Mark Pellington's body of work deserves serious reconsideration. It describes the arc of a serious artist, someone tapped into a collective threnody, a manifest weltschmerz expressed increasingly through techniques that move him away from traditional narratives into exclusive realms of movement and music. Schooled in rhetoric, Pellington made his mark as one of the early pioneers of MTV and music video, helming clips for artists as varied as U2 and Anthrax. His video for Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" is seen as a landmark for the form in terms of its expressiveness and willingness to venture into dark places (child abuse, bullying, suicide). Pellington was inspired at that moment by the recent loss of his father to dementia--an experience he hopes to turn into a movie someday--and it's that throughline of grief, as it moves through stages of rage, denial, and addiction, that informs the work of his lifetime. Each unimaginable loss feeds Pellington's next project. I'm in awe of his transparency and courage.
With musician Chelsea Wolfe, Pellington made the hour-long Lone, which eschewed script for song. Now comes The Severing, a dance project with choreographer Nina McNeely (Climax), a 70-minute experimental film featuring the occasional intertitle but no spoken dialogue. Largely indescribable, it's Pellington's continuing rumination on the progress of grief: now a wildfire, now a slow, creeping cancer, always a constant companion in the way of anxiety or depression. The dancers in it contort, struggle, and seem to suffer. It would play perfectly on a bill with Jonathan Glazer's Strasbourg 1518 and, as it happens, the Archers' The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann--all four films dealing with the transformational mania of dance, the ecstasy of movement. It caused me to think about how so many religions are based around shaking or spinning, standing independent of the body as it's possessed by...what? The answers to The Severing are written in flesh and bone. Like Lone, it provides a North Star Pellington is following into the future of his work. And it's a privilege to watch that unfold.
I spoke with Mr. Pellington over Zoom on the eve of The Severing's Slamdance debut. He immediately noticed the wall of vinyl behind my desk:
MARK PELLINGTON: You've got all your vinyl. I've carried 4,000 records to England, to LA., and back. Oh, man. You can't ever move because you don't want to move your vinyl. It's so heavy. I got three, four rooms just full of it, 40 years of just stuff, not just vinyl but like CDs and everything, old tapes with Malcolm McLaren, every cassette I got in college, every audio cassette mixtape I made. I never threw any of it away.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Expand on that idea of keeping things.
I'm re-editing my first film Going All the Way for a release by Oscilloscope, a director's cut version. It's flawed, all the flaws of a first film. Flawed. But it has Ben Affleck, Amy Locane, Jeremy Davies... Just a great cast. There's gonna be 55 minutes of new footage restored, a new voiceover that's a lot closer to Dan Wakefield's novel that I read growing up. I'm grateful for this opportunity. It's taken forever to make it happen. But, the point, the point was just like, you never--I never--threw anything away, and that's what's making this possible. As I was going back through all the stuff from that time, I found an old single with like five tracks that Gramercy released as a promo. Two songs on one side, three on the other. Phenomenal. I love all the old media.
I don't know that Rachel Weisz has ever been more beautiful in a film [than in Going All the Way].
I learned a great lesson about close-ups in that film. The first day was the first shot of her. So Bobby Bukowski was my DP, a last-minute replacement for a gifted DP named Ellen Kuras who had to drop out 10 days before the shoot. Bobby had done a movie with Jeremy Davies before, he liked him a lot, and I said, great. So the first shot of my feature-directing career: She steps up. She takes off her sunglasses. I wanted to frame it like this (makes a frame that crops the top of his head and most of his chin). I'm thinking, "Oh, it's a closeup." But Bobby says, "No, gotta be looser, you know, here to here" (he expands the imaginary frame to just above his head and mid-chest). I'd only done videos and commercials and stuff, and I'm like "no, no," but Bobby? Bobby says, "Trust me," and I said, "Okay, you've made movies before, I trust you." And so, dailies the next day in this little movie theatre in Indianapolis. The first, daily, Rachel walks down the steps into that first shot, takes off her sunglasses. And my heart literally went (makes an exploding gesture and gives a look of awe). I don't know, man, maybe it was the combination of celluloid, or the first close-up because it's your first movie, all those things, but... So I'm forever indebted to Bobby for giving me that.
