Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You credit the Ukrainian-American filmmaker, Maya Deren, for being a major source of inspiration for you. Like you, she was also a dancer and poet. Do you consider yourself an “experimental filmmaker” along the same vein? Does film offer you opportunities to combine all of your creative explorations?
Matteo Marchisano-Adamo: Living and working in Hollywood, most of my filmmaking activities have been with more conventional filmmaking practices. All of my work has been narrative filmmaking.
I’m anxious to work more with less conventional forms with the cinema in the near future, though. Music is really where I experiment more.
Regarding film, the question of the medium and exploring what the medium has to offer as an art form is where we are similar – even in narrative, a more conventional filmmaking style, I attempt to do this – but the end result is very different from Maya Deren.
I’m influenced by what is happening around me, the people I’m with, the issues I’m struggling with. “The Unadventurous life of Ai” series is a result of this – which I’m making with my wife, Elena-Cristina.
Although the narrative of this series is rather conventional, it does stray from “commercial” cinema – at least in my mind – but it does fit, I think, into a specific genre of comedy. It is me in Hollywood.
Filmmaking does offer me opportunity to combine all my creative explorations. I think this is what makes cinema so powerful – the use of all the arts.
However for the cinema to be an art form it must have its own aesthetic – if it is to be more than the bastard child of the theatre or music or photography or poetry. Capturing this and understanding this is what makes cinema engaging: what makes cinema cinema, to ask a question that Andre Bazin asked many years ago.
Cinema is a young art, still, and already most people making films have stopped this exploration. That cannot be said, to such an extent, for music. As soon as the investigation ends in any artistic discipline – whether in a work of art or in the genre – that art is dead. It needs to be bulging at its sides, ready to explode into something new – to be redefined – for it to be meaningful and artful.
I like to see and hear things that are on the verge of becoming. It needs to be in constant flux – even after it has been completed. This is what makes art classic, in my mind: Beethoven, Godard, Robert Bresson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Cartier-Bresson, Picasso. Their work is not dated. I think the images in Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is more modern than anything today. Bill Viola is packed with cinema because he is an explorer of the discipline – in his case the use of video.
When the cinema was invented around 1895, as we know it today, filmmakers quickly become progressive with it. They had to; it was new. They had to figure out what this medium could do. In twenty to thirty years from the invention of the Lumiere Brothers’ movie camera, “The Man with a Movie Camera,” “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City,” and many other films were already produced. They are forward thinking even today. Eisenstein was already formulating his theory of montage.
However this is all from a Western perspective. It is ironic that the Lumiere Brothers were the first to make films in Japan. Of course, they brought the technology: the camera. This is a perfect analogue to the West’s relationship to the East: I’ll tell your stories. It should be: you tell me your story and I’ll tell you my story. Ironically, the first journalists to shoot the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Japan, and to show it to the world, were American journalists from the US Army. Insult upon tragedy.
But since the late 1920s, the cinema has become less interesting, less progressive in a lot of ways. As already mentioned, commercialism has a lot to do with it. It enslaves the medium just as it does people. This is not a judgment – it is a fact. We do things to make money. Everyone. We do and create things we otherwise would not only for a monetary benefit and necessity. That’s a problem.
Music, on the other hand has always been progressive leaning, but it took a lot of time and it continues to get more interesting, not less. In the West, monks started to use polyphony in chants around c. 900 and very basic usage – using thirds and fourths, parallel octaves – but the usage continued to develop.
Musical invention developed much slower than film but it did not stop like film. Musicians still explore what makes something musical – in all genres: rock, classical, jazz, Techno, Trip-Hop, etc.
Musical clusters existed in the 11th Century – but their minds and attitudes were not ready to accept it as a musical expression. They stayed away from the tritone (C to F# – this was the devil in music) for a very long time! I’m mostly speaking about the Western world – Europe. We can see the use of more interesting musical ideas in the East. We enslave ourselves with our own thoughts. Things are too defined.
