Film Show 009: Ericka Beckman

An interview with director Ericka Beckman

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Ericka Beckman

Ericka Beckman’s work is unmistakable. Fusing social, political, and philosophical concerns with bright, pop aesthetics and an irresistible sense of play, her films have consistently baffled critics and audiences both on the indie cinema circuit and in the self-serious arthouse scene. Through multiple exposures and ingenious practical effects, Beckman’s early films transformed her black soundstage and homemade props into surreal and impossible landscapes that seem to shift and morph around her characters. In recent years, Beckman has continued her exploration and manipulation of space in a number of technically masterful architectural films, which transform inert, industrial spaces into moving, breathing characters. I recently spoke to Beckman about her life and work, as well as casinos and capitalism, board games and breakdancing. Mark Cutler talked with Beckman on April 18th, 2021 via Skype to discuss her film and installation works, New York City, Monopoly, and more!

Mark Cutler: Hello! How’s it going?

Ericka Beckman: Yeah, it’s okay… (laughs) I’ve been doing paperwork, bureaucratic paperwork for the last hour, but I put it aside so we could talk!

Thank you so much!

It’s good to meet you! 

It’s good to meet you! Sorry about my dog—

You have a lovely dog!

Thank you! My partner was supposed to be watching her, but he fell asleep, so I’m doing double duty.

I’ve seen double the amount of dogs in New York City since the pandemic! So many people have this dog that I used to have, a miniature Australian shepherd, and I’m petrified. They’ve become extremely popular, and they’re not the kind of dog you want in the city.

One of my pet peeves is, we live in the Village, and I see the biggest dogs—someone around us has a Borzoi, you know, one of the old Russian wolfhounds, and it’s huge! And Irish wolfhounds! They get enormous, they’re the size of horses, and I just think it should be illegal to have a dog that big in the city.

Especially in a small East Village apartment!

Yeah, in a Manhattan apartment, I don’t care how big, it’s just not enough room for a dog that size.

(laughter) So, where did you first see You The Better?

I—you’re gonna hate me—I heard about it, and I first searched for it on YouTube…

There’s a horrible copy that Franklin Furnace uploaded, that’s like a 1984 VHS copy.

That’s what I thought it was! The first second I saw it, I remember thinking this looks like someone pointed a camera at a VHS (laughter) but I’ve seen a higher quality copy since then, though I haven’t seen it on film.

And you haven’t seen it as an installation yet, with the animated boxes?

No! That’s something I actually wanted to talk about: it’s interesting to me that you have re-imagined some of the films as installation pieces, and expanded them out

Yes, the whole Super-8 Trilogy is an installation at this point, and Hiatus of course, and my new film Reach Capacity is an install.

I was wondering which was the first of those films that you decided to re-contextualise, or reconfigure, and what was the thinking at the time?

I did a show in 2013, in Bern, at the Kunsthalle Bern. This was a show that came about through a whole kind of (lowers voice) Swiss connection. You know, someone in Switzerland, his hunch was that my work could serve a new purpose in public. He decided to test me out in various venues to see how the work would be accepted, before he approached me to do a project. So I did a show in Lausanne, a split installation with Switch Center, which was the first time I even thought about how to contextualise it in a space, as a projection piece with colour. That was at an experimental venue in Lausanne, and at the same time, they had me show it as a single-channel film at the experimental film festival in Lausanne. Then in 2013, I was able to take over the whole Kunsthalle. And at that point, I had the trilogy designed as a video installation, with original props, and a kind of sequenced set of video screens, so that when one film was playing, then the others were silent. So Switch Center was the first one, because it was designed as a monolith, a sculptural monolith with the film on it, and then back-lighting, so the whole room lit up.

After that, You The Better came next, because the Mary Boone gallery in New York wanted to show it, and that was when we set to work on building light boxes, and doing a real proprietary controller for DMX. So we designed a whole sequence for that show, and then we refined it for the Walker Art Center, and that’s where it stabilised. Things just kept going like that, at a rapid pace, starting in 2013 all the way up to 2018. All the work was digitised, and all these props were constructed, there was lots of planning to design work to make everything into an installation. I don’t think there’s any film that hasn’t been treated that way.