How has the film changed?
I loved that movie at the time, you know, but I think it's a more complete film now. The other day, when I was watching the final mix, I realized that it's about young men leaving home and leaving their mothers, all of this really primal Freudian stuff--the leaving your mother as a young man. I never thought of that. I was 15 years old when I first read the book upon which the film is based and I don't think I could have had any distance on why that book was so powerful for me. Finally, now, coming full circle forty-some years later, to be able to see what that book said to me when I was small... I really think that when it's seen again, it's going to really be seen for the first time. Because I think the immature me made kind of like a coming-of-age, hormonal sex comedy laced with some realism, but now all that feels, well, immature. It lacks insight. The stylistically broad stuff has been broomed by my editor in this recut, Leo Trombetta. He found the more unified, mature, the more whole version of the film, which is a great gift to me.
Eliot talks about using fragments to shore against his ruins. Talk to me more about keeping physical objects and their usefulness as totems.
I thought about that today. As I was standing outside of my house, looking through a window, I thought about the house I grew up in and how much my father loved that house. His house. Then my father got dementia and died at an early age. But I was thinking of my father sitting in the home he loved in the chair that he loved, surrounded by trophies from football and my mom's artwork from Yugoslavia. He couldn't have thought in his mid-fifties that, like, boy, all this stuff's going to be someone else's soon, passed onto my children or just...gone. Or maybe he did, I never got to talk to him about that. I wish I had his perspective on what objects meant to him in relationship to memory as he was in the process of losing it.
How about for you?
Well, the loss of my father, then my best friend, my wife... All in sudden ways--it's always sudden, isn't it? There's no closure for any of them. Right. So there was none. There was no permanent standing thing I could carry. I remember when my mom died, she died, you know, naturally, and I was holding her hand when she went, and I was like, "Wow, that felt so healing to me that like I could witness and experience a tangible death." I remember touching her like a real thing I've kept. So I don't know. The searching for this connection or closure with love is somehow manifest in the connection to a tangible thing, to a tangible object or experience.
Objects as a catalyst to memory? You use records in particular in The Last Word and Nostalgia.
I love records and all these things, but I don't ever think of holding on to things as hoarding them. I think of them as mementos, keepsakes that carry importance with me. Physical reminders of a place that I went or a person I knew. I lived in New York for many years working in MTV, I remember after my seven years there, everything that I wanted to keep I kept in a footlocker, right? The stuff on my walls and MTV, a matchstick from here, a rolodex, everything was in a footlocker, and at that point as a young man, that footlocker was everything. I had no furniture. I wasn't married,I didn't have any of that stuff, so that stuff in the footlocker was everything. But as you get older and you accumulate and you get married and you have a house and it's like, the things in your life don't fit in one place anymore and now it's, "I really love that couch." Or you collect artwork or photography or books. Over the years you read and collect.
Do the objects you surround yourself with inform your art?
You know, the gift of an art book means a lot to me, because boy, where was I when that art appeared in my life, and who gave it to me? What was that influence? Why was I into that? Why did someone think I would be if I'm not? Why did I get into Caravaggio after visiting Florida? You accumulate the meaning of your life, really in these things that are around you. And when you decide to ask, what is the value of that object in relationship to a person or a memory?
A question that fuels so much of your work--feature films and music videos alike.
Thinking of Nostalgia... I'm trying to understand, what did it all mean? Why did the girl's keychain that she had made with her friend the last day of her life, why was this the tangible object that crushes Catherine Keener's character? Is it because it was the last thing that her daughter touched? What is the power of that touch to that object? Being able to hold something that connects you to those people we lost... My father, boy. I may very well be, in five years... If I was like my dad, I'd be holding something in my hand and not remembering who gave it to me, because of my dementia. Maybe not even what it is. I witnessed and experienced firsthand what dementia looks like, and seeing my father not remember anything, not remember me. I mean...
