Sunday, 28 February 2010

Reining Nails: Jason LaRay Keener

From The Pictures #3

Last year, Reining Nails released Catfish With Falcon Wings, a DVD EP compiling their film work to date. The films – four full shorts plus numerous ambient pieces and musical performances – are suburban American comedies, each a series of vignettes and sketches, monologues and one liners cut together to form A.D.D. collages of menace and black humour. The films, directed by Jason Laray Keener (with his frequent collaborator Jeremiah Leadbetter), are populated by menageries of offbeat characters wrapped in arguments, games or surreal and ultimately futile activities. A mother on a motorised lawnmower pulls her daughter along by a rope, forcing her to cut the grass with a manual mower. A man skips and exercises in the pouring rain. A boy sweeps a roof while his grandma shouts disapprovingly from below. A mother criticises her son for his lack of originality at playing the mouth organ.

These vignettes, often featuring antagonistic parents a little like those in a ‘40s farce, are interspersed with horror imagery and footage of animals that would not be out of place in a Herzog film – a turtle digging in what looks like mashed potato or a colony of ants swarming across a discarded rocking horse in Hallelujah! Gorilla Revival (2008), beetles trapped in glass in Hail Cracking Cobra Eggs (2007). There is an underlying sense of menace throughout, and often the images of horror are brought into the foreground. Out in the woods, a deformed beast chained to a stake in the ground wrestles to free itself. The Man With The Apple Shaped Boxing Gloves (2006) features a boy trapped in a rodent cage while another man kicks it. Reining Nails’ latest, Hollow Porcelain Fish Chamber (2009), has a toddler screaming for its mother who lies dead in the scrub by its side.

At times they are affectionate and absurd. Hail Cracking Cobra Eggs includes a low key family fashion show, the grandmother praising the beauty of the models. In Hollow Porcelain Fish Chamber a young woman dressed as a clown rolls in ecstasy among shotgun shells. Yet despite the range on display in the films, these moments that comprises them retain a certain signature feel. Whether beasts in the woods, animals at the zoo or models in the back room of a suburban house, the characters all feel like elements of the same spectrum, the world as seen by Keener and his collaborators.

The images and scenes move at a nervous speed, layered in collage with voiceovers, stills, superimpositions and music (also made by Keener – as Can of Zebras – and Leadbetter). The soundtrack is peppered with one liners and surreal anecdotes – “I think my venus flytrap is anorexic”; “When I was six my grandmother killed my parents and abducted my little sister. She didn’t bother with me.” These elements are drawn from a wide range of collaborators, including Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu) and Todd Rohal (The Guatemalan Handshake). The camera is usually hand held and the image itself is often distorted, particularly in the found footage that appears in the films. Scenes often begin mid-argument, cutting on the sweep of a brush or a note on a musical instrument.

The detail and wit that go into each scene mean that each stand out as an episode within the whole, and as wholes each short containing enough ideas to fill a far longer film - an indication of great things to come from Keener’s first feature, which goes into production later this year.

THE PICTURES: What drew you to filmmaking? Where there any major influences that made you think this was something you could - and had to - do?

JASON LARAY KEENER: My step-brother and I were raised on horror films, especially slashers. When I was 12, my mother recommended we watch Halloween. So we rented it. The screen flashed up John Carpenter’s Halloween. Music by John Carpenter. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Directed by John Carpenter. It was the first time I understood that a film is made by someone. It doesn’t just magically exist.

Pretty soon, I had a shrine to Halloween in my bedroom. My obsession went to the
extent that I recorded the audio from the film onto a cassette tape and would listen to it like a radio show when in the bathtub at my grandmother’s.

So when I was 12, I realized that a film is made and I realized that I had to make

TP: Why the name 'Reining Nails'?

JLK: It’s ambiguous in meaning but not in mood, which I think is true of the films I like to make. My favorite art gives you plenty of room to project your own thoughts and ideas, but the creator dictates the mood.

TP: How much do the films reflect your life? Are any of the characters featured in the films real people filmed verite style?

JLK: The films are very personal at times, but never in a literal sense. I don’t think anyone is interested in hearing the Jason LaRay Keener story, and I’m not really interested in telling it. I’ll be honest and embarrassingly confess that I’m pretty emotionally unstable at times, which I’m sure that a lot of people have picked up on by now. I used to abuse caffeine pills and I probably have some form of hypomania. The shorts are really my thought process made tangible. There was one “real,” uninvented character in The Man with Apple-Shaped Boxing Gloves; there is a
shot near the end of a man in a parking lot waving his hands around, with pictures
superimposed over him. I saw that man at a Wal*Mart one night around 3 AM. He was
yelling to himself and making very angry gestures and all these employees and
customers were standing inside watching him. I went home, grabbed my camera, came back and filmed him ranting from afar. I wish I’d had the courage to get closer and record what he was saying, but you can appreciate my fear. It was a very interesting moment in my life. Mental illness is very fascinating to me, but more on an emotional level than an intellectual study of it.

If it wasn’t for my friends and family, there wouldn’t be any films. I am grateful for their time, support and haunting performances.

TP: What's your filmmaking process? Do you film ideas as and when they come up and then compile them, or do you have a definite set of scenes in mind before filming? How long does one of your films typically take?

JLK: Both methods, really. Sometimes I just pick up the camera and improvise with
my cast, and other times I write scenes out. But even with the written scenes, I always leave room to improvise and invent on the spot, and sometimes what I film strays very far from what I have written, and then sometimes what I edit strays very
far from what I have filmed. The shorts generally take one weekend to one month to actually shoot, but unfortunately it often takes much longer to accumulate scene ideas or else I’d be a lot more prolific.

TP: Having seen quite a few of your films over the past few years, it seems like a lot of the ideas have solidified and become more fluent, but there's still like a central core that runs throughout all of them. What do you think has changed in your films these past few years? What parts are important and central, and what has progressed?

JLK: The Man with Apple-Shaped Boxing Gloves was a lot more carefree and freestyle. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, so I was just sort of developing a style naturally. I became more self-aware after that and put a great emphasis on refining that format. Now that they have been compiled onto Catfish with Falcon Wings, I’m ready to move in some new directions, but I’ll probably still try to make one of these shorts per year.

TP: On your site there's a lot of poetry and music as well as films. Do they all come from the same place, part of the same thing? Or do you think of them as separate?

JLK: The music and films are related in the sense that the music usually serves as the score for the films. I have more fun making music than I do shooting films, and I do like the more inherent abstract nature of instrumental music (or more often in my case: noise and sounds). Music is something I’d like to pursue more seriously in the future. It’s a dream of mine to release a legitimate album and maybe play at least one legitimate show some day but that’ll require undivided attention and a few
months. But one day in the next five years, I do hope to make it happen. My poetry has always been more of a brain exercise than something I’d seriously pursue. I must
confess I’ve never been able to really get into poetry, but I do enjoy writing it. It’s an interesting format to express some images that would be less successful on film and I’d like to begin writing more again.

TP: What are you working on next? Anything exciting we should look out for?

JLK: I’m shooting a feature in December called Natalie Natasha. I’ve been trying to
get it off the ground since 2006, and the time has come at last. I probably don’t seem like a likely candidate for a serious relationship film, but it’s as much a part of me as clowns masturbating in bullets. A documentary may or may not come next. Then I hope to shoot another feature I’m currently writing called Alan Morris, my first attempt to do something humorless.

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