INTERVIEW: Michael Woods – Enter the Numb Spiral

An introduction to one of America's most visionary filmmakers.

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Experimental filmmaker Michael Woods became aware of the world’s cruelty early on. As a small kid with health problems, he was the target of relentless bullying growing up. The name of his production company, Dissociative Productions, though it has many levels of meaning, came to him when thinking about the effect that overuse of cough syrup had on him as a teenager. A complete break from reality, indeed, which is not very far from his view of our mundane media-saturated culture. No drugs are needed to experience hyperreality, the idea that the mind can no longer distinguish what’s real from what’s fantasy.

Everything Woods has put out so far, and maybe everything that is to come, is part of a vast project called the Numb Spiral. When it’s finished, if it ever is, the Numb Spiral will consist of four feature films (one of which is currently in post-production), several shorts, a web series, a novel, and several parasitic art events. In the spirit of one of his greatest influences, the radical film and video artist Pipilotti Rist, he has declared war on all forms of mass media, especially those elements which create the hypnotic, numbing, ambivalent qualities of hyperreality, where footage of a school shooting and a skin cream commercial have the same drowsy effect on consciousness. “When you talk about being at war with hyperreality,” Woods told me over the phone, “that’s the main function of an avant-garde. One of the biggest beefs that I’ve had with the idea of experimental film culture calling itself avant-garde is that we really haven’t had an avant-garde in experimental film for a long time.”

Woods describes his Numb Spiral project as his “Trojan Horse,” something that he hopes will one day allow him to enter the wider media landscape. “In the end, I want to be able to make work on the scale of [David] Lynch.” To my mind there’s perhaps no better American Lynchian figure in waiting than Michael Woods. His work is political, conscious, vibrant, disturbing, but most importantly, it encourages people to think deeply about the world around them.

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Woods is very much interested in surrealism and situationism. These movements, along with the work of William S. Burroughs inform his collage technique that uses media against itself by repurposing the moving images and sounds that are put out into the world. His work creates the all-too-rare sensation of the shock of the new. Woods’ images and sounds never let the viewer slip into hypnosis. “All of my work has an improvisational element,” he said, “which I then, partially in homage to William S. Burroughs, I take those raw expressions, whether it be from me or the mechanical or digital processes that I apply to the work, and then I start to structure them in a way that I feel communicates the initial intent. It goes through a process where I allow for randomness.”

He’s also very interested in hip-hop in general and the Wu Tang Clan in particular. “For me, Wu Tang symbolizes the way in which you can take a popular construct like rap, and you can suffuse it with so much information. In Wu Tang’s case it’s stories of street life, stories of reality, but also eastern philosophy, but also allusions to the larger zeitgeist. The way in which they’ve created their own semiotics, they literally have changed the language of New York City slang. That, to me, represents a way forward.”

He continues: “I use samples. I’m heavily influenced by RZA, DJ Premier, the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy, all of that. And what’s interesting is that some of the experimental film I love, from Joseph Cornell to Bruce Conner, is in conversation with hip-hop that way. The use of sampling in hip-hop, of course, is different, but at the same time there’s still a semiotic use of sampling.”

Of course, the original footage that Woods shoots is often just as compelling as the images that he repurposes. But when the two are combined, some of his most powerful images result. In Erase them Chicken Bones: A rough Cut Scene from [EXODUS], we watch a shaman and a woman with smeared lipstick moving in strange gyrations as a generic beach scene plays in the background on a green screen that reminds one of the kind of weirdo stuff you might have found on a public access station in the 80’s and 90’s. Footage of bombs and political protests, and we realize just how terrorizing the mundane can become. The phrase “Nothing means nothing” repeats so many times that the words become an abstraction, like the game we played as children when we repeated a word so many times that it started to sound weird and foreign. A beach scene, an artsy public access program, the spectacle of war, all are equal when repeated like the phrase. The hypnosis leads to hyperreality.

Hyperreality, at least according to Wikipedia, is defined as “The inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation.” Heavy stuff, of course. One of the foundational texts of the theory is Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, a text which Michael Woods is intimately familiar with.

Hyperreality isn’t something that we’re headed toward. Instead, it’s where we are right now. Objects and ideas have been replaced by the idea of ideas, the origin of which no longer has any basis in reality. People become disconnected, apathetic, and this leads to inaction in the real world, causing untold amounts of suffering. Cell phone footage of people being shot becomes something that has as much reality as a cartoon. In many ways, it’s only after an artist like Woods deconstructs these images, that we are able to see them for the first time.

