Filmmaker Focus: Stephen Wetzel

December’s edition of Filmmaker in Focus features Stephen Wetzel, a Milwaukee-based artist who, over the past decade, has created several documentary videos. These  observational portraits have focused on subjects such as the intimate pre-game rituals of a minor league hockey team (Men’s Hockey, 2003, 52 min), a commercially unviable dome-home business (In Part a Treatment of Success, 2007, 28 min), and the socialization of a suburban 6-year-old girl (Birthday Girl, 2005, 62 min). Wetzel recently completed The First Shot is Silent (2010, 15 min). 

His video From the Archives of an Inventor (2009, 18 min) won a Jury Award at the 48th Ann Arbor Film Festival. From the Archives of an Inventor is a portrait of Ben, a Midwestern inventor who engineered extraordinary modifications to his home including an elevator and rotating living room. Wetzel’s piece is comprised solely of footage from the subject’s own videotape archive which include fragments of an absurd and incomplete narrative featuring an inventor, robots, adolescents and telekinesis. These fragments are interspersed with appearances of Ben and his inventions on various local and national television programs in the '70s and '80s, his own analog home videos, and enigmatic and unidentifiable “outtakes”.

This interview with Stephen Wetzel was conducted by AAFF Program Director David Dinnell via the internet in December 2010.

David Dinnell: You work in various media (painting, sculpture, performance). How did your interest in making videos, specifically working in documentary and non-fiction forms, begin?

Stephen Wetzel: Well, my interest in video came about in graduate school at the University of Chicago. It was and is an interdisciplinary program and so I was encouraged to explore materially, conceptually, formally, and I just hit a wall with painting and decided to try a bunch of new stuff, eventually coming to video on these clunky VHS tape-to-tape decks. My specific interest in non-fiction is a little more complicated but, put simply, I tend to read a lot of non-fiction, almost exclusively, and I took many courses in anthropology that kind of blew my mind, so for whatever reason non-fiction -- which does not negate imagination, the fantastical, awe, etc. -- appeals to me. My first "serious" non-fiction work came really as a challenge. I was teaching a course on the subject, and I just decided that I should make what I was teaching.

DD: All of the people and locations of your videos so far have been based in the mid-western US. How important, if at all, is this region to your video work?

SW: It's interesting because I don't set out to make work about my region, but I do understand it as central to my videos, at least up to this point. This is my clan! I wonder if it comes off as provincial,  or limit ing? Not sure. But the fact is that if one were to offer me a bunch of resources to go make a work in the Southwest  I'd do it and it'd be fine and good. Regionalism. I'm attracted to the Midwest and its weirdness and its pace. I guess like any location it's rife with contradiction and all its ensuing tension. The winters, long and gray, force one inside, on a chair in a room alone, maybe with a book, or just with one's thoughts, if of course one has time for such lounging -- or brooding.… 

I'm trapped in my editing room right now (really a small bedroom) with a space heater. Maybe this is it for me, or maybe I've embraced my own limits. Regions make people, and I accept what this place has made of me.

DD: How one occupies oneself during these winters in the Midwest is somewhat present in From The Archives of an Inventor, the tradition, or perhaps it’s more of a tendency, for men to tinker in their garages or basements...

SW: Yes. One is forced inward to the shelter of one's home and the shelter, or  complications, of one's mind. I don't want to romanticize the Midwest and its winters, or the northern hemisphere generally, because many people suffer greatly from it. But I experience the seasonal shifts as transformative, not just the obvious transformation of the landscape, but my own radical reorientation to the world. Anyway, in relation to From the Archives, you're referring to Ben, a magnificent inventor of his own life. I just met with him this past weekend, and he was hunkering down, sealed off one of his living rooms that rotates to the outside. Apparently the room has been raided by raccoons and, of course, it also just makes sense to secure the space for the sake of saving heat.

DD: What's the story behind the material of From The Archives of an Inventor? How did you come to this footage?

SW: A friend of mine, Dan Ollman, was shooting a short piece about Ben for Chris Smith's Home Movie. Dan shot some  more material with Ben on his own and they eventually became friends. In the late '70s and early '80s Ben had shot his own video material for a kid's show, something to do with robots. He had also, over the course of 6 or so years, built AROK, a domestic robot that became quite a hit. Anyway, Ben asked Dan to edit this footage, to try to cobble together some semblance of Ben's original vision for the show. The material was fragmentary and incomplete, and therefore posed some pretty interesting narrative problems. Dan eventually handed over all of Ben's tapes to me and asked, "Can you edit something from this?" And I said, "Yes, but not what you want. I'm going to edit my own piece." And that's what happened. So now we're going to release a two-video set: my version (a short experimental biography, From the Archives), and Dan's (an attempt at doing some justice to Ben's material).

