TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2006

interviews

1000 WORDS: STAN DOUGLAS

VANCOUVER-BASED ARTIST STAN DOUGLAS has reinvented some of the most significant works of cinema, from his elegantly looping six-minute, 16-mm work Subject to a Film: Marnie, 1989, which follows closely from Hitchcock’s 1964 original, to Suspiria, 2002/2003, a recombinant video mix of elements borrowed from Dario Argento’s gory, Technicolor-drenched 1977 cult classic of the same name, transposed to an eighteenth-century tower in Kassel, Germany, during Documenta 11. Douglas’s latest offering, Klatsassin—a high-definition video that will be screened in abridged form at the Vancouver International Film Festival this month before making its full-fledged debut at the Vienna Secession in November—likewise engages and elaborates a well-known work of cinema. Here the artist refashions Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), a film famous for its multiple, contradictory accounts of a murder in a woods outside eleventh-century Kyoto, as a western set in nineteenth-century British Columbia. Taking the narrative complexity of Kurosawa’s murder mystery to a logical, if perverse, extreme, Klatsassin is Douglas’s most ambitious and perhaps most audacious act of appropriation yet.

More “Garden of Forking Paths” than Gunsmoke, Klatsassin, with its diverse cast that includes a German miner, a prospector and his partner, a thief, a Scottish constable, an English innkeeper, and a Tsîlhqot’in (Chilcotin) prisoner, transforms Rashomon into a branching narrative that weaves digressively through five different time periods and multiple, conflicting stories of a murder. To see all 840 permutations unfold, one would have to watch the gallery-bound installation for more than three days.

In his ongoing exploration of looping structures, which began with Overture in 1986, Douglas has persistently transformed the way one might employ film and video to construct elliptical narratives and unexpected temporal models. Yet for all its technical sophistication and labyrinthine complexity, Klatsassin exploits a relatively simple binary opposition: a poetic tension between the repetitive precision of cinematic time and the fluidity of subjective experience—most specifically in the imperfection of human memory. Inscribing this tension in the formal operations of his film, Douglas circles around—and beyond—the raw materials of Kurosawa’s classic to produce a historically based, subtly allegorical western without end. —MICHAEL NED HOLTE

I DON’T NECESSARILY LIKE westerns as a genre. The idea for Klatsassin came from walking in the woods one day, seeing dappled light in the forest, and being reminded of the light in Rashomon—during the various recollections of the fight scene. When I saw the film again I realized that the differing versions of the same event were germane to my work. So Kurosawa’s movie became an interesting raw material to work with.

Many of Kurosawa’s films have been made into westerns. Yojimbo became, scene by scene, A Fist Full of Dollars; The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven. And even Rashomon, I was dismayed to discover, had been remade as a western called The Outrage, starring William Shatner, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit. It’s quite awful. So, in a way, I’m making good to Kurosawa by doing a tribute to Rashomon properly.

This is a dub western. We have a set of narrative materials that are repeated and recombined to create new variations, which is what happens in dub music, where multiple versions are derived from a single song. The use of a dub track in Klatsassin, by Berlin’s Rhythm & Sound, is an analogue to the overall structure of the piece. It’s also a kind of readymade. A readymade is something that is recontextualized and means something new in that new context—but you still have an idea of what it was in its original context, so it can be two things at the same time. It can be polyphonic.

My film is set in the time of a native insurgency that took place in British Columbia in 1864. It was the Tsîlhqot’in nation’s response to a gold rush that had begun midcentury and brought a lot of people from Europe and the United States—and with them, smallpox. This is where Klatsassin, a Tsîlhqot’in chief whose name literally means “we do not know his name,” comes in. With the memory still fresh of an epidemic that took the lives of thousands of natives in the region, many Indians up there didn’t want Europeans crossing their territory. Klatsassin himself led a war party that killed fourteen people in a day. Unable to capture any of the insurgents, the governor sent Klatsassin a gift of tobacco, which the chief interpreted as a peace offering. When he came in to negotiate a treaty to end what he regarded as a war, he was tried for murder, and hanged. Armed escorts transported Chedekki, the only member of the war party left alive, to New Westminster to see if an eyewitness could identify him, but he escaped en route. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened, and that’s where my story begins.

Principal photography was done around Vancouver, and we shot second unit in various places up in an area called the Cariboo. It’s a different landscape than one normally sees in westerns. I researched the languages spoken there in the nineteenth century, and I looked at the history of this area—the way people dressed, the way they interacted, where they came from, and so on. In Klatsassin, I don’t think any two characters are the same nationality or speak the same language. They’re all from different places, scrambling to get their gold. It reminded me of today—people from the US and Europe trying to get the most valuable thing in the world out of the earth in a place where they’re not really welcome. And there was an insurgency. And a prisoner with a bag over his head.

Often we see in galleries motion pictures that have a beginning and an end—linear films that are made to repeat. I first proposed a looping idea in 1986, in Overture, which really is a loop: There’s no beginning and no end. Other looping pieces, like Subject to a Film: Marnie and Der Sandmann, 1995, have a semblance of linear narrative, beginning and end, but mostly it’s all middle. With the recombinant pieces, such as Journey Into Fear and Suspiria, it’s taken to a new level. These works change over time, and often very long intervals pass before they repeat themselves; they are branching narratives, no longer linear or one-dimensional. It’s a matter of extending the possibilities of temporal form far beyond the ninety-minute, three-act dramatic structure Hollywood loves.

My most complex recombinant work would be Suspiria, which lasts so long it might as well be infinite. It is comedic but also quite complicated and it takes maybe an hour for the viewer to understand what’s going on. In Klatsassin the structure is apparent after ten or fifteen minutes, but it takes days for all the permutations to play out. And that makes it virtually impossible for two different viewers to see the same thing the same way—much like the characters in Rashomon.