The Filmmaker is Present: Authorial Immersion and Intervention in the Films of Ondi Timoner

D. A. Pennebaker, a fellow Yale graduate and Timoner’s oft-cited favorite documentarian, has said, “If I just watch what is happening, it will happen right in front of me” (Hall 236), a sentiment which Timoner took very much to heart.  But whereas Pennebaker and the observational filmmakers of the sixties sought unexpurgated moments of illumination, Timoner instead was chasing after something more akin to Craig Gilbert’s “An American Family”, something she would refer to as “a dramatic feature out of real footage.  I wanted to shoot life thoroughly as it was happening so I could recreate it for people…. I wanted to shoot a drama that unfolded” (Lee).  She explains further:

My theory was that my doc wasn’t reaching people because it was retrospective, and it was too educational to be entertaining.  Documentaries up until then never unfolded over time.  I thought, what’s different between a doc and a narrative?  Why are people running to the theaters to see scripted features, and not docs?  And the one thing I could figure out was that people don’t know what’s going to happen next when they’re watching a dramatic film.  (Tuckman)

This basic desire for a narrative, for a hook, is what has, more than any other formal or thematic trait, defined Timoner’s feature length documentary work. And in order to not only find but to document first hand such a narrative, Timoner realized that she must become fully immersed within the milieu of her subjects for extended periods of time.  She has said, “I think if you film over a long period of time, time provides the greatest narrative” (Tuckman), and for Timoner this has meant spending multiple years filming a subject before she is even certain what the ensuing film will be about.

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Thus, Timoner returned to Los Angeles in 1996, this time to film a handful of the unsigned bands which comprised the local music scene.  It was there that Timoner found Anton Newcombe and his band The Brian Jonestown Massacre — and with them, her second feature, Dig! (2004).  Timoner had initially selected ten bands which were on the verge of being signed to major record labels; her intention was to make a film or a series about the intersection of art and commerce, a topic with which she had become acquainted while trying to present Foreshaw’s story to a wider audience: “I started to realize how the purity of art is thrown [off balance] when it becomes a commodity.  That’s why I started filming bands on the verge of getting signed” (Pizzello).

Through her association in the Los Angeles music scene, Timoner was introduced to the music of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which she assumed was from a forgotten band from the 1960s.  When she learned that they were not only contemporary but local, Timoner arranged to meet with frontman Newcombe, who then turned her on to the music of The Dandy Warhols, fronted by Courtney Taylor-Taylor.  In the dynamic between the two bands, Timoner recognized a distillation of her original thesis, and in the arcs of their friendship and careers she would find her narrative:

Each band was each other’s favorite band.  Courtney possessed everything Anton didn’t possess and Anton possessed everything Courtney didn’t possess; Courtney became Anton’s barometer of success and Anton became Courtney’s barometer of integrity.  They really looked to each other, as each other’s muses.  This was a dynamic relationship, where they were doing their own thing but paralleling each other’s lives.  So I could look at everything I was looking at with the ten bands with these two.  (iofilm)

Over the next seven years, Timoner amassed almost 2000 hours of footage across a range of formats which she ultimately would edit down to a 107 minute feature.  Initially, the variety of formats was out of necessity.  “At the outset, I was shooting with whatever I could get my hands on” (Pizzello), Timoner has said, beginning with 400 hours of footage on a Sony XV-3 Hi-i video camera and graduating to MiniDV, Super 8, hidden surveillance cameras, and eventually sixteen and thirty five millimeter film.  What started as haphazard, however, evolved into a novel way of illustrating the differences between the bands through their visual representation:

[F]or the Brian Jonestown Massacre, I tried to shoot mostly Super 8 [mainly on a Nizo S800 camera using Kodak stocks] because they really feel like a Super 8 kind of band; their sound is so nostalgic and ‘imperfectly perfect,’ much like Super 8.  Later on, we decided to start shooting 16mm of the Dandy Warhols to reflect their success. In the film, you don’t see any Super 8 footage of them….  Even though we shot the Dandy Warhols in 16mm, we chose to shoot them with an older camera, a Bolex EL fitted with a 12-120mm lens, along with Switar and Yvar lenses.  The band uses vintage instruments, so we wanted to use vintage instruments.  (Pizzello)

Although this sort of intrusion of the authorial voice can be considering a violation of objectivity, Timoner maintains that her allegiance is always to maintaining the integrity of her subjects and that such choices are motivated by the events depicted.  “I am always inspired by the content,” she has said.  “I find my films through total immersion and let the form follow the content through me” (Whyte).