In a way it makes perfect sense, because if I had to pick one motif that is a through-line in your work almost from the beginning until the end, it’s architecture in a very broad sense. Beginning with houses, and then continuing through real estate, housing, questions of access to housing… it’s sort of these lateral associations. So it makes sense that the films would take on this spatial element, and I’m realising there isn’t really a question at the end of this…

That’s okay! I like talking with you.

Thank you! So I guess, if I had to turn that into a question… I’m trying to figure out to phrase it… I almost want to ask, where you grew up as a child? Is that a strange question to ask?

Well, it leads into it! I grew up on a military base.

Oooohhhhh.

And—let’s get some things straight—have you read Marx?

Yes, I have—I definitely consider myself a Marxist, but I came to him more as an extension of, or maybe a path out of Kantian-Hegelian philosophy. I’m definitely by no means an economist!

Ah, I understand. I grew up on a military base, and because of it, I lived in a very socialist community. School was paid for, medical was paid for, housing was paid for… income was really low, so you couldn’t really live off-base on the income, but everything was taken care of. So it was a kind of socialist lifestyle, where we moved every eighteen months. That movement was what triggered Out of Hand. I witnessed what it was like to be rapidly forced out of a home, and to have to figure out what was permanent in all this movement. That was also playing with sexuality, with coming-of-age and, more importantly, what happens in coming-of-age, which is the brain is ready to take hold of symbolic thinking. So, there was this convergence of all of these things in that film, and that’s where it started. It started with Out of Hand.

Mm, I think there really is a difference, even within the 8mm Trilogy, there’s a sort of decisive break between the first two, and Out of Hand.

(laughs). Yeah, definitely! Nobody gets Out of Hand! I mean, forget it! Nobody gets it!

Oh really? I love it! It’s so creepy, to me it’s like a horror movie.

It is like a horror movie!

Like, I love haunted house movies, even though I don’t believe in ghosts or anything, I just love supernatural horror, and Out of Hand has that nightmarish undertone.

But it is a nightmare. For sure. That’s why people don’t get it. The Super-8 work was primarily heralded by J. Hoberman as playful, animated, color-effects, and ‘girl chants’—teenage cheerleading chants, stuff like that. So when you get to Out of Hand, it’s like, whooaahhh! (laughs). It’s a different film. But I never read Marx, not until I made Reach Capacity. Starting in January 2020, I started reading Marx’s last book [the Grundrisse] for that film, and I thought it was a pretty good way to figure out how I was going to remake the second part during COVID.

For me, The Broken Rule introduces this game-like logic, and then Out of Hand is the first film where that game logic really crystallises. Then, during your talk about Reach Capacity, I remember you mentioning the history of Monopoly, which of course started out as the Landlord’s Game. That’s something I’ve always appreciated, because everyone hates playing Monopoly! It was so validating to discover that it was originally meant to be a game about a bad system!

Yes, it was meant to be a game that flipped over. The game board itself turned over. I could go into more history about it, but there’s a book written by Mary Pilon, which I think I heard about when I went to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester to do the real research on the game. It was a game that was augmented by players in various Northeast utopian communities, especially Quakers. The board game itself was eventually stylised to reflect the towns that they would play in, and they would modify all the districts.

When there was a Monopolist, then all the players who weren’t the Monopolist agreed to change the rules, and they’d flip the game board over, and play sort-of backwards, with another set of rules. My understanding is, it was eventually played by the Wharton school of economics, and that was the beginning of its transformation into Monopoly. They sped it up, and eliminated the second side. And from that gameplay, one of the men decided to broach Parker Brothers, and they made an agreement to buy out. Then, the agreement was that the designer, a feminist who was also involved in Georgist theory, which was the precursor to the Green movement we have now, but socialist—very famous at the turn of the century, but now largely forgotten—they decided, as a settlement, to give her $500 and to publish The Landlord’s Game as its own game board. I went to see it, at the Museum of Play, and it was the most disgusting board game—unplayable! There was this little paddle boat that you took around a swamp (laughter). It was unplayable! It looked like Candy Land in the swamp!

I feel like it’s almost a microcosm for capitalism itself—the way that it takes criticisms of it, it absorbs them into itself, it offers this sort of ‘candified’ version, and then consigns its critics to the dustbin of history.

