b. Saint Louis, Missouri,
lives and works in New York City
b. Charleston, South Carolina,
lives and works in Los Angeles
Two channel projection,
16mm film transferred to digital video
TRT: 3 hours 18 minutes 21 seconds
The Sorrows of Young Werther
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Believe me, dear Wilhelm, I did not allude to you when I spoke so severely of those who advise resignation to inevitable fate. I did not think it possible for you to indulge such a sentiment. But in fact you are right. I only suggest one objection. In this world one is seldom reduced to make a selection between two alternatives. There are as many varieties of conduct and opinion as there are turns of feature between an aquiline nose and a flat one.
You will, therefore, permit me to concede your entire argument, and yet contrive means to escape your dilemma.
Your position is this, I hear you say: “Either you have hopes of obtaining Charlotte, or you have none. Well, in the first case, pursue your course, and press on to the fulfilment of your wishes. In the second, be a man, and shake off a miserable passion, which will enervate and destroy you.” My dear friend, this is well and easily said. But would you require a wretched being, whose life is slowly wasting under a lingering disease, to despatch himself at once by the stroke of a dagger? Does not the very disorder which consumes his strength deprive him of the courage to effect his deliverance?
You may answer me, if you please, with a similar analogy, “Who would not prefer the amputation of an arm to the periling of life by doubt and procrastination!” But I know not if I am right, and let us leave these comparisons.
Enough! There are moments, Wilhelm, when I could rise up and shake it all off, and when, if I only knew where to go, I could fly from this place.
Allison Collins: One the aspects of T.S.O.Y.W that interests me is the impetus for its making. There is quite a backstory of the work. From what I understand, a kind of personal mythology hangs over it, including the untimely death of a friend. I wonder how this tragedy affected your desire to enter into Goethe’s original tragic story, which remarks on death through a wandering pilgrimage.
Drew Heitzler: We had originally planned to make the film with Steven Parrino playing the lead role, but then he died. It was about a year later that we decided to make the film anyway, and got an artist friend in Los Angeles, Skylar Haskard, to play the part.
Amy Granat: Production was stalled for a little bit after Steven died. Drew was really the one that got us moving again ... and there were a few changes, obviously, because we were without Steven, but Skylar did an amazing job.
AC: How did you arrive at your shooting and editing process, with two simultaneous perspectives?
DH: There were two of us and we had the same cameras, so it made sense.
AG: I had been interested in repetition and had already played with it by using multiple screens. Here was an exciting opportunity to try out repetition in different way, in a collaboration, and it was one of those things that just came very quickly and naturally to Drew and me. Running parallel and working together but separately was a really great experience.
AC: How did you arrive at the locations you’ve chosen for the work? With Werther’s journey translated into a road trip, the loneliness and melancholy of the open road seem to underpin the work, emphasized by the musical score. What were the key stops you took in making this film?
DH: In the Werther story there are a lot of castle ruins. We don’t have those in the US, but we do have Earth Art. We drove by the Lightning Fields, the Roden Crater, the Spiral Jetty, and The Sun Tunnels.
AG: I flew in from NYC to meet the guys in Arizona. We started there, then went over to New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California. We were on the road for a few weeks, eating chicken fried steak in these small desert towns every night.
AC: The duration and pace of this film turned video is a challenge on one’s patience. I’m curious whether this came into your thinking when you decided to make a film that was over three hours long. Is it important for viewers to sit and watch it through, or are you more interested in atmosphere than narrative?
DH: There is a narrative arc, which is a benefit to watching the film from beginning to end. That being said, the mood of the piece—and that is really what it is creating—can be grasped in an instant.
AG: It was originally set to be around eight hours, so what we have at three hours is in fact “the user-friendly” version. I actually like long durations like that because I believe it can cause the construction of time to collapse a little bit.
AC: The piece’s relationship to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther isn’t a straight correlation, since the work is said to realize an adjacent comment made by Jean Genet: to reform the story by replacing the love interest with a motorcycle. This act of detournment is also a serious romantic gesture. At times it breaks into an infatuation with individualism. I’m not sure, but I wonder if Genet’s suggestion takes the tragedy of Goethe’s melancholic novel into complete irreverence.
AG: Our friends Olivier Mosset and Steven Parrino are the ones responsible for the conversation that inspired this whole thing. More specifically Olivier, who was reading a biography of Genet and had the idea of representing Genet’s concept as a film (Genet had the idea of it as a theater play staged in front of the Pompidou). Then conversation led to conversation... Steven’s death put a halt on the whole project. It was really Drew who got us all going again.
DH: The way I see it, the story is a beautiful yet pathetic downward pitch toward death. It isn’t even a downward spiral. Its aim is true and entropic. There is no escaping it. I wanted to map that feeling of general helplessness in the face of the sublime, which anchors eighteenth-century German Romanticism onto our own historical moment here in the US, via 1970s road films that are contemporary to Genet. Thomas Pynchon uses a similar kind of mapping in Gravity’s Rainbow, but he is inscribing Nazi Germany onto the US in the early 1960s. It is a clever technique, so I stole it.
AC: The dissonance and shifts in tone, and the slow unwinding and unceasing motion are in keeping with Goethe’s epistolary form. Despite your approach, which spreads the origins of this work across a network of references, I wonder how much you looked to the original story in your pursuit of a structure for the piece?
DH: Each scene—for lack of a better word—in our film has a direct allegorical link to an event in the original Werther. I read the story several times, picking out moments I liked and then transcribing them onto our contemporary American version of a redneck Warhol film.
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