"Both Arlington Road and Mothman were about two widowers, and I would become a widower. I kind of just owned it. I said I'm fucking done worrying about what people think. I'm a dark guy."
1992, the year of the "Jeremy" video.
Which was an exploration of personal dislocation from parents that dovetailed with my father getting sick and that big hole opening up in me. And the one person who completed that hole was my wife, so then when she died, that was like the double whammy. How could she be taken? So everything, every video, everything I've done, is traceable back to those two events in my life.
There are certain images that return in your work: empty clothes in human shape, the frameworks of houses, deserts and beaches and other liminal spaces.
A good companion piece to The Severing is a 52-minute film I made for this artist Chelsea Wolf called Lone, which has all of those images that you mention: beaches, forgiveness in a burned forest, empty landscapes, desert, empty framed houses, and all kinds of trees, solitary trees, bare trees. I wanted to represent the natural world, I love the natural world, I'm not a person of nature, and the idea was to use those settings as maybe not a literal representation of Nature but an abstraction of it. If you take interesting objects into these interesting spaces it can provoke a... Symbols can... It was the freest my brain could be, and I found at some point in these environments that I could work on a totally subconscious level. Writing it, but none of it is written.
You seem to be moving into a non-verbal space with your work.
Yes. Something like The Last Word or Henry Poole Is Here that are obviously more plot-driven, linear narratives, they each have elements of me in it, but I'm not Hal Ashby. The kind of storytelling I want to do is kind of pushed aside in order to tell stories like that. I like them, you know, they're mine, but... Look, there are 10 movies I want to go make in the 20 years I got left. I just decided that even if there's the regular stuff with plot and story and all, what I make is going to be rich with these themes and imagery. And I love the other films and I've learned through the experience of all those other films, but, like, how can I make just logistically make a feature that is just... And then once you figure that out, you've got to find the right collaborators and if you can do that, you need to find a way to finance it. So that's why I just started working on anything--of any length or format on that level of just freedom to make it on the low and just go and, yeah, even if you've got a map or a script, if it veers off it veers off.
Can you strike the middle distance?
Yes. I feel like I can merge the two. Scripts and story. Because I do believe in script and characters that people can invest in, right? And sometimes the abstraction of Lone or The Severing serves that investment. You have to acknowledge, too, that, boy, those kinds of films are much more challenging for audiences to watch.
Yes. But why are they challenging?
I think most people go into something expecting the engine of the plot to carry them along. "Okay, what's this about, where am I going and why?" And with the other kind of non-expository cinema we're talking about you have to have the courage to surrender to it, and that's where a big screen is so crucial for it, but it can work on a smaller screen, too. The Severing was made for no money, just as an experiment where we're going to lay out all the imagery in the length that I feel like it could be with the caveat that I have learned half-hour pieces are a no-man's-land. I made this half-hour short with Alfie Allen and Peter Bogdanovich, but, like, you can't give it away. (A link to the teaser.-Ed.) You can't do anything with a half-hour film or really anything up to 49 minutes. There's no, there's no place for it. I would give those away for free.
Because they're about expression.
That's right. The Severing is just, "How can I express these feelings of loss?" How can I express these feelings and the difficulty in coming through it? I never even remarried, how do I feel about that? How can I express the difficulty of reconnecting with the world, with myself, with groups of people or the other potential people in my life in a way that has no words? When I watched Nina McNealy's work in Climax, I saw the brutal expressiveness of the movement, and it connected to this speed-metal song I was doing a video for and I said, I want to work with her. I want her to help me tell about grief. I just explained that to her, and she told her dancers and they did their thing. We shot it with no light. We laid out a kind of story of an individual who has experienced loss and she begins as a headless person and ends with this frank, direct [expression] looking at you at the end, seeking help and searching, still searching for peace. That was like, Cameron Crowe taught me, just come up with your first image and your last image. Once you have that, that starting point and endpoint, at least you know where you're headed, right? Not having the words to bog you down or plot to worry about with this, it was all just movement and shape. But I did know that I wanted it to be at least feature-length so maybe it could get into a festival.
