A Poet Must Never Avert His Gaze

RVA filmmaker Kevin Gallagher dishes on old video-rental stores, the late poet Larry Levis, & his recent time at Werner Herzog‘s Rogue Film School.

What’s your earliest movie memory?

Like a lot of folks of my generation, my first movie memory was actually in the form of television. We couldn’t afford a television until I was 4 or 5, and my grandfather drove down from NY to bring us a TV. We were living in a trailer out in the country, so this was huge. We finally had this connection to the broader world. I certainly recall going to the theatre when I was younger and what struck me was the spectacle. It was like any big public place, full of the bustle of people. I was too captivated by the stories to be overwhelmed, but all the people in one place made an impression. I remember more distinctly when we got our VCR. There was this cool, funky video store in the nearby town. They had a model of Superman bursting out of the front wall and a life size Leatherface cutout hidden behind a dark corner that really freaked me out. Those places are almost all gone now. It wasn’t as sophisticated and grandiose as the old movie palaces but they do represent a certain time in film viewing.

What pushed you from just watching films to making them?

I was a political science major in college. The election of 2000 killed my desire to spend the rest of my life studying bullshit. Film school seemed like a better idea.

You participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School over the summer.
How did this all go down?

It was great. I was looking for a means to send a film I had made to Herzog and in my searches came across the Rouge Film School. The way you applied was to send in a film and write Herzog a letter. They claimed he saw every film for whomever was accepted so I figured if I got in I would know he saw it. Initially I had decided that it was too pricey so that even if I got in I wouldn’t go but once I was accepted and knew that I had the opportunity to spend 4 days with Herzog – I had to go.

He was brilliant. In some ways Herzog is one of the great bullshitters. He is like a carnival barker but so full in his convictions. He loves spectacle but he loves it for the raw humanness of it. His characters can be so grotesque and over the top but their humanness is all the more visible for it. This kind of attitude comes through in how he approaches people. He was so kind and approachable but in a moment could turn on all his bravado and cast down an opposing opinion. Herzog citing my film in discussion and praising it was one of my most affirming moments as a filmmaker. I have never been one for idolatry but it is not often that one garners the praise of one of their heroes, particularly one that so rarely suffers fools.

I really am not sure how to describe the experience. It must be like what a bull feels in the ring. The bull fighter is so beautiful and dangerous. Herzog can be that way; I don’t know if I ever want to see him again.

How has the experience affected your direction as a filmmaker?

I had always tried to avoid directing when making a documentary. Herzog reminded us that a documentary is a fiction and that it was our fiction and we need to create as much truth out of the facts as we determine to be necessary. I have small notebook full of quotes from the time and one of my favorites of his is, “What I see, I immediately start to shape.” Filmmakers are not fact checkers.

Favorite Herzog film?

Encounters at the End of the World. Mostly I have favorite Herzog film moments, like the time lapse scenery shots from Heart of Glass or the choir of girls in Cobra Verde; Kinski looks like a flummoxed devil as he stalks through the frame. Messner’s soliloquy at the end of The Dark Glow of the Mountains is riveting. Afterwards, he and Herzog discuss walking to the end of the world and finding their death there. This is a meeting I would love to attend.

You teach in the Kinetic Imaging Department in the School of the Arts at VCU.
How does it feel to mold minds?

As bread molds in the cupboard, I mold minds.

What gets/keeps you inspired?

My wife Holly is the one who really got me to start and keeps me making things. I really just went to art school to impress a girl (it worked).

At present, are your films available online?

Only the stuff I can’t keep under wraps. There is a trailer out for the film I am working on now about the late poet Larry Levis. Michele Poulos is directing and I am shooting. Levis was brilliant. I hope that this film will help get his name out to the broader public. Herzog said something that makes me think of Levis: “A poet must never avert [his] gaze.” They are not dissimilar. There is a masculinity and a sense of wonder in both of their work. I live at the confluence; I am not a river. Go read Winter Stars if you want to discover some of his work.

[The trailer for the Levis documentary can be found here.]

What’s next for you, project-wise?

The Levis film will take another year, in the mean time I am writing and keeping my gaze unaverted.

Last movie you watched?

Whatever was at the Byrd. I watch the worst films there and always have a great time.

Favorite RVA restaurant?

Kuba Kuba. Pass the plantains, please.

Most memorable RVA filmgoing moment?

Seeing the Brothers Quay in town a few years ago [during the 10th James River Film Festival in 2003]. The RMIC [now James River Film Society] really knocked it out of the park in getting them here.

Desert Island movie?

An instructional film on how to survive on a desert island with liner notes that fold into a swiss army knife.

Cinematic guilty pleasure?

I have watched every Bring It On. My wife and I have held a Bring-It-On-A-Thon. Want to challenge us in a cheer off? Bring it.

Thanks Kevin!

About Ward Howarth

Ward Howarth is a TV producer and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. He's generally gearing up for what they call "getting down."
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