2013, 16mm & Super 8 transferred to digital, sound, 10' 40''
Earth sings a melancholic tale of disappointment. Folk fail to listen until it’s too late. We End. Cauleen Smith’s “Song for Earth and Folk” is a found footage film structured like a blues song with a live-improvised electro-organic soundtrack created by Chicago-based band The Eternals.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs: The last time we talked about your work, I was writing a piece about your film “The Fullness of Time” (2008), set in post-Katrina New Orleans. I was transformed by the way you offered an interplanetary and local perspective on the un/natural social disaster of Katrina. In “Song for Earth and Folk” we face the end of the world, again. What do we learn about this apocalyptic/evolutionary moment if we trouble, and make visible the perspective of the Folk? What does it mean to need an Earth that justifiably needs us to leave?
Cauleen Smith: It is nice to discuss with you after a long time talking about a film that concerns the ways that humans negotiate a relationship with the planet. In a literal sense, this planet that we call Earth (a lovely word) is our spaceship. It sustains and protects us from the cold and dark of multiverses that we are not yet capable of understanding. This core truth informs everything I make, but the explicitness of my articulations of these concerns/beliefs in “Song for Earth and Folk” rather surprised me!
This film emerged out of a process outside of my usual methods. The Chicago Film Archive invited me to make a found-footage film and I was paired with a local Chicago band, which was commissioned to make the sound track. The archive is on a rescue mission, they collect any Chicago-made celluloid films, home movies, industrial films, documentaries, experimental films, you name it. I decided to narrow the search based on images that I would simply enjoy looking at: flowers, outerspace, “Africa”, birds, and bicycles. A key find was this charming film that documented a cross-country bike ride by a group of Christian missionaries. They would encounter gorgeous landscapes and guilelessly trounce through them, sometimes leaving environmental destruction in their wake. This was also pre-SPF lotions. As the film progresses you see their shirtless bodies get increasingly cooked by the Sun. It seemed like Earth was gonna get the last laugh on these poor fellows in the form of skin cancer! They have a copy of a film that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) called “The Universe,” gorgeous special effects speculative imagery of outer space. And there were several ethnographic films depicting indigenous peoples on the African continent. Through these films, what became clear about human activity it is that it is wasteful, exploitative and toxic in almost every context.
I frequently use music to structure films. A lament—a blues song about a woman who has been done wrong— seemed a wholly appropriate way to explore this fated relationship between Earth and Folk. The Folk in my film —the imperial subject—are truly ignorant creatures too greedy and arrogant to pay attention to what our spaceship is telling us. Late-stage capitalism depends on destroying everything so that profits can be extorted out of the process of repair and restoration. (Wars in Afghanistan, Syria, DRC, Liberia) As we speak the planet responds. She’s gearing up for hurricane season; she’s got two volcanoes on full blast. She refuses to drop water on the west coast of North America, She is raising water table levels, sinking grand old cities, and tiny little islands. Our spaceship is doing what she must. I wish we humans would do the same.
All Americans, unless we’re lucky enough to own a fat quadrant of settler land upon which to be “sustainable” by composting our own shit into fuel, and food—big fence, big gun, total self-sufficiency, yay the Amerikan way—are complicit and victims of the economic systems that guide our logic and our culture. Hoarding a plot of land for a tiny family while thousands of people live in tents on the streets of LA are linked on the spectrum emitted from our current social/economic prism.
“Crow Requiem” is another film I made about our planet and some of its creatures—namely crows, incarcerated humans, women. Another by-product of the exploitation, hoarding, and accumulation of Earth’s resources is a surplus of human beings and the collateral deaths of non-human persons and their habitats. We need someplace to put them. Prisons—human-storage facilities—are the easiest (though terribly inefficient) means of dealing with human surplus.
I say all this but I do not feel hopeless for humans. I feel a greater sense of urgency for the non-human persons on the planet who we will have to watch die before we get our act together, but maybe I should make another film, structured like a gospel song, that celebrates the human wisdoms that do not surrender to capitalism, and the socio-economic structures that refuse to produce surplus.
APG: I am interested in the concept of gender in relationship to this apocalypse. In the Earth’s second blues she explains to the folk that “your brothers tried to tell you but you’re too headstrong. Your sisters pleaded with you, but y’all don't get along.” Can you say more about the dis/connections between the folk and the feminine?
