On view at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, “Persol Magnificent Obsessions: 30 stories of craftsmanship in film” displays through documents, media and artifacts the obsessive, creative process that filmmakers go through as a means to crystallize their vision. The 2012 installment presents the stories of Todd Haynes, director of Far From Heaven; costume designer Arianne Phillips from Madonna’s film W.E.; actor-director Ed Harris for his work in the biopic Pollock; actor Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby; Amelie‘s director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro in The Last Emperor; Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull for the “Stargate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey; composer Ennio Morricone and production designer Dean Tavoularis for his work in One from the Heart.
There’s a reason that Michael Connor is at the helm of the exhibition. Sincere and inquisitive, Connor has an enduring fascination with art and film and the magic behind it. As a young professional in the art field, Connor’s practice revolves around how we perceive imagery and how the development of technology continuously complicates that. Exploring the mechanics of the filmmaker’s creative delivery and the viewer’s sensory digestion of each film or work of art, conversations emerge, and Connor enjoys every moment of mediating this delicate engagement. It was with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to discuss with Connor the second installment of his three-year series, running from 2011 to 2013.
Portable: I checked out the exhibition last week. It was incredibly fascinating, and it makes me wish that I had been in New York to catch the inaugural installment last year. Your past exhibitions express a primary interest in film, and “Magnificent Obsessions” incorporates a reflective and psychological approach. What was the inspiration behind it?
Michael Connor: The idea of doing an exhibition focusing on obsessive process initially came from Persol. They wanted to celebrate filmmakers who bring incredible passion and attention to detail to their work, the kind of in-depth craftsmanship that Persol brings to their eyewear.
In another way, you could say that the exhibition is inspired by the filmmakers. Cinema can be seen as an impersonal industry, involving big profits and losses and armies of technicians. This exhibition explores the way that people still realize a unique, personal vision within that system.
A page from Michel Folco’s album of anonymous photobooth strips. Folco served as inspiration for the character of Nino in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. Credit: Catherine Leutenegger. Courtesy of Michel Folco.
P: The act of obsession is commonly seen as a negative feature of human behavior. It’s interesting how “Magnificent Obsessions” has managed to reconsider obsession as a form of passion that is focused and selfless, rather than crazed and selfish. How did the filmmakers (with whom you were able to contact) initially respond to your concept of “magnificent obsession”? Did they consider their creative neuroses to be obsessed?
Michael Connor: Most of the filmmakers I approached embraced the label of ‘magnificently obsessed’; they understood implicitly what I was talking about. You’re right that the term has an association with neurosis, and I think they saw the humor in it. At the same time, I don’t really like the word neurosis. Who’s to say it’s unhealthy to be obsessed? Let’s call it a drive, maybe. I think the participants in the exhibition could all identify with the idea of feeling driven to realize a creative vision. They’ve all taken real risks for their work, risks that go beyond concern with fame or career or money; in the end, though, their drive to create helped them make lasting, valuable contributions to cinema.
P: Was it at all difficult for the subjects of this year’s “Magnificent Obsessions” to revisit their emotions and practices during your excavation of their creative past?
Michael Connor: Some of them had to do a fair amount of digging through the archives – Ed Harris ripped pages out of his diary for me, and Todd Haynes had to search the dark corners of his basement – but I didn’t get the sense that it was an unwelcome chore for any of them. My impression is that people who are involved in filmmaking are always focusing on their next project; I’d like to think the exhibition gave them a chance to reflect on what they had achieved in the past.
P: The idea of obsession as a means of mastery extends beyond artists and filmmakers, transcending various skills and professions that we ourselves can apply to our own lives once we see this exhibition. Would you say that an element of obsession has played a role in your success as a curator? Was it your intention for the exhibition to inspire others on a psychological level as well?
Michael Connor: Obsession is definitely a part of my process as a curator. Exhibitions require the contributions of so many people, and I feel a real responsibility to make the end result historically accurate and fair and beautiful and interesting. I hope people find it inspiring; I think there are a lot of different things people might take away from it.
Douglas Trumbull painting a galaxy for Graphic Films’ To the Moon and Beyond, a film for the KEM Exhibit at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadow Park. Image courtesy of Graphic Films / Collection of Museum of the Moving Image.