In 2000, Timoner began editing, but continued to amass new footage for the next four years.  “It wasn’t about deciding it was finished, it was about deciding that I had to start editing… I had over 1500 hours of footage so I realized I’d better get in there and start processing this footage” (Lee).  “I was editing for four of the years, so I thought I may as well continue the story as both bands were alive and well and the story was continuing” (iofilm).  What was immediately apparent to Timoner in the editing room was that she would need to strip away a lot of what she had initially considered essential to the film in order to convey the story at its heart.  “[T]here was a 12 hour cut of Dig! — there’s a 5 hour cut of Dig!.  So, it was just a lot to condense and it was really about the story to me” (Cahill).  Timoner reconfirmed her assertion in a conversation with Gerry Fialka: “I am a real believer in a narrative.  All my documentaries are stories that unfold over time…. By Dig! recording the serendipity of life, I could recreate it.”

In order to cogently tell seven years worth of history in the lives of two different bands in less than two hours, Timoner resorted to three techniques that were decidedly against the tenets of vérité: quick montage cutting, contextual interviews, and voice over narration.  Thus, Dig! more closely resembles an essay film, which is appropriate for a filmmaker whose first works were college assignments and who still uses the term “thesis” while discussing her subjects.  For Timoner, like Wiseman and King before her, conveying the truth at the heart of her narrative doesn’t mean binding oneself slavishly to the chronology of events.  Very much unlike Wiseman and King, however, Timoner’s editorial interference can often occur within individual scenes, rather than in their sequence: “Maintaining my integrity, to me, does not mean that what happens in a scene on a certain day doesn’t have parts from something I shot a year later, to supplement it.  I can compress time and space, as far as I’m concerned, to tell a story” (Tuckman).

For the voice over, Timoner chose Courtney Taylor-Taylor as her narrator.  Despite having been scripted by Timoner, the choice to have it read by one of Dig!’s protagonists grounds it within the world of the film and serves to assuage the audience of any concerns regarding representational accuracy and elided time.  Additionally, Taylor-Taylor’s smug and vain persona both in the film and its narration emphasizes Dig!’s representation of Newcombe as the more integral artist and offsets much of Newcombe’s own abhorrent behavior.  Thought Newcombe himself has dismissed the film as muckraking, Timoner insists that she was actually very forgiving and generous in what she chose to include and what she judiciously left out of the film:

I also cut Anton’s darkest moments… The version I made when I thought I was nearing the end — several people said, ‘you know, great footage, great story, but we can’t stand your protagonist, and we don’t think audiences will care because he’s such an asshole’, so I really had to go back and look for the compassion that I have for Anton and make sure that was on the screen, and cut out some of the more jerky things he does.  (Lee)

This egalitarian bent is indicative of one of Timoner’s guiding principles as a filmmaker, and one of the hurdles she had to overcome in telling the story of Josh Harris in her fourth feature film We Live in Public.  “I cannot personally make a film about someone I don’t love,” Timoner has said.  “I have to access compassion and have to access true love, and find the real human connection there, or I can’t do them justice” (Tuckman).

Timoner did not set out to make a film about Josh Harris; rather, she was invited by Harris through a mutual friend to take part in and document his Quiet installation in 1999.  Harris, who started the technology consulting firm Jupiter Communications and its offshoot the early webcasting channel pseudo.com, made eighty million dollars in the early 1990s during the first wave of the dot-com bubble.  A perennial outsider who hoped to buy his way into the New York art scene, Harris spent his earnings freely and lavishly, throwing a series of debauched invite-only parties that would ultimately lead to his most outlandish enterprise: Quiet.  Harris constructed an underground bunker which he outfitted with bars, restaurants, a firing range, interrogation rooms, and hundreds of video cameras which would record and broadcast everything that went on in the bunker.  Personal pods were outfitted with cameras and screens, which citizens could use to tune in to any live camera feed they desired.  He then posted an open invitation for potential “citizens” of Quiet to fill out a five hundred question application and undergo a psychological evaluation; upon approval, candidates were given matching uniforms and a pod in the bunker, where they would live under surveillance 24/7.  Food, drink, bathrooms, and all the necessary amenities were provided.  “Everything is free,” Harris said, “except the video we capture of you.  That, we own.”

