Monuments (2020), is an oddball dramedy about grief, a tale with a sensitive heart that’s never weighed down by sentimentality. When Laura (Marguerite Moreau) dies in a car accident, her husband Ted (David Sullivan) goes against her family’s wishes and decides to scatter her ashes where they first fell in love. Chased by her family and Howl (Javier Muñoz), who was besotted with Laura, the grief-stricken Ted is accompanied by the visage of his deceased wife, who guides him and challenges him to be the husband he failed to be.
Filmmaker and public artist Jack C. Newell’s previous work covers both fiction and documentary, including the celebration of food and love in his comedy Open Tables (2015), and 42 Grams (2017), the true story of celebrity chef Jake Bickelhaupt, who began running an illegal restaurant out of his home. Newell is the co-creator of Destroy Your Art, which invites filmmakers to make and then destroy a short film in front of its only audience.
In conversation with PopMatters, Newell talks about the role of capitalism in how we define the artist, finding freedom through emotion, and his desire to make films, not “content”.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, so the question you’re asking always feels a little boring. I liked storytelling and the arts as a kid. My family wasn’t overly artistic. It’s not like my mom was a painter and my dad was a poet. My dad was a milkman and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.
We watched Masterpiece Theatre (1971-), and maybe that was enough for me to get into filmmaking. When I said I wanted to go to film school and explore filmmaking, there was no drama. They just said, “Okay, great” [laughs]. I knew I always wanted to do this, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pursue it.
Some filmmakers have commented that “filmmaker” is a strange term, and questioned what it actually means. How do you define “filmmaker”?
If you’re someone who identifies as a painter, are you only a painter when the paintbrush is touching the canvas? Do you become something else when you take a break, when you eat lunch, when you’re no longer painting? How do you self-identify? In the arts and in film specifically, people get caught up in the “what am I?” conversation.
Where I’m at with it is that it falls into two ideas: one is you are what you are by how you look at the world. The problem is we live in a capitalist society, and it’s about how we associate with what people do. Many will say, “How can you call yourself a writer if you’ve never had anything published?’ You can’t say, “Professionally I’m a writer”, but if you write and that’s how you view and understand the world, then you are. We get caught up in turning it into a job.
I find it helpful to look at things from outside of the art form, like the painter idea. To be a filmmaker is bizarre because a painter at least does something, they paint. Yeah, I wrote the film, but I don’t run the camera, I don’t act in the movie.
Ninety-nine percent of the skillset to be a filmmaker is soft skills. It comes down to, do you have a vision and a story you want to tell? Then your job as the director is to shepherd all of these other people through the process of filmmaking, to make sure you end up with a film that looks like what you wanted to make.
There are few examples in art of a purely distilled vision of the creator, whether it be the director who relies on a cast and crew, or author who works with an editor. Cinema is a medium of compromise, and while we like to think a film is the pure vision of the author, it’s often not the case.
Frank Gehry was this star architect who designed the Guggenheim. In it is a room for sculptor Richard Serra’s work. In an interview Serra said Frank Gehry is not an artist, and everyone was bent out of shape about it–“What are you talking about, of course he is, he’s an architect?” Serra was saying, “No, he’s not an artist because his art is purposefully useless.”
The problem with architecture is it has a use. It might just be to shelter from the storm, but there are real-world things that come into play that Frank Gehry as an architect needs to figure out how he’s going to deal with. Where do you put the bathrooms? Where does the plumbing go? These are non-artistic problems.
It’s similar in filmmaking to a certain extent because of all of the things you laid out. In a straight artistic work, a pure mode of expression, whether or not it’s Serra doing his steel plate pieces, that’s pure art. We’re always dealing with how to interact with that, and part of how I go about it is I don’t necessarily get caught up on the label of, “Am I an artist or not?”
I like the Richard Serra thing because he’s right, but I don’t think a lot of people think about it like that. A lot of people want to say, “(fill in the blank) auteur filmmaker of the day is an artist, a genius.” I don’t buy that. Filmmaking is about making sure there’s a vision and it’s getting across throughout.
Part of the process, and what makes or defines you as an artist or a filmmaker is how you deal with moments of the production, of reality intruding, or even a healthy form of collaboration, where an actress says a line should be different. I’m not David Mamet, I’m not William Shakespeare, so change the lines. I care more about the underlying emotion of that moment and the subtext than the words coming out of the actor’s mouth.
