The following piece was written to accompany Carey Burtt's retrospective at Anthology Film Archives earlier this year.
“The inner voice of calm? All I hear is screaming”
“My films are very personal. All of them are a form of therapy and reflect my state of mind at the time of inception - or address an issue that obsesses me. I have spent a lot of time in isolation - so fear of people and feelings of alienation have been strong for me throughout my life. I often make films about what I am most afraid of.”
– Carey Burtt
Filmmaker Carey Burtt has been producing works since the late seventies, and has been exhibiting on the underground film festival scene since the early nineties. He divides his films between those that emerge from the right and left sides of his brain. Movies that he describes as left-brain works, his “lecture films” such as Mind Control Made Easy and How Not To Be Stupid, draw on intellectual fascinations and meticulous personal research. In contrast right-brain films like The Death of Sex and Blood And Fire are not scripted but emerge from what he refers to as numerous “scattered unanalyzed or interpreted images that arrive as ‘daydreams’.” Unlike the lecture films these right-side works are produced through more instinctive and intuitive working methods.
Across both of these approaches to filmmaking Burtt’s shorts address similar themes relating to processes of personal disconnection and the near-impossibility of authentic communication, his work repeatedly emphasising the cold distance between the films’ protagonists and the world they inhabit. These films do not draw on well-worn romanticised existential notions of the outsider but instead on an exploration of the psychological separation of the character from the social sphere. Moving from stories of humiliated masculinity in Hey Mister You’re In The Girl’s Room, through to abject criminality in The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase to the subject increasingly alienated from his own existence in Dream of a Ridiculous Man, explorations of social ostracism, exclusion and alienated madness re-occur throughout Burtt’s work.
In many of these films the detachment of the subject is emphasised via the mise en scene, and characters may appear as dolls or toys or are wrapped in layers of polythene or are otherwise distanced from the world around them. Communication is repeatedly rendered as all but impossible with protagonists often silent, their voices replaced with disconcertingly calm, and sometimes electronically manipulated, voiceovers that drive the narrative. These further serve to separate the participants from their own experiences. When protagonists do speak they often struggle to both understand others and be understood themselves, as the titular lead in Helping: With Travis discovers when his simple urge to talk and help people has disastrous results.
This distance from others becomes a separation from the physical self in The Death of Sex and The Dissociative Disorder Movie in which the assault on the body becomes the only way in which the subjects can feel connected. Dealt with in predominantly clinical terms in The Dissociative Disorder Movie, which focuses on self-harm. In The Death of Sex this assault on the body is realised in images of castration and a blade-sprouting vagina, a re-working of the vagina dentate.
In contrast, Burtt’s “lecture films” focus on the group in relation to psychology. Stylistically Mind Control Made Easy (Or How To Become A Cult Leader) resembles a classic high school educational film with its didactic narration and happy subjects who radiate a relentlessly cheery disposition, while How Not To Be Stupid (A Guide To Critical Thinking) plays like a low-rent self improvement video or political campaign fundraiser with its use of talking heads edited into readily digestible sound bites. These two films explore the way in which thought processes are constructed and can be manipulated, positioning the individual into the group through processes in which they lose their ability to think and are unable to communicate beyond taking on rote positions that depend on the certainty of self-confidence rather than critical analysis. In contrast to the outsiders that appear in Burtt’s work, the community and mass emerge as easily led, willing to be controlled, readily manipulated and even brainwashed in these films. From the desire to fit-in to a group to the way in which experiences and information are constructed and interpreted through pre-established thought processes, all become sources of fascination for the director.
Although Carey Burtt is not a ‘magickal filmmaker’ and his work is not engaged with any particular magickal philosophy there are hints at the occult world in his works Through A Gash Darkly and Blood And Fire. “I’m drawn to things that scare me, I suppose, in order to come to an understanding with it and demystify it and somehow diffuse its power over me or to adopt its power by ‘hiding’ behind it. So the occult is something I’ve always been drawn to,” he states. Primarily Burtt is fascinated by the evocative potential of the occult as a form of aesthetic power, “I’ve not felt safe in the world for much of my life growing up and have mostly seen the world as threatening and brutal and so I reflect back that fear with the tools that classically frighten people; the devil, the occult and death.” However, he also admits to an interest in chaos magick and perceives it as allied to a wider sense of self-improvement.
