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Cultivating a Cinema of The North

Still from the Coen brothers' film "A Serious Man"

In this essay, reprinted from MinnesotaPlaylist.com, Kevin Obsatz puts forward bold proposals for how filmmakers based in The North could create a body of signature, lasting work. MinnesotaPlaylist.com is a virtual town square for Minnesota’s performing arts. The website heralds the latest news, offers services that enrich theater artists’ careers and lives, and shares a sense of camaraderie and community. All content is free, including calendar listings, show reviews, audition notices, talent profiles and in-depth articles. After reading Obsatz’s article, step inside MinnesotaPlayist.com and discover its bustling village of performing artists.
The soul, he said, is composed
Of the external world.

There are men of the East, he said,
Who are the East.
There are men of a province
Who are that province.
There are men of a valley
Who are that valley.

- Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand”
First of all, I think it’s important to stop referring to Minnesota as the Midwest. Not only is it unspecific (are we talking about Ohio? Missouri? Nebraska?), it’s also exactly the sort of quiescent, “okay whatever works for you guys” attitude that makes it hard to take ourselves seriously.
We’re the Northern Borderlands, the edge of the country, the North. Being an actual place, instead of a mid-place, brings with it certain rights, privileges and responsibilities. We get to talk about what’s special and strange about here, what makes it different than elsewhere, and what that means to our culture and our art.
No-place vs. someplace
I think that we’re on the far side of a century in which we imagined, culturally, that place really didn’t matter. Since we all had access to cheap transportation and industrial media, we could basically move anywhere that seemed convenient. So why not move to the Coast? It’s lovely there.
A big part of the reason that film production wound up in Los Angeles in the first place was convenience — it was sunny and clear most of the time, land for big sound stages was cheap, and it could look like anywhere; there was a downtown, suburbs, the sea, desert and mountains nearby. L.A. is the original no-place, home of the first freeway (the 110), which was eagerly copied by the rest of America.
Early in the age of mass media, people with specific regional sensibilities would make their way to Hollywood from all over the world, and they brought their own way of seeing, their unique perspective. That sensibility would be adapted and standardized somewhat for a mainstream audience, but it would retain some of its original flavor — rhythms, inflections, residual patterns from home.
This is true, I would say, for everyone from Fritz Lang (from Germany) to Alfred Hitchcock (from England) to the Coen Brothers (from Minnesota). Artists were shaped by their background and upbringing, they had something unique to offer the Dream Factory, and that perspective was assimilated by Hollywood. It changed them, but they changed it too, at least a little bit.
In the last few decades a sense of place has re-emerged as something meaningful in a lot of movies and television — we are aware, on some level, of how Baltimore shapes the sensibility of The Wire, and Albuquerque shapes Breaking Bad. Even for those shows, sense of place was by no means a foregone conclusion; David Simon talks about having to fight for Baltimore as a location, against the misgivings of HBO.
There are a handful of prominent filmmakers who insist on continuing to shoot where they’re from, at least part of the time: Richard Linklater has Austin, Alexander Payne has Omaha. I think that the Coen Brothers have even tried to give us a clue about our own slumbering sense of place, shooting two masterpieces here, Fargo and A Serious Man — but we didn’t get the memo. We were too busy insisting, “We don’t talk like that!”
I’m not saying that we should see Fargo as our model, but I am saying that we’ve gotten too comfortable being a mid-place. It’s much easier and safer to copy existing filmmaking sensibilities, to try to provide what we think is expected of us, and/or to simply move to L.A.
It makes me sad, at this point in my life, to keep seeing young talented people head for the coasts. It’s certainly possible to earn a living working on movies and television in Los Angeles, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any easier to be a successful filmmaker.
When I see people leave Minnesota, I feel like I know their trajectory by heart already: show up in L.A. bright-eyed and ready for anything, feel a lot of gratitude for work and income, make some friends, get busy, I mean really busy, working in production or post, and — fast forward 5-10 years — decide it’s really time to make something for themselves, their own project! The resources may be more available to them than ever, but meanwhile they’ve missed out on 5-10 very important years of actual creative practice.
Whereas here, in the North, if you’re truly serious, you can start making films right away. Time is far more abundant, due simply to the low cost of living, and we have all the tools and resources we could ever need to make beautiful, amazing, unique, and local film and television.
Someplace that makes things
Unfortunately, when we do pursue our projects, time and again, we forget that we actually are someplace — The North — and that we have something unique to offer, creatively and culturally.
In my experience, based on years in the Minnesota film community in various capacities, our filmmakers tend to think they’re supposed to mimic what they see already out there, whether it’s on TV or in movie theaters. We’re stuck in some old assumptions about how things are supposed to look, how we’re supposed to shoot and assemble our stories, and which stories we’re choosing to tell. I think it’s a tremendous mistake to use our resources to copy Hollywood filmmaking, or even mainstream independent filmmaking. There’s nothing new to say there. If anything, they rely on us for new ideas, believe it or not.
We can use these new, accessible, high quality HD filmmaking tools any way we choose. Our influences don’t have to be standardized, that’s just the easy way, the path of least resistance. When we devote our energy to proving that we can make mainstream movies, we’re missing out on the opportunity to actually provide something unique to the cultural conversation. Why do they need us (“they” being Hollywood, or Sundance, or SXSW or whoever) if we’re only doing what they already know how to do?
If the Cinema of the North actually became its own thing, what would it look like? These are my personal observations of what is distinctive about where we live and how those observations can translate into a unique, local film aesthetic.
We have long winters.
Yes, that is the biggest cliché about Minnesota, but it’s also true. We could learn a thing or two, I think, from Northern European cinema and Russian cinema about letting our climate inform our artistic choices. I’m not saying we should copy Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky, merely that they’re a useful place to start.
Los Angeles was initially the center of the filmmaking world because there was lots of reliable sunlight there, which was non-negotiable at the beginning, when the chemical technology for celluloid was slow — either the sun itself or massive amounts of direct artificial light were needed to properly expose film.
The digital and chemical technologies for gathering light are a lot better today, but Minnesota still has long nights and cold weather for about six months of the year. Which is a hassle for a big crew shooting on a traditional production schedule, i.e., 12 hour days, parking trucks, keeping extras warm, etc.
Winter is cold, dark, monochrome and mostly an indoor experience. The brutality of the elements can kill you in just a few minutes if you get stuck outdoors without proper attire. Claustrophobia, depression, negativity and cabin fever afflict even the heartiest of us in February and March. Why not use this time to make claustrophobic, dark and depressing films?

