The Art & Times of William Farley

The Bay Area artist/filmmaker has been working straight from the heart for 25 years

By Robert Anbian

Release Print, Vol. XVIII No. 9, November 1995

About 25 years ago, Bill Farley sailed into San Francisco Bay on a merchant vessel and promptly jumped ship. In the intervening years, this offspring of Boston Irish shipyard workers has carried on variously and steadily as a sculptor, conceptual artist (he once mailed letters bearing stamps picturing his own head to friends and was busted for the effort), and, especially, as a filmmaker. His many shorts have been idiosyncratic, highly aesthetic, sometimes esoteric, always passionate essays in the human predicament, ranging from 1973's Sea Space to The Bell Rang to an Empty Sky (I 977), an iconographic evocation of American Indian struggles, to Tribute (1986), a musical and collective affirmation of life, to In Between the Notes (shot in video), an exquisite portrait of the last Kirana raga singing master. His most recent is the lyrical, moody ten-minute broke (screening Nov. 2 at the Film Arts Festival). He has made two ambitious features, the anarchic anti-narrative, Citizen (1982), and the more traditional of Men end Angels (1989), neither of which achieved the visibility the filmmaker clearly wanted. Adding to his own dedication, Farley has shown an exceptional knack for notable collaborations with artists of the order of musician/composer David Byrne, theatricalist George Coates, filmmaker Rick Schmidt, writer Don Novello (aka Father Guido Sarducci) and Irish actor John Molloy. In broke, he rounds up the Kronos Quartet to perform a score by Todd Boekelheide. I've long thought of Farley as a steady beacon of artistic commitment on the Bay Area independent media scene, producing the work, challenging himself, inspiring others, clearly following his heart's path. And a man about to make his crossover to a larger audience at any moment. Or not. You gotta understand, this guy is a real artist.

Why did you make broke?

It's a piece that came out of my subconscious .... I did a drawing which was the tracking shot in the film from left to right. It goes by people who are panhandling and shows them with a cup or sign, from their knees to their neck. You don't see who they are. I realized at the time that shot dramatized for me what we do when we walk through the city. It's a recreation of the periphery of our vision. That when we go through the city, we usually use our periphery vision to take these people in. I didn't know if that was a film. It was something. It seems that my method of making films is [to do so] from an idea, an image or something someone says to me, that gets into my mind and I can't shake. Then on an airplane, right out of the blue, the two other images that make up this three-act, ten-minute film, came to me. The second picture was, well, if I was going to recreate the periphery of our vision, ie., our urban dweller's vision, it was reasonable to re resent the p point of view of the person who's begging. It came, to me, one little drawing, a sketch from ground level, looking at feet going by. At the same time, at the same moment, I did another drawing and it was a set of eyes. So these three images came out of my unconscious. There was no rigorous intellectual analysis of the problem of urban poverty. I realized, when I did that little drawing and saw that set of eyes, I said, my God, this is the movie! My idea was that in the third act if we make eye contact, we have recognized that the people who are in trouble on the street, and who are asking for our help, can't be dismissed as bums, derelicts, loafers, hustlers. They are just people who are broke. If we can see them in that kind of simplicity, I think that's an honest recognition of their predicament.

We as a people seem to have reached an emotional impasse.

My mother used to say that growing up in the Depression was, in a strange way, the richest part of her life. She said it was because people were connected with each other. I grew up in a very working class family, and during the Depression my family didn't have anything. But when she was a kid, and somebody came to the back door and asked for something to eat, my grandmother and grandfather would always find something. She said there was a connection between people that was palpable. It had nothing to do with institutions or ideology or any kind of organized morality. It was just a very basic natural thing, that if someone was hungry, you should feed them. That's gone. That kind of connection between us has disappeared. And I thought, this is very strange, that has disappeared. Because it's such a basic part of the human condition, the tendency to want to be helpful.

So the other element I'd like to talk about is the sound track. I wanted collectively to represent how we see these people, as if we were in the privacy of our car, driving, and in a very, very bad mood. If you're by yourself and just in a wicked mood, not in the mood to feel compassion towards anyone, you might look at somebody like that person's a hustler. "Look at that bum.' And, "what a derelict." All those things you wouldn't generally say out loud, that you might say to yourself in your weakest moments. To put that [in the film] as counterpoint to what you were seeing seemed to address our collective bias towards the problem. In the third act, as you know, the words are repeated. My point was that I don't think you can say those words and look those people in the eyes. I don't think if you look that person in the eye, and say that person is a beggar. You look at that person's eyes and all you see is sorrow. I tried to chose the words with the set of eyes that was completely opposite from what was in their soul.

You used actual street people?

Yes, I worked a lot on Market Street, Van Ness, all the financial district. I must have been shooting about a year and a half on the street .... My shooting ratio was outrageous, about 16 to one, two and a half hours for a ten-minute film .... I'd go up to people and tell them that I was making a film about homelessness, about poverty, and that I would like to film them without revealing their identity, and that I had a couple of bucks to give them. I was only turned down a handful of times. Not to discount that couple of bucks, but I spent time with people telling them what I was doing. I was never rushed just to get the shot. I thought part of the process was not about stealing an image but about collecting images. There aren't people who are insane in the film because I didn't want to take advantage of them. You know, it's a dangerous thing to be doing out on the street with people who have such need. But I have an attitude. The longer I make films, the clearer it is to me that the whole gestalt of making them has a dramatic effect and is recorded on the work that you do.

Was the shooting ratio about getting the right image, or about exploring that world?

