No time for nice things anymore
An interview with Vladimír Turner about Modern Times, his latest short film that is available online on DAFilms.
To what extent are we intertwined with modern technology? Can we survive the 21st century? Is there any chance that art can still influence the public discourse and change the world in the process? Such are the issues brought up in the new film by Vladimír Turner, a leading Czech visual artist, together with the themes of social responsibility, climate activism or the inherent shallowness of humanity. Fittingly titled Modern Times, it combines elements of experimental cinema and art performance, cheekily mimicking Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; all that in an ironically framed depiction of a man struggling with himself and the ubiquitous modernity he lives in.
In both approach and title, Modern Times presents a revision of the famous film by Charlie Chaplin. Was it your main source of inspiration or did it come up more as a related material during the shoot?
Prior to the making of this film I worked on a performance art show which included me riding a hoverboard. And I felt like a character in a slapstick comedy. I have always preferred Buster Keaton and I consider him the predecessor of contemporary conceptual performance art. I share a similar, acrid and critical, sense of humor with both Chaplin and Keaton. The title of the film is quite trivial. While driving the hoverboard, the phrase modern times occurred to me – as in times that are kind of bonkers, times full of modern, but silly inventions. And I tried to critically reflect on the overtechnicized society we live inn, big money interests, labor conditions and social rights. While I would love to connect the film to Keaton, Chaplin was just more fitting.
What Chaplin portrays in the 1936’s Modern Times is a series of grotesque situations, while protesting against automatization and the dehumanized, technical modernity. However, the film’s conclusion is full of hope and love: the young couple overcomes several rigmaroles of life and they walk into the sunset hand in hand. There is no such hope in your version of the story, though. Your protagonist remains alone and hopeless.
The ending is similar - I depart towards the horizon like a ‘just married’ man. But unlike Chaplin, I have no partner. Modern Times is probably my first deeply personal film. I split up with my long-term girlfriend shortly after the shooting. You might even feel an underlying presage of a break-up in the film. What I focus on in the first place, though, is the feeling of loneliness in an overtechnicized society. Irony helps me, as it always has. It´s is my defence mechanism against mental breakdown or suicidal thoughts. I no longer have any hope. My work tries to motivate people to bring out their inner activism and to fight for something.
In your past films the protagonists are active, publicly intervening characters; Modern Times is more of a passive work, observing the pathological stage of resignation. However touches of absurdist humour occur in individual scenes. While the comedy can definitely further engage the audience and invite them to actively participate, it could also obscure the inherent tragic meaning and the authenticity of some of the harsher motifs. Is that a worry for you?
The film blends a lot of my usual themes: me as an art performer in the landscape, intervening the public space, hatred of the police and church, climate activism and social issues. In my crazy mind, I think we will change the world. I would love to create purely ‘beautiful’ things, but, sadly, there is no time for that. A lot of the stuff that I do in the public space is trivial - I want people to understand it immediately and with little pointless contemplation. Burdened with some of these heavier themes, my video art performances need a bit of relief - just like I need to rest as well. I agree that irony can make the themes feel more alienated and unclear, however it is a necessary form of art therapy for me. Then there is specific cultural experience and sense of humor. Audiences abroad oftentimes have a very different understanding of my work. The viewers in Paris didn’t laugh at all during Modern Times. Quite the opposite, they remained serious and somber. When I was in Morocco, I presented a performance art piece which challenged the prominence of advertisement in the public space. The people got mad, they told me I am just showing them the ad and thus I’m multiplying its presence. They went as far as to ask me if I was being paid off by the company...
Since Modern Times addresses the issues of automatization, depersonalization and mindlessness, it bears asking the question whether art can still change the world?
I live for art. Art is the singular space where I can feel truly free. I don’t want feel like a hypocrite, that’s why I also take part in activism and protests. Because of that I get into trouble with the police. From time to time I also find patches of grey hair and have to deal with issues in my personal life. That´s also why I think you can’t change the world being just an artist. You have to engage in discussions, do an interview, push your message further and further. Bruno Latour talks about this remarkably in his book Down to Earth. He says that the fight shouldn’t be as aggressive and it should take place via culture – where the wider society can find its own imagination, beauty and metaphor.
A dominant prop in the film is the aforementioned hoverboard. Why is that?
I hate it so much when I see someone riding this thing. Are these people really such dickheads, can’t they just walk? Or ride a bike? Our world is filled with unnecessary stuff like this. The human race won’t be able to sustain itself throughout the rest of this century - at least not in this format with love and empathy present among us. A lot of industries just produce more and more of these fleeting, redundant, consumerist things that flood our public spaces, instead of focusing the technological progress on sustainability or advances in medicine. I know I sound a bit like an authoritarian when I say this, but I would simply ban some of the industrial sectors. I just can’t think of a different solution. When I saw the first segway transporters riding around the historic Lesser Town in Prague, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a weird sci-fi film. I caught myself looking out for the first guy to fall down because of the bumpy cobblestone pavement. There was some legislative action taken against them, however it was pretty haphazard at first. I was actually fined for riding a bike after they had banned any type of a two-wheeled vehicle. Maybe it was right there where a first impulse of my hatred came about.