The image of the occultist is also that of the outsider, yet simultaneously, ritual offers the possibility of an action that is both personal yet also a form of communication. In Burtt’s film Blood And Fire the processes of ritual and movement in which individuals engage also sees them looking at the camera / eye / audience, effectively performing for the audience. The layers of material and masks are still at play, but as the rituals progress so these become tools, devices to be momentarily removed, played with and removed. In this way communication emerges via the ecstatic moments of ritual.
While Burtt’s films share a fascination with the bleak aspects of humanity and paint an often-grotesque image of the lonely horror of human experience they also encourage laughter. There is a pitch-black humour at play that draws in part from the humour of the Cinema of Transgression, and films such as The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase cause shocked laughter amongst audiences, not despite the theme but because of the director’s handling of the subject matter.
Burtt’s work is utterly absorbed in his own processes and obsessions it is immersed in his own experiences and research, and with its emphasis on the outsider creates the effect of some vast unsettling pseudo-biography. His own cameos in his work further contribute to this aspect; it is the director who plummets from the rooftop in Helping: With Travis and who is smeared with blood in Blood And Fire. Yet, while the director says he has “struggled with clinical depression and amateur paranoia my whole life” these films are not purely autobiographical, but rather they play on the common shared anxieties of loneliness, an inability to be understood and personal failure.
Carey Burtt’s short films explore the psychology of the isolated individual and of the masses. Presenting films in which protagonists are savagely dislocated from society and in which the group or mass become brainwashed, there seems little hope for humanity in here. Yet despite this, the possibility of communication can still exist through moments of ritual and laughter, both of which play at the margins of Burtt’s work.
Hitchhike (super 8, 1979)
A teenager gets a ride from a scary beer-swilling guy. Plays like a cross between grindhouse exploitation and a no-budget interpretation of the rootless, mobile serial killer, an image that would haunt the thrillers and horror movies of the coming decade. Shot when Burtt was 17, the film won The Young Author Award at Maine Student Film Festival.
Hey Mister You’re In The Girls’ Room (16mm, 1991)
A platinum-blonde girl harasses a guy as he tries to take a piss “nice pants loser, you must be from Europe” she whines. Mental confusion explodes in feral barks and the eruption of the physical body, all driven by a soundtrack that moves from rhythmic pulses to overwhelming and disjointed de-tuned instrumentation.
The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase (16mm, 1998)
A pitch-black comedy version of the story of the Vampire of Sacramento made all the more menacing by its use of dolls rather than actors. The primitive visual style, excessive rudimentary effects, blood splattered toys and handwritten intertitles are accompanied by a deep, distorted voice that adds a strangely unsettling malevolence to the action which plays some monstrous children’s show.
The Death of Sex (16mm, 1998)
Semi-clad women, oblique hints at seemingly arcane rituals, nipple flowers and the kind of sex/death images straight from the analyst’s couch combine with a dizzying soundtrack that at times sounds like a million angry bees bursting through the id.
Mind Control Made Easy (Or How To Become A Cult Leader) (16mm, 1999)
Resembling an early 1970s high school educational movie as relentlessly contented (if not exactly happy) cultists spout neat, clipped dialogue to camera while the narrator explains to the viewers exactly how to create their own cult.
Through A Gash Darkly (mini DV & 16mm, 2006)
Burtt’s most overtly experimental work, combining written texts, distorted narration and a trio of images, with blink-and-you-miss-them shots cutting in at key moments. There’s a sense in this work that Burtt is applying some of the same manipulative techniques learned while researching his previous work as cult leaders and re-imagined footage from The Death of Sex combine with sex footage and distorted faces.
Dream of a Ridiculous Man (HDV & 16mm, 2010)
Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky this film plays with the image of the outsider, moving increasingly into a world divorced from reality.
The Dissociative Disorder Movie (HDV & 16mm, 2010)
Burtt’s most disturbing and personal movie, a harrowing journey into a fragmented mind, abuse and self-abuse, the escape into the id and the return to the body through self-harm.
How Not To Be Stupid (A Guide To Critical Thinking) (mini DV, 2010)
Constructed like a self-actualising empowerment seminar, Burtt explores the ways in which thought processes are constructed and affect peoples’ perceptions and worldview.
Blood And Fire (HDV, 2011)
Rhythmic and fragmented, the closest to direct communication that Burtt allows is in the process of magickal rituals, chaotic and disjointed, bloodied and erotic, through these a moment of possibility emerges.
Helping: With Travis (HDV, 2011)
One man’s increasingly overzealous quest to help the world.