Stream it: Vera Brunner-Sung & Girish Shambu on Character

Chris Stults, Associate Curator, Film/Video

Dec 17, 2020

Filmmaker Vera Brunner-Sung and critic Girish Shambu smile at each other over Zoom

The year's slate of programming for The Box concludes with our month-long presentation of Character, a work by a filmmaker near and dear to the Wex. Vera Brunner-Sung, who's also a writer and Assistant Professor in Ohio State's newly merged Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts, shared a work-in-progress cut of the short film and brought its star, actor Mark Metcalf, to Columbus for the 2019 Unorthodocs festival. We've also presented previous works by Brunner-Sung including Bella Vista in 2016 and Fallen Star: Finding Home in 2018. She was a guest curator for the 2016 summer series Don't Call Me Honey: Fierce Women in Film and a past WexCast guest to discuss the work of Agnès Varda.

We're happy to share a new conversation about Character between Brunner-Sung and Girish Shambu, one of the most valuable voices in film criticism. Shambu's the editor of Film Quarterly's online column "Quorum" and a contributor to numerous other outlets including Film Comment and Cineaste. He's also the author of the book The New Cinephilia.

The conversation kicks off with an intro by Associate Film/Video Curator Chris Stults. A transcript of their talk is available below the video.




Chris Stults: Hello, I'm Chris Stults, the Associate Curator in the Wexner Center's Film/Video department and we're here today to talk about the film Character by Vera Brunner-Sung that we're featuring in The Box. The Box is are normally our video exhibition space located, both ideologically and physically, directly between the cinema and the galleries. We've been happy to be able to move this online during the pandemic and are very excited to be featuring Vera's film throughout the month. 

Vera Brunner-Sung is an Assistant Professor at OSU's newly merged Department of Theater, Film, and Moving Image. Her work has screened at CPH:DOX, MoMA PS1, San Francisco Film Festival, Ann Arbor, Images and she's written for sources like Sight and Sound, Cinema Scope, and Millennium Film Journal. At the Wexner Center, we've been excited to feature four of her films over the years. Some memorable moments were showing Fallen Star: Finding Home where Vera was on stage with the film's subject Do Ho Suh. And that was a wonderful conversation in the evening. And then last year for the unorthodox Film Festival. We showed an in progress version of Character with actor Mark Metcalf, the film's subject there in person as well. The film then went on to premiere at Sundance and is currently presented online by The New Yorker. Any day when I get to talk to Vera is a day I always look forward to. So thanks so much for joining us.

Vera Brunner-Sung: Thanks for having me.

CS: And then we're also joined by Girish Shambu who has become one of the most distinct and valuable voices in film criticism. He edits Film Quarterly's online column “Quorum” and is the author of the book The New Cinephilia. His words have appeared in Artforum, LA Review of Books, CinemaScope, and many Criterion releases, including most recently one of my favorite films of all time, Beau Travail. And such essays as "Rethinking Film Evaluation" or "Time's Up For the Male Canon," I think, are essential reading for anybody interested in thinking about cinema today. So thanks so much for joining us for this conversation, Girish. I'm happy to hide my camera and listen in on the two of you.

Girish Shambu: Thank you, Chris.

VBS: Thanks, Chris.

GS: Hi, Vera.

VBS: Hi, Girish

GS: I want to begin with a short description of your film and then maybe we can start talking about it. So Character, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a short documentary that features the actor Mark Metcalf and who looks back on the roles that he's played over the years and a certain character type that that he keeps returning to or the industry keeps keeps him returning to and it's a fascinating film. It's a wonderfully stylized film with very striking passages that hopefully we can talk more about.

So first I want to ask you, does it feel exciting that you know Sundance was almost a year ago and now your film is being distributed online by the New Yorker. There's a lovely piece on it at The New Yorker. Now how does that feel for you.

VBS: I mean, it's great. This film had a different genesis than anything else I've made. It came together quite quickly. And I don't want to say easily because I was producing it and directing it and coordinating a lot of different things in this strange intuitive process of making it. I was always excited about it from beginning to end. The Sundance premiere, of course, was incredible. And, you know, on top of what's happening with the pandemic we had a couple - that and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival - got to go to a couple in-person screenings before everything ground to a halt. And so it was wonderful, just to see it in front of an audience and my aspiration with this film was always to have as many people see it as possible, because I was interested in the conversation around it. And I'd sort of set that as a goal. So the New Yorker thing was great, too. It's like, oh, more people can see this now!

