Möbius (film) strip: Island alum makes Cannes debut

In mathematics, a Möbius strip is a surface with only one side and boundary.

In film, Sam Kuhn’s “Möbius” has many sides and is bound only by imagination.

The short movie by the former Bainbridge resident will debut as part of the International Critics’ Week selections later this month at the upcoming 70th Cannes Film Festival in France.

It is the oldest parallel competitive section of the original festival, showcasing directors from all over the world. Critics’ Week has seen the discovery of many major talents, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Gaspar Noé, François Ozon and Alejandro González Iñárritu, among others.

Kuhn is the only American filmmaker to be featured in this year’s Critics’ Week “short film” lineup.

“Möbius” is a feminist inversion of the Orpheus myth, shot on 35mm film, wherein a teenage poet’s soulmate goes missing. Suspecting him dead, she wanders a series of high school scenes invisible and silent, watching, collecting clues, discovering secrets, passing notes.

About half the funds needed to make the film were raised through donations by Bainbridge Islanders, Kuhn said. He recently chatted with the Review about his film, growing up on Bainbridge and adolescent culture.

* This transcript has been formatted for length and clarity.

BIR: I read on your original Kickstarter page that this film was inspired by “the great American teen film.” Any one in particular prove a great influence?

SK: I was trying to make something like Lynne Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar” or [ Krzysztof]Kieslowski’s “Blue,” but what transpired became [David] Lynchian and “[Twin] Peaks”-y — perhaps because that’s where I was raised. Did you know that you can see Bainbridge in the background of the shot where Laura Palmer’s body washes ashore? That was in Suquamish across the street from Laura Road.

BIR: Why did you decide to shoot this on 35mm? Do you prefer film in general, or was it the right choice for this project?

SK: When it comes to film vs. digital its this simple: DIGITAL IMAGES ARE VOID OF LIFE. As any painter will tell you: the colors are all wrong, they don’t map onto the real world we experience with our eyes. Besides, digital technology is almost exclusively RGB. Little known fact, but most women are actually tetrachromatic. While men see RGB, women see RGBY and that additional yellow cone means they’re experiencing a phenomenologically different world from men — a world that digital technology, with its implicitly patriarchal RGB, isn’t even allowing.

Digital imaging technology has thus created this nefarious other world absent of the feminine and full of hideous repulsive light. People look nightmarish on digital because the image is shelved at a certain level of detail by a maze of 1’s and 0’s. Unlike film, there’s nothing beyond that binary web — a void which you can palpably feel in the images themselves.

Film on the other hand is a real-world object that has an organic relationship with actual light that it chemically reacts to. A 35mm motion picture negative has infinite detail down to the sub-atomic level — it’s an actual thing, not a mathematic construction. Thus, film is generous toward its subjects and empathetic as a medium — people look radiant and delightful on film, totally alive.

The difference this makes in the feeling of your film and thus the type of stories one can tell is tremendous. Film makes it so much easier to reach for feelings of transcendence. Remember when “Blair Witch Project” was this like new movie shot on video everybody was talking about? And how that movie looked and felt?

I genuinely believe digital video is responsible for the end of the romantic comedy genre and accelerating the apocalyptic bend in our modern myth-making machine. When the world looks the way digital makes it look, you have to respond as a storyteller with these sinister heart-gutting plots for that visual hideousness to make sense.

There are “feel good” films shot digitally, but something about them just doesn’t seem believable anymore — the unexamined vapidity of the form undercuts the audience’s ability to really fall in love and get lost in the beauty of emotions, characters and situations. Even dark stories like David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” are full of a strange life and breath because they were shot on film.

BIR: So you’re saying aesthetics outweigh ease-of-use?

SK: I’m sure a lot of people think they can’t even tell the difference between the two. “Who cares, isn’t this debate over? Didn’t digital win? Aren’t you just nostalgic?”

Well, people do tend to get nostalgic when beautiful things are destroyed, and I would like to suggest there’s an undiscussed but crucial analogy to the argument for eating healthy simple foods. Everyone in our modern culture is on some sort of media diet — we’re all exposed to a helluva lot of images.

Dogear these words: digital imagery is a secret McDonald’s.

I’m not saying this to be elitist or bombastic, but our media and its tools largely go unexamined in terms of the implicit psychology of certain imaging technologies. We all unquestioningly accept the conceits of this reality filtration (“Everything is now digital — film is dead”), and that blind acceptance can be like water to fish, a reality we don’t even recognize we’re immersed in. I can’t tell you how many Baby Boomers are totally surprised that I’m shooting on film — it’s a constant struggle at places like airport security to convince people it even still exists.

But this is an illusion. There are still many opportunities to shoot film, and more by the day (Technicolor is now re-opening labs in New York, Kodak is reintroducing Ektachrome).

As an artist, I think it’s worth examining the things we’ve been told we MUST accept — the concessions we’ve allowed in the name of “progress” or “revolution.” Those words are tools of con men — in the ancient wisdom we find phrases like “change the world and you destroy it, everything is already perfect.”

To me, 35mm is happiness — digital a deep and horrifying existential void.

BIR: Tell me how growing up on Bainbridge influenced your decision to become a filmmaker. Were you encouraged to be artistic at a young age?

SK: Bainbridge was a great place to grow up because it was profoundly, mind-numbingly boring. Which, I realize, sounds contradictory, but I think being bored is a lost treasure. In all our pockets we now carry infinite entertainment and distraction machines which make it hard to be bored. Being bored allows room for your imagination to flourish, for dreams to arrive and art to transpire — the very stuff of cinema.

