Looking for dialogue, not deals Rob Tregenza's movies aren't supposed to make immediate narrative sense

CATCHING UP WITH ... ROB TREGENZA

viewers are supposed to work at interpreting them.

September 27, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Rob Tregenza isn't considered a "typical" filmmaker. He isn't pining for a deal with Miramax, nor is he consumed with hitting it big in any commercial sense.

Tregenza -- and a handful of like-minded directors -- seeks to use film as an art form. In his hands, celluloid is a canvas on which he can explore abstraction, experiment with storytelling and play with the conventional "grammar" of the medium, all the while challenging viewers to create their own interpretations of the work.

Tregenza has been making experimental films out of his Sykesville studio for 20 years. The Kansas native earned his Ph.D. in theater arts from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1982. His three feature-length films are: "Talking to Strangers" (1988), "The Arc" (1991) and "Inside/Out," which made its world premiere this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

By far the best-received of his movies, "Inside/Out" features an ensemble cast portraying mental patients, hospital volunteers and an Episcopal priest, all of whom are exploring what it means to be inside or outside of society's institutions. "Inside/Out" opened for a weeklong run at the Charles on Friday.

I recently spent an afternoon with Tregenza and his wife and producer, J.K. Eareckson, on the terrace of their 18th-century farmhouse, hard by Patapsco State Park. (The couple's home also serves as the headquarters for Baltimore Film Factory, where they produce feature films, advertisements and industrial films for corporations, and Cinema Parallel, a distribution company for foreign and American art films.)

To the occasional accompaniment of the couple's three German shepherds and three horses, we discussed the state and future of art films and the irony of being "hot" when heat couldn't matter less.

When I was reading the production information about "Inside/Out," there were things in the synopsis of the plot that surprised me. In fact, much of the plot was obscure for me.

A lot of the things you expect to see in a film about people in a mental hospital are not in the movie. All the scenes you'd expect from "A Cuckoo's Nest" or one of those kind of films are just not there. Part of the narrative's displaced, it's outside of that. So you have to make the connections. You're never in a position where you can say, "I understand what this part of the story's exactly about." It's like when you wake up from a dream, you have a sense of narrative, but you don't really have a way of explaining exactly everything that happened. It's sort of playing with a different kind of narrative, where the viewer ends up having to do a lot more work.

How would you prepare audiences to see your films?

I think the first thing is not to think you can understand everything. One of the things that narrative has done is, it's made everything appear, at least initially, to be understandable. So you go into a theater assuming that I can understand a movie, that I can understand everything that's here, that everything is explained. And it's not. There's a lot of things going on that you don't know what the heck's going on. But if I can follow the sense of causal progression, then I feel safe. I feel like it's under control, I'm under control. So I like to suggest that people go into a theater and realize that it can be a lot of fun because you can go in without a safety net.

Basically you're creating meaning, without it having to be the meaning I intended specifically or the meaning the writer intended. So I think playfulness is important.

It's no different than if I go to a museum and see a painting. If I understand everything in that painting the first time I see it, then I'm going to walk past it like I would walk past a billboard on Charles Street. It's to be consumed immediately in one viewing. So why go back? But a painting's not supposed to do that. A painting's supposed to resonate with enough different possible interpretations and meanings that I can stand in front of it for an hour and be filled partially and come back the next day, or come back in six months, and stand there for longer. There's a sense of companionship, a sense of dwelling with the thing, but not a sense that you can completely possess it. If you feel that you can completely possess a work of art then it's obviously ceased to have any power or any reason for you. The dialogue's over.

As an unapologetic maker of art films, do you feel embattled?

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