Unsettled: Reconciling 2015 in film

By Jamie Naqvi

"Unsettled" courtesy Jamie Naqvi.

"Unsettled" courtesy Jamie Naqvi.

2015 had been a shitty year. I’d spent most of it under-employed and over-indebted. The news headlines were full of police shootings, mass migrations, and would-be Nazis campaigning in nice dark suits. And then there were the usual annoyances of living in southern California: the traffic, the heat, the overcrowding... I’m whining, I know. It’s what I do.

What was keeping me reasonably sane and functional was my significant other. We’d been together for three and a half years and been friends for four. It was love at first sight--at least on my part. She was five foot two, gorgeous, with long dark hair, and a charm that would melt the heart of even the most hardened alpha male (not that I would know).

She was an accomplished artist and we had a lot in common: a love of rain, impeccable taste in movies, a lack of punctuality. “Dream girl” would be an apt description if it didn’t sound so cheesy and sentimental. Being the insecure, pessimistic, self-loather that I was/still am it took me six months to ask her out. I didn’t think I stood a chance but, miraculously, we hit it off, which led to three-and a-half years of relative bliss.

When it ended, I felt like I’d been sucker punched, and I’d been sucker punched a few times (I have the broken nose to prove it). The explanation, if one can call it that, left me dumbfounded: “It’s not you, it’s me,” or something along those lines. After four years? Seriously?

I needed something to get me through the next few hours, days, weeks, or months. Booze? It’s only a momentary fix. Plus, I have acid reflux. Sex? They charge by the minute. And as a 40-year-old, underemployed, struggling filmmaker, I wasn’t exactly in high demand. But there is one thing that has always come in handy at times like these: my “art.”

I drew as a kid, played in garage metal bands in my teens. Then, around my late twenties/early thirties, found what appeared to be my calling: the art of the moving image.

The idea that my creative practice was some type of catharsis had found its way into my art statements and conversations over the years, but I’ve since re-evaluated. Art has never managed to purge my demons, only expose them. It is, to some extent, therapeutic, but it’s far from a cure. It keeps my mind off my troubles while simultaneously forcing me to stare them straight in the face. The contradiction is not lost on me.

I had a hard drive’s worth of video clips I’d collected over the years. Some of them were from commissions I’d failed to secure. Others were from vacations, whether it was Connecticut, Chicago, or the parking structure at my local shopping mall. I’d also gotten into the habit of wandering out at odd hours of the night, setting my camera down on any reasonably steady surface I could find, pressing record, and standing there like an idiot staring off into the distance. I likened these videos to still photographs or paintings.

Through the editing process, I began to realize that much of the footage was of places I’d been to with her. Some of it was painful to watch. When you associate a particular location with some negative event, there’s a tendency to avoid it. Why? It’s obvious. The place has become haunted. Ghosts aren’t just transparent, slow-moving, lost souls. They’re also memories. And these places had plenty of them.

So what was this going to be, then? A ghost story? I’d grown up watching horror films. Even later in life, I tended towards the “darker” side of things: David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman, other artists of the swarthier variety. But I was thinking more along the lines of conceptual art, something almost abstract, the type of stuff I once swore I’d never make. In addition to painting and still photography, I’d been looking at a lot of video art. I’d also been reading quotes from everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Mark Rothko. “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it,” claimed Hitchcock, while Rothko tried to explain how his work was not just about brush strokes and shapes, but about visualizations of various emotional states. What I was trying to get at was this relationship between location and memory, but what began as some autobiographical, structuralist/minimalist experiment turned into something more, at least in my mind.

A well-known documentary filmmaker once told me that it was important to come up with the title of a piece early in the game. That way you really knew what the work was about before moving forward. According to various online dictionaries, the word unsettled can mean any or all of the following:

  1. continuously moving or changing
  2. not calm or tranquil
  3. not resolved or worked out
  4. not inhabited or populated
  5. mentally unbalanced.

All of these definitions fit in one way or another. “Continuously moving or changing” could describe just about anything. “Not calm or tranquil” exemplified my mental state at that moment. “Not resolved or worked out” defined my sense of confusion and lack of closure. “Not inhabited or populated” alluded to the empty locations that served as the visual focus of the work. And “mentally unbalanced?” That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever met me.

