Infrequently Asked Questions: Jason Shawhan
Above is a podcast that interviews Jason Shawhan
Nashville Film Festival Coverage brought to you by Jason Sparks, Our Man in Nashville
The Crypt-Keeper at the Nashville Film Festival Graveyard Shift holds forth on genre, cult, and the joy of watching an audience leave a theatre saying a collective “what?”
Your official title with the Nashville Film Festival is “Graveyard Shift Programmer and Artistic Consultant.” What does that mean to you? Did you select the title yourself, or was it foisted upon you by the brass at the NFF?
I came up with that title as a way of designating what all it is that I do. To me, it means that I shape the Graveyard Shift programming, but also help consult with the Festival as a whole. I see a lot of film across all genres, and I like to be helpful. But I’m also a Leo, so I’m a total egomaniac, and I’ve been in and around this festival, whether as Press, a Pre-screener, Experimental Programmer, and now Graveyard Programmer since 2000. So I just do whatever needs to be done and help in whatever way I can.
What is your background/are your credentials? Why, in other words, should readers outside of Nashville be interested in you?
I’ve been a professional critic for the past twenty years, and before that I did a whole bunch of time getting my Undergrad degree at NYU with a lot of focus on Critical Theory and Cinema and Genre Studies. Then, after returning to Tennessee for complicated reasons involving student loans, a cancer diagnosis in my family, and hitting some metaphorical brick walls, I went to a Film School that had no critical studies or theory classes just to learn the production side of things so I would know what I was talking about. I got certified as a cinematographer, then fell into being a critic, which has thankfully stuck. I’ve been a festival programmer of some sort for the past decade, and I’ve been known to pop up on podcasts here and there to talk about near-anything.
What is, and isn’t, a Graveyard Shift film? What elements qualify a film to fall within your domain?
If it’s got a monster, a murderer, a manitou, or an alien- that’s a safe bet that it’s aesthetically what I’m looking for. Genre cinema – horror, SciFi, suspense thrillers – is always a plus. But I also love impenetrable arthouse stuff as well. To me, Graveyard is where intense and extreme material hangs out- not like those labels that promise “EXTREME HORROR,” but things that might need a little bit of an explanation, or that for some reason or another couldn’t just be shown to an unsuspecting public.
We can, of course, infer to some degree what Graveyard Shift means; while we may not know what it is, we could probably all agree that, say, The Muppet Movie is not Graveyard Shift. What is it about these movies that really reaches you?
Anything can happen in a Graveyard Shift film. Anything at all. That’s what I dig about cinema in general, and the greatest compliment I can pay a film is that it weakens the stone drudgery of reality.
I love The Muppet Movie for the same reason.
With this year’s Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street, you touched on the intersection between horror films and LGBTQIA culture. Has this intersection always been there? What do you think causes it?
Horror culture gets very little respect from mainstream culture. The same goes for the LGBTQIA community. Horror has always provided a way to address subjects that would be taboo in regular, ‘respectable’ society, going all the way back to Dr Polidori, Bram Stoker, and James Whale, and I dig the fact that there’s always been a dialogue happening between queer culture and horror, provided you know where to look.
I, personally, am not keen on horror films, never have been, save for Universal’s early monster films. What would you say is the big draw in horror? What do horror-film buffs get out of them that the rest of us don’t?
Catharsis and Sparagmos. The former is the emotional release that comes from being put through it, whether by machete-wielding madman or by an indifferent society and its dehumanizing gears. The latter is the splatter- the relief or revulsion that comes from the human body- with all its deep thoughts and existential fears- as meat.
Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have gotten a lot of press lately for the shade they’ve thrown at superhero movies. Are they right?
Superhero cinema is its own artform. But it’s an artform that glories the form, not the artist. I’ve got a lot of love for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (a paranoid fantasy where queer desire unmakes political certainty and forces the higher-ups to step in and change future emotional dynamics), Thor: Ragnarok (the legacy of colonialism confronted with great whimsy in the collision between Roger Dean and Maxfield Parrish), and Black Panther (speculative fiction at its finest with entire social histories unexplored in mainstream entertainment), as well as the glorious insanity of Aquaman (any movie with Nicole Kidman delivering amphibious kung fu beatdowns is worthy of a viewer’s time). But these are works where those achievements found by coloring outside the lines are gravy.
As a film-festival curator and reviewer, you’ve made movies a huge part of your life and career. What set you on this path? How did you know this was your wheelhouse?
I had no idea I was going to end up on this side of the film exhibition continuum. In college, I had a preminition of my own death at the age of fifty while attending a film festival screening of 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara. This was before I had any idea that criticism and curation lay in my future; I was just adrift in academia, taking theory and genre classes so I could speak intelligently about what I was feeling when I addressed the art that was speaking to me. As far as becoming a curator, I’ve always enjoyed public speaking, and the vast majority of curation is picking quality material and being willing to introduce it in public and address other people’s responses to it.
How did you select the features and short subjects that made up this year’s Graveyard Shift?
