Past Film/Video | The Box

Courtney Stephens

Perfect Fifths (2021)

with JJJJJerome Ellis


In conjunction with our annual Unorthodocs festival, which features films stretching the boundaries of nonfiction storytelling, The Box presents an experimental Super 8 documentary portrait of Afro Caribbean musician, performer, and piano tuner JJJJJerome Ellis.

In music, intervals represent the difference between pitches, and among them, the perfect fifth represents the highest degree of consonance; it is used as the basis for piano tuning and building harmony. For Ellis, an artist who tunes pianos by day, the interval has significance far beyond physical measurement as “a way of determining how something exists in space and time.” Traveling beyond speech and music, Stephens’s intimate film traces Ellis’s thinking about the interval as a phenomenon that offers both structure and, paradoxically, instability.

Ellis, who has stuttered since he was a young boy, has an acute awareness of intervals. They are inherent in his speech, which has, in turn, informed much of his work as a musician and composer. As we watch him tuning, Ellis shares his thoughts on intervals as well as the simultaneous strength and fragility of the piano, which is built to hold an incredible amount of tension while also being susceptible to temperature and humidity. The delicate spaces of time that he uses to bring this complicated instrument into acoustical harmony are also a way for him to consider time within his own speech, which he refers to as “the interval of silence.” For Ellis, these silences flow naturally and are imbued with power—the power to distend and swell time, to highlight and create new rhythms.

Stephens’s Super 8 footage—which, at 18 frames per second, contains its own intervals—makes connections between the act of tuning and the cycles of both the natural world and our man-made environment, bringing into focus tensions between the latter two and the entropy that can result. Perfect Fifths was made while Ellis and Stephens were artists in residence at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire along with filmmaker Joshua Gen Solondz, who served as an additional cameraperson on this project. (8 mins., Super 8mm film)

A close-up of piano keys and keyboards with a ghostly image of hands touching the keys

Perfect Fifths, image courtesy of the artist

A full moon overlaid over an image of chimney and rooftop

Perfect Fifths, image courtesy of the artist

A piano with the lid open, exposing the strings and hammers inside. A person's hand rest on the edge of the piano.

Perfect Fifths, image courtesy of the artist

A close-up of a hand repairing a string in side of a piano

Perfect Fifths, image courtesy of the artist

More about the artists

Courtney Stephens chevron-down chevron-up

Courtney Stephens is a filmmaker and programmer based in Los Angeles whose nonfiction and experimental films address the contours of language, historical memory, and women’s lives. Her work has been exhibited around the world in such museums as The National Gallery of Art and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and at festivals including the Berlinale, South by Southwest, New York Film Festival, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a California Humanities Grant; fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Pocantico, and the Sloan Foundation; and she was one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. A graduate of the American Film Institute, she cofounded the Los Angeles microcinema Veggie Cloud and has curated film programs for The Getty, the Museum of the Moving Image, Union Docs, and Flaherty NYC. Stephens’s codirected (with Pacho Velez) The American Sector, a feature-length documentary tracing pieces of the Berlin Wall installed around the US that was supported through a residency in the Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio in 2019. Her newest film, Terra Femme, an experimental film comprised of found travel films made by women, was supported through a virtual residency in the studio in 2021 before its premiere at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight festival. Read more.

Cardinal Health
Kaufman Development

Rohauer Collection Foundation

National Endowment for the Arts

The Wexner Family
Greater Columbus Arts Council
The Columbus Foundation
Ohio Arts Council
American Electric Power Foundation
Adam Flatto
Mary and C. Robert Kidder
Bill and Sheila Lambert
L Brands Foundation
Institute of Museum and Library Services
Nationwide Foundation
Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease
Arlene and Michael Weiss

Carol and David Aronowitz
Michael and Paige Crane
Pete Scantland
Axium Packaging
Bocchi Laboratories
Fenwick & West LLP
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
President Kristina M. Johnson and Mrs. Veronica Meinhard
Nancy Kramer
M/I Homes
Voyant Beauty

Lisa Barton
Regina Miracle International Ltd.
Washington Prime Group
Alene Candles
Fuel Transport
Russell and Joyce Gertmenian
Liza Kessler and Greg Henchel
Matrix Psychological Services
Paramount Group, Inc.
Ron and Ann Pizzuti
Joyce and Chuck Shenk
Bruce and Joy Soll
Clark and Sandra Swanson
Business Furniture Installations
E.C. Provini Co, Inc.
Garlock Printing & Converting
Jones Day
New England Development
Our Country Home
Performance Team
Premier Candle Corporation
Steiner + Associates
Textile Printing
Andrew and Amanda Wise

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Past Film/Video

Courtney Stephens