Image Works: An Interview with Christopher Jason Bell

ByFrank Falisi
PublishedApril 15, 2024
The first “MISS ME YET?” was predicated on tracking shot logic. In February 2010, a billboard appeared on Interstate 35 in Wyoming, Minnesota featuring the smiling, waving mug of the former president, George W. Bush. Other billboards appeared in other states on other highways, for other spectators’ eyes to careen towards in their almost-automatic automobilizing. Does a tracking shot mirror a car’s motion or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. We are drawn into the object’s radius by the fearsome, plastic gravity of looking.

In February 2010, the billboards addressed the nascent presidency of Bush’s successor, Barack Obama. By 2016, “miss me yet” was as readily applicable to the ongoing rehabilitation of Bush’s public image in reaction to partymate, Donald Trump. The oil paintings, the chummy candy handoffs to Michelle Obama, and that eternally-memeable Texas patter made Bush, it seemed, less obviously-monstrous than the abject Trump in the eyes of many, often Good Liberals. Hollywood kept the scent flowing, and if 2018’s Vice was ostensibly eager to “remind” spectators how evil Dick Cheney and the administration he served was, it still mostly relegated Bush to dopey, complicit cowboy status, an aberration rather than an actor in his own history.

Missing from all these rebuffs and rebuffings is the totalizing psychic terror of life under George W. Bush and the way that terror often abutted moments of deep comic absurdity. In the annals of Bush II Studies—a primordially American discipline in the way its every image seems to contradict the prior one—there is no surer text than Christopher Jason Bell’s Miss Me Yet (2023). In ten episodic movements the mashup series accounts for the years of W from election to afterlife, using only preexisting televisual footage. Part The Movie Orgy (1968), part The Reagan Show (2017), Miss Me Yet intercuts commercial ad footage into its central not-great man story. By remixing the media that assaulted us like so many highway billboards, Bell enlists the moving image not as inherently good or evil signifier, just pliable possibility. It can cut off our peripheries as much as it can clarify the business of moving through the world.

In its patient entertainment of image possibility, Miss Me Yet is a crucial addition to the filmography of the Jersey-based Bell. His narrative fiction features and shorts hum with long takes that reorient the camera’s historical subject of scrutiny. In The Winds That Scatter (2015), Ahmad, a Syrian immigrant, hammers a nail in a board on a wall. Here is the same cinematic grammar that gives us rushing tracking shots, left to reveal rather than mystify. Here is the same action of a human body, not performing under the makeup of spectacle but working. Here is a cinema independent of the urges of capital, a repurposing of how the image works.

Miss Me Yet plays over two nights—4/19 and 4/20—at The People’s Forum in New York City. In advance of that screening (and on the heels of The Winds That Scatter playing the Brick Theater in Brooklyn on 4/10) I spoke with Christopher over video chat about what independent filmmaking means, the porous wall between documentary and fiction, and showing labor on screen.

Frank Falisi: Were you always hoping to screen Miss Me Yet in theaters? Is it right that you had originally conceived of the piece as a long film?

Christopher Jason Bell: Yes, originally it was a long film. And then a filmmaker friend of mine, Zach Fleming, suggested that it was a bit much for a movie. So I began to think about breaking it up into a series, which ultimately made sense because then it could be broken up by year. I did want to have physical screenings. You can see how an audience reacts—there are funny moments and then there are truly horrifying ones. And we put them together that way, trying to express the everyday contradictions that we live under. To experience that feeling together, you get something you don’t really get when something’s just out there streaming. And then you get a discussion, which could feel kind of bleak, but if we’re all together and we’re talking, maybe we can figure out ways forward together.

FF: Where has it played, so far?

CJB: To come, People’s Forum, but also microcinemas like Spectacle in Brooklyn, the Beacon in Washington, Spacy in Dallas. They’re part of what I like to see in the world. I’ve known a few  Spectacle folks over the years: they’re volunteer run, they have radical programming, a radical ethos in general. It’s a different kind of model—show films, host fundraisers, invite radical activists—that makes it seem like screening this series in this space is something you can do to help fight against the mainstream institutions that we’re dealing with in Miss Me Yet. It’s about showing that an alternative is possible, any way we can.

FF: Do you think that cinema can be bleaker in spaces like this? It feels like we’re stuck in the middle, certainly with corporate cinema in multiplexes, but in art cinema spaces too. So little of the images we get to see in these spaces are genuinely pleasurable or genuinely despairing, they’re just the homogenized middle. 