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With Dig! already almost four years into production at this point, Timoner took Harris up on his offer and entered the bunker.  Unlike the other citizens, however, Timoner was allowed to leave.  “I had a hotel room.  I had a pod and I had a hotel room.  [Harris] thought that was important — that I had a place to go to get perspective.  But I was there most of the time and I didn’t like it” (Bochenski).  What Timoner was reacting to was not only the Bacchanalian mass hysteria that living in a constant state of surveillance engendered, but also the Orwellian steps that Harris took to exacerbate the situation.  In addition to having to sleep, shower, and defecate in public and on camera, citizens were routinely subjected to aggressive psychological interrogations administered by actors and performance artists pretending to be psychiatrists; all the while, Harris sat back and let the madness happen.  The bunker was eventually shut down by the police on New Year’s Day 2000, and Timoner, despite her revulsion, turned in a rough cut of the footage she had shot.  Harris was upset with how he came off in the footage, and in 2001 while Timoner was at Sundance to raise money for Dig!, he stole the masters and Timoner’s Avid, in effect shutting down the film’s production.

Three years later, Timoner completed Dig!, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, was inducted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and drastically raised the profiles of both the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols.  Following that film’s great critical and commercial success, Timoner received an email from Harris asking if she would be interested in finishing the film he had originally commissioned of the bunker, to which she responded, “No.”  Instead, Timoner focused her attentions on Join Us (2007), which followed several families attempting to leave a religious cult led by Raimund Melz.  Topicality informed her decision.  “I made [Join Us] when Bush won the election in 2004 because I was thinking America must be under some kind of mind control to re-elect a president conducting a war that we knew was predicated on a lie” (Smith).  Produced over a relatively scant three years, Join Us is a far more intimate affair than Dig!, although it still relies upon a great deal of cutting within scenes, as well as contextual interviews and voice over narration.

Once again, Timoner utilizes one of her protagonists for the voiceover; this time it is Joaquin Sullivan, one of the cult members who flees from Melz’s church.  Sullivan shares backstory about the church and its members, often accompanied by personal photographs and home videos.  Frequently, this technique gives pertinent information that explains why the families are so dependent upon the church.  Other times, however, it is superfluous and contributes to the retrospective quality that Timoner worked so hard to avoid in Dig!; the film spends enough time with the families as they undergo treatment at the Wellspring Retreat Cult Rehabilitation Center that they needn’t be further humanized or made more three dimensional, as these retrospective sequences attempt to do.

Additionally, unlike the interviews from Dig! which consisted primarily of record company executives and musicians with whom the bands had been associated, the talking heads in Join Us are mostly experts in the field of cults and mind control who have no personal relationship with Melz or his congregation.  The interviews with the staff of Wellspring Retreat and the members of Melz’s church are more informal affairs, often conducted in the car or during some other leisurely activity, and serve to illuminate both the individuals and the issue.

Most effective, however, are the sequences which depict the children of the families interacting with one another and with the crew.  After hearing their parents recount Melz’s and their own verbal and physical abuses of the children, it is heartbreaking to witness their sons’ and daughters’ inherited propensity towards violence and degradation, insulting and threatening one another over perceived infractions.  Conversely, there is a chilling precocity about Zachariah Dwyer, who at less than ten years old matter-of-factly observes that his “Dad is like a servant.  He just obeys Pastor [Melz].  He listened to the Devil when he thought it was God, and that’s what happened.”  These affecting sequences point to another direction in which Timoner’s film could have gone, more akin to King’s Warrendale or Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s contemporaneous Jesus Camp (2006).  Instead, Timoner’s didacticism shines through; in fact, at a Q&A following a screening of Join Us at the 2011 Atheist Film Festival in San Francisco, she stated, “It’s almost like a little bit of a vaccination if you see this film.”

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One response to “The Filmmaker is Present: Authorial Immersion and Intervention in the Films of Ondi Timoner

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of the Filmmaker: Ondi Timoner | The Non-Fiction Cartel·

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