The Eternal Now: An Interview With Filmmaker John Mann

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Filmmaker and educator John Mann teaches film theory and all sorts of production at the Johns Hopkins University. While some film professors might assign students the task of shooting, say, a conventional shot-reverse-shot sequence, Professor Mann challenges his students to learn to see the world differently. I remember when I took his Documentary Film Production course last semester he gave us the following assignment: “Don’t see in nouns,” he said. “A red-tailed hawk is not just a red-tailed hawk. It’s something more.”

I sat with John during a particularly busy Tuesday afternoon. I asked him to talk about his latest project, and eventually our conversation turned into something more.

CARLOS VALDES-LORA:     What are you currently working on?

JOHN MANN:      What I’m working on now is a film called If…then, and it’s going to be about twelve to fifteen minutes long. It’s an autobiographical film about two events in my life. Even when I talk about this stuff it feels so self-indulgent; that’s just my caveat. The first event, and why it’s so difficult to shoot it, had to do when I was a little over five years old and apparently I was outside playing, or whatever five year olds do outside, and then somehow one of my older brothers shot me with a slingshot. It’s never been crystal clear which brother it was, nor has it ever been crystal clear whether it was an accident or not. Those are only interesting as information, not as qualitative or evaluative, cause it’s revealing more about family structure than anything else. But what the result was, I was shot by this slingshot and it contained this large piece of dirt in it, which hit me in my left eye and embedded particles of dirt in my eye. I was taken to the hospital. What’s interesting to me is that all of this is anecdotal because I’ve blocked the entire thing out of my mind. It’s sort of an evolving family story.

I was rushed to the hospital on a Friday afternoon and my parents were assured that I was going to be fine. Then over the weekend my eye hemorrhaged and they discovered that I was blind. Not only that I was blind, but also it had severely damaged the optic nerve so it couldn’t be repaired ever, and it also damaged one of the muscles on the side. When I was five, my left eye wouldn’t track with my right eye. They said then as a euphemism, “Your eye wanders” [laughs]. Well, that’s kind of nice. It’s like it was taking a holiday. But of course it wasn’t funny when I was five and so I went to school and there were the usual sort of jokes. I had no control of the eye whatsoever so it would sort of do its own thing. It would wander all by itself as if it had its own consciousness.

As a result of this you become sort of isolated socially, so my parents decided that they would buy me something, so they bought me a stuffed monkey whom I named Joe. Joe and I became really very close. What I loved about Joe is that he had glass eyes, so he always looked straight at me. Especially then, and the same is true today but not to the same degree, no one knew how to look at me so they would avoid looking at me at all. Whenever they talked to me they would look at the floor or something. So I became very close with this stuffed monkey, Joe. I would talk to him at night and I would tell him all these different things that would happen. You know, we would be playing football and I’d go out for a pass but I wouldn’t even see the ball, it would just hit me in the head. I remember I played left field in baseball, which is the perfect place for me because that’s the most incompetent position in baseball. I remember they’d knock balls and I’d go run to get it, and it would fall twenty feet behind me because I had absolutely no depth of field at all. None. You learn that. I found out you can learn it socially.

So about a year or so later one of my brothers— although I suspect there may have been collusion— at least one of my brothers decided that I was becoming too attached to Joe. Now understand, [Joe] was like my conduit to the world. I guess he was my world. So every morning I’d get ready to go to school, and the last thing I’d do is I’d open the door to my closet and put Joe on the shelf. So when I got off from school the first thing I’d do is I’d run to my room, open the closet door and get Joe down, and we’d hang out and talk. So one morning I came back from school and opened the closet door and there was Joe sitting on the shelf, but unfortunately Joe’s head has been cut off. Joe’s head is sitting beside Joe on the shelf. And when I open the closet door, all the stuffing starts falling to the ground. So you can imagine it was not a great thing. My mother, to her credit, did in fact sew Joe’s head back on, but the sad and sort of ironic thing was it had this sort ofFrankenstinian quality but secondly he couldn’t look straight anymore either. His head was tilted and so we couldn’t look eye to eye anymore.

Then about three or four years ago, in my bedroom, I went to my closet to get something, and when I opened the door, it was complete time travel. I was five years old again, opening that closet door. I could see me doing it, and I could feel me doing it. For just this nanosecond I was afraid to open the door. When I opened it, I was almost stunned that Joe wasn’t there; it was that real, but an incredibly brief moment. So that’s what this film’s all about. It’s about the development of this friendship with a stuffed animal, but then it’s about the linkage and how these events in everyone’s life, specifically traumatic events, have this sort of haunting quality. They have this nasty habit of intruding into your life completely unexpectedly. I tried to turn this into a film.

CV:     Talk about the process and what you’ve encountered so far.

