Duane Hopkins
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Duane Hopkins

Sunday, Duane Hopkins. Image courtesy of the artist

Duane Hopkins, Sunday. Image courtesy of the artist

Duane Hopkins, director of the acclaimed feature Better Things, talks to APEngine about Sunday, a new series of installation works drawing on material from a short film he made seven years ago.

Sunday has been shown at Baltic, Gateshead, the Open Eye Galley in Liverpool as part of the AND Festival.  It shows at Cream International Festival for Arts and Media, Yokohama, Japan,  throughout November 2009.

To go back to the beginning – you were born and brought up in the Cotswolds, and then you go to art school in London. Was that a conscious decision to get away from the rural to the city?

I was aware quite young that I wanted to leave, 14, something like that – I can remember thinking that I wanted to go and live in a city. That I didn’t like the rural environment. It was a bit boring, and I wanted to go somewhere that was more exciting.  I always knew that as soon as I had the opportunity that I would go.
And that’s quite a lot to do with why I got involved with art. The kids I hung around with at school all left with the same lack of qualifications and the same kind of lack of idea of what we really wanted to do. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to go and do art.

And then you moved from painting to photography and then to film – and now, where you’re making work for the gallery. Is there is difference in the languages – between film and the gallery?

I think they’re also similar and related. You have an idea and then you think, where’s the correct place – where’s the correct context for this idea? Where is it going to live and breathe best? A cinema environment.. a gallery environment. You make those sorts of decisions first of all.

It’s not so much that there’s different language between talking to someone who’s involved in the film world than someone who’s in the art world. It’s more about the individual nature of the idea itself, and so long as you’ve chosen the correct context and the correct venue of where you want the work to go, and that kind of leads the conversation.

With my films Field, Love Me, and definitely with Better Things – these are pieces that needed to exist in the cinema. They were essentially stories. And even though something like Better Things is, in a way, looking at the form of cinema as much as it is telling an individual story itself, it really needed to be set there. Whereas Sunday needed the more open space of the gallery.

With Sunday you’re stripping a lot of stuff. There’s narrative in those single images. Sort of distilling?

Absolutely. I think a lot times with a piece of cinema it’s expected that you have quite a straight forward kind of narrative. I think I’m interested in narrative, in story, but I’m quite often interested in the narrative and story that comes through the form and the film making itself.

I found with Better Things that I would have to have sometimes slightly more narrative than what I wanted to put in the actual film, so the idea of bringing work into a gallery was to strip away almost everything, to be left with image and sound and how those two interact.

Back to the rural thing – which is sort of the subject of your work, or at least where it’s sited. You’ve talked about that being a subject area that hasn’t been explored in British Cinema particularly? Akenfield and Polanski’s Tess spring to mind, and Bill Douglas or Terence Davis.  But are there other reference points for you?

The biggest for me in terms of Britishness, rather than the rural element, is Alan Clarke. I remember when I was 14 or something and watching TV late at night and all of a sudden one of his films comes on and just completely blows me away. Because up until that point cinema was was just escapism. It wasn’t anything to do with my life, what I saw, any of my friends, anything like that.

And all of a sudden I’m seeing these characters on screen – the guys remind me of the guys that my older sister is going out with – things like that. All of a sudden there are all of these elements which I totally recognise.  And an England on screen which I can believe in. Not just from the naturalism of the performances but down to its actual texture. That was the first time that I realised film could be something else.  

Even if you know the trilogy of films that he’s most well known for – Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm.  Those are absolutely incredible pieces, but for me it’s Christine and Elephant. Christine seemed to have this element of almost anti narrative, though there’s very much a story there. You’re being told something – he’s revealing something about this estate and these kids and what they’re like.

His filmmaking has almost no narrative, but it’s never boring; there’s something else going on underneath. He wasn’t exploiting a situation to then tell something dramatic; he’s using sound and image to reveal something. And you just understand the pace of life of these characters.

And Elephant is this incredible meeting point between film and art.

And I think there are similarities with your work – the subject matter’s different but there’s sense that dialogue isn’t the appropriate way to tell the story.

You’re trying to get to something which is completely unexplainable. The reason that you put it into a film – the reason that you relate to these cinematographic moments – isn’t because of the words that are being said. It’s because of the dynamic that exists in between the cut – and the kind of the information that exists there. I find that that’s more what I relate to more than the actual images that I’m seeing. It’s to do with how these things are put together.

Is is also that you come from photography – which is where people like Larry Clark or Nan Goldin have made those images of adolescence – which are disturbing to us as adults I think. Are they disturbing to you?

I don’t find them necessary disturbing. I’m not putting down something which is documentary – Larry Clark and Nan Goldin are more documentary. What I’m trying to do is to try and subvert certain elements and make it a little more poetic, a little more lyrical. I’m after an atmosphere, and it may be that the atmosphere is a touch disturbing.  

What I’m after really is he psychology and the interior of the character and trying to put that on screen. But I wouldn’t say that I find it particularly disturbing. Obviously what they do in Field could be seen as an evil act, but it can also be seen as an act which may then create a different consciousness which then may create a more concrete set of morals.

But there’s a tension that’s inherent in adolescence…

Because you’re discovering yourself and you’re discovering yourself so, so quickly. The idea of first love – how it can happen very quickly, you’ve gone from being one person to being this other person and you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. You know you’re forever open to something else. But it is also a very violent time, because you’re discovering all these new things. And the chances are you will be rejected or you will reject someone. So you’ll either find this new ability for cruelty, to be cruel to someone else or for them to be cruel to you.

I think there’s an erotic charge there as well, which is almost explicit in Sunday – we are gazing at adolescent faces.

