Film In Conversation
ERICKA BECKMAN with Shelby Shaw
An icon of weaving game theory strategies into the subconscious systems of everyday life, multidisciplinary filmmaker Ericka Beckman recently had two early films screened as restored premieres at Projections at the New York Film Festival: You the Better (1983) and Cinderella (1986). Shot on 16mm and involving choreographed sportsmanship, musical numbers, and theatrical sets, Beckman’s films dodge the expectations of narrative assumptions by working in the realm of play. In You the Better, a team of players tries winning a ball game against an off-screen bettor, known as the “House”—but unknown to the teammates, the “House” is in control of the game, and thus eradicates any elements of chance. Cinderella is an ambitious musical rendition of the classic fairytale, in which the aim is to win the Prince but also to defeat the confines of femininity’s ideals and expectations. I asked Beckman about creating social games with outdated technology, being a player in the “real world,” and whether there will be an Ericka Beckman app in the future that we can all download..
Shelby Shaw (Rail): You the Better and Cinderella are made from minimal, but elaborately constructed productions involving costumes, props, choreography, music, and lyrics. Can you talk about the genesis of each film and how they came to life, or if some aspects of them did not?
Ericka Beckman: These two films have their genesis in my prior film work called the “Super-8 Trilogy.” These were thirty minute films where I used the theories of Jean Piaget to make works that explained (to me) how physical performance structures the way we think about ourselves, our identity, our interactions with others, and how we remember events in our lives. I based these three films on his theories, specifically the formation of a stable identity, the process of socialization, and how physical action is the basis of language development and symbolic thinking.
Since the ideas behind these works were abstract and theoretical, I sought a way to make them understandable through engaging play. I was interested in collective signs and symbols, our capacity to process them, and how information is absorbed when not fully understood. I chose very recognizable images, collective symbols, and gender stereotypes to engage the audience in a direct way and unfold hidden social behaviors and roles.
I wanted to make films that were documents of a type of performance that could only exist on film. To meet this objective, I developed a technique where I would rewind my Super-8 camera and make superimpositions on top of the performance elements. I worked with props, animations, miniature sets, lyrics, graphics, and visual text. This “wait and see” attitude, which is such a large part of the analog filmmaking process, gave me adequate time to create the soundtracks while I was filming.
The black space had a very practical function in my films: it allowed me to superimpose images in the unexposed area of the frame and to move anywhere in the world I constructed, which meant I could move laterally or enter the image.
At the same time in this early period, I studied play from an anthropological point of view and grew to understand how play functioned as a means of socialization. I decided that I would use game structures in place of narrative for my films at this time because I learned they functioned similarly.
You the Better was my first 16mm film, and I needed to scale everything up, put more into the image, because the frame was twice the size. This also made me expand my ideas, engage in more social issues, put more people and many more voices in my films.
Rail: Since the first of Piaget’s theories that you mentioned is about having a stable identity, were you making the “Super-8 Trilogy” as a way of exploring what was stable, or already identified, about yourself?
Beckman: I was hoping to prove (in film) the Piaget theory that action is the basis of all language. There is a song in the middle of You the Better, when the main character sees that they’re not playing a game of chance as they were led to believe. But rather it’s a game carefully controlled by a concealed House. The lyrics are: “I am on the inside, the goal in my hand, the near success. I see the distance between me and the goal but the only thing that’s important is my action, my action, my action.”
The only film in that three-part series that had some bit of reference to my own experience was Out of Hand (1980). I am from a military family that moved around quite a bit as a child, and the toy chest was a depository of what I wanted to bring with me on the next adventure, and a box that closed on what I left behind.
While the meanings of these films, or my intentions, might not be fully grasped by the viewers, they were necessary steps in my development. They helped me develop a filmic language, to construct a rational progression of events that did not rely on a narrative or autobiographical structure.
Rail: Did you ever consider what future audiences might think of your own work, anthropologically speaking? In other words, did you think about how the works might become (out)dated given the consistent advances in technology?
Beckman: The idea that film technology would become obsolete never occurred to me at the time. I did see my works become outdated due to the type of early electronic sounds we used, the type of dancing in these two works, and some of the costuming. But I tried hard to set them outside of a specific time; I was trying to create a provisional reality.
Rail: Did the songs in Cinderella come first, or were they written after the general outline of Cinderella's plight took shape?
Beckman: I worked closely with the same composer in both films and in the earlier “Super-8 Trilogy.” Brooke Halpin was an MFA composition student at CalArts who I met while I was in graduate school there. We worked collaboratively before the films were shot, and adapted much of the material we created to the scenes as I filmed them. For Cinderella, I received a residency at Harvestworks in NYC, which allowed us to pre-record the entire music track before I shot the film.
For all these early films, I would say that the soundtracks were entirely created in collaboration; I wrote most of the lyrics as spoken text, broken into phrases, and Brooke simplified them into choruses, chants, and songs. However, since I was a percussionist and Brooke was a pianist, we developed the rhythmic patterns together. Once we had the rhythm down, we adapted in the lyrics or spoken phrases to those rhythms.
In the case of You the Better, the “Subdivision Song” that introduces the film was a long poem I wrote that I took to a songwriter friend, Paul McMahon, who (with his partner/collaborator Nancy Chunn) broke it down and simplified it. I was present for this song-writing session and praised them when they came up with the idea of making it into a commercial.
Rail: You've spoken about game logic as an alternative to using conventional narrative structures in order to tell a story. What first led you to game systems?