JM:     I shot the first part, which is of an older man going through his morning ritual, getting the paper and all that. As we see him doing these daily sort of quotidian events, there’s this sort of haunting. I shot him doing these basic things: opening drawers, looking through stuff, and walking down stairs to make coffee. Then I had this whole reenactment that I was going to include with this little boy, and it looked horrible. The older man looking through his stuff looked interesting, so I started thinking about it and first of all, when you remember something about your life, when you think back on it you don’t see yourself there. If you sit and think, well here’s Carlos at the family picnic when he’s eight, you don’t see Carlos there because, you’re there! In the memory you’re present in the memory now. So, the idea came to me that I would not longer have the little boy in it at all. Me as the child. Instead, and I got this from Rilke, this notion of object as childhood treasures. I started thinking about the toys I had as a child, and now what I’m doing is I’m shooting only extreme close-ups of these various toys, including Joe, and airplanes, and toy soldiers. By their presence they represent the absence of the child. 

The whole film is about the notion that we are only ever present in a singular moment. There’s this thing called the past, which doesn’t exist anywhere, and there’s this thing called the future, which hasn’t existed yet. Our task is to not be haunted by the past to the degree that we become incapacitated in the moment, and not to let the anxiety of this future loom over us, but to somehow make sense of all these moments and to make these moments connect. For me making films is a kind of research. The film is ultimately this notion of trying to find out how this moment of memory can be extended and expanded and articulated, but done so in a way that it is a poetic expansion. So that is is an artistic articulation rather than an objective, sort of analytical approach. There are all these moments in the film, close-ups of toys and objects that suggest a very strong presence of the absence.

And then I had this great thing happen to me. There was this article in The New York Times, in the magazine section a couple weeks ago, which had the most beautiful series of photographs that I’d ever seen. They were photographs of bedrooms of soldiers who had been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These bedrooms are so idyllic Americana, you know, the posters on the walls, the high school banners… and then you realize that this room will never again have the presence of that child. And the room becomes this sort of repository of memory. I was so struck by how what a horrible thing this is for the parents. To have this room you know the child will never again animate. The room is literally and figuratively a still photograph. So that feeling is what I’m trying to get through in If…then. And this quality of objects that not only express the absence of the child, but also objects that, and this is even more in a sort of Rilkean sense, begin to take on their own lives as if the objects themselves have continued despite the absence of the child.

There are a couple of scenes where one of the close-ups is a top, a spinning top that you twirl and it spins. And we see it at rest, still, so one of the last scenes is you see this old man now going to door to get the newspaper and it’s intercut with this shot of a still top, a beautiful little top. And then we cut to a low tabletop angle as we see the man receding into the background going out of focus, and there is the top, now spinning. The idea is these objects take on a life of their own and they literally and figuratively animate your life. It’s possible I think to sort of track this person’s life through the objects themselves. They’re not just treasures, but they express the person. Their presence continues the presence of this child. The child continues through these toys. So, that’s the approach I’m trying to take. And it’s been very frustrating, but it’s also very encouraging. What you’re trying to do is articulate the memory, and that’s damn hard.

CV:     What has helped?

JM:     What’s helped me a lot is to start looking at photographs and to re-read Rilke, and I was reminded the other day of one of my favorite quotes from Freud, he was talking about children. It’s about the uncanny, and the film has this notion of the uncanny, the uncanny nature of these objects. Freud’s great quote was, “There are certain children who don’t mind losing their toys because they love so much finding them.” I think that’s the tone of what I’m trying to get at in this film. It’s ephemeral. It’s difficult to get to, like we’re doing now, but when I start to look at these photographs and start to think about it photographically it starts to make more sense.

The last thing that has helped me a lot with it is that I’m writing the music myself, which I like to do. It’s all being done on a grand piano, and the grand piano actually plays a role in the film. As a child I took piano lessons, and there’s this scene when the older man goes in and he’s somehow remembering these childhood piano lessons and he plays a couple notes on the piano. It’s three notes from a Handel sonata, one of my favorite sonatas, and the beginning of it is three notesda..da..da. That to me is the notion of how If…then itself in philosophical terms is cause and effect. If this happens, then this happens. I’m interested in that causation in someone’s life. If I hadn’t been blinded, then I don’t know. Though things seem calamitous all of them are quotidian; everything is quotidian. It’s just that we make something more calamitous or less calamitous than it is. These three notes to me are part of the whole film. The way it’s shot is you hear the da..da..da, and the first shot is the note itself in extreme close-up, then the second shot is the old man’s finger pressing the note, and the third shot is the hammer hitting the string. In the film there are several scenes of cause and effect because I’m so interested in how causality has this trajectory. Your life sort of follows the trajectory of these events.

