Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CB Q/A #29: Jonathan Parker, Director of {Untitled}

The first time I heard about Jonathan Parker's {Untitled}, it was described to me as a sharper satirical take on the art world than Art School Confidential, which I loved. That got my attention, but it was when I put two and two together, linking the director's name with his previous film Bartleby (a stylized cinematic take on Herman Melville's classic short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener), that I was really intrigued.

As per usual, I had John Ewing of the CIA Cinematheque to thank for bringing the film to my attention. In Ewing's own description, Parker's film is a "funny, knowing, yet affectionate spoof of the downtown New York art scene [that] tells of a serious composer of difficult, dissonant music (Adam Goldberg) who is resentful of his painter brother’s commercial success. But in time he too becomes the darling of his bro’s Chelsea gallery owner (Marley Shelton of Grindhouse)." Since reading that description, I've had the great fortune of viewing a pre-screening copy and I have to say, while Ewing's nutshell comment is 100% accurate, it doesn't quite document the levels of satirical brilliance and frequent moments of hilariousness that {Untitled} brings with it. Stated simply: anyone who is an artist, knows an artist, or fancies themselves an art enthusiast needs to check this film out.

Recently, Parker took some time to chat with me about {Untitled}, which screens Saturday and Sunday at the CIA Cinematheque. In the course of our conversation, we talked about everything from the way visual art might influence film making to how market realities might do the same thing, with a little conversation about his past work, his plan for the near future, and what Cleveland can do to make itself a more enticing place for film makers when they decide where to do their work.

1) One of the things critics have hailed about your film is its commentary about the art world. They uniformly find a negative theme, but I think there is also something tenderly appreciative. What is it you are trying to communicate with the film?

Part of it was that I wanted to get out there into the public from a reportage standpoint and say “Hey, here’s some of the stuff going on” in a world some people aren’t familiar with, but do so with a journalistic impulse. I wasn’t looking at it negatively, but objectively. I also wanted to make sure all of the characters were not con artists, but that they truly believed in what they were doing wholeheartedly. There may be people who find some work less good or have different taste, but I found it important to portray characters who firmly believe in what they do, rather than be seen as a joke or in on a con that people not in that world wouldn’t understand.

2) I recently read about your love for abstract expressionist art. How does that influence your film work?

You know, I don’t know if the kind of art that respond to has a direct connection to my work. I’m a big collage fan and I think there is some collage art influence in my work in terms of collaging together characters and scenes and ideas in a less conventional way than some hero’s journey narrative. But I’m not sure such a direct connection with abstract expressionism. There is such a different way of working involved there, in that they work rather quickly, while a film is time-consuming, painstaking, detail-oriented effort.

3) Was there any pushback with the idea of naming the film (Untitled)? I can see that causing serious marketing difficulties.

Goldwyn wasn’t that thrilled with the title and I was concerned there would be internet search issues, and that probably is a problem. Goldwyn wanted me to change it – they suggested No You Shut Up, but I felt that was too negative - and we’d had the title for some years by then, so we stuck with it. I guess we’ll see if that was a bad choice.

4) I remember reading "Bartleby the Scrivener" once for a undergraduate fiction course. I was sitting in this loud and busy café, trying to read the story, but the surroundings were to clattering and hectic to concentrate. I kept getting more frustrated, which bled into the way I read the story itself. To this day, that story is one of the three most memorable short stories I ever read. How did you decide to make it into a film?

I also read it in a writing class in college but I wasn’t thinking about it when I was looking for a movie to make. I came across the story by accident the second time, and when I did it struck me as having a lot of positive aspects for a small independent film. It is largely set in one location, so you could do it very inexpensively, and it also reminded me of where I worked at the time, my office, so I used that setting and it felt modern, personal, and contemporary to me.

5) What do you have planned for 2010?

I’m working on a new project. We probably won’t be shooting in 2010, but hopefully we’ll finish the script this year. It’s an interesting story about the 1849 gold rush in California. It’s going to be a period piece, with a lot of collage, and more stylized in a number of ways. Basically, it’ll be a comic version of There Will Be Blood.

6) The city of Cleveland has been making some noise about wanting to become a more film-friendly city. Beyond tax breaks, what would you advise city leaders to do?

Definitely the tax incentive is going be the biggest motivating factor for anybody. But because people may not be so familiar with the types of locations and scenery in the area, they (city leaders) have to get the word out. They should take some nice photographs of locations that are unique and inexpensive and send that information out. That’s the kind of thing filmmakers and producers are shopping around for. Making movies is very competitive and difficult to make money in, so people are always looking for unusual locations – not just urban but also rural – combined with final incentives. That’s the way to go.

7) Any memorable Cleveland experiences to share?

I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting Cleveland yet. We are doing a screening at Oberlin in the springtime, but so far I don’t have any good memories yet.

Oh man, you gotta visit. It’s a great town for memories.

I bet it is. I look forward to visiting some day.

will screen at the CIA Cinematheque (11141 East Boulevard, Cleveland) on Saturday, 1/23, at 7:10 PM and on Sunday, 1/24, at 8:55 PM.

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