And what about that moment where there is a beautiful dark face among the stars? It took me into a reverie about the cosmic dark feminine source of everything.
CS: Yes! One of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers, NK Jemison, has a series of books where the people of Earth address the planet as Father. That’s because their Earth is a cruel vengeful muther$3^*! It takes; it does not give. Fortunately for us humans, our Earth is fecund. Look at the Kīlauea Volcano making new land, the Mississippi River refusing to respect levies and pouring silt wherever she likes! So powerfully marvelous (and scary). But can we not acknowledge that capitalism depends upon patriarchy (and racism) as a means of distributing power and resources? And can we not acknowledge that the intertwining of misogyny and power has infected the fundamental beliefs by which we govern ourselves? The need to control the reproductive capacity of women’s bodies while refusing create systems that enable them to care for their bodies and their offspring resembles how we remove resources from the planet without any plan for renewal or consideration of all the lives, and eco-systems that are in relation with that resource (laborers included). When Earth speaks to Folk, she is, as you deduced, speaking to men. The footage I found, most of it from the middle of the 20th century amplifies this gender bias. With the footage available (the archive of cinematic activity in 20th century Chicago), it would be almost impossible to make a film in which actions occurred that were not propelled by the male body. I do my best to remove the body from the landscape, because all humans are complicit and responsible for the way we live on our planet. But Judeo-Christian patriarchal capitalism depends on rapid extraction, exploitation, and accumulation. And once a material has been accumulated its value can only be maintained through extreme (violent) control. It’s funny, because when I think of Folk, I think of women, not men. Sociality, community, family, and preoccupations with food, children, and shelter. In this film, it is only after humans have tried and failed to live without/beyond Earth that the folk become feminine. For the first time, she listens back. Now maybe she is just listening to the sound of her own voice, but I am hopeful that what the folk are finally doing is listening to their spaceship, listening to Earth and all of the other living things we share it with.
APG: Listening to this film was an important part of the experience. The score created by The Eternals, (whose name invokes the limits of apocalypse), your use of a blues structure of repetition and rhyme to allow the Earth and the folk to speak, and the way you play with the idea of whether listening is happening. After the Earth offers her first blues break up stanza, the folk, immersed in the sound of production and destruction, say “Sorry, did you say something?”at the very end of the film after the credits the last words we hear are “Let's listen back, ok?” Can you talk about listening and working with the musicians who created the score?
CS: The Eternals are two fantastic artists, Damon Locks and Wayne Montana. The Chicago film archive suggested them and I happily agreed. We share a deep admiration for Sun Ra, and I already had great respect for their individual creative practices. For some reason, a rule of my own invention, I thought I was to complete the editing of the picture without sound and then just hand it over picture-locked to The Eternals. Turns out, I could have sent them rough cuts and talked out a structural plan, but I didn’t. The blues dialog over-titles were in there, but I was delighted that The Eternals decided not to literally interpret the blues for this film. No need! The Earth’s voice is so clear. For me the squeaky, whirring, clamor of the soundtrack invokes human activity and environmental feedback/interference/deafness perfectly. They created ambience. I thought I would go back in after I got their music to add SFX. I love editing SFX. But I didn’t have to. They made the sounds of the lamenting Earth, of the erratic and deaf humans. From the moment I dropped their soundtrack into the film, it felt inevitable, as if I’d had that as the temp-track all along. Thank you, The Eternals!!
And BTW the woman with the headphones at the end when you hear “Let’s listen back” is Roberta Flack!
APG: Okay, we can never spend too much time on Roberta Flack...anything you want to add?
CS: The librarian at the archive shared the Roberta Flack documentary with me even though it didn’t fit into any of my pull categories because it happened to be a film that she personally loved and just wanted to share with someone she suspected would appreciate it. Watching it made me fall in-love with Robert Flack all over again. My mom had her on heavy rotation when I was a kid. She’s a rather enigmatic artist. Fun facts: born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, she was already 32 when her first album dropped. She lived in New York’s The Dakota of Rosemary’s Baby fame across the hall from Lennon and Ono. She wrote songs in Spanish. She had a strange and intoxicating way of making melodic phrases. Critics ridiculed her for failing to satisfy their desire for raunchy R&B performative antics.
