BENNINGTON — "I spent a lot of time riding trains in Japan ," said Jason Whiton on Tuesday, trying to find an example to explain how a film maker sees the world. "Trains are an interesting experience, because it doesn't seem like you're moving, but everything else is. You are a bystander, observing this rhythm of lives. I remember, I was sitting across from this older woman who was actually shaped like a hawk. She had this very narrow, slightly frightening face, exactly like a bird ... and next to her, there was this group of middle school girls, sort of standing off to the side, laughing ... and I could see this hawk woman watching them without moving her head. Just out of the corner of her eye. Just like a bird. It's a little hard to explain, but that's what catches you when you're a director - these moments that you can't repeat, that you want to preserve." Whiton, an Academy Award fellowship nominee, teaches film and cartooning at the Putney School. He lives in Brattleboro , where he oversees a film club every Wednesday. On Friday, Dec. 8, some of his work will be shown at the Bennington Museum , along with works by other independent Vermont filmmakers.
Whiton's short film "I Was a Dancer" is set in Japan, and emphasizes visuals over dialogue. It is meant to evoke elements of the Asian cinematic tradition, which frequently dwells on the experience of a moment in time, rather than a quick narrative progression of events.
"I became interested in Japanese culture and history when I was in high school," Whiton said. "I ended up living in Japan for four years. That was in my formative twenties."
Japanese cinema appeals to Whiton, "because there's no contrivance. People are allowed to be people. There are genuine human themes, authentic human life. Japanese film is often centered around the observation of time. It's a bit like when you're walking along, and suddenly you become aware of your surroundings ... moments when you're there in the world. It's hard to film those moments. There's a tradition of it in Italian film, too ... you know, they just have a little camera, and they're out there on the street ... there's a sincerity to it."
Whiton began his career as a photographer, but that eventually transited into other things. "I wanted the pictures to move. There comes a point when you're not satisfied with still images. I was interested in the energy of people in motion."
"It's interesting to show people films or photographs of themselves, and watch their reaction," Whiton added. "You see them realize that ... they were once these people."
That can be a disorienting element of filmmaking. Film is the preservation of a moment in time, and who one was during that moment can change after the moment is elapsed.
"Movies ... good movies ... can be very intimate. They bring you with them."
An aficionado of Asian cinema, Whiton is more reserved as to the merits of modern American film.
"Movies are really predictable in America ," he said. "You see an American movie, and you can usually tell where it's going. American movies are just tired. That said, I think we're on the brink of an American new wave. I think we'll look back at this time as being kind of like the 60s or 70s, when there was this sudden burst of individual eccentricity."
One inevitably sees invention rising in response to stagnation. A helpful element might be the online phenomenon, where independent and amateur filmmakers are able to produce and distribute films with far greater ease than was the case a decade ago.
"I think that's a significant change," said Whiton. "It's like in the 60s, where they'd give out little budgets and cameras and just say, 'Go.' I think it's the same with online movies, this potential for the creative people to just start, without having to deal with the industrial sludge."
"You know, people can shoot movies with their telephones now," Whiton laughed. "You can shoot movies with digital cameras. You can shoot movies with your watch, or whatever. Suddenly, everyone has the ability to capture these ... moments. Whatever it is that catches you. Nowadays, everyone's a filmmaker. Which is good."
Whiton's advice to those who are serious about becoming filmmakers: "I'd just say what Werner Herzog said. 'Don't listen to me. Just go and make a movie.' I mean, sure, at first you play with examples that inspire you. You emulate the movies and directors who first got you interested, and that's fine, and that's important. But even more important, I think, is when you make something personal. Everyone sees the world, but when you make a film you're reinventing what you see."
There is something else to be learned from the ability film these real moments.
"The importance of editing. I've shown Andy Warhol movies in my classes, and we're sometimes lucky to get out alive. You can have too much of a good thing."
"That's always a problem with film, that there's this element of, 'now that you're watching it, it's significant.' Because you see it, it's now alive to you. That doesn't always make for great filmmaking if you go overboard."
Another problem with filmmaking is essentially what physicists call Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle - the presence of the observer affects the outcome of the experiment.
"People notice the camera," Whiton laughed. "You can't be spontaneous. If I could change anything, that's what I'd like ... I wish that I just had this special lens in my glasses, and I could start filming what I see. That'd make a great movie."