Also, I remember teachers like David Layton would allow me to make films instead of writing book reports. There’s nothing more productive in education than teachers who facilitate kids exploring their own innate curiosity. One’s curiosity is THE inroad to making beautiful and interesting things happen in this world. I think, at least when I grew up, Bainbridge was a place that allowed for a lot of freedom, before it became “parkified” and “de-eyesored,” there was this incredible wildness and openness that I’ve spent much of my adult life searching to recapture.

I remember wandering through people’s yards to lie in the middle of the road and look at the sky and dream of strange things. When Google Maps was first invented, I started having all these adventures with my friends trying to go find these secret fields and bunkers we had no idea existed. There are so many mysteries, like the remains of WWII armament peppering the forests, just waiting to be understood in their nightmarish historical totality.

I remember the house boaters in Blakely Harbor coming ashore to build things for people, and there was one guy in particular that I was obsessed with named Captain Jack. He would tell stories about making graffiti with a black light-sensitive ink so you could only see it using a forensic kit. He would scuba dive in the harbor and build stone homes for octopi, and he was just totally unpretentious, like a DIY Jacques Cousteau.

As a kid, you’re really sensitive to how adults treat you and the ones that think they’re important and talk to you like they’re talking to a dog are insufferable — but Jack was the opposite of that. I wonder what he’s up to now. I wish there were more Jacks in this world.

I think at the time my mom did a good job fighting the temptation to become a helicopter parent and allowed both space and time for me to find myself — she was outdoorsy and active when I was little, and really pushed me to have a relationship with nature and see beauty in the small strange things the world leaves abandoned. We spent a lot of time together walking the beaches and gathering “treasures.”

That type of foraging is really the exact same thing you do when researching a project. My dad was someone who always championed the art spirit in our house. He’s got this effervescent sense of humor and joie de vivre that lights up dinner parties. I remember being a kid, and he’d get livid with elation and I’d end up feeling really empowered to wear a leotard and camo jacket and cowboy hat and jump up on the table and rock out in my own way. I still do things like that when I’m in need of inspiration. Since retiring from a commercial environment, my dad has really developed into a pretty funny artist. For a period when I was in college he would go to Ace Hardware every day, buy a bag of cement and build something that was one bag of cement in size. I got a lot of emails at that time signed, “Love, CEMENT MAN.”

BIR: How’s it feel to have a movie playing at Cannes?

SK: It’s completely overwhelming and delightful. I’m trying to stay grounded and take hikes and read and reflect and make smart decisions, because suddenly there are people in glass towers with hands covered in rings asking what’s next.

There’s a lot of class politics to Cannes that you have to learn to navigate and respect. You hear about Americans going to France with the wrong idea and having their films booed or their badges demoted (there’s a whole colored badge system to determine what you have access to that’s reviewed on a yearly basis).

But, nonetheless, I am very thankful for this opportunity, it’s a huge accelerant toward getting to make a first feature and really just a tremendous honor.

I hold the critics at Cannes in high esteem because they seem to care deeply about art. There was some contention over which cut we were going to screen because there have been many different versions of “Möbius” and their whole jury got involved and wrote this amazing page-long email that essentially said they respect the artist’s vision above all else. How cool is that?

BIR: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new project already?

SK: Friends and acquaintances from all over the country have been championing these regional film scenes that are making waves in the larger world of cinema. Benh Zeitlin moved down to Louisiana after school and rallied a troupe of artists from all over the country to make “Beasts of the Southern Wild” right in the middle of the Shell oil fiasco. I have friends in Miami that produce films under the name BORSCHT — they’ve had a lot of success getting Miami taken seriously in the larger film world and its allowed them to employ so many young artists. I think like one-third of the shorts being programmed at Sundance are now coming from Miami.

I’m inspired by these guys and interested in the unseen mythos of the Pacific Northwest. So far, Washington has largely been exploited as a backdrop for LA/NY-produced genre fiction. But, to me, the Pacific Northwest is a real hot bed of DIY ecological visionaries and incredibly physically brave people.

My production company, Lion Attack Motion Pictures, is really oriented toward this end. I think there’s tremendous potential for films shot in Washington, I just wish the government would sanction some tax breaks.

We shot “Möbius” in Toronto (faking it for Oregon) in part because it was just way cheaper. Film incentives in Washington would change the culture overnight in such a positive way — there’d be artists traveling from all over the world to come work here and enrich the culture. Besides, it is just so good for business. Without it, everyone goes to Canada.

Because of Cannes I’m getting fast-tracked into their feature development program. The project I’m working on via that is a sort of French-inspired Pacific Northwest aviation, sci-fi adventure film about DIY female eco-visionaries inventing a post-oil airplane amid a dying world.

The idea came in 2010 while building the sailboat that appears in “In Search of the Miraculous.”

A local inventor on Bainbridge kept showing up to my work site and teaching me these subtleties to working with wood in the right ways.

We got really close and just had so much in common and he started showing me this truly inspired work that scientists in France are doing right now with wind.

Photo courtesy of Sam Kuhn | Sam Kuhn, director of “Möbius” and former Bainbridge Island resident.

Photo courtesy of Sam Kuhn | Sam Kuhn, director of “Möbius” and former Bainbridge Island resident.