At 26, James Fotopoulos has completed sixteen features and twenty-four shorts.
IT TOOK ONLY A FEW PINTS OF BLOOD to start James Fotopoulos' prolific film career.
The 26-year-old director traces the start of his "fury to do this work" back to high school. He was given free rein to make videos for student activities like bonfires or blood drives. No one else was interested. "I would shoot things so that people would be bleeding all over a room, and blood would be shooting out of peoples' chests," Fotopoulos says. "Guys would be covered in blood, and other guys would show up wearing masks. These things would be shown, and people would be completely confused as to what it was about. And then they would find out it was about a blood drive."
It was the blood of the poet that was more in question at last year's annual Robert Flaherty Seminar, a conference on independent filmmaking held each summer on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, New York. Attendees are never told what they're about to watch, and the event's curator, Ed Halter, showed Fotopoulos' 1999 feature, "Migrating Forms."
"Migrating Forms" is a movie that asks: How few elements do you need to tell a story? Fundamentally, a man, a woman, a cat, a mysterious and migrating cyst, and horrible desire that can't be killed by sex. For eighty minutes of muzzy black-and-white imagery, we're trapped inside an apartment as cramped as a desolate man's mind. Minimalist and obsessive, Fotopoulos' film rejects a romanticized bohemian outlook, gazing pitilessly upon working-class misery along the boundaries of madness.
That twisted dirge of sexual anxiety may be the most idiosyncratic feature ever made by a 22-year-old, utterly rejecting both the indie and Sundance aesthetic. Critic Travis Crawford wrote in Filmmaker magazine that it resembles a "1960s sexploitation movie as interpreted by Alexander Sokurov," the blur-fixated Russian director of "Russian Ark." Others compare his first three features, released on DVD this week by Facets, to the austere yet weird early work of the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. Fotopoulos, the veteran of sixteen micro-budgeted feature-length efforts, twenty-four shorts and a sum of works-in-progress that he won't detail on the record, shrugs off the comparisons, bluntly rejecting the tyranny of influence.
After the screening, a woman hypothesized that an elaborate prank was being perpetrated by Halter and that all the critical praise in the filmmaker's bio was fabricated. "I don't think she really believed this herself," says Bryan Wendorf, head of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, who was there. "But she seemed unaware of how insulting it was to both Jim and Ed as well as the other Fotopoulos supporters in attendance. The room was passionately divided about Jim's films and Jim was uninterested in winning over anyone. The less he gave, the angrier and more emotional his critics became. When asked about the attack, Jim commented, `They didn't break me.'"
He's waiting at an elevated stop in Rogers Park, the designated rendez-vous, with a calm smile, holding a sack with tapes of some of his recently completed work. He leads the way to an unmarked tavern on Sheridan Road called Moody's. It's a broodingly overcast afternoon, yet the place is lit only by firelight and candles. It's even darker than one of Fotopoulos' early films.
The unflappable and articulate filmmaker speaks with engagingly intense detail about work from Raoul Walsh to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and his special fascination for the subversive formal characteristics of John Ford's Westerns, overlooked by most critics because of that director's seldom-questioned place in the pantheon of greats. But "I was never a film fan," he says. "I started in film so young, I was sixteen, it was all very much other technical things. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted and then it was a matter of executing it. Almost all of it is technically rooted. I never looked at a film and said, I want to make films like that person." His high-school filmmaking career took an unexpected turn when he had his way depicting a charity walk. "I had legless people trying to walk, and people on crutches, and people vomiting. I think someone humiliates one of the people on crutches because they can't walk. At that point, the physics teacher complained, and said that what this guy is doing is not proper for the school. And I was fired. But when I look back, that was a very good experience. Filmmaking is such an expensive medium, and requires so much orchestration. So a lot of people don't start out when they're young."
Still, there are sweet parallels to the work of others, such as the climactic pastoral idyll of the punishing, self-lacerating "Zero." The images are as gentle as the rain at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev," and the use of optical tinting suggests the work of experimental veteran Stan Brakhage. (A local art critic was offended by the film, lecturing Fotopoulos that you can't mix exploitation-level production with experimental technique; the same writer has come over to his side as the work has grown more ambitious and divergent.)
These movies are way behind Fotopoulos' constantly evolving--or mutating--output. Technology makes it possible to shoot an enormous amount of footage, or to produce a large number of works, but the means of distribution hasn't caught up with the means of production. It's strange talking to this young, steadfastly normal-looking and uncommonly assured man about "Migrating Forms," 2000's sinister pseudo-gangster "Back Against the Wall" and 1997's "Zero," a morbid, grating 16mm one-man descent into a sexually obsessive hell. For him, they're the distant past. These early movies take what could be seen as "bad" stylistic practice: a Warhol simplicity or a B-level horror-movie aesthetic to demonstrate sociopathic, illogic or ritual behavior. The soundtracks are filled with droning sounds, or synthesizer loops, making use of the limited, notoriously muddy sonic range of 16mm optical sound. (There's a DVD extra of pages from his notebooks, including one spread where he notes a budget of $550 and has scribbled a reminder to himself to pick up a "gizzard.")
