Interview questions for Angelo Madsen Minax about their personal feature doc North by Current (Rendezvous with Madness, 2021)
Your movie opens with a home movie blizzard from 1985 on what looks like glorious VHS, and a series of questions about identity. It feels important that these are questions, and not answers, because a question opens the room, while an answer closes the case. Your movie re-enters the stage of the family in a very open-hearted way, without judgment, offering verité encounters via phone calls, meals and prayers, but also: formal interviews, restagings of events. The first half of the movie is dominated by these reimaginings. As if the only way we could feel our way into documentary, was through fiction. Perhaps it’s a way of examining how the ties that bind, the faith, the beliefs that hold family together, are a collection of stories, like the one that says that the principal duty of Mormons is to raise children and look after family, even after death. It made me wonder: what does it mean to look after someone who has died? I’m wondering if you could speak about this willful blending of fact and fiction.
The movie explores a pair of deaths, that your mother announces are related. The first is your sister’s kid, which the police and medical professional professionals say was murdered. Horrifyingly, her father, your sister’s brother David, is even put in jail before the sham of accusation collapses. The second death of course is your own. When you transitioned from darling daughter to son with a question mark, your mother says that she considered you dead, and that she had to grieve your death. What did it mean to learn that you had died, particularly because as you noted, and I wonder if you could elaborate on this a touch if you’re up for it: that you had struggled so hard to live?
The home of this home movie is a small Michigan town, which you take some pains to present to us: the old style diner restaurant and donut shop make appearances, the tavern, the supermarket, the lumber yard and saw mill, the landscapes. It adds a deft and lyrical touch to even the smallest scenes – like when you shoot the high school production of the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is told “There’s no place like home” or when you’re playing jail with your nephew, who opens and closes the closet door as your jailor – and you cut to a brace of telephone wires where birds are gathered, take off, then circle round and return to. Birds – a traditional symbol of freedom, flocks – a traditional symbol of unfreedom, this circling and return, theme and variation. How do we escape from the jails we build, or that others have built for us, how to digest what can’t be eaten, or experiences which are beyond our capacities to hold?
But landscape is not simply metaphor, a projection of inner emotional states, as the romantic project would have it, over and over again you are shooting in the winter, and it feels cold, and everyone travels by car, and it’s a small town. The boundaries are everywhere present, with the treeline and crisscross waterways marking town limits. And its humans also have their limits: the police officer who laid the child molesting charges becomes a dog catcher in Florida, the child services officer who wrote up the report that put your brother-in-law in jail leaves a bar drunk in order to pick up a four-year-old child. Can you talk about why it was important to explode the intimate family spaces and offer us a portrait of your neighbourhood and hometown as well?
Your sister Jesse appears often in the movie, she’s struggled with addiction since she was a teenager. The word you use to describe her is “impenetrable.” After Kalle’s death she becomes a baby machine, having one each year, even as the shadow of her addictions, the old wounds unsolved, continues to hang over her. As an intermittent voice over reflects, “Some endings are lost in a sea of beginnings.”
Like many addicts – and who amongst us is not an addict? – Jesse is attracted to other addicts, like her husband David for instance, who struggles with alcohol just like his father. His binges sometimes cause your sister to take shelter in your parent’s home, and at one point she shows up with new teeth, the result of a fall, Jesse says, though a year later she confesses that David kicked her teeth in while drunk. The birth of each child is often followed by relapse and depression. How to help? How to bear witness to this ongoing tragedy exactly? You name yourself “powerless.”
At one point Jesse accuses you of being the cause of her drug problems due to your behavior. You ask the terrible question: is there no moment you can think of when I took care of you? And right on cue she answers: no. Wow. I thought: this is a family that is really hurting, and that really knows how to hurt each other, as only people who are truly intimate can. Because again and again, in scenes where the two of you are together, we can feel your closeness, your touch, the way she confides in you, at least, as much as she’s able. Though you say, in voice-over, that you can feel her love for you only in her accomodations to your film practice. It’s one of the saddest lines in a long line of sad experiences.
You are insistent in putting yourself into the frame, implicating yourself, showing yourself as part of the family. Your sister’s kids are forever crying out for “Uncle Madsen,” you rearrange the frame to show you setting up the camera to talk with your mother, and in place of the usual “objective” interview your voice appears often, asking questions, interacting, not pretending that you’re somehow not implicated in the ongoing struggles. Right after your mother says that she feels responsible for her daughter’s addictions and abusive relationships, you chime right in and say that you feel responsible too. And there are monologue intervals that regularly punctuate the movie, where you speak in a quiet and confidential voice, a vulnerable voice, offering us your uncertainties, your confusions, your own hurts. One of the most touching scenes, which you set up by saying how important it is to separate from one’s mother, is where you ask your mother about a long ago moment, shortly after you announced that you were going to start taking hormones, and she responded by saying your gender transitioning was God punishing her for having abortions. She actually apologizes on camera, and says she loves you and you cry. It’s a tender moment. You say later “I learned a secret. When you tell the secret it dissipates. When the pain is great you have to speak it over and over.” This scene is an embrace of reconciliation, but it’s also about the impossible question of how you can love yourself, or even accept yourself, and then extend this love to those around you. Can you talk about the necessity of entering the frame, the risks that involved in becoming part of the movie version of family you’re presenting?
Sound feels crucial in this movie, both in its delicate field recordings, the heavy metal jaunts that accompany every car ride, and the music by Julien Baker, the film’s composer. You did the sound design yourself here, as you always do, can you talk about the role of sound in the movie, and how it inflected your choices in structuring the ginormous amount of footage gathered over five years.
You close with two quotes, the first by poet Rob Halpern. “To love like this in America is to lose from start to finish… A generic dysfunction that brings us together only to shatter us again.” Could you talk about that?