Melika Bass is arguably one of the most important filmmakers working in Chicago today. Her mesmerizing short and medium-length movies have screened at prominent festivals around the globe over the past decade, although she is probably still best known for directing the music video for Sigur Ros' "Vardeldur." This should change now that three of her best films, Songs from the Shed, Shoals and Waking Things, are available to stream on Fandor. Her work—dark, enigmatic, exquisitely atmospheric—hybridizes experimental and narrative elements to create troubling, mythic worlds in which characters engaged in repetitious behavior seem curiously lost in time. She is also an acclaimed installation artist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute. On Thursday, April 6, she will exhibit new work at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their Conversations at the Edge program. I recently had a lengthy chat with Bass about her work, influences and upbringing.
Songs from the Shed, Waking Things and Shoals were all shot in the Midwest, and when you show landscapes in those films, the land looks very flat and Midwestern. But, because I know you’re from the South, your films have always struck me as being very Southern in terms of what I’d call their “psychic landscapes”—almost as if you’re transposing a Southern Gothic sensibility onto the Midwest.
I think there’s something about this idea of a landscape or a place having a charge to it, so that the textures, the sort of shadowy potential of a place, what could have happened there—this idea of dread or shame and the tension of those things—are all being abstracted. They come from a kind of layered Southern Gothic sensibility. I’m definitely somebody who has a mixed relationship to natural landscape: Waking Things and Shoals are pretty rural or pastoral but that sense of pastoral with “creepy crawlies” underneath, you know? It’s Southern but it’s also a certain kind of Americana.
It’s haunted. It reminds me of Faulkner who was interested in the ghosts of the past even though they’re not literal ghosts. That’s the way your films are.
Yeah, and I think too this idea of a certain vegetable darkness, which I like. I think of it as like when you turn a rock over: it’s sort of cold and wet and maybe there are worms and surprises underneath. It’s a rock-turning sensibility. That’s in there too.
That makes me think of David Lynch–the opening of Blue Velvet with the beetles underneath the grass and the idea of “what lies beneath” that that conjures up. “Vegetable darkness” is an incredible phrase!
Yeah, and I actually think cinema and being a filmmaker is a perfect way to play in this too because it’s all about illusion, right? For me, it’s about this relationship to reality and fantasy and this pull between abstraction and something really familiar, and how disorienting that can be. So, for me, the idea is treating things in a really imagistic way that’s not written in dialogue, at least not in these three films, as much as it is by these imagistic situations or stories or worlds that are then charged with a lot of sonic detail and a lot of slowness as a way to say, “Okay, here’s the surface of something but don’t you sense XYZ beneath it?” And then hopefully giving people the framework to kind of spin off in their minds what those things could be.
Is it fair to say your work is not really concerned with narrative?
I think it is, actually. I mean, not in a conventional way and not in a way that addresses certain kinds of psychological realism and the traditions of certain forms and conventions of theater or literature. But I hope it triggers a kind of cognition or a kind of efforting to create narrative out of fragments. So, in that sense, I think it’s really concerned with narrative because all the ellipses are there. And I spend— and the people that I work with spend—a lot of time and attention to detail so that details are supposed to be holding and speaking a lot in terms of “Where is this place?,” “What could be going on?,” “Why are they there?,” Why are they acting this way?” “World building” is maybe a little much as a phrase but I think there’s a lot of that going on. And these details of place, or the really specific casting I’m doing—certain kinds of archetypal figures or certain kinds of behaviors and energies—these things, for me at least, are connecting to some really specific ideas. They’re just not fleshed out in a way that’s super-causal.
That’s what I mean when I say “narrative”: cause and effect.
But there’s event and there’s behavior and there’s character.
And there’s location. You talked about the rural quality of Waking Things and Shoals. In Songs from the Shed, there’s a weird hybrid of rural and urban. It’s like you’re creating a cinematic space that doesn’t exist in reality but that makes perfect sense onscreen.
That was one of the narrative possibilities there; that it was a kind of future and maybe it was post-disaster, so that things were somewhere on the edge of being urban, with nature taking over, or a kind of depletion of resources. So these people are protecting themselves or cocooning. Waking Things is the most explicit, but in all of these films there’s this sort of makeshift family or alternative “found family,” cult, whatever – and I realized I was making the same film over and over at some point – that somehow there’s a kind of xenophobia to that as well. It’s not overt. It’s most overt in Waking Things. But there’s this kind of strange isolationism and self-reliance, etc.
And sense of imprisonment.
Yeah, but towards an idea of survival or perseverance. I think, for me, it’s almost like there’s this kind of anthropological fiction or fantasy going on with each one of the films – and this is part of breaking the causal chain of narrative too – that it becomes some sort of site where you only have a few relics that remain and you’re like, “How do these go together?,” the sort of narrativizing that I know happens in archaeology. You have very scant elements.
You have to put the bones together.
Yeah. “What did happen here?” “Who are these people?” I’m often trying to decode, in real life, a lot of things about humans. And so I guess it makes sense that the films are coded in fictional ways on a lot of levels.
The idea of entrapment vs. freedom is present in all your films but it’s something you really elaborate on in Shoals with the asylum-like setting. What attracts you to this theme?
I think dependence and interdependence and co-dependence within support systems, the dynamics of that, whether it’s family or chosen, are often pretty contradictory. There’s something very archetypal in the films about the older male figures and the younger characters who are too big to be children but are sort of being treated like children, who at moments are breaking out of that but then coming back to this role that’s been delineated and that they’ve all chosen to continue perpetuating. In some ways there’s a lot of overt psychologizing in that. And I think there’s also in some ways a fable-like quality to the films that takes that dynamic and links it to a lot of really dark fables that are about the same thing. You could look at some Grimm fairy tales and see similar dynamics.
Do you feel that the world you live in is a dark and sinister place or do you just enjoy creating that world up there on the screen?
People that see the films or installations that don't know me and then meet me are often surprised that I’m wacky or shy and not super-dark and scary. You know, it’s nice to have the privilege to make art and put things elsewhere that may be inside you that don’t dominate you in everyday life. So there’s that. I also actually think that the experience of creating durational tension and an atmosphere of dread is pleasurable to experience. There is something cathartic about it and there is something where, if you go through it in a sort of simulated way and you survive then somehow you feel more… it’s a sort of trial run for actual problems or disasters. It’s also looking at a kind of loose ethics of authority figures. In a larger way, I do wonder about the governing systems behind a lot of things. What are the systems that we create, that are social, what are they doing? What are the systems and values and meaning that we give to our lives? What are these sort of repeated rituals or behaviors? Do those create values? Do those come out of something? What are the things that we just perpetuate without thinking about what they mean? And the darkness or the tension, yeah, it’s there. There’s other stuff there too! I would totally make a rom-com.