It’s interesting to me that I frequently find people in film who are blind in one eye to the extent that I think the MOMA recently did a show, a festival of films directed by people who were blind in one eye. My ophthalmologist and I have talked about it and he’s thinking about writing a paper because several of his patients, who are visual artists, are blind in one eye. So for all I know this blindness, this literally blinding event, sort of predestined me, if you want to, to go into film, which is one of my deepest loves. If I hadn’t been blinded I guess I’d been an… insurance agent or something [laughs]. I don’t know.  So anyway, that’s it.

CV:     Going back to the difficulty of articulating a moment and the conflict between memory and oblivion. The consciousness of the camera is unique unto itself, but it has the ability to reflect the consciousness of an individual, a human being. Do you think this difficulty stems from having to reconcile these two modes of consciousness? Is film the definitive form for If…then?

JM:    More and more from what I read about cognition, dreams that people have now are becoming more cinematic. There’s this interesting merger between film and consciousness. It seems to be that the original impulse was the mechanical eye. Like Andy Warhol, “I want to be a machine.” It’s a way to replicate mechanically consciousness.

For me the filmmaker, to replicate vision is really remarkable. We live in a culture in which we equate vision with intelligence, vision with knowledge: “I see what you mean.” To me the really interesting thing about film and looking through the camera lens is that more and more I think it’s articulating for me the way I see the way I see. It’s articulating for me to think about the way I think. The thought process itself becomes so cinematic, not just visually, but even the sense of sequencing of events. It’s hard for me to sometimes separate the two. Because of that, I occasionally have days where I begin to question the material stuff of the world. The other day I was reading a lot of Rilke and all these other people, who talk about transcendental moments, and then I had to go downtown to buy something. I had this brief moment in the car where I looked both ways and didn’t trust what I had seen. Maybe there’s a car coming and I’m not seeing it. You begin to think of the possibility of this sort of fluid consciousness on film that exists only on film, but maybe it’s sort of like an idealized consciousness. And we prefer it that way. It doesn’t happen to you when you’re knocking over a cup or burning yourself. As Susan Langer in that beautiful essay wrote, [“film presents the dream state, and it’s the eternal now.”] That’s where I’m trying to go with this film: to stretch out the eternal now, to make that moment and to expand it sort of like an accordion, or like the bellows on a camera. You stretch out this moment, and when you do you’re stretching out the experience, and the event, and the stretching of it is this kind of time travel. You’re including the past and you’re seeing these moments that coalesce and inform one another. You can see them all at the same time.

Can I tell you one really brief story?

CV:     Yeah.

JM:     Here’s a concrete example. Years and years ago I went to work at tobacco markets every summer as a child in South Carolina, and stayed in boarding houses, and that was an interesting experience. I got this really good friend named Willard Doherty and he and I were close for all these years I was there, and then I went to college and that was the end of that. A couple years back I go to visit this warehouse. This is a place where I had formative events as a child. I’m with Susan, my wife, and I’m looking across the floor thinking about all these childhood memories and terrible things that had happened and wonderful things that happened, and the death of the guy who was shot there…and then I see Willard’s dad. I turn to Susan and I say, “Look! There’s Willard’s dad.” And as I do that I can see and feel myself being five or six years old, and I realize at that same moment, “Jesus Christ, it’s Willard.” Willard looks just like his dad and I remember his dad, but that’s the extension of the moment. In that moment I was five and forty-something years old all at one time. And it happened [snaps his fingers] just like that. As wonderful as it was, as brief as it was, there’s no residual effect. It’s just over. It’s like trying to tell someone a dream. I can’t explain it to you and that’s what film can do. Film can coalesce these moments, and the great thing is that there is the residual. Through film it perpetuates itself and you have this sort of remembrance, literally this remembering of something. That is to me what’s so powerful about film.

CV:     It’s peculiar that something like film, which is so reliant upon the linearity of time, is the very thing that can make us aware of time’s nonlinearity.

JM:     Exactly. In and of itself it’s linear, but it has the ability to devour itself, to turn in on itself. In that ability I’m so struck that it’s not the mechanical, it’s the idealized conscious that we all love. When I had that moment in the warehouse I thought, “This is so damn filmic.” It’s such an epiphany! That’s what I’m trying to make happen in this film. It’s not like you’re going to watch the film and you’re going to have an epiphany, but I think maybe you’ll have a sense of the collusion of ideas and events. It’s so inherent to film itself. It’s inherent to the material of film.

Filmmaker John Mann has a number of documentary and experimental films to his credit. His documentary, Shelter, is about the experiences of homeless men living in shelters in Kansas and North Carolina. An experimental short entitled, Running to Keep from Falling, is a reaction to the notion of the hyper real ever present in modern life. Locust Point portrays the experiences of immigrants living in the Baltimore neighborhood during the early 1900s through beautifully rendered reenactments.