Cough syrup fever dreams, a politician blowing his brains out on live TV, porn images that morph into fractals, Mitt Romney, Disney, all blend together in a hellscape of meaningless media overload. This is hyperreality, where any image is just as good as the other.

This is serious stuff, but I don’t mean to imply that Woods is without a sense of humor. Far from it, in many cases, especially his Stuck in the 90’s web series. A parody of nostalgia shows in which various celebrities reminisce about the good ol’ days, as if there were ever really good ol’ days to be had in the first place. Hosted by the Prom Date Fuck and using footage lifted from MTV and CNN and 90’s talk shows where politicians goof off as if they’re regular people, just good ol’ boys who have the power to potentially kill billions of people (the cult of personality as the determining factor in choosing our leaders is far from new), are all violently mashed together to illustrate the media nightmare that we’ve been living in for all of our lives.

In Stuck in the 90’s Episode One: Zac Efron Sex Tape a sad sack producer, the former showrunner of Stuck in the 90’s, stares at a video camera, pleading. “Please keep listening to me.” Now that the show doesn’t exist, he has no voice. He feels that without his show, as meaningless as it was, that he will cease to exist. Because, of course, if you send video out on the Internet and nobody watches it, what’s left when this is the end point for everything? Nothing is valid until it’s digital.

But pop culture isn’t the only front in Woods’ media war. There’s a clear criticism of the nihilism that sometimes, very often, perhaps, exists in the experimental film community. There’s a scene in one of his films where the Prom Date Fuck videotapes himself talking about how he’s going to videotape himself masturbating, then videotape himself watching the video of him masturbating, then make a video of him masturbating to the video of himself watching himself masturbating. An endless loop of nothingness, an aesthetic of absurdity.

And there’s something else, too, that keeps him at odds with much of the experimental film community, but very close in spirit to filmmakers like Daniel Fawcett, Clara Pais, and Fabrizio Federico. “I believe that narrative, or character, or emotional storytelling, is still key to bringing someone into an experience. Bringing someone with no knowledge of the avant-garde or experimental film into the experience.”

No image or sound is sacred, so Woods will gladly, unapologetically, reuse or recycle his own footage. He has what amounts to a remix video called Diz Knee Wurld, where he cuts up footage from his 45-minute short Disney World and various Stuck in the 90’s shows. Probably some other films, too, though those two immediately come to mind.

Dailies from the USA is perhaps his most traditionally-structured film, and for me it was the most affecting. Woods got permission from residents of the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, and he filmed their tent and cardboard homes. He said that his was a “tentative approach.” For a lot of reasons, I’m sure, but I suspect the primary reason was a deep desire to be the least exploitative as possible. Michael is constantly going to the neighborhood to deliver supplies and food to the people. His films are sometimes angry, but it’s a righteous anger. He’s incredibly compassionate.

Dailies from the USA is more meditative, more subdued than most of his other stuff. We need to look at hard reality sometimes. And so we look at these tents and makeshift cardboard homes that people live in with a creeping sense of shame. This is the endpoint of a hyper-real world. This is where voyeurism takes us.

This is America. The mundane has already won, and apathy has taken us to unprecedented levels of police and military power, a power which is used used primarily against the most vulnerable among us. The people who are on the front lines of the fight. The people who look cops in the eye, silently saying, “You can take everything else, but you won’t take my dignity.”

A woman awakes from a dissociative state, probably related to drugs. She starts to realize the lie of her life, and that she’s wasted so much of it. She screams, “It can’t all be meaningless,” but maybe it is. This is A Day in a Place, an excerpt from a larger Numb Spiral film, and it’s one of the most affecting “fictional” scenes in Michael Woods’ oeuvre. A look at the shock of reality. The question becomes, what to do now? “I look at Bergman,” Woods says, “I look at Lynch, Jodorowsky, Maya Deren. With their work, what they’re constantly doing is positing, in the film itself, two different forms of consciousness that are constantly oscillating back and forth.”

Indeed. This is as good as any summation of Woods’ work. But is there an endgame? Says Woods, “What you’re capable of doing is forcing the spectator into a position of realizing their role as a spectator to the spectacle. My work is certainly painful. I’ve been told my work is torture, some people find it exuberant catharsis. But, in the end, what I need to happen, regardless of somebody liking the work, is that when they leave the experience, it forces them into a tumult of thought that will hopefully allow them to arrive back at a solid reality.”

And reality waits for us.