photo : Carl Byron Batson
Tav Falco, the Memphis born frontman of Panther Burns, actor, photographer and filmmaker paid a flying visit to London for the UK premiere of his first feature length film, Urania Descending last weekend. The screening was prefaced by an Argentinian tango by accomplished dancer Tav playing his screen role of Diego Moritz and Via Kali playing her role of Gina Lee. Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, release of his new album Command Performance is imminent and there is a photography book in the offing.
So what inspired you to make Urania Descending?
When I started living in Vienna and going to the cinema there, a number of films made an impression on me, particularly Expressionist film directors like Pabst, Josef von Sternberg, Fritz Lang and Erich von Stroheim.
In 2006 Cinémathèque Française in Paris hosted a retrospective of my short films. I did a number of short films starting when I lived in Memphis in the 70s and on a variety of topics, from blues musicians like R.L. Burnside to theatrical pieces to art action happenings on film and video. Through knowing people there I was exposed to beautiful prints from Louis Feuillade, the pioneer film maker, who made Fantomas, Les Vampires and so on.
Expressionist cinematography and image quality, the idea of something shown on screen that is not tied to a realistic setting but is tied to something interior in the individual, that’s where the dark waters of the unconscious reside. I use various techniques and recurring imagery to get that, like the water sequences, there’s a recurring symbolism of sounds and images of water. I use scenes in Vienna and Arkansas to set the ambiance and the characters react to these environments rather than being totally controlled by them until the end and then we see that the lake becomes the dominant force.
The film is an intrigue but it’s poetic. The character is a disaffected, disenchanted American female who impulsively buys a ticket to Vienna and through the search for treasure buried by the Third Reich she becomes the avatar of the Urania, the muse of the heavens.
Some of the dialogue in Urania Descending is dealt with by intertitles in the silent film tradition and at the beginning of the film we are told not to expect perfect lip syncing or modern production techniques. Did you consider making this as a silent film throughout?
I felt we needed some spoken language from the characters. I wanted to reveal the tone of their voice. You can see there’s not a lot of dialogue, there’s just enough to give a colouration, a voice to these characters. I wanted the contrasting sound between the American Gina Lee and the Austrian educated, cultured voice of von Reigl. And I wanted ambient sound. I thought it was important to have the sound of water, the footsteps, the sound of the glasses, those few little sound effects just to give a feeling of superrealism because when it’s completely silent it takes an awful lot of imaginative input from the viewer and extensive use of intertitles. There are a lot of intertitles in this film anyway, I hope it’s not too much but England is a country of readers.
I like silent film in the hands of the masters. To me silent film is like visual music because there’s time involved, that continuation of time. But silent film also has pauses, it has moments that breathe when the camera is still when there’s no action in the frame and then there becomes movement again. That to me is pure cinema, pure visual music.
Some of Warhol’s work is pure cinema but there’s only so much Warhol I can watch. I think it was a cop out for him, I think he was just lazy in large part. I met him at the Factory not long after he had been shot. The girl I was dating had a Polaroid of one his paintings, an early Cubist style quasi-representational painting of a saxophonist, that she wanted signed. Andy was edgy about who he let in and we had to get past the buzzer to even get on the elevator. Then there was a little slot like a prison door with mesh in the glass and then another mesh. Then there was Andy Warhol standing in the doorway and he let us in.
But I don’t watch a lot of films. I don’t like gore; it bores me. I don’t like to go to a film with ostensible violence, to me it’s a cop out. I don’t like to see a Scorsese film because of all the yuck in there and it’s presented with no real taste. It makes audiences totally desensitised to real violence. Now people walk down the street and someone can be attacked next to them and they stand there with a dumb look on their face or keep on walking, it happens all the time. You look at some of the Expressionist films and it’s shown in such a way that it’s more touching than had it been more graphic. Hitchcock did little wrong. I’m not into crime for crime sake but suspense is interesting and you have to reflect life, there is violence but I think the artist must have a sensibility and Hitchcock had that. He knew what was going to be timeless and be able to be seen over and over again and not become boring and not something for sensation. Even David Lynch bores me a lot, when he gets into this graphic crap with Nicolas Cage crashing skulls or a brain flying up in the air and falling on the ground. Lynch has done some great things but there are moments in his films where I wonder whether he does it for box office or is really amused by those sequences. I’m not going to make a film like that if I get a chance to make one again. I want to show a different view.
Although much of the film appears to be set in a bygone era, the plane journey and the use of the mobile phone are essential parts of the plot. What inspired this use of contemporary signifiers?