What do your films tell about the process of your grief?
I mean, really, honestly, I have over the course of decades had some friends say, "Come on, aren't you over it?" And you never get over it. Several years ago, maybe around the period of Lone, 2015, after I Melt With You was just eviscerated, I had a moment of clarity where I was like, you know what, I'm just going to do what I want. I had made money in commercials, so I'm not going to worry about money. I socked away money for my kid to go to college. What do I need anymore? Nothing. I'm just gonna do what I want. I'm going to work on what I want to work on. I had the great luxury to only make what felt right for my heart: all the music videos and short pieces, they all are outlets for me for some sort of expression. There's some upbeat stuff in there, too. And there's some really beautiful stuff, I think, whether it's Damien Marley or Moby or Low or whomever, I was lucky enough to have great artists where I could put my feelings into their tracks, you know, whether it's narrative or non-narrative.
Tell me more about the role of nostalgia in your life.
I'm going back and looking at some old films and docs, revising them in my mind. I'm constantly drawn to the past by this urge to revise things that are ultimately unchangeable.
Your first three films each feel like warnings.
Both Arlington Road and Mothman were about two widowers, and I would become a widower. I kind of just owned it. I said I'm fucking done worrying about what people think. I'm a dark guy. I'm just going to keep making the stuff. I'm not going to run from it. I just love to create, I love to make stuff. I want to stay incessantly curious and I'll work with low budgets and small tools and, like, let's go, you know what I mean? I have great confidence. More importantly, I have great collaborators. Like Jacquie London, who's edited so many of my music videos. She gets it. She gets what we're working towards. You need people who understand the themes of, you know, this universal screaming and unmitigated pain people are in. You put it out there. You put it out there so others can let it go.
You did a piece with Rita Dove.
Yes! You know, she says that "poetry is there to make people feel less alone." She says to me that I'm writing these things, making these films and videos and stuff because people are too numb, or can't feel, or have never been taught to express, and so we have to feel it for them. We have to create so others who are too afraid, or too blocked, can exist. Somebody has to feel the pain and provide an avenue to let it out because, you know, most people can't process their pain. It's too much. They can't produce an outlet to relieve the pressure of it. They don't know how to do it.
Were the early days of MTV as experimental as they seemed?
I'm so grateful for early on in my life at MTV that they're like, "You want to try and do this?" I was like, sure? Nobody beat me down and made me feel like a failure early on. Whereas now, like, shit, you got a million people clamouring at you on social media, but back then, I was like, sure, I'll make that. What if I wrote this piece and put it on there and then the next day you'd see it on the air and... Yeah, man. I was never an artist, never a filmmaker, never a writer, nothing, I just liked music and journalism. It's like, all right. So, you know, I'm self-taught, and I figured back then I was just going to keep going until somebody tells me to go home, that I was a piece of shit. But thankfully no one told me that until Hollywood came around.
You're trained in rhetoric--I know you got a degree in it--and while that's engaged in speech, it's also in large part engaged in symbols. How do you quiet the one to indulge the other?
I like music and music videos so much and I would... I'd listen to a song and it just goes (makes gestures in the air, closing his eyes), it just starts to (moves his shoulders to some remembered beat). I put songs on a loop and let it just loop and loop and then something starts to come out. It starts to just flow and I see something, some image or feel some feeling and then... The best ones were like, this thing comes out fully formed. Then I sit back and maybe organize the bit to develop some logic to it, but kind of you just have to trust it, those images that arise from that experience. The older I get, the more I know what the symbols are, but you have to then articulate it for somebody else. But I trust my unconscious on certain things. I'm not saying I'm going to arrive on set and not be prepared, but like going to a set [like Nostalgia] with Ellen Burstyn and John Ortiz, all you have to do with great artists is communicate a feeling and they'll know what it's about. You see the words change before your eyes, the dialogue, it's a becoming. You let your brain go and trust that the first output can then be sifted like a collage you can go through, the images make connections.