GS: That's great. I'm sure there'll be a huge audience with the New Yorker. So I'm curious how you conceived of this project. And what motivated this film?

VBS: Yeah, I'm someone who's moved from experimental documentary into this territory of fiction and couldn't help but continue to bring my experimental documentary background baggage to add to this new mode of working. So I made my first feature in 2014, so a few years ago. And then, you know, decided I wanted to keep writing scripts and working with actors and all that. I couldn't help but wonder like, what is the experience like for these people. I thought, it's hard enough being behind the camera and even harder to be in front of it. The audition process, in particular, must be extraordinary, extraordinarily difficult You know, I would think about how when we were auditioning for my first feature, having these conversations with my producers, like "that's not really personal. It's just they're not right for the role," but of course it's incredibly personal! What's the toll that that takes? I really wanted to talk to somebody about that and then kind of thinking how the roles you're chosen for start to shape how you see yourself. In my hypothesis, it must start to happen, right?

So thankfully I got connected with Mark through a mutual friend and he was at a place in his life where he was willing to go there and have these sometimes uncomfortable conversations about his own identity and the ups and downs of his career. So in that way. He was really a perfect subject and a pretty generous one as well.

GS: Yeah, that's great. In fact, it's kind of unusual for actors to have this kind of self reflection and distance from their performances and the types of performances that they play. So this was unusual for me to see in your film because I haven't seen that many actors do that. Not to disparage actors, but they're often so close to the performances that they play and their own careers that this seemed like a rare look at an actor.

VBS: Yeah, that's something I've heard a lot about. When he talks about, in the beginning of the film, why he is cast in these roles. People have been really struck by his perspective that he has on himself. But I wonder how much of it is like, we just don't ask, too! But I imagine if you're sensitive, you're vulnerable. You're trying to make a name for yourself. The incentive to be really candid and a bit cynical about the whole process. It's not really there to put it out that way. Mark, who left 20 years ago, is in a place where he apparently feels comfortable doing that.

GS: That's so interesting. The type, the specific type that he has played over the course of his career, it's kind of an angry, anguished man. There's that hilarious little bit in the film where his agent gets a call for a "Mark Metcalf type," even though Metcalf's sitting across from him. The guy doesn't necessarily want Metcalf. It's not clear for what reason, whether he's too expensive? But he wants the type. And so I'm wondering what is the attraction for this particular type? Both in the industry and for us as audiences. What is it about this type that's so attractive?

VBS: Mark has played kind of a villain but as he says in the film, kind of a fool version of this villain because he's so over the top in his rage and anguish, as you say. I don't want to speak for the consumers of popular culture in America but, for me, when I see it, those performances, that type of character, there's something kind of delicious about like this person that you hate being so ridiculous. You know, he shows you the inanity of this kind of worldview, right?  The trying to control and everything. And so there's something really pleasurable about that type. Yeah, I don't know. I think that's what I'm thinking. What do you think?

GS: I often think of it in a gendered way. Why is it that men are allowed to sink their teeth into these roles and we actually like it and we actually admire them a little bit and we find it delicious and we don't we don't necessarily judge them as harshly as we might a woman who's playing such roles and so I'm constantly struck by our appetite for men in these roles. But when we watch women these roles, there’s something a little misogynist in our culture that wants to hate women in equivalent roles and that I just see that sexism, internalized sexism, coming out in our culture. And so that makes me a little more wary of these roles that have become so popular. I'm a little suspicious of why they're being embraced.

VBS: For sure. And I mean that that's the perfect sort of connection to Animal House as a film, right, which was the role that really made made his identity as a character actor. And the whole “boys will be boys” thing, right, really could have been the logline for that movie. But I think there is something very clearly there related to what you're what you're talking about. And he's sort of tied to that really inextricably. And so it was interesting when we were recording the interviews that would become the voiceover for the film, because we just did voice-only interviews over the course of a year. And it was around the 40th anniversary of Animal House and timed really beautifully with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and I think Mark was doing some soul searching over what the contribution of this film really was. You know, very proud of it but also, in this moment of cultural, historical reckoning, what it is now right to look back on. I think we all should be, if those of us who aren't doing that, should be doing that, right? We have this incredible opportunity to to really re-evaluate the works that have defined popular culture, popular humor along these really brittle gender lines. So that was something that emerged as one of the more compelling threads in our conversations. "How do you see yourself? How do you see your role in all of this? How much is it his choice versus the power structure within the film industry saying, these are the opportunities, you can have if ultimately what you're trying to do is make a living.