I think all artists of any discipline must ask these questions about art in pursuit of creating. This exploration in the cinema has stopped for the most part – exploring what cinema is and how it can be used.
I do think we are living in a very interesting time, though, a time where things are changing very fast. It is very exciting for moviemakers now, but we need to think in new ways, especially our idea of story.
With the Internet and the advancements in technology and equipment, a new breed of moviemakers is evolving. This helps in making it an art again – it makes it democratic. It has been a long time coming, but now the technology and quality of the image and sound have surpassed storytelling. Now we need to relearn now to tell stories. We are still telling old stories.
Because cinema has been mostly used as a means of monetization, it has become corrupt, artistically. We accepted this idea in the beginning of cinema because it was worth paying $0.05 to see the train entering the station. That was new. Not any more. However we are still telling the story of the train entering the station.
How is our world changing and what does it mean for us? People can disappear tomorrow and the earth would continue. This is the story of our time. Our disappearance. It means nothing to the universe. Only to us. The ants could care less – they’d be in a better position, in fact, without us. Most cinema is used to keep things as they are. It needs to do the opposite.
On another note – It is important to find other means of distribution and collaboration for moviemakers. We see this happening through the Internet. This is the future. I’m not one of those people who think “home movies” are “illegitimate” art. There can be more cinema in a 30 second hand-held shot of a three-year’s birthday party than in all of the Transformer films.
I feel very positive that we are moving in the right direction regarding the transfer of information and art as a vehicle of ideas. Let’s hope the government does not get involved in controlling the flow of information. The new revolutionary is the one who has the information, expresses ideas, and acts as a conduit for more information and ideas, not the rifle. Today’s choice is not between a gun or a medicine kit.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: As a child you studied ballet and violin, eventually being offered a scholarship to study ballet in New York City. Then as a teen, you took on piano. Now, in addition to filmmaking, you are interested in atonal music. Would you say you were an unusual child? Who were your role models?
Matteo Marchisano-Adamo: I don’t know if I was an unusual child. Most children are probably inclined to take part in these activities – but because of the child’s fear of not being accepted by his or her peers, the child chooses other activities that are more in line to what other classmates are doing: sports, learning guitar over the violin, etc.
For me it was not unusual. The first sounds that I heard after birth were probably Argentine Tangos – that or Caruso singing Verdi, Gigli singing Mamma, or Schnabel playing Beethoven. My father is also an amateur singer with a very sweet tenor voice, but he didn’t have any formal training. I was always surrounded by the arts. But, yes, one could say it was unusual – depending on where you are standing.
When I got heavily into piano, my role model was Liszt.
I was first seduced by his piano bravura. Later, when I went to Budapest to study music, I discovered his late piano music. For me this is when his genius was really expressed – his use of harmony and timing. He paved the road for a lot of 20th Century composers like Bartok, Schoenberg, and later Morton Feldman.
Liszt’s late music is structurally simple, tonally complex and focuses a lot on stillness. He still is a role model – not for his pianism, but for his musicianship – and forword-looking ideas about music.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And now your focus is on atonal music. What is it about this experimental artform that speaks to you so deeply? Is it the history of rebellion? The idea of greater creative freedom and unlimited opportunity for exploration?
Matteo Marchisano-Adamo: I like to explore. I prefer it to the destination. I love tonality also and one would not exist without the other, of course. However I like to stretch my ears a little bit, to receive new sensations. To break clichés. I’m satisfied with not hearing the same chord progressions over and over. I like surprise. Tonality is not the only element that we have to use to compose with. Color and time are two others. Tonality, like the so-called “narrative structure” in film, is only one way to think about music. I love when composers use folk music in their work – like Bartok, Kodaly – it gives western harmony a fresh sound.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You also explored poetry. What an experience it must have been to have been mentored by the spoken word African-American poet, Sekou Sundiata at the New School University in NYC.
Such a sense of play and rhythm he had, often combining words with music. What do you feel is the greatest gift he gave you?