Is there really no benefit at all to these new devices? We could think of them as some sort of multi-layered tools, which could potentially reveal a different, ready-made purpose, couldn’t we?
There are a few scenes in Modern Times where the underlying themes include the automation of labor. Someone who cleans up the floors in a gigantic shopping mall could definitely find use in a hoverboard. But not really. I don’t think that artificial intelligence has a shot in emancipating the working class. More likely the elites will just get more money out of it and the worker will end up with a shittier job and a smaller salary. When I go grocery shopping, I avoid the self-checkout stations and I stand in line for the common cashier. I want the person there to have a job and something to do.
„Bruno Latour says in his book Down to Earth that the fight shouldn’t be as aggressive and it should take place via culture – where the wider society can find its own imagination, beauty and metaphor.“
I can see some benefits in there too, though, like in the case of disabled people. Once I bumped into a guy riding a segway into a metro station. I was getting a bit worked up - how can you be so impertinent and bring a segway down here? However, when I saw how the guy moved around, I could tell he was physically disabled. I approached him and we actually talked all the way to the end of the metro line. Unlike with a wheelchair, he was absolutely free when using the segway. It gave him a more meaningful life. I must admit that I felt quite ashamed of myself at that moment.
Could there ever be someone other than you performing and leading in one of your films or art performances?
I don’t think so. What’s left of my cinephile self still thinks back fondly to Maya Deren and Alexander Hackenschmidt. Maya performed in her own films. She said that the performance is something so intense she couldn’t place it into someone else’s hands.
Modern Times marks the first collaborration between you and a separate DoP, Petr Racek in this case. Why?
The reasoning for this was mostly of practical nature. I used the shoot my films by myself, I just turned on the camera and then I ran for 200 yards. A lot can go wrong in under such conditions, though, a part of the setup shifts a bit to the side and you have to start all over again. I met Petr at the climate activist meet-up, Klimakemp, and we realized we could see eye to eye on a lot of things. And despite me not being able to offer him a decent DoP rate, he was very understanding and helpful.
Did he bring his own sense of style to the film?
Definitely. I can’t write screenplays, I don’t work with storyboards. Oftentimes I just create spontaneously, coming up with the scenes on location. But Petr helped me a lot scouting the locations, some of them are just his.
There are no dialogues or monologues in the film. We have to talk about the soundtrack, though. You are putting together these gloomy sounds and tones, some that we all know - like the simple, mindless beeping noise of the airplane cabin. How do you work out the desired sound design and composition?
We can think of sound as a symbol of modernity. Any other machine or tool gets to beep from time to time. I suffer from tinnitus, hence I am very sensitive to some sounds. I remember that I felt pretty nutty in some workshop classes at FAMU, the Prague Film school. I was overly responsive to a lot of things, I could hear all the appliances in my flat running. It is truly bizarre if you think about it, the fact that there is a red light blinking on your stove for example. I tried to work the sound into the symbolic layer of the film in this way, the beeping pervades the whole movie. Sometimes it is non-diegetic, sometimes you can see the source of the sound. I enjoy working on the soundtrack in general, at times I can download some of the effects, often I create them myself. With this film, I had to finish up a lot of the sounds, there is not a lot of on-set foley sounds.
What’s next for you?
If the Czech Film Fund supports me, I’d like to work on a feature film. It would loosely follow Modern Times and one of my older films, Funeral. The ending of Modern Times shows me wondering around the empty, estranged world, without a partner. The next film will take it even further: I am the only survivor of a climate catastrophe that wiped out the whole planet. I want to avoid the usual take on a post-apocalyptic movie - I say this with a great deal of irony, but I will be happy to be alone. Loneliness will let my imagination run wild and I will start a brand new life. I will learn to build a shelter out of rubble, find something to eat and create a new system of visual representation, spirituality and totems. I will add a sparkle of shamanism, not in an esoteric way, more surrealist. Just like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, I will create my own talisman, something that can advise me on how the built the shelter and deliberate on the reasons why humanity got destroyed. The whole film will be framed in the unsure reality of ecological grief. There is no way of telling if I’m in a dead reality or just confessing of my actions at a therapy session.
Are you going to move around different European locations, like in Modern Times?
I hope so, it depends on the budget. A part of Modern Times was shot in Bretagne, I would love to go back. I was impressed by the locations, I discovered a lot of cliffs, wild beaches and abandoned Nazi factories.
Translated by Viktor Licek.