CJB: It’s weird because I guess as an indie filmmaker, I relate more to Spectacle Theater or People’s Forum. “As an indie filmmaker”, what does that even mean? I know what it means to me, but in talking to people, you realize an indie film can be, say “produced by A24” or “made in a different country with government funding.” The films could be good, the films could be bad, but I can’t really relate to them, because I’m making a movie for no money, or for a couple thousand dollars that I’ve saved from working my 40 hour job, that kind of thing. What we’ve been taught to do as filmmakers is to just send our films out to film festivals, but it gets to the point where I start to feel like I’m just donating money to a small business. The programming can only be so radical. I don’t really think I’m making the most radical thing. I’m not making experimental films, it’s still narrative. But we’re kind of at cross-purposes. The ethos of these theaters is much more aligned with what I am.

FF: Are you frustrated much by film criticism that maybe doesn’t take time to distinguish these tiers of indie filmmaking? Or by reviews that don’t seem engaged in the labor aspect of getting movies made?

CJB: Across the board, it seems like we’re at least getting better about talking about this kind of stuff, at least slightly. I used to be a film critic, for the Playlist back in the day, around 2010 or so. And there was a lot that I didn’t know. I wasn’t paid, so that wasn’t even part of the equation. But looking back, I really understand how critics now maybe don’t understand the difference between if a filmmaker is emailing you, versus a publicist or a festival, something like that. What needs to happen across the board is everyone needs to take their art seriously.

FF: What does that mean to you?

CJB: What that means is if you’re a film critic or you have a podcast, you have to care about the art form. You cannot just talk about what’s at the movie theater this weekend, you cannot just talk about what came out recently on Netflix. You have to engage with the art that is local to you. That is the only thing that is going to be good for the art. So you have to go to your local festival. You have to cover them. You have to take them seriously. As an indie filmmaker, reviews from anyone—if they’re not being a jerk—mean so much. That movie on Netflix that you love or trash or whatever, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything to them, but it means something to me and it means something to my peers.

FF: It feels like it’s about taking seriously the work of people whose work isn’t being taken seriously by other institutions. In terms of The Winds That Scatter or Failed State, I wonder how it connects to working with nonprofessional actors. Who are the “nonprofessional”—and local—artists who get lost by the way we talk about film culture more broadly?

CJB: You make me think, when you’re talking about locality, how hard it is to travel to festivals, to actually meet people at festivals sometimes. But jumping off that, as a filmmaker, I came into a true passion watching the Dardenne brothers, although they did work with actors for the most part. I wasn’t super crazy about Bruno Dumont, but I liked him, and he worked with nonprofessional actors. Apichatpong too, with Jenjira Pongpas, who wasn’t an actor before working in his films. That all really struck me as a film student. It’s sad, because you start to think about the value of like, casting names and it’s not even to make money, it’s just to get the attention of somebody, getting somebody to watch it. And I understand, especially now when there’s a million things to watch. But we have to do the work. If you’re tired, just want to watch something, I totally get it, I’m not talking about you. But if you’re a filmmaker, a film critic, a programmer, well okay, now you have to do the work. If it’s passion, then you can’t just rely on the profit mode. You have to keep yourself afloat, you have to do all of these things to operate; as I said before, it’s a small business. And the capitalist growth, the constant expansion might not happen. And maybe then it just becomes a hobby for you. But if that means you’re taking it seriously and you’re giving more to the art form to make it healthier, that’s better. 

FF: This idea of doing the work makes me wonder about what we’re actually talking about when we say “film culture.” How do we involve ourselves in that? How do our own egos and aspirations come to be known or not known by that entity? It’s compelling to hear you talk about how a growth-minded model inherited from capitalism is not the best thing for a practice around cinema.

CJB: The tough thing is that it takes money and resources to make a film. It gets sticky when you realize it doesn’t have to. I always thought, What are the few main things that I really love about cinema, technique-wise? Well, the long, uninterrupted take, no cuts. That’s not going away, I love it. Do I necessarily need a crew and actors for that? If I have nothing, but I have to make something, can I figure out a way to do that? Can I figure out a way to do that with just me and a smartphone camera? And the answer is yes. I used to say this about vloggers: what if we thought about that as filmmaking? How do you do that? At the time I was thinking this, it was literally just a person talking to a camera and people were watching. It’s a bit different now, because we have Twitch and we have like, a four hour podcast with maybe two shots and it’s just people talking, not doing that for the visuals.

When Inception (2010) came out, I saw it with my film school friends and they were like, Oh it’s too much, it’s too much expository dialogue. And then I watched it with a family member and she could not follow it. What does it mean to make something to be as broad as possible, that has to be something that everyone could get? Because even then, some people are stopping to explain and talk about the rules and other people literally can’t follow it. So the best thing you can do as a filmmaker is be really hard on yourself, stick to your guns, make something that you want out there, that you want to watch and that is reflective of stuff you like and find cool and interesting. It sounds so juvenile to say, like a little kid thing, but we forget it. 