I think all of my work has a sensual element to it. That’s partly why I work with non actors. I’m not after an idea of naturalism; instead, there’s something which I find fascinating about faces, their bodies, their movements – about all the things that make them a real person. Within themselves is all of their experiences, all the things that they’ve been through. And I want to record that – to use the camera like a microscope. In a way I want to interrogate them.

Sunday is that idea made explicit. And in the way, with doubling the image, that I have the characters looking at themselves or ignoring themselves. You have a different kind of psychological complexity which keeps you looking at the image, which unlocks all of the other things.

Sunday. Image courtesy of the artist

Duane Hopkins, Sunday. Image courtesy of the artist

In that doubling you’re explicitly saying that there are dualities and oppositions and things within this image of a person.

That’s what I found interesting, and that’s when it starts to become hard to explain why you’re doing it, because you’re always after making an image which just feels intuitively correct.  

It’s exactly the same when you’re making the image as when you’re editing. For some reason you’ll just put something together, or with an image, you start to film it. For some reason – philosophically, psychologically, aesthetically – it holds itself. It feels solid like a table; it can take its own weight and it’s also open. You can disappear into it and see other things within it.

I was interested in how you’re showing the double image but technology now allows you to present it not as a split screen – you have mirror images but there’s no divide line – they are inhabiting the same space.

It was very important to do that. We’ve watched the pieces on separate screens, and they still work but in a slightly different way. What you lose is the landscape.

What I often like in films is when I see a landscape which looks almost unreal. As though you’re going to some fantasy place; often with the colour grading of my films I do that – try and find a place between what looks realistic, and what you can accept as being something that you would actually, but also something which is slightly rearranged, off balance.

With Better Things I played around quite a bit with special effects on certain shots. Changing things just so that they look odd, that you wouldn’t necessarily notice unless it was pointed out.

When I started flipping and mirroring the images, that’s what I liked – I was seeing these landscapes, where I recognised the clouds, the colours, all these other things as real.  But it’s impossible for a tree to grow like that. It’s impossible for the clouds to actually meet and make that kind of prism or make that kind of kaleidoscopic effect.  So immediately that opens you out into a different kind of space. I want to open the viewer up to thinking philosophically and psychologically about the image.

You’ve previously made a distinction between theme and story, and stripping away story so that’s what’s left is theme. Is it that the more theme there’s left, the more space there is for the audience to step in?

I very much believe that. As soon as you have too much story you’re telling the audience how to react to everything that they’re seeing. I’m interested in things being as open as possible. Some writers write characters, so the character will always be individual and it will be about that single person.  I tend to write characters which become almost like cyphers.  So if I have a character in my film who is 16 years old, when I watch the film back after I’ve edited it, it’s not as though I’m looking at that single character. The character just seems to be about adolescence or seems to be about being a 16 year old.  

It’s the same in Better Things with the older characters – really just the representation of old age. It’s something which just happens; I operate more on a thematic level than I do on a story level. Whenever I get into the editing room, or when I’m directing someone on set, I’m always trying to strip away the elements which make them individual. Instead,  I’m trying to find this unified thing which discusses what they are and what I want them to represent.

So it’s about something universal?

This is why I try not to be specific about where the work is set. A lot of stuff that’s been written about Better Things makes an issue about it being about the Cotswolds. And the Cotswolds is a very beautiful idyllic area, and then this is like, the underbelly or the separate portrait of it. I think it’s a valid reading of it but it’s not really my aim. It was simply about any rural area. It could be France, Germany, England.

The subjects of Sunday are presented in footage that you shot what seven years ago.  Have those – then – 14 year old boys seen it?

When we first showed Sunday at Baltic they were invited, but of course, they have their own lives, they’re 21 now.


Duane Hopkins, Sunday. Image courtesy of the artist

In one of the works in Sunday there’s a triple image of one of the boys – it would wrong to call it a triple screen work.  It’s a single screen with three images. And you add The Stranglers’ Strange Little Girl. You’re playing with that image – playing that song over an image of someone who’s not a girl.

In a way it’s the first element of editing. Whenever you have a title, the title must feel good to say. And either like a title which is very apparent and very obvious and very straight forward. Or I like a title which is a juxtaposition. Better Things is a film which is very hard and austere.

I’d seen Field so I knew it was a boy, but seeing that image in Sunday, there’s an androgyny about him…it’s very playful.

With Sunday I felt I could be more playful, in terms of what I was doing with the image and the sound. And the titles and things like this. I could be more open. In all my works there are elements of humour. I don’t think there’s any jokes in Bresson – no laughs in Bresson!

There’s that one piece in Sunday which is unlike the others – using the end of a film reel, with those red flashes.

I like the image and I like that loop. Watching this face appear and then disappear. I’ve always loved how when you turn the camera off you have the spark of colours.  I’ve always wanted to use that in the piece.
But it’s also to do with nostalgia. It’s filmed and most things that you see now are digital.  So already it feels old – the idea of this flickering frame. And the reason I put that in that space, and had it on a monitor, is because it acted as a counter balance to the other images which are in Strange Little Girl.  

In Strange Little Girl you have this song which feels nostalgic. And you have images which also feel nostalgic, and the texture for it to look nostalgic.

It’s not just nostalgia though is it?  It’s memory and the act of recording and, with adolescence, a metaphor for not being able to hold something or fully grasp something. It’s an image…

..that it feels fragile?

The film and the image feel fragile and hard to reach.

I think these are things that I feel about it but I can’t really verbalise it.

Well you don’t have to, do you, because you’ve made the work.


Monday, October 26, 2009 | Tagged with , , , , , ,

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