“Worried About The Fire” premiered at the 2011 Kansas City Film Festival. This introductory essay was written by Jon R. Allen exclusively for Kawsmouth.com.
The first thing Tyler, Aaron and I shot for “Worried About the Fire” ended up being the opening shot of the video — the shot of the clouds passing over the moon. We were having a long conversation on the gravel driveway of Tyler’s parents’ house north of Topeka. We had all just returned from somewhere together (a show of Aaron’s in Manhattan, I believe) and it was very late at night, but we all have a weakness for late night conversations. While we were chatting there, we happened to notice that the moon was particularly striking that night. It was somewhat ominous but beautiful at the same time. Tyler had his video camera with him as we had just used it to record Aaron’s show. We put it on my tripod and just recorded the moon while we talked. We didn’t know it yet but that was the birth of “Worried About the Fire.”
At that point we had all recently finalized another project we had collaborated on called “No Outlet,” which was a somewhat rough but relatively realistic portrayal of early adulthood in a college town. That project was flawed in many ways, as it was the product of passionate young people fresh from film school who were intoxicated on Dogme 95 films. “No Outlet,” though it does have its merits, was largely abrasive, intentionally ugly and perhaps even slightly antagonistic towards the audience. By the time Tyler, Aaron and I met up again on Tyler’s parents’ driveway, however, we had all mellowed out significantly and began talking about creating something that was nearly the total opposite of “No Outlet.” We wanted to keep it short (so as to not tax the viewer), with locked-down shots (for more authority of intention), and no diagetic sound (for more freedom while shooting and editing). As to the content, we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to say yet but we wanted the storyline to somehow transcend everyday reality within limited means.
It must have dawned on us in the course of the conversation that night that our greatest resource was right before us. Tyler’s parents had about 90 acres of land that we could use freely. Although I am not a native Kansan, I like to think if myself as a Kansan in spirit. There is something about the landscape that just feels like home to me. There is a subtle but powerful beauty to the Kansas landscape that is all but lost on so many people that complain of it being flat and boring. And the true Kansas landscape is something that you rarely see in movies. Movies that are supposed to be based in Kansas are often just shot in California, Canada, or, even worse, some other bordering state.
Showing off the profound beauty of the Kansas landscape was a huge goal of the project — not only because it would lend the movie more visual power than something shot in our apartments, but because it would be such a delight to interact with the environment during the process of shooting. In addition to shooting on Tyler’s parents farmland near Topeka, we also shot large amounts at both the Konza Prairie near Manhattan and The Baker Wetlands in Lawrence. These places were all relatively empty and open and could all evoke the timeless quality we were seeking. They were also places that we were familiar and comfortable enough with that we could get intimate in exploring them. We were looking for those moments in nature that would be virtually impossible to calculate.
“Worried About the Fire” is a meditation on the fear that is driving the current doomsday prophecy mania: the fear of death itself and the fear of what comes after death. We all individually developed characters that suited archetypes we wanted to project. These archetypes were later named “The Mystic,” “The Farmer,” “The Scientist,” and “The Vagabond,” while a disembodied narrator wove poetry around these lost souls. Rather than audition actors, Tyler and his wife Laura, as well as my girlfriend Janie and I, decided to play the roles of the four characters who would wander on the landscape. These archetypes all suited our personalities and represented four distinct ways to approach life. Essentially, “Worried About the Fire” is about fear and how we deal with it. I see it as an antidote to all the 2012 doomsday chatter.
It probably comes as no surprise after viewing the movie that it was essentially improvised from beginning to end. But this was absolutely necessary to capture the poetic quality we were after. To me, any project I undertake is about creating something that I have not seen before. Making the things that I wished existed. In this case, I wanted to see a movie that walked the line between poetry and narrative. Something that had the essence of a story but was really more concerned with inscrutable imagery. Certainly Terrance Malick’s films had a profound impact on “Worried About the Fire” in many ways, but it is probably more related to the psychodramatic explorations of experimental filmmakers Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Stan Brakhage. Although it does have the skeleton of a story, I consider it an experimental piece.
What is at once the most thrilling and most challenging thing about experimental film/video is that it requires a viewer to put in a significant part of the effort to complete and give meaning to the work, no different than a piece of artwork in a gallery. But experimental film/video lives in a neitherworld between art and entertainment, neither of which fully accepts it. Film and video is largely expected to tell entertaining stories (whether fiction or non-fiction) using “proper grammar” (formal techniques) to feed the story to the audience in a way that requires minimal mental effort on their part. When anything strays outside of this basic expectation, it is generally met with befuddlement.
“Worried About the Fire” is, in a way, an attempt to take the opportunity to explore the possibility of a compromise between experimental film/video and the entertaining narrative story that audiences typically expect. It is acknowledging that experimental film can be incredibly challenging, especially without a large amount of background knowledge of the medium, etc., much in the same way that contemporary art is largely about art itself and requires a significant amount of background knowledge to appreciate. So, rather than focus our attention on the medium itself, we decided to string together loosely connected fragments of images and words in the hopes that these would be enough to create a much richer world of possibilities in the viewers mind. Things certainly aren’t spelled out, and it is up to the viewer to make their own conclusions, for better or for worse.
It’s also worth noting that the title of the movie comes from the Aaron Martin album of the same name: “Worried About the Fire” (out on Experimedia). All of the music in the movie is taken from this album. Although the music was originally made specifically for the movie, he was able to make something more out of the material for himself. There are pieces on the album not heard in the movie that are equally as powerful but in trying to keep the movie relatively short, we could only use the tracks we felt were most appropriate for the characters. He was able to add multiple layers of depth to the movie by creating music that perfectly established the mood, and also by writing, performing and recording all the voice over as well. He intuitively understood our intent and was an absolute pleasure to work with. He is an amazing person that is absolutely dedictated to his art.
Steele and Allen on location in Kansas