Why pretend to be cheerful and extroverted? Why push it? The world needs dark and depressing films, too. The list of dark filmmakers is actually long and distinguished, and includes, for a few contemporary examples, Lars von Trier and Nicolas Refn, superstar festival darlings of our times. Both are from Northern latitudes, incidentally.
Minnesota is not a cheerful place in February, but most independent American films (in my experience) think that success requires an upbeat, heartwarming and redemptive story (unless they’re some kind of cheap, clever meta-horror). Do we really need more of those?
It can be cathartic to go headfirst into the darkness, and even if the filmmaking that comes from that place is difficult to make and to watch, at least maybe we can get it out of our systems by springtime. I would much rather see something authentically dark than superficially upbeat.
Even if dark isn’t your style, going through the darkness can be the first step in breaking through to the fecund and dazzling delights of springtime. I would say that Minnesotans have the capacity to appreciate the return of the sun and growing green things far more deeply than long-term denizens of Southern California, for whom every day is uniformly pretty.
We have patience.
I have heard again and again, from people all over the world, including a curator in Beijing, that artists work harder, faster and produce more when they’re in a hypercompetitive, challenging environment: i.e., surrounded by successful people and struggling to pay the rent, a familiar situation to anyone who’s survived as an artist in New York, London, or… Beijing, I guess.
Perhaps this is true, for what it’s worth. Perhaps many artists in these situations find themselves highly motivated and productive through some combination of professional covetousness, fear of failure and desire to prove themselves.
But it also sounds dreadful to me, to make art from a place of mortal dread and dissatisfaction. It’s possible that in Minnesota we have the opportunity to worry and hurry less. Maybe it’s okay to have a day-job if you can survive working 30 hours a week. Maybe work / life balance is slightly easier to navigate, with kids, when you can actually afford a house with a yard.
Maybe we can afford to be patient here, and can see the value of it, because sometimes artistic evolution takes time?
In the film world, no matter who you are or how much money you have, it’s pretty normal for a short film to take six months to finish, and a feature film to take three to five years. That’s with a budget, fundraising, and paid personnel for production and post-production. Even on a “professional” scale, it’s rare for the filmmaking process to pay all of the bills. Major directors run off and do commercials during the months before and after the handful of weeks when they’re actually out shooting their movie.
If hardly anyone earns a living in the film industry purely from their creative output, doesn’t it make sense to give the process ample time to breathe? Wouldn’t you rather make six amazing movies in your life than 12 pretty good ones?

It makes me angry when people imply that what’s wrong with the Minnesota film community is that we’re not working hard enough and fast enough. I do believe that there’s an important distinction between “making something” and “thinking about / talking about / considering / mulling over the possibility of making something” —and I don’t have a lot of patience for faux filmmaking. But if there is a creative process genuinely underway, with a beginning and an end, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that process taking two, four, six years. Good art takes commitment and diligence, but it also takes time.
I’ve seen plenty of projects and filmmakers sabotaged by this ideal of hyper-productivity; the idea that one short film in a year isn’t enough to really get a career off the ground (whatever that means), so why even bother. I say screw that. We have the genuine luxury here in Minnesota of time. Life is short but it’s not that short. If you’re genuinely in the process, making films and finishing them, you’re ahead of 80 percent of the people in the world (including in L.A.) who presume to call themselves filmmakers.
Again, “Go Slow” is not the same as “Wait.” I think most of us, when we’re being honest with ourselves, can feel the difference between being in the artistic process at whatever stage, and falling out of it — not finishing a project, or not starting one, for years, for a wide range of reasons.
It’s also possible, in filmmaking, to pursue small projects, tiny ones, in between and alongside the big ones — to shoot something beautiful in an afternoon and edit it into a short film poem, for example. With the technology we have at our fingertips today, and the relatively low-financial-pressure lifestyle we can cultivate far from the coasts, I believe that anyone who really wants to make movies can find a few hours every week, or a day every month, to make either a little progress on a big project, or a lot of progress on a small one.
We are self-reliant.
Can you imagine how hard it was, 100 years ago, to travel with your family into the northwestern woods, clear some acreage of old-growth forest by hand, build a house, cultivate the land, grow crops, and establish a cozy homestead in time to weather a hard Minnesota winter with nothing but a wood stove to keep your family from freezing?
Me neither. But that’s our cultural heritage, at least part of it. The long winters, the hearty genetic stock, and the history of populism and progressivism in the region all contribute to the Minnesotan culture of figuring out what needs to get done, and doing it. These days this includes everything from CSA farming on city plots of land, to community organizing, to music and arts festivals that spring up spontaneously and go on for decades.
The buzzword for this, these days, is entrepreneurial, but for me it holds a slightly different inflection than, say, an Internet start-up. It’s community-oriented in the sense that often the goal is not to build a business, sell it to Google and buy an island, but simply and directly to fill a need — to have an idea that would make things better, right here and right now, and to set about making it a reality. MinnesotaPlaylist itself was created in this spirit, from what I’ve heard.
3. PIONEER (as a verb)

