actual living spaces seem accidental. It has this negative affect on Mikey, drawing him back into infantilism.
JACOBS: Absolutely. During the shooting we thought of the house as a character, and it was having this effect on him. We see him first as a clean-shaven businessman, and he doesn’t seem to belong there, and I wanted to get things to a point in the film’s story where he changes, regresses, and become a part of the house. He’s home, but there’s also something that’s keeping him at home and making him unable to leave.
SCOPE: What’s also striking with this film, unlike The GoodTimesKid, is that we begin to see something that links your work with Ken’s, which is surrealism. This is something on view in, say, Star Spangled to Death (1956-2004), with its expression of characters living an alternate theatrical life. The way the world can transmogrify a person before our eyes, cause regressions and warps.
JACOBS: I’m really glad that you see that. When I see my father’s work, I can see him playing. Yet he also takes it extremely seriously. I would talk to him about the filming, and I would say, “OK, we’re gonna film this thing and then I’ll cut it,” and he would say, “No, no, no, you have to be there in the moment when you’re filming, that’s the first thing you do.” To play with it, he meant. He has no money, and my father is really hopeless about the world’s situation. Making films is how he survives; it’s what keeps him sane. So I always tried to pick up his energy as a filmmaker while shooting this.
SCOPE: It’s interesting how you direct your parents. While one gets the impression that they don’t have to play very far from who they are, these are nevertheless performances of characters. And anyone who knows Ken or has seen him project his films will know that this is kind of what he’s like. In Momma’s Man, they’re loving, caring, constantly attentive, and respectful of Mikey’s space. Only when it’s clear that he has pretty serious problems do they intervene, and even then, they do it gently. And this is all performed. They have to react to things that Matt does, there are dialogues and truly moving scenes. What was that like, directing your parents?
JACOBS: It was an interesting, bizarre dimension that was added to our relationship. We would have these two-hour dinners where we would talk about a lot of stuff, but this was a whole aspect that we had never explored before, with me directing them. It isn’t that they don’t understand narrative films; they brought me up showing me tons of narrative films. But the whole aspect of “roll sound, roll picture”? That was a whole new thing. So during shots where the parents would be onscreen and talking to Mikey offscreen, I would stand in for Mikey so that my father or mother would be talking directly to me, and it would be easier and more natural for them. I did this especially early on, and the more comfortable they became, the less so. They really enjoyed studying this process. It was nice letting them witness the process of this craft first-hand. Just looking at the rushes, they had no idea how it would all piece together. But like we were talking before about the sense of play, they really began to play while we were making this. It’s really been interesting, because now we’re talking about how narrative filmmaking breaks apart time and then puts it back together, and it’s sort of like when you first go to film school and you begin to realize how films are actually made.
SCOPE: That’s remarkable, that after they had been watching movies for so long, they were now being introduced in effect to the art of narrative filmmaking.
JACOBS: The art of the craft. They were able to watch an entire crew at work, so they saw how the sound person worked, how the lighting cameraman worked, the production designer. The mechanics. That’s something that is continuously important to me. So, that while I’m making a film with a story, you’re also aware that you’re watching a film, with the awareness that a film is being made.
SCOPE: The script seems carefully written and structured. It doesn’t feel made up in the moment at all, but thought out. Yet I’m curious how much of the film also involved Matt and Ken and Flo bringing their instincts and behaviour to the material.
JACOBS: My earlier drafts had the father as a writer and a sickly mother. It had a whole different background. I was writing for actors and a bigger budget movie, and then things changed at some point and I realized that I could write this for my folks. Then it didn’t make sense that my dad played a writer. The more they realized that it was for them, the more I got rid of everything that wasn’t right for them. I wrote Mikey as a role for an actor like Matt, who I had worked with before on Nobody Needs to Know. For my folks, I made sure that Mikey’s role was strong enough so that they could react to him and that it was always a guide for them to follow.
SCOPE: Was it mostly written before filming?
JACOBS: I went through ten to 12 drafts. The important thing was that this was the first time I was just directing and doing nothing else. With the previous films, everybody was doing five or six jobs at once. I can’t tell you how much I valued just being able to concentrate on directing. When I started shooting, I knew what the last scene would be, so the editing wasn’t nearly as complicated as it was with the other films. Another thing that gave me the courage to ask my folks to act for me was watching Andrew Wagner’s The Talent Given Us (2004). I thought that if he can get his parents to talk about personal stuff onscreen then I could. I really feel indebted to that movie. So, the day after I saw it, I asked my folks, “I beg you to do this. I promise that we won’t break anything!”
