"A new start for the start."
Meticulously (if exhaustively) produced and delightfully ambiguous, Roger Beebe's film Beginnings functions a lot like an audio piece - in fact, there's nothing to watch besides the opening and closing title screens. But rather than reveal what you're about to hear, we'll leave it at that, and invite you to solve the mystery yourself.
Beginnings was made in 2010, premiered at UnionDocs in Brooklyn, and has since screened in multiple venues across the country.
Find out just how many words make up this concordance, and how the whole project started with Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem (plus, sea-monsters!), Behind the Scenes.
Roger Beebe is a filmmaker and professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Florida. Beebe has screened his films around the globe at such venues as the CBS Jumbotron in Times Square and McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Beebe is also a film programmer: he ran Flicker, a festival of small-gauge film in Chapel Hill, NC, from 1997-2000 and is currently Artistic Director of FLEX, the Florida Experimental Film/Video Festival. Beebe also owns Video Rodeo, an independent video store in Gainesville.
Find out more about Roger Beebe's classes, publications, films, and stuffs here.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Roger Beebe
SPOILER ALERT!! WE SUGGEST LISTENING BEFORE READING FURTHER!
What was your, um, genesis for the project, and – technically – what IS this piece?
There's a lot of alphabetic work in the world, and I know all of that has been bubbling around in my head for a while. I made AAAAA Motion Picture in 2010--that's a two-projector film that looks at companies that change their names to be at the start of the phonebook--but that's just the latest in a string of alphabetic forms that maybe started for me in 2001 when I made The Strip Mall Trilogy, a super 8 city symphony that arranges signs in alphabetical order while a friend's daughter sings the alphabet song. So in some ways it was inevitable that I'd eventually make this.
But more specifically, I spent about six weeks in Portland in the summer of 2010, and I got invited to a sound and video artists working group, and something about being in the room with that group of creative folks (Stephen Slappe, Mack McFarland, Julie Perini, Rebecca Gates) pointed me to this project. I came out of one meeting and charged directly into this project.
Or, I charged directly into something that eventually became this. The first thing I did was get a bunch of versions of the National Anthem--I zeroed in on Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl--and tried to alphabetize that. Then I tossed around lots of other ideas: The Communist Manifesto, A Tale of Two Cities, etc. I finally started working with the source I used here--and I hope I can be coy and not reveal the source just yet--and knew I really had found the perfect text to work with. (The Whitney thing was a disaster, in case you were wondering. There's so much melisma in her singing and she holds each vowel so long that it really doesn't even sound like words when you recut it.)
You made Beginnings as a film but we’ve presented it here as an audio work. What does it look like?
People sitting in the dark expect to have titles to tell them when a thing ends, so the only way that the video version is different from the version you have here is that it's got titles on both ends (the images of which are you'll find at the top of this window.) I do like how I made those titles though--I used my malfunctioning laser printer to print the ghosting double print. (Wish I could stop getting it to do that for my regular documents though!)
Are listeners missing out by not watching? Is anything gained by listening instead?
Well, I "show" it as part of my multi-projector film show and I've settled on playing it as the second-to-last thing in my screening. At that place in the show, it's a really interesting "contraction" after the multiple projector films that precede it. It's also a palate cleanser before the 6-/8-projector finale. So it serves a purpose in that show, and I think its effect, its strangeness, is heightened by the context.
I guess I'd also say that there's a focus that an audience in a theater brings that I fear an internet radio audience might not have. I know I listen to podcasts while washing the dishes, and I wonder if the riddle of this piece might be too complicated for that kind of listening.
But I do think that maybe presenting it as audio clarifies certain expectations, so that initial moment of discomfort for a cinema audience who are accustomed to having somewhere to look won't exist. As for what else might be gained, we'll have to wait from reports back from Radioland...
Despite the lack of literal images, this story lives large in peoples’ imaginations. What pictures do YOU conjure while listening?
The reason this never got an image track is that I don't really think there's anything "missing" from it now. I thought about adding some kind of image track, but it always seemed like ornamentation on a thing that didn't require it. I have toyed with the idea of a single flashbulb or a brief burst of white light from a slide projector right at the moment when he gets to "light," especially since "Let there be light" is such a memorable line from this part of Genesis, but I haven't tried that out yet (maybe partially because the "light" section doesn't have a rhythm that would allow that--it almost seems to require some kind of momentous pause that doesn't exist in the piece).