I view every film submitted to the Film Festival in my category, taking notes about each one. Over the course of the evaluation period, themes and concepts start coming into focus and help me to hammer out a schedule/line-up. Though I do have an unspoken rule: anything I watch during the screening process that makes me scream out loud or laugh to the point that my upstairs neighbors text to ask if everything is okay automatically gets in.
Professor Shawhan’s Intro to Cinema class: name ten films you would show.
As an intro class? Blue Collar (1978-Paul Schrader), Friday Night (2002-Claire Denis), Go Down Death (1945-Spencer Williams), Harlan County USA (1976-Barbara Kopple), Imitation of Life (1959-Douglas Sirk), The Legend of Billie Jean (1985-Matthew Robbins), Nashville (1975-Robert Altman), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1922-Carl Theodor Dreyer), the opening sequence of Scream 2 (1997-Wes Craven), Tropical Malady (2004-Apichatpong Weerasethakul), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968-Stanley Kubrick).
I attended and reviewed both nights dedicated to short subjects this year. How do you go about deciding what films constitute a single evening’s programming? Do you screen them in a particular order?
With the shorts, generally I just go through all the submissions and filter them into a pool of the stuff I really want to show. Once I’ve got that pool, I see if there are any that pair with features on some thematic or narrative level. Once those are set, it depends on the number of titles. For the past couple of years, I’ve tried to put the more intense (in terms of violent or sexual content) offerings on their own night, just so there are options for the more casual viewer as well as the thrill-seeker.
The films you choose often leave audiences perplexed as to what they’ve just seen, teasing it out mentally for hours afterward. Would you say that’s a goal you have?
Long Day’s Journey Into Night 3D was something of a “big get” for NIFF; while unknown here, it is, as I understand it, the highest-grossing fantasy film in Chinese box-office history. Did that make it easier or harder to acquire the film?
I was very fortunate that the film’s U.S. distributor, Kino Lorber (shout outs to Chris Mason Wells and David Ninh at Kino Lorber for helping make the magic happen) very much wanted the film to play in Nashville in 3D. From the film’s world premiere at Cannes (May 2018), I knew I wanted to show it at the NFF. Nashville is in a weird space for non-mainstream 3D films. Traditional exhibitors with 3D capability (AMC, Regal) don’t show independent films, and the independent/arthouse venues (Belcourt, Sarratt, Franklin) don’t have 3D capability. So the NFF is the only chance weird 3D films get to be shown in Nashville. And I wholeheartedly believe in weird 3D movies. We’ve done Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Blake Williams’ Prototype, Steven DeGennaro’s Found Footage 3D, and now Bi’s Long Day’s Journey. I’m very proud of that tradition.
The Chinese government, as we’ve seen lately, is not reluctant to use leverage against American culture, as evinced by the NBA. Were you given any sort of “ground rules” about screening Long Day?
Thankfully, it never came up. I only ever had to deal with Kino Lorber, and they were an absolute dream. It’s a joy having film distributors who really believe in the films they’re showing, as well as who are committed to telling all sorts of stories.
During the festival, most of your time is consumed by the festival, I would think. How much time do you spend preparing before the festival, and how soon after it’s over are you thinking about the next one?
It never ends. It’s always in the back of my head, every time I watch anything.
Do you have any interest in branching out into film production, or is reviewing and festival-curating enough for you?
I got certified as a cinematographer back in the day, and I’ve always wanted to make films. It’s just a question of when, how, and most importantly, why. I’ve been terrified about the state of the world, and the collapse of society, so hopefully that’ll get me motivated to tell the story I’ve got knocking around inside my head. It’s something special.
Cheesy question, perhaps, but: does Jason Shawhan have an absolute all-time favorite movie? If so, what is it?
Alien. The 1979 theatrical cut. I can watch it over and over and never get tired of it, as well as finding something new with each viewing.
You arrange nights devoted to screening short subjects. In my review of the first night, I led with this:
In what Stephen King termed “The Land of Ago”, the feature film was not the only thing a viewer saw for the ticket price. There were also films called “short subjects”, and you’re actually familiar with a lot of them. The Looney Tunes that once filled Gen-X’s Saturday mornings, the misadventures of Messrs. Horovitz, Fienberg, and Horovitz, the ripping yarns of Alfalfa and company, the newsreels and serials—these were, for a long time, an expected part of the cinema experience.
Well, they aren’t now. So why do shorts still matter in 2019?
Shorts are always going to be part of film culture, if just because they’re the easiest way to build a name for an artist. If you look at TikTok, or the deeply-missed Vine, or even on YouTube, you have incredibly creative individuals making all sorts of new stories, and they’re going to be the next generation of filmmakers. Some folks may not be willing to give 90-120 minutes of their time on an unknown quantity, but as long as there’s a hook, or something unexpected, or a buzz about something new and interesting, then most people will take a chance on something that requires only 90 seconds or seven minutes. Shorts are just the easiest way to build awareness; and with modern technology, virality just adds to that.