SCOPE: It must have been physically difficult to film in a place that’s so stuffed with things that there aren’t hallways or spaces, but what can only be described as aisles.
JACOBS: The only way I could describe it in the script is that the parents live in an antique store. We had a crew of about 11 people and we really packed in, so people had to stand around corners and in really tight spaces so they weren’t in the shot. We were going through basically what Mikey was experiencing—it was freezing in there and it was the kind of place you just wanted to get out of at the end of the day. And then I’d sleep in the same bed where Mikey sleeps in the film, and I might overhear something my mother said to my father, so I’d want to put it into the film. It was that kind of filming—a lot of planning, but letting things just happen.
SCOPE: So Ken was actually reading the book American Fascists, which we see him reading in bed in the film?
JACOBS: Yeah, that was like the USA jacket that Mikey wears. I worried if maybe these details might be too much. It came from wanting Mikey to look like he was stuffed in this big, puffy jacket that made him look like a child.
SCOPE: Like the kid in Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983).
JACOBS: Absolutely. I went down to Orchard Street and looked for the cheapest clothes, and found a down jacket that cost $40, which is ridiculous, but it had this “USA” logo emblazoned on the back, and I thought it would be too pointed. But then the thinking changed to realizing that, no, this is the way the jacket actually was, and that Mikey could really buy this jacket, just like my dad was reading that book. So I learned to just let things be and allow it to be filmed.
SCOPE: You’re also describing the kind of approach that Cassavetes used, where his actors would bring their own clothes, and he’s accept it as part of the film.
JACOBS: Cassavetes’ work was the first time that I saw a kind of freedom with narrative movies. I was studying film at SUNY Purchase and was way more interested in abstract film at the time, more like my father’s work. Then, I spent a summer working as the projectionist, ticket taker, and popcorn seller at La Cinematographe, the cinema that Jackie Raynal ran. It was a pretty intense situation. I didn’t know Cassavetes at all, and ended up projecting all of his films in a retrospective there. I had the keys to the theatre, so I would have my friends over after hours, and we’d get some wine and watch Cassavetes on late hot summer nights, and I saw right there what I wanted to do in films. They were so vital and daring, but also completely crafted. It’s the idea that if you hit some key narrative points that connect, then you have the ability to go all over the place.
SCOPE: You can then experiment with narrative at that point, and you can slip over into documentary and you can film people in the places where they actually live. You don’t need to create a designed, artificial environment.
JACOBS: The two forms blend together. And Cassavetes wanted to include his own life onscreen, and bring his family into the film, and I really want to do that with my own work. I want to have kids and I want to give these things to them that nobody else can give them. Every time I watch my film it gets more and more precious for me as I watch this place where I no longer live. It brings back to me where I got the original impetus for Momma’s Man, which was to capture a part of New York that no longer really exists, at a time when it was unpredictable and insane and if I had 80 cents, I was set for the day and had no idea where I was going. My dad has his own New York memories: He would tell me that he would go to sleep in Williamsburg as a boy listening to horses clip-clopping on the street. That’s nostalgic for him. And that feels so far away from my memory.
SCOPE: Of course, kids growing up in New York today are going to cherish what they grew up with when they become adults. We always hold dear what we experienced when we were young. There’s that change that overwhelms us when we grow up, forcing us to realize the loss of what we once had. What’s remarkable about the film’s brain is that it’s all understated, almost unspoken, and played out rather than stated in a dramatic way.
JACOBS: The key is that Mikey can’t express what he’s going through. It’s just painful for him to realize that he can’t go back to this point in his life. It doesn’t mean that we can’t take things and bring them with us into the present and where we’re heading. He ends up learning how to not take things so seriously, yet take the things that really matter seriously—like his own family.
SCOPE: The most profound idea that I think the film works out is this notion of the duality of toys. We see Mikey’s baby playing with this new toy in the final shot, and we’ve also seen Mikey play with some toys earlier on when he seemed to be regressing. Toy as intellectual stimulant on one hand, toy as a childish symbol on the other.
JACOBS: And another is the robot toy that my dad pushes toward Mikey, which is actually a really aggressive act, and yet he’s also sending something like a gift his way. Those robots are funny, yet they’re also heavy with personality. It’s a complicated thing—there’s something that seems wrong with a grown man playing with these toys, and yet maybe it’s something that has to happen. For example, Mikey had to remember that his songs he wrote as a teenager were stupid—it’s like he forgot these things, put them away, and now they’re back out of his desk. The girl he was interested in doesn’t even remember the song. It’s like his best friend who’s out of jail and living at home with his mom and watching the same 20-year-old boxing match on TV over and over again.