I'll admit though that I sometimes still do think of some kind of fast-paced, bright-colored "panoptic" collage, with, among other things, lots of time-lapse footage of clouds forming and deforming. That version will definitely never exist.
Beginnings can be interpreted as information, a production exercise, as music, as poetry. How do you hope it’s heard?
I can choose more than one, right? There are times when the music really comes to the fore for me. Short words tend to get really musical, especially the ones that are clipped or elided into the next word. It's definitely poetic at times too: "yielding, yielding you." And then there's the overall "information processing" that happens when we suddenly are able to know this text in a new way. I feel like after manipulating the text in this way, I know the source text better in both a literary way (i.e., in the stylistic choices in how it was written) and in an ideological one (i.e., what words appear and reappear). So all of the above?
Is there a message in all of this? Or is the point simply to experience hearing, as you say, a “lazy man’s Biblical concordance”? (P.S. thanks for teaching us what “concordance” means.)
"Message" seems too strong. But working with a text that's this loaded couldn't ever be neutral. A gentle sacrilege? Or just a peeking under the hood of one of the more foundational texts of Judeo-Christian culture?
Talk about making this, please! How many words ARE there in this piece, and how long did it take to edit? What else was memorable about the process?
I think it seems like there are more words than there are. 785 is the official count. I wish it was a bigger number, so big that people's jaws would drop in hearing it.
I worked on it basically as a full-time job for a few weeks. I kept thinking there had to be an easier way to separate the words--some way to automate the process--but I never found it. I got to know the waveform for certain words really well--by the end, I could edit out an "and" without listening to it. But the worst part is that I swear my software--I used Soundtrack on a Mac laptop--is buggy. I'd edit a word perfectly and listen later and it would suddenly have an extra half syllable of the next word. It's totally possible it's user error--I can't pretend to be an audio editing pro--but it happened regularly enough that I finally felt like there was an aleatory element to the end result. It was hard work, and I think my posture and eyesight suffered for it, but there were blackberries blooming outside my window, and that helped get me through.
What’s the most plentiful word / are there really no J or Z words in this text?
The most common word is "and." 97 of those. 87 "the"s. The most frequent noun is, of course, God (32). "Earth" is the winner among common nouns (20). "Let" is the most used non-be verb (15).
And, yeah, no J or Z in Genesis, Chapter 1. People seem disappointed especially about the Z--the breathing at the end is partially designed to help soften the shock of that missing final letter. (That breathing was added in 2011 after a screening at the Milwaukee Underground Festival, and was at least partially suggested by Lori Felker, one of the other jurors there. I never felt like I "nailed the landing" until I had that extra coda at the end, but for me it was more about the rhythm--the tiny clipped "you" with an upward inflection--than about the missing Z.)
More an observation/exclamation, than a question. SEA MONSTERS! Please respond.
There's a hyphen. Sea-monsters. That's important to me--otherwise I'd be cheating to include it as a single word. But, yes, it's the laugh line in the whole piece. Congrats on figuring that out.
Where does "Beginnings" fit into the spectrum of your work as a filmmaker?
It definitely fits with the alphabetic stuff mentioned above, but I have other pieces that deal with language too--One Nation under Tommy (2004), for ex., which you know well, since you were one of my 10 collaborators on that, is all about the relationship between language and image.
[Ed. note: Third Coast artistic director Julie Shapiro, who conducted this interview with RB, was lucky enough to get roped into contributing to this film back in 2004.]
But it also works in relation to the multi-projector films I've been making for the last six years or so. People tend to call that kind of work "expanded cinema," and I think that increasing the number of projectors suddenly opened me up to other possibilities as well, like the possibility of a zero-projector "contracted cinema" piece. I don't know if that means I'll make more things like this, but it makes sense for me of what exactly I thought I was doing when I charged blindly into this project.
[Ed. note again! If you're still wondering exactly what text is featured in "Beginnings", it's Genesis, Chapter 1.]