February 15, 2019

'A Night at the Garden': Where Past Meets Present

From Marshall Curry's 'A Night at the Garden"

In his third Academy Award-nominated film, Marshall Curry delivers a striking variation on his previous nominees, Street Fight and If a Tree Falls. A Night at the Garden is a seven-minute horror show taking place in an America we both thought we knew better and know all too well. In 1939, several years into Hitler’s reign of terror and months away from his invasion of Poland, American Nazis staged a rally in New York City’s Madison Square Garden—and 20,000 hale-and-hearty people showed up. In the film, the leader of the party rails against the media and the Jews, and clamors for “America First,” and one angry protestor is beaten mercilessly by a horde of brown shirts. We can’t believe what we’re seeing, yet we can’t look away: the past isn’t just prologue, it’s present, and Curry dispenses with the conventions of history documentaries—narration, commentary from academics—and adds an eerie and jarring score for good measure.

Documentary spoke with Curry by phone about the challenges and pleasures of the short form, the transformation of footage into a film, and his next project—a sequel, of sorts, to his first one.

DOCUMENTARY:  I wanted to ask about the short form. I thought A Night at the Garden was your first short, but you had actually made shorts before, for We The Economy and The Wall Street Journal. What have you found most invigorating about the short form?  How has it expanded your creative sensibilities? 

Filmmaker Marshall CurryMARSHALL CURRY: Well, I have a big-tent approach to documentaries: I love vérité documentaries and I love talking-head documentaries and historical documentaries and experimental ones. And same with length. I love features and I also really enjoyed doing shorts.  And to me so much of it is driven by just what the content is—what the story is and what it wants to be. The nice thing about doing shorts is,  number one, it doesn’t take three years like doing a feature does. And number two, with online distribution you can reach huge audiences who might not be willing to make a commitment of 90 minutes or more, but for four minutes or seven minutes or 12 minutes, they will watch something. So it’s fun creatively, and it’s also nice to be able to reach audiences who might not watch a feature. 

D: What are the challenges keeping it within the short framework?

MC:  I would say the biggest challenge is just cutting everything down to the bone, just getting rid of any fat—which I also try to do with my features. But with a short, with every single additional second, people feel it. The sense of pacing is often a little bit faster. And of course the layers of complexity that you could explore are limited, so you are really picking one basic thesis to explore. But I love trying to figure out ways of making even a five-minute film or a 10-minute film have twists and turns and reveals in the same way that I try to do with features. 

D: When  I thought about A Night at the Garden in the context of your other work, your 2014 feature, Point and Shoot, came to mind. With that film the footage had come to you from the protagonist, and what really drove the narrative was his footage. There was a process of engaging that footage and thinking about whether there was a film there. Did that process inform your process of making A Night at the Garden?

MC:  I guess it must have because every project I do expands my vocabulary and teaches me new things. When you ask it, it makes sense and it’s probably true. But I hadn’t thought of it until you asked it. And as I was editing this, I don’t think I was consciously thinking about the work that I did on editing Point and Shoot. I think in some ways every editing job—and I have been the editor or one of the editors on all of my films—is a process of taking footage that doesn’t want to be a movie and finding a way of forcing it to become a movie. 

And even if I have shot vérité footage, it’s hundreds of hours of spaghetti that I am trying to transform into a cinematic experience that feels like somebody’s blocked it and carefully executed every shot. And so if I am working with somebody else’s footage, it’s a similar challenge. In some ways it’s a little bit more of a challenge because at least when I am shooting vérité, I am considering the story that I am trying to tell and I am gathering the shots and following the storylines that I find interesting. 

So the intention of the final film is more baked into the raw footage when I am shooting. But ultimately the challenge is the same of taking something that is inherently chaotic and trying to transform it into something that is cinematic and has a narrative flow.

D: How did you come upon the footage for A Night at the Garden?

MC:  A friend of mine was writing a screenplay that takes place in New York in 1939, and we were at dinner one night and he told me about the rally. At first I didn’t believe that it was true. But I went home and looked it up, and sure enough, it was true. And there were some historical documentaries that I found that had used little five-second clips. And I figured if there is five seconds of this stuff, there has got to be a lot more. And so I asked Rich Remsberg, an archivist and a friend, if he would look around and see if he could find some of this footage.

And so he contacted UCLA’s [Film and Television] Archive and the National Archive and Grinberg Archive, and a number of places had fragments but nobody had ever collected all of this footage together. And in some places there was audio but no video. In the National Archive they had film that had never been scanned before in hi-def. And so we just gathered all of these pieces of footage from these different archives and then I started trying to edit them together into what would feel like a linear short movie.

D: When you put it together and you looked at the footage as it was, at what point did you say, “I think there is a film here, and I am only going to use this footage—no narration, no talking heads”?

