Filmmaker Jason Halprin Chooses Not to Tell Great Stories

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Some filmmakers tell great stories. Jason Halprin chooses not to.

In films he'll show Saturday night at Cinema Contra, he refuses to dictate to audiences how or what they should feel or think.

The 38-year-old experimental filmmaker grew up in Pueblo. In high school, he seeped himself in the writings of Western authors such as Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. From them, he learned to appreciate solitude, empty landscapes and the vastness of the United States.

Halprin is both an unabashed leftist and an unapologetic American who embraces the optimism and wide-open landscapes he says define the best of this country.

Most of the films he's showing Saturday night aren't particularly political. They're contemplative and meandering. They're movies depicting landscapes and reflecting on how geography and architecture shape experience. 

His preferred method of moviemaking is simple: He likes to go on long walks, discover interesting things, and shoot them on film.

Halprin talks about finding early inspiration as a student at the University of Colorado in the films of Nathaniel Dorsky, a filmmaker who treats sand blowing in the wind as though it’s a divine message and whose cinematography is a mystical rite, pure devotion.

Dorsky’s films are rooted in the possibility of transcendental experiences. Halprin, on the other hand, observes sacred moments from a distance, dabbles in documenting them, and moves on to the next shot. He’s not a cinema mystic. He's using a nostalgic technology, super 8mm film, with the restless sensibilities of a web surfer.

The films suggest that for Halperin it’s hard to focus, to be still, to be grounded in one place before walking on. He’s grasping for meaning, purpose and insight, and when he fails to find it, it doesn't stop him from documenting the experience. 

Most of the films in “Shaped by Landscape,” Saturday's program, have few people in them. He gives the audience no chance to try to understand those who do appear. The humans littering the landscape are inconsequential and distant, byproducts of their surroundings, not the sculptors of them. They occasionally acknowledge the camera — mostly with discomfort. Then they move on.

Halprin, who describes himself as “a one-page poet," admires some epic films, but he sticks to shorts and makes movies without a crew or script.

“In the act of going out to explore and find the shots, you have a lot of time with yourself,” he says, explaining how he came to be an experimental filmmaker. “It can be almost a really meditative thing.”

Watching his films, the audience may experience the prickly side of his solitude and the restlessness of imperfect meditation. Many of Halprin’s films are inhospitable and ambivalent about the viewer’s comfort.

He keeps audiences at arms length by shirking off established filmmaking techniques. Shots dip in and out of focus. His camera casually shakes. Most of the films Halprin will present in person have little in the way of a coherent soundtrack. He mines his audio from daily life and rarely syncs it up with what’s happening on the screen. The relationship between sound and image appears accidental rather than coordinated. Several films in the program have no sound at all.

As for the editing, it’s occasionally rhythmic, but rarely driven by symbolism. There is nothing in the way of a clear, narrative chronology. One image may mirror another, creating visual rhymes. Forget plot. There’s none to be found.

Take Passed Ready, Part III: Colfax. This 2003 film documents the signs outside Colfax motels and the Western idealism they tout and is one of Halprin’s more straightforward projects.

Halprin didn’t interview the owners or the residents. Even when he stumbled across one hotel where the owner told him a murder had recently taken place, Halprin left that story to the news channels. That tidbit doesn’t appear in his film. After all, it’s a movie about signs and architecture, not murder.

Notably, Halprin shot the sign of the Manor House Motel where Gerald Foos, the subject of Gay Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel," spied on residents and chronicled their sex lives for decades.

That’s the sort of story landscape filmmakers will mostly miss. Their relationships are with architecture and geography, not people.

Over the years, when his college teaching schedule has kept him too busy to work on a large project, he has taken breaks and walked through city streets, the countryside and mountains and shot one-reel films. Three of the movies he’s showing, Carmel Surfing Part II, Mylar Balloon Rip-Off and Monongahela Ghost Train are part of this roughly sixty reel diary series he’s shot on super 8mm over ten years.

He edits these films in camera, have no sound and are byproducts of his busy schedule.

Agnes and Me is a self-portrait Halprin made in the Rocky Mountains as part of Robert Schaller’s Handmade Film Institute. Schaller led a group of filmmakers up into the mountains. They lugged filmmaking and processing equipment to a camp and spent several days hiking up peaks, shooting films, and returning to the camp to develop their reels under starlight.

There Halprin shot footage of himself with a Bolex 16mm camera taking a bath in a nearly freezing mountain stream. The black and white hand processed images give him an eerie aura, and the film is notably more psychodramatic than any other in the series.

I Colonize the Golden Triangle is an experimental documentary about Halprin's trip to India in which he traveled widely, visited iconic tourist sites, and attempted to understand how the country’s landscapes shaped its people.

But, "as a Westerner showing up, that’s not going to happen,” he says.

Instead, he cut together a film that reveled in his failure to understand the country he was attempting to document.

I Colonize the Golden Triangle is replete with a snake charmer, a small elephant tourists would pet at the side of the road, and epic shots of the Taj Mahal. What it’s lacking is context about what viewers are seeing and what it means.

Halprin’s attitude: This is what is happening. Make of it what you will.
Nowhere is this attitude toward audiences more obvious than in his twenty minute brutal short Imperfect Video, which is Halprin's lightly handled remix of news coverage from September 11.

Upon seeing footage of the World Trade Center under attack on September 11, 2001, Halprin thought, “Holy shit. I need to pop in a tape. This is found footage material for later on. This is a major event.”

It took him until 2012 to begin to work with the material.

Chock-full of horrifying images, screams and baffled newscasters, this video is a replay of poorly archived video from September 11. This movie is only about landscape in as much as it’s about a landscape in crisis, and what happens when a city — and a nation’s psyche — begin to crumble and uncertainty reigns.

Halprin is skeptical most viewers can make it through this film. Curators have largely refused to program it. It’s too long to be easily put into a seventy-minute festival screening. Instead of finding meaning in the chaos of that news footage, his film simply repeats it. Sure, the footage has been degraded. The video images break up, damaged from time. But the horror is the same as it was that day. It’s a horror many have forgotten or have organized into neat stories to make terror more manageable.

Halprin rejects the idea that we can understand September 11. He resists the idea that it is his event to interpret.

While most movies would try to push viewers toward a better understanding of the world, Halprin takes a different approach. He asks his viewers to dwell in uncertainty.

“Shaped by Landscape" begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 10, at Glob, 3551 Brighton Blvd. There is an $8 suggested donation at the door. 

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