Like reading bones or tea leaves. I had a very similar conversation with Jonathan Glazer after Under the Skin.
Which is maybe in the top five of my favourite films.
How did you decide where to put the camera while filming McNeely's choreography?
Obviously you can't direct the dancer. The dancer is the artist. No. I sat behind Evelin [van Rei], the DP. She was sitting on the floor and sometimes I would literally push her body. I said, "I'm going to push you, okay?" And she would say, "Okay," and I literally would just push her body, gently of course (laughs), along the floor to another place.
Like a dance.
Sometimes she would move herself, or in her motions know that she had to pan just a little bit. All I told the dancers was the same thing you tell an actor: If you go over there, you're in darkness. It's fine. Just know that if you go over there, it'll be dark as opposed to like marks and shit. Like, fuck marks. Did you know Shirley MacLaine was trained as a ballet dancer? But she was brought up obviously in a very tradition-/method-bound Hollywood, but I told Shirley MacLaine to not worry about hitting marks. She hated that. She was worried she'd be out of focus or lighting and I just said that's our job. You, the artist, feel free. Feel free. She hated that. She told me, "You direct like a hologram," as this sideswipe comment. What do you say to Shirley MacLaine but "okay." But by the end she says, "I've never been as free in my movement as I have on this film. I learned a new level of spontaneity and freedom in film acting." This is Shirley MacLaine. So that's an old studio-system person moving to this new world. I really feel comfortable with actors and I love the truth of what they do, I so admire them.
Your casts deliver great performances.
My dream is to just get like a cast and crew of 15 people out on the road and say, let's make a movie. Let's make it like American Honey. Let's just make it like that. I have an idea for a movie, a gambler and his wife on the road. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets Everybody's All-American. I've been trying for 10 years to get it made. David Birke, who wrote Elle and Benedetta, wrote the script. It's one of the best pieces of writing I've read and I'll never give up. We have every strike against us--oh, the characters aren't likable. Every strike, right? So what, do we give up on that shit? No, of course not.
You mentioned I Melt With You and the withering reception it got. I think it's aged particularly well.
The most hated movie of all time, the worst movie ever. And part of that was on me: I had the audacity and the stupidity to show a two-hour-and-20-minute cut of it at Sundance, and it was the first time I'd screened it. I thought, oh, nobody cares about this dark little experiment. They did, but they so eviscerated it and you're just standing by like there among the burning bodies. Rob Lowe, who loved it, called it the Apocalypse Now of male-bonding films. But the best compliment I ever received was about that film. Rob says he's in a restaurant two years ago, three years ago, a restaurant in London, and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders comes up and takes him by his face and says, "Rob Lowe, you made my favourite film of all time. It saved my life." And he said, what? And she said, "I Melt With You." I dropped to the ground when he told me that. Chrissie Hynde, one of my heroes. That's fucking it.
It's full of rage and despair. I felt it to my core.
It's not a comfortable movie. Especially if you had done a lot of drugs, had a lot of very deep male friendships, or if you hadn't examined things like friends, addiction, suicide, then you didn't probably have a good time. They just piled on and piled on... You get beat down a lot not just in this business but in life--I mean, that's what happens, a lot of "no"s, but you rise above. What choice do you have? And then you get to this place where you think you're jaded, but this response we've gotten so far to The Severing, hearing how it connected with people at the very spot where it came out of you. It's been very, um, uh, what's the word, very humbling and empowering to me. It gives me courage to continue on the path. I'm grateful to have my little corner of the corner of the world to express the things I need to express. I'm not done yet. I have a lot more stories to tell.