Dave Richardson – Unchartered Terrain: The Personal Within
Since beginning as a poetry film festival curator in 2012, and having the dubious task of dividing films neatly into themes, there has been a recurring thought gathering in my mind. What about the poetry films and video poems that are so deeply personal, so profound, that they seem to transcend all categorisation? The videopoem, constructing all elements concurrently, provides the perfect medium for the instinctive (sketchable, doodle-like) play and discovery of the auteur; and provides a good outlet for the confessional diary form, reaching right into the psychology of the person behind both the lens and the pen.
American video poet and graphic designer (teaching interactive and motion design) Dave Richardson https://vimeo.com/daverichardsondesign was the winner of the poetry film section of the inaugural Newlyn Film Festival, (Cornwall, UK, 2018) which I co-judged with poet Lucy English. Love’s River of Errors (Richardson, 2016) begins by announcing in brackets after the title the small phrase ‘after my sister’s death’ and from that moment we are placed to walk beside him for the next three minutes. Told directly, in the first person, both explanatory and conversationally confidential, we are drawn closely into the turbulence of his life experience; and, to emphasise the personal nature of the content, the footage captures his hands or brush onscreen in the act of making a cut-up or collage. This feels like a cathartic act, betraying the emotional psyche that is set against, and amplified by the control of the voice. The film is a type of memorial, suggesting what cannot be said in words. Without sentiment, we hear both the good and bad: the love of the sea against the unreturned phone calls and the kidneys shutting down due to alcohol poisoning; the singing at Dave’s wedding and yet Dave finding the memories intruding into his work life. The difficulty of creating such a work becomes clearer when you realise that the ‘sister’ is in fact a brother, being too close to bring to mind. Dave creates short slices of life writing that knock you over with their profundity.
ST: You studied graphic design – did you always write poetry? And when did you first want make video poems? Did you progress from making adverts and the design of type, to including your own narratives?
DR: I wrote poetry from grade school through college and beyond, and then I stopped for quite a while when I started working as a graphic designer. I just got more interested in visuals and type, the shape of words on the page, and not necessarily the words. It was pretty exciting to switch to graphic design in my early 20s. Typography, and its rich history, was an eye-opener.
I worked as a graphic designer for about 15 years or so, then started teaching visual design at Southern Utah University, after I completed my MFA at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and that’s when I started working with Danielle Dubrasky and her wonderful poetry. We did a few projects together, in which I did all the visualization in Flash at the time. I also started teaming up with poets through bornmagazine.com and I did a few pieces for born. I really enjoyed it, and started writing more “poetry” again. I guess I have always been journaling and doing free-form sketches in a notebook for years now, so that’s pretty constant.
ST: I would say that it is quite unusual for a graphic artist to have such a delicate, personal approach to subject matter. Often people use graphics as play or visual objects to deter from the subjectivity of the filmmaker. Do you have any comments on this?
DR: Thanks for saying delicate. And personal. When I first started working with typography and images, I was pretty inexperienced, and didn’t appreciate the nuances much. But then I really started to look at type, and how images and type work together, and maybe sometimes a nuanced approach comes forward. I think I sense when things are too heavy now, or when things asre too expected, and I try to edit down to what matters. Maybe that helps in the process.
ST: In Love’s River of Errors you have focussed on unpicking your own feelings towards a deeply personal and tragic experience. In Migrations (which actually makes me cry, as I have two girls who have ‘migrated’) and now Cathedral you have also chosen personal subjects. Can you talk about this a bit more? Why you choose these very personal topics.
DR: Love’s River of Errors was the hardest and the best process so far. My youngest brother died of addiction almost two years ago, after keeping his struggles hidden from our family for a long time, and it is still hard to talk about. But I knew I wanted to make something of the experience, to make something honest, and so I started making collages and experiments in AfterEffects to get at some of my feelings of loss. It was definitely back and forth between writing and making, and it came together in about two weeks… I finished the first draft, took a break, and wasn’t able to return to the piece to make changes that needed to be made. I just had to stop. I didn’t have the energy to make adjustments. In the writing, I also had to change “my brother” to “my sister” for some emotional distance. It wasn’t working otherwise.
And I think this personal feeling comes from my journals/notebooks, again. If I keep revisiting certain episodes in life, I see them over and over in journals, repeating, thoughts on experiences, or just a few phrases. Or I doodle the same image over and over. After a few months of writing and drawing, I flip through several journals, and sometimes years of journals, in one sitting, and you know, you see the shape of your days and months on paper. It builds up, I guess. You have to respond.
ST: You seem to self-examine in relation to subjects that are deeply affecting. It is the psychology of your works, the sense of the film coming directly out of the filmmaker’s psyche – almost self-analysis as we watch, that is so compelling. What do you think?
DR: That’s a good analysis. I haven’t thought about it that deeply, to be honest. I know some narratives feel more urgent in the telling and the creation, and those are more personal. The specific personal journeys each of us take always seem to relate to the general, to everyone’s experience in daily life, and those resonate more. I’m just glad to get wonderful feedback now and then when I put something out there.
ST: Your spare, direct delivery, situates the viewer right beside you, not as witness but as something else. Where do you think the audience sits?
DR: Most of the time I feel most comfortable constructing narratives that speak directly to someone, to the viewer, as if to a good friend. It’s natural in my writing. Again, I think it comes from the journals. A lot comes from the journals/sketchbooks!
ST: You use few words that are prose but highly loaded with emotional meaning rather than rhetoric, yet the emotional is balanced with a sense of perspective in the delivery. What do you think about how you construct the writing and how you balance these forces verbally when the sound is recorded?
DR: My journalism training in college told me to cut and cut to what matters. When I started to do that with the more poetic stuff, it felt more authentic, like my real voice. I try to keep it simple so that I am not trying to over-write. Many times I stop with the second draft of the text, just to not over-think.
ST: In relation to that, often you have different text on screen to the voice-over – is this something deliberate and is there a point behind this? It is difficult to get this right and quite an art.
DR: I did some experiments with Flash years ago, where I was randomly coding phrases to interact with randomly loaded images, and I was enthralled with the endless results and connections that were unexpected. That randomness, just a quality of unexpected relationships between image and text — I try to recreate that in my work for fun, for the pleasure of seeing what might surprise me. It makes new meaning for me. And then I edit.
ST: Do you have any favourite poets or influences in film or graphics?
DR: I don’t watch much film poetry. I used to view quite a bit of film poetry, and then I got very envious and felt a bit unsure, so I stopped. It hindered my ideas. Now I pay attention to design firms, animators, motiongraphers, all within the graphic design realm, or close to it. I’m still very firmly connected and inspired by graphic design, especially graphic design in motion. Mac Premo is a recent favourite of mine. Amazing work, really mixing genres, and a wonderful storyteller. Highly recommended.
ST: On A Prophet by Kathleen Roberts (and which won best editing in LW 2014 festival) of course is also about dealing with the death of a loved one – did you go to her or the other way round in terms of making the film and can you say more about that film?
DR: Kathleen had a call for collaborators for an upcoming show, and I answered it and chose a poem that I could work out in my garage. Very practical! For that film I did lots of typography experiments with pages of type hanging on our clothesline, blowing in the wind, filming them, reworking them in AfterEffects, and none of that made the cut, by the way. Still looking for a use for that footage. My wife was the main character, and I thank her again for her patience on the third and fourth filming.
ST: The music in Cathedral – why did you choose that?
DR: I wanted something that was a bit off, somewhat unsure. Picking through audio online, I dropped that music into Cathedral and it completed the piece to me. Just felt right with the tone of the imagery and writing.