What has impressed me so much about Europe and in particular Vienna is that the past co-exists with the present and the future here. It’s not just a museum, people live and work and move through these buildings, this architecture and environment. In America, we have a disposable culture. We do preserve certain things but after a time, a lot of these structures become separated from daily living in a museum but here, people live in all of these different eras. This is what I wanted in the film.
I could have made a conscious effort to have more scenes shot in Expressionist environments closed in with nothing from the present world being shown, we could have done that even with limited resources. But I think it was more interesting to have the present involved and a more contemporary mind set. I didn’t want to go back to 1944 when this plane full of gold and platinum ingots was shot down in Lake Atter. I wanted it to be set in the near future and I wanted the characters to be the heirs, to be living out a legacy, to be enslaved to the past and to also be connected to a cosmic, timeless gradient, and that’s what Urania represents.
These days in America, you have to dig to find something interesting. Even the cosy neighbourhoods, the small town America is drying up. The town where I grew up in Arkansas, there are no more cars on the street, it’s almost a ghost town, the cinema’s been closed for years, the train doesn’t stop there anymore, it looks like the remotest part of Hungary. It depresses me.
In my film I wanted to have a sense that time overlaps, a timeless effect. The legacy of the Third Reich, the legacy of the lake culture, the Josef Hoffmann designed glasses clinked in the boathouse.
Gina Lee, the female character is in many ways similar to the female role in silent movies – the stereotypical helpless female waiting to be rescued. Did you consider a more contemporary female character or perhaps a role reversal?
It’s an idea. We did exploit clichés from early cinema. I didn’t want the characters to be too ostensibly complex. She displays a great deal of naivety in the film. You can see from the beginning, she’s not reading Nietzsche or anything, she’s driving a car along the riverbank listening to Charlie Feathers, she’s wearing go-go boots.
Surely you can read Nietzsche AND wear go-go boots?
You can. That would have been a more complex film. She’s very pliant, she’s naïve, she falls into this intrigue, she gets a proposal, it’s cut and dried, it’s all cartoon comic book, it’s very basic. To add reversals, to add more complexity to this, I’m not sure that the production could have accomplished that.
But the thing is, the door is open for the sequel and the door is open to the motives of Diego and the cleverness of Gina Lee. We don’t know exactly what has happened here and there could be some interesting reversals.
You’re right, a lot more could have been done, it could have been more contemporary, we could have brought out more ambivalence in Gina Lee. But she does put herself in these places, she shows an audacity, she shows a modernity. How many women do you know in the UK who would impulsively buy a ticket to Las Vegas? That is something that a modern woman might do, but something that people from 20 years ago might have second thoughts about. All of a sudden, she’s fed up and she buys a ticket to Vienna.
When I interviewed you two years ago, you were enthusiastic about Occupy. What are your views on the current political situation?
I think Occupy is only important movement we’ve had in quite a long time.
I have a song on my new record about the massacre, the violation in Gaza. I’m very much disturbed by the American and Israeli aggression right now. I can’t stand it. I wouldn’t go back to America if it weren’t for my parents. I’m not sure even if I will go back to play there, maybe I will sell out, maybe it doesn’t matter if I go back and play for people because most of those people will feel the same way I do about it. It’s just incomprehensible how the British put this Israeli state together and how Americans and the British are supporting this whole thing. To me it’s not a racial thing, it’s not the Israeli people, it’s not the Jews, it’s beyond that, it’s political. They can talk whatever rhetoric they want to talk, whether it’s religion or our safety or our freedom, it’s all rhetoric – the Americans and the Israelis want the maritime rights off the shore of Gaza, they want this territory and they want to push these Muslim people far back and take them for everything they’ve got, these people are considered insects. There’s no justification – is not, has not been, never will be for that kind of total annihilation.
I can’t believe how Barack Obama has become inhuman. And Tony Blair, what a monstrosity of nature he turned out to be. I can’t believe it, how can the world stand by, just like they did when Hitler invaded the Czech Republic. If Britain and everybody else had done something at that point to stop Hitler, they’d have had a chance.
So is there hope for humanity?
We’ve become more cerebral and there have been huge technological advances but politically and in terms of humanity and civilisation, despite our literary efforts, fine thoughts, religious treatises, I’m not sure if we’re not just backsliding culturally and politically. What is the real difference from when Genghis Khan stormed Turkey and Eastern Europe? And the Roman Empire? We had great writers then. We still have thinking people, we have people with souls and sensibilities but I don’t see any advances politically. I stand for utopian anarchism personally.
Words copyright Sarah Corbett-Batson
Photographs copyright Carl Byron Batson