The Arthropologist

A new movie messes with Texas and your vision of the president may be forever twisted

A new movie messes with Texas and your vision of the president may be forever twisted

Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears
Nancy, Mess with Texas, June 2012, Still from The Rancher by Kelly Sears

Kelly Sears is at it again, messing with history as part of Mess with Texas. Her newest film, The Rancher, creates a portrait of a president who becomes unraveled by bad dreams, becoming undone in the process. That president happens to be Lyndon B. Johnson.  

The Rancher screens Thursday through Sunday at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), on a Mess with Texas program as part of Perspectives 178: Cineplex, and again as part of The Galveston Art Residency at Galveston Arts Center from July 14-Aug. 19. Mess with Texas is presented by Aurora Picture Show, the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and CAMH.

The former Glassell Core Fellow brings us into the thick of messing with Texas — Sears style.

CultureMap: The last time we spoke it was about your horror movie, Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise, set in high school, a likely place. Now that we are discussing The Rancher, I feel as if it's also a horror film, this time set in Texas. Do you see it that way?

Kelly Sears: There is a lot of horror out there. I think genre filmmaking is a fantastic way to examine the world around us and see what turns up. I feel like the horror here resides less in Texas and more in authority. In this film, a president has these discordant and unnerving dreams that start to unravel his behavior during waking hours. All the footage in this film is of LBJ. The film is in no way is about him.

I was using LBJ as an archetype more so than an actual person. A president. A rancher. Both archetypes deal with a certain amount of manifest destiny and eminent domain over the land. This piece was commissioned by the Aurora Picture show and the Contemporary Art Museum Houston to rework films from Texas’s history.

Separating a person from a place is a hard thing to do, where does a soul begin and the land end?

CM: Texas is prone to myth. Had things gone another way we would still be Mexico. Separatism is in our DNA.  You seem to be riffing on the great myth dumping on Texas. For you, what are the mythological ties to the Lone Star State?

KS: Texas is a supreme battleground. If you check a lot of accounts, we are still part of Mexico. It’s a place that is always a recipient of a fantasy projected onto it. That is why we are here. I think Texas could have gone a lot of different ways!

So many people have claimed this Texas as their own, still claim it as a certain kind of history. It’s a state that is full of legends and personalities. I’m flying out of IAH in the morning and there is a dramatic bronze statue of George H.W. Bush in the terminal that will bid me farewell. Texas loves to celebrate its good ole boys. And I think it’s worth examining those celebrations.

The material from this project comes from the Texas Archive of Moving Images. There are a million stories and histories in there worth looking at. For sure, Texas is larger than life. Everything is bigger in Texas.

It seems that part of loving Texas involves investigating bravado, power and scale. I think that it’s interesting to look at the edges of where the bravado, power and scales recedes and see what kind of back story you can find there. I love Texas a lot and am so happy I moved here. It’s so welcoming.

CM: How did LBJ pop into your lexicon as a worthy subject?

KS: Years ago I read Robert Caro’s Passage to Power, the first tome of his big series about LBJ. The first book examines the physical and psychic landscape of Texas as a place that produced Johnson. The way he is set up in that book makes him seem less of individual and more of a particular kind of person who grew from his roots in Texas to a national scale. Largely, I kept thinking, what happens if you use LBJ as a means to get to somewhere else?

It’s not his story per se, but it's a story of power and public opinion and one’s sense of self.

CM: You used images from the Texas Archive of the Moving image. Can you give me an idea of what the footage hunting process was like for you?

KS: For this project, Aurora sent me a link to look at their archive, which is up online for anyone to look at, and they should! It is fantastic! The footage from this archive is not downloadable, so I had to request the films I wanted to work with. I hope to be able to work more with them in the future.

CM: I love the play between the background and the subject. We see LBJ as a cutout, then in a situation. Talk about that technique.

KS: I think about the films as psychological space. Breaking up the frame breaks a diegetic world within the frame. I was looking to create a way for the protagonist of the film to exist in as many planes as possible in this film . . . The one in his head, the one that the nation sees, the one that his cabinet sees, the one that the nation sees on television, the one that he sees in the mirror in the morning.

The man separated from his background evoked a sense of disconnectedness for me. I tried to carry that idea though building up a lot of visual sequences in this piece.

CM: When things unravel for LBJ in your film, his image gets murky. I find this very interesting because it happens in my own brain when politicians start making no sense, which is most of the time.

KS: I’m interested in how our perception falls apart in a dream state. I’m also interested in the cross over between the dream world and the waking world. It plays into how I think about the cross over between fiction and documentary, real and imagined, personal and political. The sludgy sound compliments how his body drifts and falls out of itself, when words and actions start to form a rift.

It’s a moment where there is loss of control, for both the president and hopefully for the viewer.

CM: It's so extraordinary to me that you don't actually need to film anything. There is this treasure trove of footage for you to manipulate and transpose your own stories on to. Does it feel that way for you, too? Can you imagine yourself creating in any other way?

KS: I love working with found footage because it gives me a jumping off point for a story. I will find a backbone of an idea in an image and it will open up larger narratives to explore. Unintentionally, it has become a really economic way to make films.

CM: Sam Matinez's narration a bit like the guy from Frontline, in that it's deadly serious. What direction did you give him? How did the script or story come together?

KS: I was thinking a lot about the voice over in Apocalypse Now. As the protagonists in that film go down the river, the portrait of the man he is hunting for becomes more unsound. I was looking for a voice over that showed authority breaking down a bit, with the words collapsing in on themselves. I worked a great deal with Matt Crawford on the tonality of the voice to get the voice over to becoming so subtly unhinged and distorted as the pieces goes on. He is a sound guru.

CM: Your assignment was to Mess with Texas, mission accomplished. What’s next for you?

KS: I will be returning to a larger animated essay I’m working on titled Instructional Photography. It’s a mix of science and desire, all surrounding the photographic process. I work so much with photos in my work that I thought it was time to interrogate the photograph in a piece. I’ve collected thousands of images of photographers and cameras that are ready to be turned into something.

Sample the Kelly Sears' film Jupiter Elicius: