“The whole project, though real and intentional, was tongue-in-cheek, because that’s how I deal with my manic tendencies. I embrace them and make fun of them at the same time…”
Madison’s Marc Kornblatt has been making movies for a while now, but his productivity seems to have picked up in recent years. Employing a ‘pick up a camera and go’ approach to his films, Kornblatt’s filmography is defined by an easy interest in his fellow humans, perhaps most notably demonstrated in his 2014 Golden Badger winner, Dostoyevsky Behind Bars, a robust document of the Oakhill Prison’s Humanities Project.
With Still 60, Kornblatt’s compassion and raw storytelling are still abundantly present, but this 2016 Wisconsin’s Own selection finds him focusing on an entirely new subject: himself. On the cusp of his 60th birthday, Kornblatt embarks on a transcendental quest to sit still for 60 minutes. If that sounds laughable, don’t worry. Kornblatt’s own breezy self-jabs are here to meet your skepticism halfway. He layers his lighthearted, introspective narration over several months worth of practice sessions, before finally recording the big one with the help of his deadpanning friend Daniel.
Charming, hilarious, and endlessly quirky, Still 60 is above all else a refreshing burst of reflexivity. For our “5 Questions” series, I talked to Kornblatt about his sudden change in focus and whether he got anything out of this whole sitting fad:
1. Your films, the ones I’ve seen at least, are generous human stories about other subjects. What made you want to turn the camera around on yourself?
One of my passions is to tell stories about the human condition, true stories that respect my subjects while uplifting my viewers. That said, I am no saint. I like all kinds of movies, highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow. As a filmmaker, my dream is to produce, documentaries and narratives. Narratives are much more expensive to make, so I have made less of them. With a documentary, I don’t have to hire and rehearse actors, build or rent a set. All I need to do is find a worthy subject and tell the story well.
Still 60 bridges these two worlds. Though it is documentary based on something I actually did, I shaped it along the way into something that academics might label creative non-fiction. When the piece screened at the St. Louis Film Festival the curator placed it in a shorts program with films about art. When I asked her why, she told me she considered my film performance art, which struck me as an apt way to think of it.
The film actually grew out of a conversation I had with my friend Daniel who is featured in it. We hit upon sitting together for 60 minutes as a way to mark my 60th birthday. Filming it myself, documenting what happened in the lead-up to the film came about naturally.
As I see it, the film is part of a series of self-referential pieces, which began with Last Seder?, a film about my elderly parents that screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival last year. While they both are the center of the film, I am behind the camera occasionally asking questions and once stepping into frame in order to help my mother. It’s a very personal story. After I finished Still 60, and began what turned out to be my final year as an elementary school teacher, I documented an entire year of teaching. The feature-length film, What I Did In Fifth Grade, that grew out of the project will have its world premiere at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival the week after the Wisconsin Film Festival ends. That film, I think, brought my self-referential period, more or less, to a close.
2. Early on, you talk about proving that you’re capable of doing “absolutely nothing.” I’m a little out of my element here, but that seems to run counter to the typical expectation of getting old, that one can still do things despite their age.
First of all, I’m a hyperactive individual, so, no matter how old I am, I am rarely at rest for very long. Second, I’m of the post-WWII Generation that doesn’t want to retire to Florida and play golf. I won’t presume to serve as a spokesperson for my contemporaries, but I want to stay active and engaged in the world.
My wife Judith is just like me. After 25 years at UW-Madison, where she taught Russian language and literature, and served as a dean in the graduate school, she returned to college and an earned an RN. She now works as a hospice nurse. She was too busy to train with me for my big sit, but, generous soul that she is, she helped keep the camera going.
3. Your voice over narration is hilarious in its bare honesty. Did you record your thoughts in some way as you shot footage or was this all done after the fact?
I recorded nothing while shooting, because, well, that would have been doing something. I just sat in front of it and tried not to think about my narration. I mainly looked at things around me and then, after each segment, I recorded narration based on what happened and what I recalled looking at. The whole project, though real and intentional, was tongue-in-cheek, because that’s how I deal with my manic tendencies. I embrace them and make fun of them at the same time, looking for productive ways to channel them.
4. But you also cut off your narration in that final sit. Was it important to you that the viewer takes part in this silence too, however contracted it might be?
I would hope the viewer feels that connected to the film. But, in truth, the reason I stopped talking and just sat still with Daniel at the end was because I wanted to recreate our experience. It’s a documentary, after all. I also included that quiet segment because people who viewed rough cuts said they needed a break from all my chatter. The silence, if you will, is the climax, which runs counter to the big bang endings traditional films demand.
In earlier cuts, the sit ran even longer. As is, I imagine my 19-minute film, culminating with the abbreviated silence, is too demanding. The film has done well on the film festival circuit, having won an Award of Excellence at the Canada International Film Festival, and been screened at five other festivals leading up the one in Madison, but it has also been rejected by a good number of others. Watching someone sit still is not for everyone.
5. In the film, you mention feeling bad about this project’s self indulgence, particularly in light of the disheartening current events happening at that time. Did you ever reconcile those feelings?
Living in the United States as a privileged white male raised in a loving family with the financial means to see to it that I went to college without graduating neck high in debt, I’ve been battling feelings of guilt since I was a young man. Teaching in a school with a large population of impoverished children for 15 years and making films that further the cause of social justice, are ways that I have tried to give back.
Does Still 60 give back in such a way? No. However, I was not oblivious to what was going on in Ferguson at the time, which is why I make reference to that tragedy in the film. Moreover, the film fed me in a restorative way, allowing me to work on a project with a dear friend and feeding my soul so I could return to the classroom in the fall better prepared to the meet the challenges teachers who work in the kinds of schools that I did grapple with every day.
- Still 60 plays before Archie’s Betty on Fri, Apr 15 at 6:30p in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and on Sun, Apr 17 at 5:45p in the UW Chazen Museum of Art.