C&A: Failure is an Option / by Samuel B. Prime

Back in May 2015, I began a series on this site entitled CANDID & ANONYMOUS where in each installment I candidly recorded a video of an effectively anonymous person in Los Angeles. I did this with my iPhone 5s because one of its miraculous features is to render the filmmaker (or video taker) invisible. Upon its completion, each video was thoughtfully assigned to an artist, filmmaker, or storyteller whom I asked to write to the video as if it were a prompt; in other words, to use each video as a creative precipice from which to take a big leap of faith. Each video was assigned a number, a name, and the knowledge that it was set in Los Angeles. Otherwise, there was a purposeful absence of context, instead relying on the imagination of the person tasked with creating that context. The restrictions were few - 250 words (later expanded to 500 words) or less, the response could take any form - prose, poetry, essay, screenplay, etc. - with a loose deadline. While initial response was enthusiastic, after months of unanswered e-mails and occasionally vulgar confrontations, it is clear: this project was a failure.

I believe that to film something - to choose to show it - is an act of love. CANDID & ANONYMOUS was originally conceived as a clandestine love affair between myself as the filmmaker and random strangers as the unconscious subjects based on a single factor that united us: Los Angeles. There is no individual narrative to each respective video, but rather a collective narrative formed by the whole. The constant in each video, although each portrays a different person (or in some cases people), is that while there is no direct interaction, planning, or staging of the recorded event, both C and A breathe the same air, see the same sights, hear the same sounds, smell the same smells, and exist in the same place and time as one another. Together, we experience a shared moment - and, because of C&A, a moment that is in some way captured or preserved. C&A is nothing more than my own reality.

Unfortunately, few whom I approached to participate in this project saw what I saw. To some extent, that was part of the experiment. I wanted to know what other artists, filmmakers, and storytellers would glean from something fragmentary, just a few seconds of something - or someone - I saw on a day in Los Angeles. My hope was that these creative people would embrace an opportunity to discover a story within each prompt or to make sense of videos in a way that would result in art. And while I contributed a poem to the first entry and Henry Hughes wrote another for the second, the series never went beyond two entries. Instead, one of either two things happened: 1) I never heard from the artist, filmmaker, or storyteller again or 2) the artist, filmmaker, or storyteller saw their video not as an act of love, but of hate: cruel depictions of folks who "probably did not want to be photographed," who "appeared diseased or disenfranchised," and about which the filmmakers just did not feel "comfortable" writing.

In an earlier post - the only other C&A entry - entitled TAKEN WITHOUT PERMISSION, filmmaker Ian Clark and I openly discussed his negative reaction to Video #5: The Rubber Band Man, since removed from the C&A project. In a piece that Ian wrote (but that won't be published in full) he said: "I suspect that the intent is not venomous, but feel strongly that this is an exploitative act; politics concerning class, race, and the right to privacy all come brimming to the surface." In our ensuing conversation, we attempted to negotiate our separate feelings about the video in question and the series as a whole. What made Video #5 an act of "exploitation?" Was it that the subject had been photographed without consent or was it that the subject appeared forlorn, in his own world, and maybe even a little bit lonely? Since the modus operandi of each video was the same, were they equally exploitative? I believe that, yes, each is as exploitative as the next. Nobody asked to be photographed. Each was captured in their element, doing whatever they were doing between start and stop. Either all of them qualify or none qualify.

Yet another filmmaker - who I assume would prefer anonymity - reached out and asked for a different video. Like Clark, he assumed suffering on the part of the subject, this made him uncomfortable and, in turn, unwilling to contribute. While I have immense professional respect for both Ian Clark and the other filmmaker in question, to assume suffering upon a contextless, anonymous subject is the clearest form of exploitation at work. To deny them their humanity by refusing to write about them, even - and especially - if they are in some way suffering is to prefer happy endings or narratives without complexity. The late German filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief faced similar criticism with his television series and accompanying documentary feature Freakstars 3000, a parody of American Idol employing the mentally-handicapped.* Most people prefer not to acknowledge reality than grapple with it head-on. Even though the nature of C&A was deliberately open-ended within its minimal restrictions, when faced with a potentially controversial subject, the artist, filmmaker, or storyteller could see only that and nothing else. What's more: the participants either chose to criticize the filmmaking act or abandon the project altogether.

I am disappointed by the result, but not surprised. Even people whom I have known for years let already loose deadlines slip by for days, weeks, and months without a word. Eventually, long after the project had stalled, I had to admit to myself that the unending stream of one-sided follow-up e-mails was just making me depressed. My hope was that people would view each video entirely on its own terms and from there build a fiction or non-fiction around it. My hope was that the viewer might even project themselves into the role of the filmmaker. After all, each video is silently captured and observed. Most of all, I hoped that the love would shine through in that each video warranted an open, honest, and sensitive approach distanced from the how and why of its making.

C&A was a failure. Love was not apparent. Maybe the idea was flawed from the outset. I can never be certain. However, I can present in full all ten entries in the CANDID & ANONYMOUS series with what hope remains that seen together they form an idiosyncratic portrait of Los Angeles. To really love a thing, you have to love all of it.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon

* I admit that in the case of Christoph Schlingensief, as well as Chris Marker and Les Blank - with whom the origins of this project lie - the key difference is that their cameras and/or approach did not allow for candidness.