GS: Right, that's great. There are so many striking bits in your film. I just want to ask you about a couple of them. In one of them, you superimpose images of famous actors and stars like Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford over Metcalf's face and it creates a really eerie kind of effect. I'm wondering what you were thinking of with that particular choice formal choice.

VBS: Yeah, that was one of the things that was very instinctual. Like, let's try this! I want to see what this looks like! As we were shooting, everyone was like, whoa! This is so crazy! you know, it looks like some kind of computerized effect. It was really just a projector on his face. But yeah, you know, these things about acting and the mask that you wear. And there's sort of those things that seemed to make sense formally about that strategy. But in that section of our interview where he was talking about wanting to… the people who are coming up and the people whose careers are really taking off. They're dirtier than he is because he's this pristine WASP-y white. With the exception of Redford, and then his feelings about Redford that are sort of... It took him a while to like him.

I just thought, well, if your face is such a blank slate and you have no character as you've always been told, what would it look like if he's more, you know, famous and revered and you know dirtier people and it's, yeah, it's disconcerting, right? It's sort of strange, but it was, you know, it was incredibly fun to shoot that.

GS: It's great. It's also very thoughtful and it's almost doing a little bit of theorizing on its own, that one little bit about projection and performance and it's fascinating, but I'm also… the scene where he's portrayed to be dead as a sheet is pulled over him. I'm wondering what you were thinking when you wrote and shot that.

VBS: He told me when we when it so the the process of shooting... we had went in with some ideas of things to try and I also had a couple of boxes of props and a lot of those ideas we came up with together. But the the morgue shot that you're talking about, I take credit for. You know, and again, to Mark's credit, he said, “I'm up for anything, except maybe full nudity.” I think I was like, we're not we're not going to do that. Don't worry!

I thought, well, your hopes for what your career was going to be seemed like they were ended at that moment when you know you felt like, "OK, I became a type. And that's, that's where things are going to land in in Hollywood for me.” There's a bit of like tragedy or something there. That it was over. Thank you for noticing that shot. I loved it! And it's very…

GS: It's great. There's so many little touches like that. I don't want to spoil it, you know, for that for the audience for people who haven't seen it. We could wind up with a kind of a broader question. I'm wondering... Are we seeing a move into representations of masculinity that are a little more unusual and moving away from this kind of angry white man type that Mark Metcalf played so often? I'm wondering what you think of the future of masculine representations? Are we moving in a in a good new direction?

VBS: Oh! I hope so! I think for me, we don't have much choice, right? We've been Taxi Driver and Joker. You know, Brian De Palma, all that canon. I think it's a global thing, but also especially American. It's been pretty well established. I was thinking about Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, which is a really different representation of male friendship. It's very peaceful and even though there's conflict there isn't that brutal. We don't see it on screen at least, right? And certainly in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, right? I've never heard a man say… I’m sure there there's probably an example but, in my recollection, I haven't recently heard a straight white man in a movie, say, “When I feel scared I get angry and I don't want to do that anymore.” Rather, we sort of stopped with just the anger in the past. So I'm hopeful. 

But I also think this moment that we're in and post-#Metoo, and all that, that we can really clearly try to look back on those films that defined our gender and racial stereotypes with clear eyes and think of them as symptomatic and really doing a good job of showing what white hetero-patriarchy can do to people. Because that's real. Also, it's a product of our culture, so yeah, but the entertaining factor stings a bit more, right? I think about where we've been able to see more complex emotional portraits of men, it's, it's in queer cinema. It's when female directors often—not always but often—take the reins, but I also like to think about Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, which tries to say some things about John Wayne in an interesting way for the era. So there were moments of it where you can look back and say somebody was noticing something, right? Oh yeah, I’m optimistic

GS: Now, that's great, those are those are great examples and very important thoughts at this moment. And I'm glad that your film makes a little intervention here in this debate, but does so in a way that is not at all heavy-handed or anything like that. It's very stylistically astute but it plants ideas that I think are really important right now. So I want to wish you the best with Character and I hope a lot of people see it and I also want to wish you the best with your second feature.

VBS: Thanks. Thank you. It's an interesting time to be working on a feature.

GS: Thank you for this opportunity to discuss your film.

VBS: Thank you. Yeah. And thanks to Chris and the Wex for having me and having us.

GS: It sounds great. Bye, Vera.