Finding that clip of the moment that Roberta nods and removes her headphones was a gift! Ending films is so hard for me. I have some kind of vaudevillian DNA. I always want to end with a drastic gesture. Thanks to Maestra Flack this film has a more delicate and elegant ending. It’s interesting how indulging in nostalgia can be a speculative activity. The 1970s produced so many autonomous cultural production modes. Black music got weird and free—drug-induced, influenced by eastern philosophies, taking gospel into the realm of the secular and sexual. An amazingly fertile time when black artists seemed to believe that they could make themselves into cosmic travelers, intrepid astronauts, and solar flare surfing pan-amorous beings. When I saw that little clip of her recording in the studio—that felt like the future to me—the future I want to be in! A gentle patient voice says, “Let’s listen back.”
APG: Your use of the title frames of the archival films you worked with seemed like it’s own time travel poem and critique. Can you talk about working with the archive of films you drew on for this work and anything they taught you that you weren’t expecting?
CS: I’ve always loved titles in commercial films. It’s so intriguing: the beginnings and endings of movies and all of the information they carry, from font choice to color, density, speed, and size. The titles not only acknowledge all of the specialized labor that goes into making a movie, but they pull you into the psychic architecture and the politics of the movie—those obligatory sponsor logos. And then there is the lovely vestige from multi-reel silent pics of having an “end” credit. Once I decided to build the climax of the apocalypse with the end credits from the films, the rest of the titles opened up to me as a way of talking about cultural production, the framing of narrative and cinema itself. That title card for African Hut—so unfortunate and so revealing! The corporate investment into IIT’s industrial films. The Chicago Housing Authority using that jaunty yellow cursive to talk about tearing down neighborhoods to build housing projects. I started to understand that the way in which we amateur filmmakers emulate commercial corporate product has some stakes that I’d never deeply considered. The titles are a crucial part of the archive and became my way of maintaining the link between the film I made and its sources and the Chicago Film Archives.
APG: I love the role of those titles announcing “the end” as a climax in the film. Can you say more about time and duration. Is it the end? Is it after the end? The end for whom or what? Is the end total?
CS: When trying to pull a narrative out of all of these disparate films, “the end” graphic became this wonderful gift. The Earth has been pleading for a dialog with Folk; and Folk are failing to engage. So Earth just has to go ham on Folk. Part of me fears our planet and her ability to just shake us off like a flu bug or a bad rash. If the planet ever felt enough discomfort, all of her elemental powers cold be unleashed at once: Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, tsunamis, droughts, infestations, etc. Imagine life for humans, non-human persons, and our habitats if our planet put on a red alert! This has happened before. Those of us in “the West” have a very limited sense of history relative to other peoples and cultures on this planet; and very distorted ideas about how-to-live. We understand ourselves as conscious beings for a couple of thousand years, and we understand resource accumulation and land occupation as central to our identity, status, and power. But other societies, with different ways of how-to-live were fully cooking several thousand years before Europeans even noticed that the sun revolved around the Earth! So whose “end” could be eminent? What needs to end in order for life, culture, and society to reconstitute itself into more equitable, organic and just forms? When will we concede defeat in this transnational corporate neo-liberal project? How many will have to perish before we do? What can we learn from this failure? Can we please recognize our failure sooner rather than too-darn-late? I value the way in which time-based media uses time as fundamental material: dis-order, collapse, fold, superimpose, redact, repeat, stretch, compress, flatten, deepen. Humans seem to have a pathological attraction to speed, we need everything to happen faster; we like to grow things as fast as we can. The way in which a cut can disrupt or cohere our conscious experience of time and space never ceases to enthrall me. It keeps me making moving images. For me it was an exhilarating moment in this film to make the world end and then insist that time continue, and then ask who is there for the-after? What is the-after like? Is merely surviving victory? I guess these are things I cannot know, but within the cosmos of this film, the after is the domain of The Earth herself.
APG: Yes. Wow. Thank you. THE END. And let’s keep talking forever.
Film: Cauleen SmithSound: The Eternals
Presented by Chicago Film Archives and Music Box Films & Music Box TheatreFootage courtesy of Chicago Film Archives