That’s right, that’s right. The critic is in the dustbin, but it’s also what you said—a microcosm of how capitalism works. That’s what the whole Monopoly story is. That’s why it was really important for me to make a film using it, because very few people know the history. (pauses). But I’m not making a documentary, so… (laughter) so it goes into the subtext of the film.

Something that I was curious about, because I wasn’t alive in the early-80s—were video games and arcades widespread at that point?

I’ll tell you what I did—for You The Better, I went to casinos. I went to Monte Carlo, just to peek in. I went to Atlantic City, and when I went there, I went with my composer, and I was bugged! I wore a dress with a microphone and a pair of gloves, and I went around and recorded, just as research. Just to kind of get immersed in gambling. And, at the same time, my composer and I went to Jersey Shore, because we were in Atlantic City, and played the arcade games and recorded them. Then we went into the studio with his CAT synthesizer. 

So, I didn’t play video games, and I only played arcade games just to get a sense of what they felt like. But when I was doing the research for Hiatus, right between Cinderella and Hiatus, I attended a lot of conferences on game design, and game design studios in Los Angeles. There was this game that was put out called The Time Traveler, and that was the closest—that told me that I should go in this direction, because it was the game most like my work. But in the early-80s, I was simply going to casinos and arcades, to get a little taste of what goes on there.

So would you say that board games informed the structure to a greater degree?

I’ll tell you what informed the game ‘boards’, if you’d call them that: the fact that I have to create a map, because it’s a black space. I have to create a map, which ends up being a drawing that I do, which makes me understand both where I am in time and where I am in space. That necessity started in Out of Hand—it was very important for me to map the space of that location—where the young man is in the toy trunk—to understand where the camera is and what the sequence is within that space, and to keep that in mind at all points.

But in You The Better, it started with games of chance, dice games, where chance is the real element, to player strategy games which don’t acknowledge chance. Two things about that—because I was doing superimposition in camera, there was chance. None of these things could be predetermined! You could just sort of guess where the guy throwing the ball would hit, and sort of guess where the animations would occur. I shot and shot and shot, and then I edited the mistakes, and I edited the hits.

But that game in the center was a roulette wheel, so those flying houses were circulating like this (gestures). In the installation, they trigger one side of the screen, then go through the screen and hit the other side, so there’s this spatial thing happening. But in that roulette wheel, there’s a center, which is where the ball ejects from, and goes through the space to the players. The players have to land the ball on a target, and from their point of view, they’re staring at the center of the game the entire time, what they don’t see is what happens to the ball if they don’t hit [the target], and where the house is in the game. Sort of like a billiards pocket, the house absorbs the ball.

When my main character Bickerton gets in the center, he sees what’s going on in the periphery, the wider view in the game. So the other players are staring at him, he’s staring at them, but they don’t look behind themselves. He criticizes them for not seeing it, but they can’t understand him because he’s far away. Once he calls the shots as to what’s really happening, the game board descends, and the players run off into the basketball courts, which are a reflection of the subdivision which goes on at the beginning. So when the hoop goes up in the air, what’s revealed behind the hoop is another court. The courts are in the shape of a house. As soon as they get a ball through the hoop, the hoop raises and they’re off to a new court. So the emcee is saying court number three, court number four, and they get to court four, progressing through the houses. This is all my suburban background, moving around into middle-America tract homes. Finally, at the very end, the One-Armed Bandit appears, who is the only chance element.

Like an element of pure chance, almost.

Yeah, this One-Armed Bandit enters this game, and empties the balls from the house into the court. So all the houses are stacked and the players can’t progress. The players think that they have followed a new set of rules [set] by the Bandit but that the Bandit has brought down the house. The guys, their intention was never to bring down the house because they never saw it, they were just progressing, making points for the Better, which is the offscreen audience. 

So that kind of game board mapping was really important for that film, and then the same for Hiatus. Hiatus couldn’t have existed without me determining exactly where the start point was, and where the frontier began. Then in Reach Capacity, the game board is really just the Monopoly gameboard! It just refers to that, going around and around.