SCOPE: How do you think you’ve changed as a filmmaker from the time you made The GoodTimesKid to Momma’s Man? It seems like it was necessary to make that film in order to make this one.
JACOBS: That film taught me not to wait. The GoodTimesKid is completely responsible for Momma’s Man being made. Not only was that film able to indicate to the producers that I could make a real feature film, but it helped get me out of a box I was in, where I was waiting for something to happen. Gerardo Naranjo was in the same boat, and we both realized that we gotta do something now, otherwise this whole thing is going to come crashing down and we’ll never make a real film. So we put together $9,000 and made The GoodTimesKid. We knew what we wanted to say. And like Joe Strummer says, be clear about your intentions and be precise. Think about where you’re heading. And once we made that film, we were really proud of it. So I had the same attitude with Momma’s Man, that while it’s great that these producers are into it and I have my folks involved, one way or another, I’m gonna do this thing. I was ready to do it no matter what.
SCOPE: The GoodTimesKid was collectively made, but Momma’s Man was written and directed by you and more traditionally made in a commercial sense. Which way do you prefer?
JACOBS: I like both ways of making a film, plus I’m also eager to direct something that someone else has written. But I also want to make something with Gerardo again. He’s my Chaplin. Chaplin is the greatest.
SCOPE: And Monsieur Verdoux (1957) is playing on the parents’ TV.
JACOBS: That’s another case of what was actually happening was what ended up in the film. My dad has a DVD of Monsieur Verdoux and started playing it, so it had to be in there.
SCOPE: That’s part of what you do in Momma’s Man, which is to give your parents enough room and freedom so that we see them living their lives, having these conversations about details like the matter of the Denver museum space, showing one of his flicker films, and watching Chaplin—those would all be moments in their lives.
JACOBS: And that was something that they really wanted me to represent. They wanted to do what they would normally do in their home. And the scene where my father and mother are discussing their own business comes at a point in the story where Mikey is really stuck and isn’t sure what to do next. It plays slowly so it’s easy to wonder if it’s really necessary, but it allows Mikey to see who his parents are and that they’ll continue going with their lives, and maybe makes him wonder about who he is and what he’s missing. To go from that to the intervention scene was tough. It was really hard for my parents to watch Matt cry—my mom was really concerned for him. It was a completely new thing for them to experience, and very emotional for my mom. Like when he leaned on her shoulder and cried. These were really heavy moments for them. They weren’t acting. They were really living it while we were filming.
SCOPE: The professional actor can turn on and off, so how could they not become so emotionally involved, especially since you were shooting it in roughly chronological order and they had grown closer to Matt?
JACOBS: The films I dislike the most are the ones that lay out the issues and what everyone thinks about them. Or films that hand over the filmmaker’s own hatreds to an audience, asking them to hate too. But what’s happening as far as the audience is concerned is that this is real—this is documentary. I could see that happening with my folks at some points during the filming when they were realizing how the story is addressing some issues I had to deal with as a kid growing up, concerning how to grow up and what growing up means. These felt very real to them, so it feels very real to the audience. As a teenager, I went through this phase where I was into super-patriotic dress and styles, and I knew it was hurtful to my parents
SCOPE: That frequently happens: left-wing kids rebelling against their right-wing parents, or vice versa.
JACOBS: I’m trying to remember how they handled it, because they allowed me to go way out there and express myself, but at the same time I had this feeling that I knew better. I also realized that I couldn’t be a true believer in anything, even though I really wanted to be a complete believer in something. Maybe that’s a path Mikey would have taken if he had allowed himself to be a true believer. But now I’m glad I’m not that way, and that I’m skeptical of just about everything. It allows me to see things from various angles.
SCOPE: Regarding the new film that you’re planning, what is it about?
JACOBS: There are two things. One is an adaptation of a story by Pat DeWitt, about a 12-year-old boy in a small town that is so far from my own experience, but that I feel so close to, seems to me a testament to the story’s humanity. The other thing is a love story between a guy and a girl where the guy would do anything for this woman. So far it’s been a lot of fun. There’s some violence in it and some things I’ve never dealt with before. I’m so excited about it, but I’m not sure if it’s gonna be one for my parents.