MC:  When I first saw it, I was struck by how surreal and powerful the footage was, and how it spoke to the current political situation. So I knew instantly that I wanted to do something with it.  At first I thought maybe I would interview some historians and do a more traditional historical documentary about this period. 

But one night I just decided to try cutting it together and letting it play with only music and no explanation. And when I saw it I thought, This is pretty powerful and pretty provocative like it is.  And so it wasn’t until I just tried it on a whim and watched it and felt the way that it made me feel that I decided that that was the correct approach.

D: The film really takes you into that moment, without the filter of historians and the kind of contextualizing that typifies history documentaries; this is way of engaging the past and history with a new lens.

MC:  That was my goal—to give somebody this slightly disoriented experience of being dropped into this rally, not knowing what it is. In fact, I built in a couple of red herrings or head-fakes where at first maybe it’s a sporting event and then you realize it’s a rally, but the rally bills itself as a pro-America rally. So you see George Washington and American flags and you figure, Oh, this must be some sort of patriotic rally.

And then you say, Wait, is that a swastika next to George Washington? And then you say, Are those people doing the Hitler salute? And then you think, Well, maybe this is just early, long before anybody knew what Nazism was about. And then the guy takes the stage and he says, “We have to take America back from the Jews.” And you realize, Oh no, these people know exactly what they are doing; this is happening in the United States!

So I wanted that process of being confused to draw the audience in, asking questions and leaving some of those questions unanswered, to make the audience more engaged. That was the goal.

D: I wanted to ask about the sound design as well. There’s silence, there’s the soundtrack from the footage, and there’s the score. Talk about that process of creating this aural texture.

MC:   In the original footage, the music that they are playing as they march in is actually a sort of martial march. But I decided to replace that with this more moody and anxiety-inducing music instead because I wanted to emphasize the surreal nature of what was happening, and the sinister nature of what was happening. And then with the silence, it sort of transforms into the speech that the leader gives, where you start to realize just how bad these people are; he takes the stage and begins by attacking the press.

And then he says, “We need to take America back from the Jews.” And then a protester comes out onstage and they beat him up. And all of that felt very, very current. And then as the protester is being beaten up, I slowed things down to a point where we are almost going to single frame by single frame. And that was partly to make sure that you could feel fear and the sort of darkness of what was happening. Also, if it were playing in real time, it passes very quickly. So by drawing that out, it has a way of making sure that you understand really what’s happening, and then there’s also an emotional component. The sound design starts to become very discordant and there are instruments they are playing backwards and weird high notes that they are playing.  I suppose this is editorializing, to just make sure that the audience is on the side of the protester and not on the side of the people who are beating him up.

And then it ends with their performance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which I thought was very ironic, given how anti-American, or at least against the ideals of America, everything that was happening in that room was.

D:  So A Night at the Garden was initially on Field of Vision, and it still is. And it’s also been on POV. I’m curious about the reactions from the audiences. Have there been different reactions from the two?

MC:   When Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook [from Field of Vision] came on, everybody agreed that the goal was to just get this story out into the world, however it could be done. So it’s also on Vimeo and it’s also on YouTube and people have copied it and pirated it, and we are happy for that to be the case.  We just want it to get out into the world. 

And The Atlantic’s website featured it when it first came out. And then interestingly when the massacre at the synagogue [in Pittsburgh] happened a few months ago, suddenly it was trending again on their website, so people were going back into their past articles and sharing it and watching it. It’s on Facebook and Twitter and it’s been copied many, many times in many places, and so we were just eager for it to get out there.

I would say that the reaction has been pretty similar. Most people are shocked. Very few Americans that I have talked to had any idea that the rally happened, and when they watch it, they have the same sense of revulsion at what was happening—and also a sense of familiarity. We have seen hateful ideologies get wrapped up in the symbols of American patriotism a lot recently. 

And we have seen an uptick in hate crimes and anti-Semitic crimes, and all of this stuff that should be ancient history for America doesn’t feel like ancient history. It feels familiar. And that’s been pretty uniformly the response of people.

D: Apropos to American ideals and institutions, in light of Cory Booker’s announcement that he was running for President, I gleaned from your Facebook posts that that’s your next project.

MC:  Well, I have been filming, so in the lead-up to the election and the lead-up until his announcement and on the day that he announced, I was with him and was over at his apartment that morning filming at six in the morning before he hit send on the Tweet that formally announced it that he was going to run for President.

The campaign and I are still talking about the terms because I only want to make it if I can get extraordinary access. And they want to make sure that having a camera around is not going to be too distracting, so we are both feeling each other out and I am hopeful that we will be able to do it. But it’s not a hundred percent yet.

 

A Night at the Garden will screen as part of IDA’s DocuDay, a daylong showcase of the Academy Award-nominated documentaries, taking place at the Writers Guild of America theater in Beverly Hills.

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.

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