In a few weeks we will go back to visit Ben and take some pictures, do a short audio interview, and then I will write something for a small-ish DVD insert, something about the invention of self and the importance of fashioning a life according to one's own wishes.

DD: Your editing of From The Archives is remarkable. Its editing structure reveals itself more and more on subsequent viewings. I had a very similar experience watching your video piece as I did sitting with one of Jean Tinguely’s room-sized kinetic sculptures - all of these disparate parts and discards of a culture, hinged together and moving about with this unexpected fluidity and its own internal logic. Can you describe how you approached your edit of the material?

SW: I always start by viewing all of the material, which defines the limits of the project. I rarely think in terms of what I might be able to add or shoot later that might augment the edit and instead proceed to "mine" the material, always treating it as if it is not my own.

I simply watch every second of the material and take close notes, tons of notes, jotting down all of the language and general impressions I'm having about the footage. As ideas come to me I write them in the margins, so there's the literal transcript of the material (language, scene description), and my take on it, my interpretation, my "What's going on here?" commentary or inquiry.

After my first viewing I tend to watch it all again (in the case of From the Archives I was dealing with 10 or 12 hours of footage) and I continue to make notes, after which I scour the notes and find common themes, circle them, make some more general notes, and then sketch out a timeline, a rough trajectory of the edit. Often times I know what the beginning and ending shots are AS I'm watching the material for the first time. I say, "That's it, that's my beginning, and there's my final shot, now how do I get from there to here?"

The structure for this sort of editing, aside form the eureka moment in discovering the beginning and end, comes from a course I took on Research Methods in Anthropology by Professor Paul Brodwin at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

DD: Methods intended for enthographic films?

SW: No. It was intended for ethnography: writing about people. In my case it involved collecting data on TV engineers in the sub-basement of the nursing building at UWM.

DD: About two-thirds of the way through From the Archives an elderly man is being interviewed, presumably on television, about his perpetual motion machine. Who is he and what is his relationship to Ben the Inventor?

SW: Yes. That was part of Ben's archive. Ben is in the first shot of that sequence, in the background. This guy was presumably a friend of his, a peer. I used that material as a way to open the edit up a bit, to indicate something else at play, to make a leap beyond the singular world of Ben to invention generally, to the kinds of obstacles (and springboards, really) convention or tradition can pose. I don't know his actual relationship to Ben. To be totally transparent, I know almost nothing about Ben.

DD: His slight bewilderment that no one has ever listened to him about his invention is very poignant, suggesting a life of marginalization…

SW: Yes, the way he ignores the interviewer's response and continues on his own train of thought. I love that. He's simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted.

DD: this footage is followed by these scenes of Ben's female companion, appearing like a reluctant participant, in his activities.

SW: Right, Ben's female companion is in the mix. I can't remember where we first meet her. She's sort of . . . I'm not sure what to say about her presence other than that she seems crucial to the piece. There is a relationship, and it seems compromised by Ben's compulsions.

DD: You just met Ben for the first time a few days ago?

SW: Yes. I guess I felt like I got to know him through the footage, and in some way I think that's true. Being in his house was, of course, this whole new layer -- feeling the objects he made, sitting with him at his table. But to be honest, my edit stays the same. I wouldn't change anything, even after meeting him.

DD: How does he feel about your piece?

SW: He doesn't seem interested. He's 84, and he just seems happy to have people taking him seriously. He gave Dan and I permission to do what we will, and in return we'll share any resources we gain. I gave him the award money from Ann Arbor Film Festival, and he was totally grateful.

His handshake is like a vise. He practices age-regressive hypnosis and I believe in it after shaking his hand. You know the shot where he presses his finger to his temple and does some conjuring, that's what he does -- still does it. I may be under his command.

DD: I think it becomes evident through the piece that you are taking him seriously, there is a shift from bathos towards pathos.

SW: Oh I like that: from bathos to pathos. Though I'd like to avoid pity, so much as pity is linked to pathos.

DD: but your portrait, however it is tethered to this particular individual, also opens the piece up to a larger depiction of a culture, with some notions of gender implied...

SW: Yes. Yes.  I start with details, specifics, a chunk of time, or an event, or an individual, and I scrutinize its small bits, always with the aim of finding threads that indicate something larger at work.

I tell people I'm a social constructionist (not my term), and out of that identification comes a commitment (or inclination) to locating that which is taken for granted, natural, or context-independent and pointing at, hinting at, the various ways in which we have before us, in fact, a web.

Occasional Performances and Wayward Writings, a series of essays, correspondence, and lectures by Stephen Wetzel was just published by Green Gallery Press.

From the Archives of an Inventor is included in the 48th AAFF Traveling Tour and will be featured on the upcoming AAFF DVD Collection: Volume 3., published later this month.

Posted on December 10th, 2010