So it’s a film about...emptiness? On a personal level, it was apparent. And, literally speaking, there was no one to be seen in any of the video clips, either because there was no one around while I was filming them, or because I edited out whoever happened to be strolling by. But, on a more universal level, what was I trying to say, if anything? What could cause the type of scenario depicted in these videos? Was everyone asleep? That was a possibility. But what are those sounds we hear on the soundtrack? They’re kind of familiar, kind of strange. More specifically, I took the location sound and fucked with it, slowing it down considerably, while adding a barely audible low-frequency tone throughout (low frequency tones, or infrasound, are tones that fall below the limit of human hearing but have been known to cause various emotional and physical reactions in those who sense them.) I wanted whoever watched the piece to feel as shitty as I did. I believe there’s a word for that: sadomasochism.

Overall, the idea was that something wasn’t quite right. Had there been some type of catastrophe? Or was something about to happen? I started thinking of possible scenarios and narratives. Maybe it was related to the environment. Maybe it was some sort of virus that’d been slipped into the water supply as an act of domestic or international or even state terrorism. Or maybe it was something much simpler.

A lot of my work up until that point had dealt with issues of disconnect, alienation, and other fun, existential themes. An installation I’d made in grad school explored these ideas by juxtaposing images of an over-populated Los Angeles at night with video of a middle-aged man sitting in front of his television. Though I was more interested in the formal and aesthetic elements of the piece at the time, I obviously had to explain what, precisely, I was trying to say – since I’d rented out a large exhibition space for two weeks and was hounding my instructors to spend every waking moment of their free time helping me install it. My explanation, if I recall correctly, was actually in the form a question. Specifically, “Why, in a city as large and populated as Los Angeles, are there people sitting alone in their apartments staring at their televisions?” It seemed a bit odd. Though, realistically, I suppose it could be explained in any number of ways. These days, we might blame social media for simultaneously bringing us closer together and driving us further apart. Is this the emptiness I was trying to imply?

Another possibility entered my mind, though admittedly, it had more to do with timing and coincidence than being a part of any well-thought out plan. While it would be a stretch to claim that this piece was about the thousands of refugees pouring across borders on an hourly basis, it was definitely an issue that was in the back of my mind while editing, as this was headline news during that period and at the time of this writing. Perhaps this was one of those happy--or in this case--unhappy accidents that had occasionally found their way into my films in the past. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Trying to make it more important than it really is. Maybe it was to be a mood piece--simple as that.

Either way, I’ve never been too keen on explaining my work (I say while writing this piece explaining my work). Of course, I'll make an effort, if someone asks, especially if that someone hints at even the slightest financial compensation (I have to eat). But usually I’m more interested in hearing the sometimes radically different interpretations that audiences can bring to the work. I suppose some critics, academics, even artists, might find this a bit of a cop-out. After all, an artist should be able and willing to explain specifically what his or her own work is about, no?

I suppose, but as Edward Hopper said, “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” If the end result is a long, drawn out analysis, why go through the trouble of pouring countless hours into something that is likely meant to be as much “felt” as it is comprehended? In other words, since when is the creation or appreciation of art meant to be merely an intellectual exercise? What has always initially attracted me to art is the effect that it can have on the senses. The emotional, even physical reactions we experience when presented with a painting, a piece of music, a film, or anything else.

It’s usually through formal/aesthetic means that I find myself engaging with a work on a “deeper” level. If I spot a painting from across the gallery, it’s the colors, the composition, the shape of the frame that draws me to it. Only after closer inspection — and maybe a quick glance at the brief description next to it — do I begin to understand what the work is about. And, even then, I might be mistaken. Or is that even possible?

So perhaps this work is about the sense of disconnect that afflicts some of us as residents of a 21st-century Greater Los Angeles. Maybe it is about the tragic headlines on the news. Looking at the video, one could even be forgiven for thinking that it's simply well composed (if I may say so myself) surveillance footage, hence a film about the NSA or voyeurism. Or, maybe it is simply the emotional residue of a particularly bad break-up.

However one wants to look at it, it did prove to be my “therapy” for the several months I spent working on it. Did it work? Do I feel great? Have I purged, or at least made peace with, my demons? Not really. But it did give me something to do that was more constructive than sitting on my ass with a bottle in my hand. Now let's see what the rest of the world - or at least a tiny fraction of it - has to say (if they ever even see it.)

Watch an excerpt from the film here.

Jamie Naqvi is a filmmaker, video artist, and writer based in the Greater Los Angeles area. He holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts. You can see more of his work at jamienaqvi.com.