In the film industry, there are a lot of established rules for How We Do Things. These rules encompass everything from the right way to format a shooting schedule to exactly what should happen at the Turning Point of Act II (which is, I think, Something Really Bad).
Rules always exist for a reason, and a lot of filmmaking rules go back to best practices from Hollywood in, say, 1937. Indeed, a lot of brilliant people worked hard at developing a process for filmmaking that was efficient, effective and profitable.
Yes, it’s worth learning those rules, about both what should happen on the screen and on the spreadsheet, but SO MANY of those rules are not really relevant to us, here, now. Of course, the thing about deviating from the beaten path is that you may never find the path again. You may wind up in the heart of a briar patch or sinking into quicksand. But this is where the very cheapness and compactness of the tools we have available in 2014, in combination with our patience, become immensely useful in a process of trial and error, iteration, experimentation.
I keep getting in arguments with people about this — what it sounds like I’m saying is “don’t aspire to make anything big, accessible and popular.” When in fact the opposite is true. I believe that you don’t know your true style until you make lots of films. You can’t get to Indie Fame and Fortune via Smash-Hit Breakout First Feature by skipping the non-negotiable preliminary step of developing a style to call your own.
We are stoic.
Second only to the cold winters, the favorite cliché about Minnesotans is that we’re emotionally inexpressive, passive aggressive, Minnesota Nice. It’s interesting to think about where this might come from. Maybe back a few generations, if you offended your neighbors, you might worry about them not helping you when you run out of firewood in the winter, and you might freeze to death?
I’m not sure if this is more true here than anywhere else. I hear plenty of complaining from Minnesotans about the weather, and I spent long enough in L.A. as a script reader to know that the film industry there doesn’t necessarily have a reputation for uncompromising, brutal honesty either.
But nevertheless, let’s talk about Stoicism as a lifestyle. There is plenty to complain about (or “process”) in the world today, and I appreciate the benefits of talk therapy as much as anyone, but at a certain point, words are just words. They don’t solve anything, whether we’re discussing / complaining / educating each other about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or white privilege, or the cost of college tuition. NPR and Facebook are exhibit A and B for the utter futility of words, past a certain point, to make any difference in the unfolding of events in our lives, individually and globally.

There’s a long and rich history of verbose films and filmmakers, from Tarantino and Scorsese today, all the way back to the dawn of sound and the witty repartee of screwball comedies and fast-talkin’ career gals.
Our world today is arguably more saturated with words than it has ever been. Text and spoken language densely populate our screens, our cityscapes and soundscapes. We plug into podcasts, talk radio, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Even though we’re relentlessly told that we’re living in an image-based culture, rarely does a significant moment go by without a deluge of commentary.
We each have the tools at our disposal to make lots of noise, clamoring for attention for ourselves and for our creations. And so, perhaps not coincidentally, the power of silence, or mere quiet, may be greater than it has ever been.
I love words, I love to write, and I certainly love to talk — yet, over time, my films have grown less and less wordy. Maybe that’s simply a personal preference, but I think there’s a lot of potential there, in that spaciousness, for a new and distinctive cinematic rhythm and rhyme. Less iambic pentameter, more haiku. Other cultures around the world may be far ahead of us in terms of verbal economy (saying more with fewer words), but in the U.S., I think the North could lead the way in rediscovering this austere aural terrain.
Ali Selim’s Minnesota-made film Sweet Land is a one of the best examples of how taciturn characters can change the rhythm of storytelling in a distinctively Northern movie. Incidentally, all of his IMDB credits since that film in 2006 are on distinctly L.A.-based series television. Remember that thing I said about getting too busy working for other people to make your own films?
We live in the Hinterlands.
The Coasts have a special romance, well deserved perhaps, as places of vibrant cultural exchange. That’s what a coast does. For thousands of years, port cities have welcomed traders on boats with stories to tell. That, and coffee, fueled the Renaissance culture in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, we in The North have a reputation for being in the middle of nowhere, flyover country, farmland, full of trees and lakes, hunting and fishing, people canoeing and kayaking around pristine landscapes. Granted, Duluth is a major port, and we have the headwaters of the Mississippi, but we’re still considered too far inland to bother with, for the most part.
The 20th Century was a coastal century, all about free-flowing ideas and products, but the coast doesn’t really mean anything without the Hinterland: the fertile soil set back from the rocky shore, where things grow. Because without somebody growing and cultivating something, there’s nothing to sell in the port city, no goods to take to market, be they fresh organic veggies or local culture and folklore.