Part of my filmmaking process is to be open to not being in control, which is what we often want to be as filmmakers. Instead, ride the storm and find a way to take anything that comes your way that might be perceived as bad, and turn it into something good. You’re constantly in a Judo bout with every single problem, and you’re using its weight against itself to try to make sure the film makes sense.
We can intellectualise the themes and ideas of a film, but what hooks us is our emotional response to the characters. I experienced this feeling, when watching Monuments, of the void Laura’s departure would leave you with if you were married to a woman like her. When you create that emotional connection, it allows you to become more playful. The oddball nature of the film means you’ll still divide the audience, but you’ll win over the hearts and minds.
This film is tonally promiscuous. We’re jumping around and we’re doing a lot of different things. Not everyone’s going to like this movie, and not everyone’s going to like every single thing about it. Not necessarily, because a lot of people are responding to it.
The thesis going into making this tonally promiscuous and crazy film was, if the audience cares about Ted and Laura, I can do whatever I want, within reason. It’s true and it works here. When you invest in the journey and the audience feels they’re along for the ride with someone [a director] who knows where they’re going, then they’re willing to go along with it and not necessarily think about it.
I also make documentaries and people are drawn to documentary filmmaking because they think it’s a mode of expressing ideas. That’s a misreading of documentary films because people don’t connect with ideas, they connect with emotion.
If I don’t care about it, or if I don’t have an “in”, then it’s not a documentary. I don’t know what it is–it’s an advertisement for an idea. It’s all about that emotional moment, and we nailed it with this movie. Where’s the moment that you buy into the characters? It’s vital, and once you get the audience to care, you can go to a lot of different places.
The Lumière Brothers terrified audiences with the innovation of the moving image. Cinema emerged not out of a comfortable feeling, but from audiences not necessarily feeling safe. We should continue to seek and use that fear and trepidation to evolve the form.
In one scene in Monuments, Howl is watching a cartoon in his motel room, and you merge the drama with the cartoonish. You’re unafraid of experimenting, and even outside of cinema with the Destroy Your Art project, you challenge the reason we make films, asking the filmmakers to create and destroy their work.
The most damaging thing that has happened to the cinema, is people don’t call it cinema anymore, they call it content. This is exactly what you’re talking about.
When my wife cleans the house, she puts on one of the most popular television shows of all time, which I will not name because I don’t want to throw shade. It’s incredibly popular, but it’s just something to have on in the background. I love my wife, and this isn’t about her, but it’s content, it’s wallpaper.
A lot of this industry makes moving wallpaper for people’s lives. This film is not that, and one of the things that are challenging is that you need to be engaged. If you step away, if you mess around on your phone, you’re going to be asking, “What happened? Is this now a musical? When did that happen?” Well, you missed it because you weren’t paying attention. You were thinking you were watching content.
I’m not saying [I have a] war against content like we’re going to be able to wipe it all out. It’s part of the world. There’s a lot of literature from the beginning of time that’s just content. They didn’t call it content, but it was essentially the equivalent of it.
For people who love cinema as you and I do, you don’t want to watch content [laughs], and you don’t want to make it. You want to make stuff that’s more interesting, and even if you miss the mark on something, you’re making a strong choice. It’s the job of the artist and storyteller to try to make strong choices and engage you.
Don’t take offence at this, but it isn’t an academic exercise to say this worked or didn’t work. Sometimes we get caught up in that.
In film criticism, we’re losing the emphasis on it being part of an ongoing conversation. I recall hearing the idea that art must be discussed to thrive, but so much criticism lacks a focus on posterity. It’s both an interesting and a dangerous time we’re living in following the online democratisation of film criticism. I’m not sure it’s shaping it for the better or the worse.
As films are becoming content, so too is a lot of writing, whether it be film writing or other stuff. You’ve got to get it done because we need to populate the page and make sure Twitter is up to date, and all that other crap. There’s a place for that, but where’s the opportunity to have the deeper conversations as well. I don’t have the answers, but it’s definitely something that troubles me as well.
Monuments is available in the US On Demand and Digital, here.