FF: It’s hard, and I don’t know if it’s fair to say it’s harder than ever. It feels different than ever. Does that sound right to you? How far away does 2015 feel from 2024, in terms of getting a film like The Winds That Scatter made?

CJB: I do think about that sometimes. It’s hard to say, because some things are different. Well no, I don’t want to say that. Some things are worse and some things are better. And then it’s like, is it just the same then? I’m still operating on the same level in a way. I have Miss Me Yet out, I have Failed State out. I’m still in a spot where I don’t have a publicist, so I have to reach out to people mostly. Am I still getting unreturned emails? Yes. Did people who covered Winds cover these projects? Sometimes no. So it’s not disparaging from my perspective, but it does kind of suck where like, I appreciated them helping me out, covering my earlier works, I ask if they’re interested in these new things, and then the answer is essentially no. That’s hard, that does burn me out. 

FF: How does the ecosystem around indie filmmaking seem different?

CJB: In terms of like, when you’ve been at it for so long you start meeting people, building contacts, and then the contacts disappear because people leave the industry, programmers leave festivals and quit altogether, get into other stuff. There’s something to be said about people who keep up the good fight, whatever that means. I have to remind myself that we’re still just talking about cinema. We’re not talking about feeding or housing people, or stopping war. So you know: put little asterisks on all these things. From a filmmaker perspective, there’s not less filmmakers out there. There’s not less filmmakers coming into the scene. But I’m no longer working overnights. I shot Winds after overnights. I would get off at like 8 a.m. and then we would go shoot. And I destroyed my body for a long time for that. So how different is it? I don’t really know. In 2015 maybe you could email someone and get coverage because everyone had a blog. Now everyone has a podcast. So you get to go on there and talk, but you don’t get the blog because they don’t exist anymore. It’s honestly very similar, but it’s hard when you’re in the shit, to get a good assessment of how things are going. 

FF: Does it feel weird to assess the work and world in personal terms versus bigger-picture, “industry” ones?

CJB: Winds was my first. Failed State would be my third, fourth if you count Miss Me Yet or whatever. Regardless, it’s a body of work. I think people might see that and take it a little bit more seriously. It’s a weird spot to be in. The money didn’t really change. Like, I still have nothing. I’m healthier. I’m not working overnight, so that’s good. 

FF: Thinking about those four films as a body: you show people working in ways that are, at turns, patient and kinetic. How important is it to you to show these activities, and to show them a certain way?

CJB: It’s important to show, and it was definitely inspired by us not having that much of it in cinema. But again, being inspired by Apichatpong and the Dardennes—it’s not that they don’t have a fair amount of dialogue, but that there’s a sensibility to it, showing things and making them important in ways that don’t just focus on what people were saying aloud. Part of that is being in the moment, a version of sculpting in time where we’re just watching someone transform something by the labor they’re putting into it. 

There’s this need to sanitize which I’m really not into, unless that’s an affect you’re going for. I love anything that gives stuff life. So if you’re showing work on camera, you’re having someone do something physical, you’re not always going to get the desired results, you know? Like, if you’re showing someone hammer a board onto a wall, you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to hammer it. The nail could go in crooked, the hammer could miss the nail—you are allowing this interaction to be all you need for the shot. I want to show work being done to transform something, and it’s not going to be something I’ve exactly written, or had in my mind. We’re allowing life to be.

For instance, in Failed State, our actor Dale is interacting with another person, and I’ll give them topics to talk about. I’m giving them a narrow framework of what to do. But whatever they say comes from a personal place. They can say pretty much anything about this topic and we’ll find it in the edit, the right things that work best for the overall film, but you’re allowing for life to happen, to occur. And you’re making stuff that isn’t super rigid. If someone slips up a line, they do something interesting to recover…that’s so much much more fascinating to me than having something so perfected to a T. Showing the work on screen is part of that. It’s not just improvised dialogue, it’s about transforming stuff within the frame. What we get is what we get and that becomes part of the DNA of the film we’re doing. I like super rigid, super formal and precise filmmakers, but I also really love the act of generating stuff with a loose plan. I like the idea of creating the room or the frame for the work to happen inside of.

FF: Are the terms “documentary” and “narrative fiction” useful to you? Do you think in those terms when you conceive of the camera going a certain way, or are they more descriptions after the fact?

CJB: It’s tricky. I find a lot of great stuff in documentary, hybrid stuff, Iranian New Wave. Those terms, documentary and narrative fiction and all that, can be useful. They can be fun to dissect and talk to people about. But they are also flexible or even flimsy depending on who you are talking to. Talking to some people, you can get into the super precise, master at work kind of thing. Like, what is Nathan Fielder doing? What is he up to? We’re talking about documentary in those terms, very fun to watch and talk about after. Other people I speak to…some people just think I do documentaries. And that’s just what they think. And it’s interesting to talk to them, because there’s stuff that’s so obviously fiction. But the language, something about the language tells them, This is a documentary.