It’s interesting, in your description, you started talking about the films as game boards, which would almost invite a reading of the human figures as pieces. But then at other points, you talk about them having these subjectivities, and even being named. When I watch your films, it’s often difficult for me to put myself in the headspace of the human figure in the middle of the film, as a real person.

I know.

I mean, if they are full characters, with their own subjectivities, wants, feelings, many of them live in a very torturous— (laughter) I mean, I guess the question is how do you relate to the characters?

I don’t relate to them! (laughter). I mean the only ones I relate to are the female characters. But any time I’m using male characters, I don’t relate to them at all. A real director relates to their actors, this is the important thing, and I don’t do that. Early on, I thought of them on the same level as props, as just pushing props around on the floor. They’re part of the concept of how things become what they become, they’re part of the making of that. In terms of getting into the psychology, I could get into the psychology of both female characters [in Cinderella and Hiatus], but neither of them really understood or related to what the film was doing (laughter).

That actually makes a lot of sense, because one thing that I remember struck me about Cinderella in particular, is that dancing with the Prince for her is like a side quest in her progressions around that game board. Like, there’s no ‘happily ever after’ with the Prince, it’s just that she has to tick the Prince off her list and get back home in time (laughter).

I like that, that’s a good way to say it. Yeah, the idea was that the prince was just a way to get the gown, and she didn’t even want the gown! But my idea of Cinderella was that, this was someone who really doesn’t have any identity, and [the game] was a learning game—it was about learning by not doing the things you’re told to do, and in that way my character did really get into it. I picked up [the actress], a young woman in Minneapolis, who was in transformation from being an art student to a jazz singer, moving from the U.S. to Italy. So, she was ready to challenge everything and leave her upbringing in Minneapolis. So I got her at the right time, and that was a good occasion.

I also find the dress in that film interesting, because—I don’t know if you’re someone who is very into clothing, but it’s a very noticeable aspect of all of your films. The clothing is very often in keeping with the strong primary color aesthetic of the props and objects, but it goes even further. In the Super-8 Trilogy, I remember being really struck in The Broken Rule, you have all these characters doing their colored laundry. So the guy in green is hanging up his green shirt and his green socks and his green underwear (laughter).

There’s a lot to do with class, that they’re all in some kind of uniform. The idea is that it’s an outfit that either erases or claims your identity, and so the players in You The Better all have a bowling ball icon on the back of their blue jackets, and that refers to the ball that they’re playing with. So I think of [the clothes] as a series of signs. The white team in The Broken Rule are all wearing the same pants and the same shirt, while the makeshift green team all put on whatever clothes they can find that are green. And again, with the cheerleaders for those teams, they’re wearing makeshift work clothes. I love work clothes! Just love ’em.

One of my first memories as a young girl was looking at all these men marching on the tarmac of the airbase, with their khaki or blue uniforms, and I just love that image. It stayed with me. So I try really hard to keep track of what’s happening with worker outfits, always indexing different worker outfits. It’s really interesting now, what’s going on, especially if you go to different countries and see the relationship between what they’re wearing, and the scale of some of the signage, the construction barriers and things like that. The stripes and the colors… they [the workers] are part of a system, they kind of melt into the whole job that they’re doing.

It makes me think of a musician called Momus who used to run a blog, and he would post these pictures of Japanese and Korean factory workers, in their all-nylon, blue plasticky jumpsuits, and their big pink rubber gloves, and he would always call them ‘style icons’! Those were, to him—

Yeah, yeah!

And it’s funny, because of course workwear and military clothing are the two perpetual sources of inspiration for high fashion.

Especially now! The recent runways are using an awful lot of work attire.

I’m almost hesitant to ask about music, because I know that you were in the immediate presence of the version of New York that I idolise, which was definitely the late-70s, no wave, the Downtown scene...

Did you see my documentary?

Yeah, I did. 135 Grand Street 1979.

There was a story behind that! I was taking my Super-8 films to Europe. I was carting them around Europe, and I got sort of stuck in Rotterdam—I had a couple of weeks before I had to go somewhere else—and I ended up meeting the guy who ran Rough Trade. I stayed in the house of a kind-of commune of guys, and it turned out they were all from VPRO Television, their equivalent to PBS. And they said “Oh, you know all these bands in New York! We have a casual, magazine format show, where we look at the culture of some place. We’d love for you to put together a night of these bands, and we’ll come over and film it.” I said “yeah, I’ll do that, but I ask that I shoot with my camera, and that we all use Fuji film. So I arranged with Paul McMahon, who had the loft at 135 Grand. Paul was more or less the organizer. Everybody wanted to be on Dutch TV!