Beckman: There is the personal dimension of a game, where you try to learn something and prove to yourself that you can overcome obstacles. The mimesis in a game allows you to see how these strategies apply to many things that operate in one’s social life, including the big ones: choosing friends and partners, marriage, competing for jobs and status, and finding self worth. I thought a game could replace narrative only if I made it resemble an interactive game. That way I could engage the audience directly in the film as a player (as in You the Better) or as a voyeur on the interactive Cinderella Game.
In Cinderella I was interested in developing my own game, based on a hypertext arrangement of scenes that followed the theories of Vladimir Propp, who wrote Morphology of the Folktale. He deconstructed fairy tales into repeating motifs and plot arrangements, and looked at folktales as a set of signs and symbols that held meaning for different cultures that changed over time.
Rail: Applying game logic to the everyday world by thinking of oneself as a player in an interactive universe is something I’ve done since I was a kid. But the thing that would always trip me up would be wondering if there was someone on the outside of the game: the Monopoly banker, the poker dealer, the Mafia Godfather, etc. In your works, you are the demiurgic figure who makes the rules and watches for compliance. Do you think that when implying a character is a player in a game, it’s important to also acknowledge any sort of omnipotent puppetmaster?
Beckman: In You the Better, it was the “House” that controlled how and when the game changed on the players. The off-camera bettor was a stand-in for the audience. The “House” and the Game were in compliance, but the players did not know that. They saw the game get more difficult and they strove to become better players. They had managerial roles, replacing players who were not efficient. They believed in will against chance.
The power dynamic that you bring up here is intrinsic to much of gameplay. There is the challenge and the belief that you can control chance, or outsmart the mechanics of the game. That is the belief system that is at play in gambling. You believe that chance will be on your side at least for a little while. As for “watching for compliance,” I was hoping for compliance! In You the Better, I exposed the players’ actions to the target overlays hoping that they would line up, but often they didn’t. This created the illusion of probability to both the players and the bettor.
All the games were improvised by the performers, some of whom had dance training. The players, ultimately, had to pretend because neither of us knew how the overlays would integrate with their moves. It was in editing that the successes and failures were constructed as a narrative.
Cinderella’s scripting process involved me reading countless versions of the Cinderella story, as far back as the 1400s. I found that the Disney version had only a slight resemblance to these horrific stories. They featured girls torn apart from families, having to pass as men in order to find work; these Cinderellas had to find dignity and self-worth in hard times. They were stories handed down woman to woman. The popular version we know was created for the courts of Louis XIV in France.
My idea was to set the film against industrial production, starting with the first factory, the Forge, where the first copy was created, and go into the future where the original has no more status than the copies that circulate. I wanted to draw a parallel between the history of industrial production from past to future, and the struggle of women to own their own image and voice.
Cinderella advances along the same lines as industrial production, moving from the original or ideal (a Princess), to a false image of the ideal (a decoy), to a copy of that false image (a doll), and finally to break that process by inserting something real into the machine, her voice, creating a record of her response to the Cinderella Game.
Rail: Did you always think of it as filmmaking, or as something more akin to computer art? I'm thinking of early "films" by computer engineers like Ken Knowlton and Lillian Schwartz, and it's hard not to draw comparisons between works that incorporate a lot of early digital effects.
Beckman: I went to CalArts because it had both a strong animation department and a music department. I wanted both of these to guide me as I made live-action films. I wanted to put two timestamps in the same frame, to see how they affected each other, to see what dominated and why.
I felt an image, a graphic, a sound, and a gesture were all equal conveyors of meaning, and when simplified and combined on a single frame, amount to a new language that I would learn to speak through. So in that sense my films were aligned and concurrent with the experiments in computer graphics.
I was a radical high school student in the ’70s: I believed in revolution rather blindly at the time. I believed that rock music could change the way people think. Now I feel very differently about narrative. Finally filmmakers are taking in all sorts of sources from many makers of time-based work and creating new forms of narrative.
Rail: Rewatching the films today, how do you feel they fit into the technologically obsessed zeitgeist we're living in now?
Beckman: Currently, gamification has entered everyday life much more than it existed in the ’80s when I made these works. At that time gamification was clearly present in politics and finance, so I found it easy to apply it to capitalism and identity. My guideposts were few; gambling games such as jai alai for You the Better. For Cinderella there was a game called Time Traveler, which allowed player interaction in the narrative.
I embrace experimentation, working with mistakes and unstable processes. Instead of composing each film as a scripted linear narrative, I stack ideas on top of each other through double-exposure and build my transitions into each scene. This process is very similar to online browsing and smartphone devices, accessing multiple things at once, so somehow I have always envisioned my work as a type of interface.
Rail: Would you like to eventually have your work truly become an interface? Should we hold out hope to one day engage with an EB app or digital game?
Beckman: NO! I just want to keep making these films that use gaming to break down habits and rigid behaviors, and loosen structures that are restrictive.
Rail: The advances in technology over the past few decades have made a lot of editing and camerawork far easier, but is there a point at which you'd say the development (or evolution) of technology has become a hindrance or nuisance for making new work?
Beckman: The technology we work with today tries to regulate our decision making process. We can’t avoid how it tries to influence our choices. Whereas older forms of socialized play functioned to resist industrialized labor, today work and play are blurred and we find ourselves in a gamification of culture. Our actions are commodified through social media as metrics that motivate various forms of consumption, employment, and even education. The media has created a continuous flow around us that favors the active process of mediation over discrete media moments.
Whereas in my early films I changed the meaning of “transition” to make it “scene,” I still seek to create connections between discrete content, but now I am exploring synchronicity in pattern recognition. I feel the flow of signs we experience today has developed a more acute perception of pattern recognition and differentiation in us.