FF: Which calls into question the sufficiency (efficiency?) of these labels. How complicated is that by how those labels are used for opportunities, in funding and festivals?

CJB: It got to the point where we premiered Failed State and some of the questions at the Q&A were just about how it was a straight up documentary. And there are heavy documentary elements in it, but I thought it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t. But people weren’t asking if it was a documentary or not, they just thought it was. And then it got to a point where it’s just like, Am I going to start submitting this film as a documentary? And I had a friend who said Programmers are going to be mad when you do that. And well, I don’t know what to do. Because there’s a distance between me and festival programmers, what they’ll program and what they’ll consider these things. A lot of the time, I can’t talk to anybody, I just have to submit a film and pay money. 

It’s really weird. So when we talk about it, I can get super into the weeds—isn’t everything a documentary? If you have an actor who’s well known and people go to see a movie because that actor’s in it, because they have the certain kinds of things they do, like Jack Nicholson, isn’t that kind of a documentary about Jack Nicholson, in a way? Is like, a certain percentage of that movie kind of a documentary because it has Jack Nicholson and he’s doing a Jack Nicholson thing that we know he does? How much of that do we consider?

FF: It seems like really helpful language comes at the beginning of each part of Miss Me Yet. There’s this repetition of “This film is an attempt to replicate what the proceeding years felt like.” How much of the series is an act of recreating or restaging feelings?

CJB: It was a weird project to begin with, because I knew what I wanted formally. I didn’t want to have narration, and I knew there were some things that I could never include because there wasn’t sufficient video for them. So I had to come up with a thesis statement—Well, this is probably not what your 2003 felt like, but maybe it kind of is. And that’s what it was like for me, to a degree. This is what I think of 2003. And let me reorient something, recontextualize something. That was part of the aim. And part of the aim, too, was a statement at the beginning, a kind of training for the few title cards that I used to be part of the experience as well. Not something you toss off, but part of seeing this chaotic thing occur with politics and pop culture, death and power grabs and all this stuff, and then a very sober statement. Images are placed and cut next to others, which gives them a certain meaning. Now I’m giving you text after all that, and you reflect on all the images that you’ve seen. What does this text mean now? By having a thesis statement in the back of your head, maybe you’re prepared for that feeling. 

FF: It’s a reminder of all the filmmakers—either incidental and intentional—at work in what we call a presidential administration. Like, how many different cameras are involved in Miss Me Yet, and what is their “purpose”?

CJB: There’s this weird assault of so much video, so much old SD, grainy video. I wonder in terms of being a filmmaker, what you’re going to do with a camera. For practical purposes, for starting this project, I thought, you know, coming from Slow Cinema, from the uninterrupted take, that I’d just have Bush standing around not doing anything. I thought I was going to have so much of that. I don’t know why I thought that, because it’s the opposite, not the case at all. I didn’t find a lot of stuff like that in the digital archives I was digging around in. But that made me look for camera movements. I mean, really pay attention, because I thought I needed them. As a viewer, going through all this stuff was super exciting. When there was a zoom, I went wild. You do get a lot of stuff where it’s just a person talking, so any kind of camera movement ended up having so much power. And when you reflect on simple techniques, I don’t want to speak for the people behind those cameras, but if they’re zooming or reframing, they’re not necessarily doing it for effect. But I’m repurposing it for that very effect. 

FF: It’s a compelling and sinister reminder about how film grammar can be applied. What is this language doing to support or take away from the words and actions being shoved along?

CJB: You get a look at the staging of things. There’s a Bush clip, I think from 2003, where he’s talking about America’s freedom, we love freedom etcetera, and it’s nighttime and the Statue of Liberty is behind him. It seems incidental, Oh the president is talking and I’m watching and listening, but in returning to the footage, you really think about how these things were thought of. This was a decision. Let’s put these things in the background, that’ll make him look presidential. I hope that part of what the film is doing is encouraging you to assess these staged moments, these commercials and speeches, this weird grandeur. What are the implications? Where is it all leading us? 

Miss Me Yet screens over two nights at The People’s Forum in New York City, on April 19th and 20th. Miss Me Yet and The Winds That Scatter are available to view on MeansTV.

AboutFrank Falisi
Frank Falisi wrote for Tiny Mix Tapes and is currently an Associate Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. His writing has appeared in Reverse Shot, MUBI Notebook, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Brooklyn Rail and other outlets. He is a student at CUNY's Graduate Center and an ensemble member at Shakespeare 70.

Garden State Lantern
About / Contact Us