So we shot it, they aired it and sent me back their rolls of the Nagra reel-to-reel [audio] tape, and it sat in my closet until about 2010. The Nagra tape was so good, and the picture was… kinda lousy, but doable, so a graduate student of mine, who was trying to help me convert my Super-8 to digital, took a look at it, and said you gotta do something with it. So, I invited Dan Graham and [Glenn] Branca to come and have a look. I had edited them by that point, but they were not fully synchronised. But they got off on it, and Glenn gave me a Soul Jazz contact, and Soul Jazz said they wanted to take it right away. Then it got released on Soul Jazz! I literally did it as a kind of (pauses) gift to time. I had no intention of anything happening to it other than just placeholding it somewhere, so that people knew that there was an alternative to what was going on in the East Village. These bands were all centered around TriBeCa.

Yeah, I’ve read of an East Village-Lower East Side divide. It’s hard to imagine now, because there’s just nothing left.

Yeah, I know! It was a huge divide! Very vital camps on both sides. The venues on the Downtown Manhattan side—places like The Kitchen, TR3, Area—ended up hosting a lot of performance and music. Same for the Lower East Side, which had its own set of filmmakers and everything—and they ended up doing very well, because a guy called Steve Stagave came and opened a video store called New Video, on Bleecker Street. He knew that all these filmmakers, including myself, made VHS copies in hopes that we would distribute them, or something like that. So he collected all of this work, he scooped up all the punk movies, all the band films, everything that was recorded back then, made copies and rented it all out of his video store. That ended up going to St. Marks Books, which was a huge hangout on 8th Street. Then, I have no idea what happened to it. Somewhere around there’s a huge reservoir of this stuff.

I knew this would make me sad! I mean, I love New York as it is now, in a lot of ways, but definitely the New York I dream about… I know it’s silly to be nostalgic about a time before I was even born, but… (laughs). What amazes me too is that even though all this stuff was happening in the Village, which was already so cheap at the time, a lot of the major figures were so poor that they lived way, way up, in Harlem and the Bronx, and that they were taking the train down every night to be part of the scene.

Well I remember—I think it was 1981—when breakdancing started. Those of us that were into it had to go up to Harlem to watch it, to see the genesis of the movement. One of my earliest memories of it—this was totally bizarre—I had that connection with VPRO still, and I wanted to shoot a documentary of the breakdancing happening up in the projects. So I went up to [the Bronx] to scout with a cinematographer, and I met all these young kids who became very, very famous. They said, “We’re gonna have an event in Manhattan.” This was their first time leaving the projects. They would have competitions in the projects, and they competed in groups, all outfitted from makeshift things, really just fabulous designs. You wanna talk about clothing—these kids really knew how to design a group outfit, a crew outfit.

Anyway, these guys told me to show up at a place called Plato’s Retreat. Plato’s Retreat was a sex club, in the ’30s, near Penn Station. One of these dives that opened at night, and all these people would come over from Jersey, and have sex in all these rooms. It was the most disgusting thing I ever saw in my life! And in the middle of it all these ugly people doing things, in the middle of this smelly, damp, dark… you had the lights turn on, and the breaker kids came out of their cars, and into the joint, and did a whole breakdance show, with music and rap and everything—right in the middle of it! And off to the sides, you had all these people who were barely clothed, all drugged up. That’s a bizarre memory, but it was a real thing that happened! But in the end, I couldn’t film there!

How did they choose a place like that?

Well they didn’t! They had a manager who picked it, but they wanted any place in Manhattan, any way to get out of the Bronx and do this stuff. They were just looking for exposure—and they got it!

Ericka Beckman’s Reach Capacity and You The Better are currently streaming at the MoMA website. Her works Reach Capacity and You The Better will be exhibited later this year at Kestner Gesellschaft. More information about Beckman’s films and installations can be found on her website.


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