The Chicago Underground Festival has given grants to Fotopoulos, as well as slotting "Back Against the Wall" as 2001's opening-night attraction. Festival director Wendorf introduced the work to Facets Video's programmers, and asserts that Fotopoulos "is by far the most interesting independent filmmaker in Chicago and one of the most exciting young filmmakers in the U.S." When asked to elaborate, he makes a precise point: "Most indie filmmakers are only independent in terms of their financing. Jim is a real maverick, with a strong sense of the history of cinema, from Dreyer to Brakhage to John Ford." What's different about his work, then? "He approaches film almost as a form of psychic alchemy. He's exploring his own interior states and examining his relationship to the world."
In recent video excursions, such as 2002's ninety-minute "Hymn," a sexually explicit, luxuriantly colored, multi-layered video work more suited to art galleries than art-house cinemas, he creates a hypnotic investigation of conventions of sexual representation as well as repetition in pornography. The work is painstakingly detailed and languorous. "The people who like the more narrative films generally don't like the video work. Very few people like both. They're so different."
"His unwillingness to limit his audience's reaction to his work by explaining what it means is what frustrates lazy viewers," Wendorf adds, which is also the legacy of filmmakers like Lynch and Cronenberg. "The meaning Jim finds in his work is for him and he finds it in the process of making it. What others see in it when it's finished is up to them, and I don't think Jim thinks there are wrong interpretations. He isn't dealing with metaphor in any traditional sense. The tumor on the woman's back in `Migrating Forms' doesn't represent anything beyond what it is. What that means to me as a viewer has changed many times through repeated viewing of the film. I don't think that there is a correct way of reading his films. Like life, the meaning changes from one moment to the next."
Ray Privett of Facets calls Fotopoulos' work "uncompromising and obsessive, with rare power and passion." He admits they're not for every viewer, but thinks that some will find themselves "in a sort of devastated awe."
Fotopoulos says that he's had to make unspecified choices in life in order to devote himself to the work. He bluntly told another Flaherty attendee that "My purpose is to use this medium to balance my relationship between good and evil." He believes the actual concept of "freedom" is seldom practiced by contemporary artists. Much of it comes from his belief that the freedom to do anything you want can be mistaken for the freedom to do what you think others expect of you. You make certain sacrifices, and modern technology allows you to immerse yourself in a world of your own creation. "The misconception is that I am doing this stuff blindly, doing this stuff with no sense of a continuing progression."
Does that mean he's not thinking in terms of a career, that in fact his work can only become more sophisticated, ambitious and even less commercial? "You're constantly trying to be involved with producers, trying to be involved with bigger budgets and so forth," he says. "You're always doing it, but in the meantime you can't stop doing the work. I don't like to talk about that too much, that aspect of it, but each year things have been getting better. More people have been hearing about the films and I've been getting more credibility. It helps your reputation, getting bigger things going. Developing your reputation is one of the key things."
To Fotopoulos, filmmaking is as simple as starting a sentence and finishing it. "You create your own context for yourself. You say, `This is what I do, you have to pay attention to it.' It's a little bit slower but you just have to give up or go anywhere, just continue what you're doing. An interesting problem with the film world is that at best, my work can only exist on the periphery of it. Most films, what they're about, I find pretty disgraceful."
Fotopoulos is suspicious of film schools, their cost and their dogma. (He spent a year at Columbia.) He's often made remarks like "The film world is a very tricky and sometimes evil place." Many so-called indie films are as limited in their means as Fotopoulos' more astringent work, your basic "three-guys-in-a-room" movies, where characters have lengthy conversations about their romantic or economic failings while the filmmaker demonstrates very little formal control or innovation.
"Most people shouldn't be making films, it's true," Fotopoulos exclaims, starting to explain his own concerns. "The indie film thing, that's been around about ten years, hasn't it? I was in high school. I see a lot of those films now on cable and they're really embarrassing. It's all the same actors, with goatees. It's very simplistic, it's not an evolved way of thinking about how things are."
Even at 26, an outside observer might want to consider his work formative, especially considering his experimentalist bent. It's one of the forks the conversation doesn't take. It's not a fruitful concern for someone so prolific. He reaches for the universal instead. "The films that are coming out, I made from ages 18 to 20. These new works, the video works, to say they're still formative... The thing is, my view toward the medium is that it's very young--it's only a hundred years old. Video's probably going to eclipse it. But if you recognize how complex things are around you and then you understand the multitude of things you can do with film or video, you can form this very surgical process on those things you don't comprehend."
So does that make the young prodigy a consummate auteur or an ambitious filmic shock-jock? One of the young director's most articulate champions is Ed Halter, who writes widely on alternative film, as well as heading the New York Underground Film Festival. He situates Fotopoulos' fixations this way: "Obsessed with the philosophical problems regarding sex, violence, extreme psychic states and unnerving atmospheres... Fotopoulos' films wed a youthful fixation with the overpowering nature of primal drives to an uncommonly mature certitude of vision and technique."
The day of the interview, dusk falls. The wind bites. Fotopoulos muses, "I don't know if I'll stay here. I can get shows in Rotterdam, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, at Anthology Film Archives in New York, but I still can't get a show in Chicago. Chicago doesn't have that kind of interest. Can you be any kind of filmmaker here? I don't know."
The sky is gray as Ilford film stock. He has more to say. He could talk all night. The gusts off the lake, a block away, are harsh. He goes. He'll start work with a new video editor the next day. Three more feature-length pieces will be done before the DVDs hit the streets the first week of March. The future is now. Work, always.
[Originally appeared in a different form in Newcity, 5 March 2003.]