Matteo Marchisano-Adamo: The greatest gift Sekou gave me was an awareness of the poetry that exists all around us: that ideas are poetic, that poetry is not beautiful words on a page, that poetry is manifested in everything. It is a matter of seeing it and hearing it.
Sekou [taught] me to stop writing from someone else’s perspective and write from my own – write what is painful for me. So, I started to write about music.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Out of all of the genres you have explored–dance, music, poetry–what is it about film that satisfies you as an artist? What in your mind is the ultimate function of film for a society?
Matteo Marchisano-Adamo: Making films is satisfying because it is a confluence of all the arts. My entrance into film was as a motion picture editor, and I was attached to editing because it is very much connected to music – composing. So, in a convoluted way, I’m satisfied with filmmaking because I approach it as a composer but I’m using images and sounds to express ideas and emotion not just sounds.
I don’t know if film has an ultimate function for society. It does affect society – as all media and information that gets to the masses. Film has been and continues to be used to indoctrination people – which I think is negative. We all need to think critically about the information we receive. Otherwise we are doomed.
Film can be used for positive reasons: like expressing our own indigenous ideas to others outside of our culture – whether that indigenous idea comes from a corner in New York City or in the Middle East. We need to hear other people’s stories – not our own – told by those people – what makes them cry and what makes them laugh. But we also need to listen. Most people do not.
This is different from indoctrination because there is a two-way channel of communication, not just the filmmaker telling someone how to think and feel, which most film today does, but it asks us to think and engage critically.
If film – and I’m speaking only for myself – has an ultimate function it is that: helping to liberate people’s minds (as is the function of all art) – whether socially or otherwise. For example: helping a person or community on one part of the world exchange a cultural idea with someone in another part.
That’s why the Internet is such a great complementary factor to the arts. Film’s ultimate function, for me, is not to entertain. I’m not interested in that – I’m not against it, per se, I just don’t think it is the ultimate goal – again, for me. So, if anything, its function is to help people think and see differently – perhaps the opposite of entertainment, to help liberate the mind – like I already mentioned. In my view, the world needs to see many things differently.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Are there any limits to what can be expressed creativity? Any rules one absolutely must follow?
Matteo Marchisano-Adamo: No, I don’t think there are any limits. And no rules.
Being truthful to your feelings is what is important. This is the only guiding principle I can think of. If we’re truthful to that, we can trust that there are millions of people in the world who will feel the same way and will connect to what is being expressed. The moment we question this, the receiver of the art is thrown off. She knows it is not truthful. We’re not alone in what and how we feel, what has meaning and what gives meaning to us. Trust that others feel and think the same because they are out there.
I don’t have any issue with people who make movies for monetary reasons – as a commercial endeavor. I think these are boring reasons for doing anything but to each their own. We all need to make money. However, there are easier ways to become famous and cheaper, less difficult ways to make money. Everyone needs to make a living, regrettably. But let’s call it what it is. Commercialism, unfortunately, hijacks all the arts. It’s important to keep this in check and to understand why you do something.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: If you had to choose one moment in your multi-faceted career so far, what comes to mind? What still sends tingles?
The tingle happens every time I find an engaging sound or an engaging image – and when those two things work together to create something new the tingle is a little longer but then fades and I wait for the next moment. Also, I really enjoy working with other artists. Recently, I’ve been working on musical collaborations with Wilhelm Matthies. These have been very rewarding for me. I look forward to collaborating with more composers in the future. So, that sends tingles. I have tried to leave music many times in my life but it just keeps coming back.
To learn more about Matteo Marchisano-Adamo and his film series, visit him on Vimeo:
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Next up: Interview with Wilhelm Matthies, atonal musician who collaborated with Matteo.
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- To Feel Again the Magic (combustus.net)
- Barbara Hammer – Maya Derin’s Sink and the Diving Women of JeJu-Du (waamblog.wordpress.com)