Think about that for a second: Coasts aren’t for making, they’re for trading.
Conventional wisdom is that films are made in New York and L.A., but what are films made out of? What are the raw materials of culture production? I would argue that the actual film production process, which is often treated as filmmaking, the conjuring into being of characters and stories, is closer, in industrial terms, to a manufacturing process. Raw materials go in one end and finished commodities come out the other. But it’s a mistake, I think, to believe that all of the raw materials themselves can be grown and developed in Los Angeles and New York.
The raw materials of movies (and culture in general) — what is referred to in the industry as “content” — are characters and stories: in other words, people and relationships.
For generations, aspiring filmmakers have left their respective Hinterlands, where they’ve grown up in the rich soil of culture and family and community, in order to join the manufacturers and traders on the coast. They may never be consciously aware that they’re drawing upon that raw cultural material to inform their unique creative choices. Over time, they may lose touch completely with these raw materials — the characters and relationships — that they used to generate stories and inform a distinctive point of view early in their career.
At this point, they may well have found their way into a decent job in the film industry, but, cut off from the source of their culture by 2000 miles, they’ll have lost access to the raw materials necessary to make their own movies, to tell their own stories at all. By mid-career they won’t have any new ideas, or any ideas outside of the re-processed industrial cultural products they have already consumed, and they’ll wonder why not.
But if the steady influx of raw materials from the Hinterland into the Film Industry has continued unabated, there will continue to be plenty of “production” to work on, as the new “content” circulates through the Dream Factory.
Perhaps this sounds sinister, and perhaps it is. Often it’s framed as exploitation of new talent, the exhausting of the young and eager.  But it’s also possible to think of it as just how industry works, any industry.

Some filmmakers seem aware of the importance to their creative process of continued access to the raw materials of their cultural Hinterland. Alexander Payne, mentioned earlier, still spends part of each year in Nebraska, and Terrence Malick generally takes long enough in between films for a great deal of cultural regeneration to take place.
Regardless, I think this is good news for those of us who are staying here in the Hinterland, whether by choice or by chance. We take our access to the rich soil of authentic regional culture for granted a lot of the time, or we may actively disdain it, treating it as a no-place or wishing we were elsewhere. But we are not no-place, and we are not elsewhere. We live in The North.
Our rightful place
If we try to ignore it or erase it, in our stories and characters and films, if we try to make things that are devoid of locality, that don’t look and sound like The North, then we’re missing out on a profound opportunity to explore what The North is, what it means to us, and what significance it has in the world — existentially, philosophically, aesthetically, creatively.
We’re actually depriving the world of the influence of The North — the American North, anyway. And if we do leave and forget where we’re from, that’s not good for us as artists, and it’s not good for the health of the cultural ecology as a whole, or for the world of cinema specifically.
I want to be part of a community of artists who are proud to be of The North, and in The North, proud to contribute to the culture from here, to own it, to explore it, whatever it may mean, authentically, on our own terms. I want us to go dark and slow and quiet, to be intentional, thoughtful pioneers of the community cultivating a living cinema here, inland.
I believe that this exploration and experimentation and honesty and fearlessness will lead, directly or indirectly, to a film community and a film culture of The North that I will be proud to share with the world. It is not true that culture is created on the Coasts and delivered to the Hinterlands.
If we embrace our sense of place and express ourselves on film truthfully, then ultimately I believe that the world will come us, on our terms. And if it doesn’t, so be it. We live in the North —we don’t really need ‘em, anyway.
Kevin Obsatz is a filmmaker and media artist who has been living and working in Minneapolis since roughly 2002. He currently teaches Intro to Experimental Media at the University of Minnesota and co-leads the Production Mentorship workshop at IFP. He curates Cellular Cinema, a recurring screening series featuring local experimental film, video and performance at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater, and should receive an MFA from the University of Minnesota this spring. You can find samples of his work and his full resumé at www.videohaiku.com.
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