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Interview: Experimental Filmmaker Jennifer Reeves Collaborates With Guitarist Marc Ribot at the James River Film Festival.



Rebelling against the mainstream is often a solitary affair, and that’s just the way New York experimental filmmaker Jennifer Reeves likes it. Usually.

That’s why the presentation of Reeves’ 31-minute short, “Shadows Choose Their Horrors,” will be so special at the James River Film Festival.

Reeves likes to make all of the creative decisions in her films — even scoring them herself. But she’ll briefly give up control Friday, April 8, when her dreamlike chronicle of a spectral figure is scored live by Marc Ribot.

The guitarist, recently in town scoring Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” at the Byrd Theatre, is known for work as diverse and exploratory as the filmmaker’s.

Along with “Shadows,” Reeves will present other selections from her formidable filmography at the Grace Street Theater at 8:30 p.m. as well as Saturday night. Ribot will score all the Friday-night films.

Reeves, who will attend both nights, spoke about the collaboration and her work with Style by phone.

Style: Usually you do your sound mix as you’re editing, even if it’s composed. What’s the process for a live performance?

Reeves: I think because of my own experience in doing soundtracks and putting in as much effort as with the image, I’ve decided my editing [for a live performance] is finding the right musician and letting them have total creative freedom. With Marc, I just trust him. I gave him the silent film and it’s totally him.

And is it hard for you, or exciting or both to collaborate with a musician for a live score?

With this particular thing with Marc, I’m thrilled. I made the film a while ago, and he has revived it and turned it into something new again. The original film was commissioned for the American Symphony Orchestra for an Aaron Copland festival and edited entirely to an early composition by him for a ballet. Marc saw the film with the [Copland] soundtrack, and thought he could really do something with it. He has put new life into it. He has a skeleton score and he improvises as well during the live performance. Marc is a master of improvisation.

How do you feel letting go like that, letting Ribot improvise?

It’s a really apt question, because usually I’m very precise. I like control. That’s what made me start doing the [live] performances. I felt, “I have to let go.” It felt very liberating. My father was a musician. So I love music, and I love live music, and I envy that magic of it being created as it’s being performed. The energy changes from performance to performance. [Marc] just performs like he’s breathing. It comes so natural. It’s just the idea of being totally in the moment.

What inspired you to become an experimental filmmaker?

I [had fallen] in love with experimental film in college. It made sense to me. [At Bard College] my first successful attempt was a sound assignment in an early film course to design a soundtrack without any image and then create a film that fit the soundtrack. It was like a light bulb going off. It was how meaning is created through sound and montage.

You’ve achieved something of a career synthesis between your teaching and filmmaking, but was it always that straightforward?

It’s a different struggle now because I have two little kids, which takes time and attention — but I’ve really streamlined my expenses. That’s been my way of being able to continue to do 16 mm. I need to be making work or I’m sort of unsettled as a person. It’s just necessary. I guess that’s what it is to be an artist. I’ve always tried to figure it out. When I was younger I got more grants. Whenever I got a grant I would always buy some piece of 16 mm equipment. So now the biggest expense is fresh [film] stock and lab fees.

The mainstream film industry has gone almost all the way over to digital. Why is it important for you to remain in 16 mm?

“Color Neutral” [2014, which screens Saturday night at the festival] deals with that subject. The film deals with hand painting and it’s pretty abstract, and then towards the end you start to see some common colors coming through. And then the colors stop with a startling computer sound, and you see color bars and then you hear this triumphant ’70s guitar solo. It’s kind of like me saying, OK, conformity wins, but look how much better uncontrolled creative chaos is! S


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