It took that much because when I would look at the rushes, you know, in a 400' reel or something there would be a couple of people I thought were really working as a shot. Lots of them were pretty marginal. It was just that it took a lot of film to get the images that I thought represented the problem collectively. I also wanted to be demographic in relationship to the eyes, men and women of all races and ages. Whatever insights I had along the way came in intervals after shooting a lot of film.

Did you think about using video?

No. Because I thought the electronic feeling would pull people into their television news experience of the events, and that we're saturated by the television's interpretation of the problem. I thought that film allowed me to project it at a scale where the audience could swim in it. And I knew that the music track was going to have a very profound effect upon your capacity to sympathize with the problem. So to combat our collective dullness that we've gotten from television news, video was never a possibility for this piece.

Ever shot in video?

Yes. In Between the Notes, which was in India. I'm very proud of it. My commitment to film instead of video has been based on the scale of it. I was a sculptor before I started making films. And the idea occurred to me very early on, and was very profound and shaped my use of film, Of the relationship between a, group of people in ancient times sitting around a fire and telling stories and. that, in fact, I was bringing the fire up to a horizontal. It was exactly the same phenomenological thing, telling a story around a fire, and watching a film projected in the dark 'That allowed me to see myself in a continuum that I was never able to perceive before. You know, I grew up with Irish people. I grew up with lots of people who could talk. I asked the p Irish actor John Molloy, from the Abbey Theater in Dublin, who is over here now, how do the Irish learn to talk? He said they were so poor that all they could put in their mouth was words. [laughter] He was talking, of course, about the famine and the repression by the English, where the Irish actually had to go out in the woods, in the bushes, to speak Gaelic, to speak Irish. They were so poor, all they could put in their mouth was words. That's my people. [laughter]

The other thing about this film [is that] every film I make is in another genre, which is terrible if you're trying to develop a career. I guess I'm beyond career. What I'm starting to figure out, after 25 years, is that I'm involved in a lifestyle. The grace of making films and tapes throws you into worlds that you would have never accessed otherwise. And in the process of recording your experience of being alive, you get to cross paths with people and situations that are greater than your personal experience. I have had the privilege of spending time with everyone from [American Indian activist] Dennis Banks to a holy man in India to working on merchant ship. All in pursuit of making art. And my grandfather worked in the shipyard. My father worked in the shipyard. My brother worked in the shipyard. I was the first one to escape the shipyard. I've begun to recognize that maybe if I haven't succeeded in creating a career, I've succeeded in creating a life.

I've always thought of you as a classic modernist, the art being essentially a spiritual process, about a freeing oneself from the prison of self and progressing toward a greater unity .. is that a fair assessment?

I probably wouldn't have put it so eloquently, but I do believe that I have bumbled my way into different perspectives, different environments. You know we're talking about hindsight here. Some of the pieces I've done have been commissions, but, generally, I've tended to take the opportunity or inclination to investigate something that interested me and that for periods of times absorbed my imagination. For the most part, that sustains me. Of course, I have in my studio office all the certificates from film festivals and grants I've gotten over the years, just to remind myself. Because making films is really very ethereal. The idea of making something that comes alive only in front of an audience is pretty esoteric. A lot of times, if you're struggling, you can forget that your work has gotten out there.

Unlike many other filmmakers at your stage, and after having made two features, you continue to make shorts.

The last feature film I made [Of Men and Angels] was in 1989. It got a European deal, but didn't get one in the U.S. and ultimately didn't pay for itself For the following three, years, I worked full time on a [feature] script and was not able to get the money to make it. I realized the writing alone was not nurturing me, that I had to continue to make films to keep my spirit alive. That it was more important to make films than to be constantly reaching for the brass ring of some kind of commercial product, or something that's going to get into general distribution. I mean [broke] is a poem. What's ironic in media for me is that whether I'm making a ten-minute film, or a 90-minute film, every one of them brings me to my knees. Every one humbles me in my lack of knowledge and understanding to make them work. I finally wrestle them to some conclusion that sometimes I'm satisfied with and sometimes not. But ... I've never been able to talk myself out of the idea that my purpose is to tell a story, in particular in film. I have never been able to talk myself out of that fact. With all the time I've been doing this, I still can't talk myself out of it. I don't know whether I have made a contribution or not, whether I've succeeded in any way in relationship to my expectations. But I still feel that my work is to continue doing it.

I hope younger artists know about empowering themselves in this way as they set out to face the usually cruel marketplace.

I worry about the generation of film and videomakers that are coming up because of the economic pressures on them. The good news is their age provides them with a level of energy that is going to overcome a certain amount of the collective inertia of the sinking empire. I hope their work gives them enough personal satisfaction to sustain them longer than their bursts of youth. I'm very hopeful because I feel we're desperate for storytellers. We're in a society that needs new stories. We need new myths. We need new heroes. We need new inspiration and understanding about what's it like to be alive in this part of the 20th century. And those storytellers are often making short videotapes and short films. I hope some day they're making CD-ROMS. A world without them would be a very bleak place. They're a fabric of the culture that's not celebrated, but without them .... well you know, I just got back from the East Coast. A friend of mine is very involved with trying to save the meadowlark. It's a songbird that's disappearing in New England because the land they like to nest in is more valuable for development. You know, back there, with all the pressures of surviving, the economics of an industrial area that's now suffering from no work, people don't care about whether the birds sing or not.

Astounding circumstance, isn't it?

In a world that doesn't favor songbirds, what are we going to do with the people who make poems and personal videotapes [laughter]? I mean, it's got to be a rough road for them.

In broke as in so many of your pieces, you have some very impressive collaborators. Tell us about these relationships.

I think I throw myself into it with such abandon that it tends to draw in other people who work with enormous intensity. Your own intensity creates a momentum. And then it's friends. I talked to a friend who is on the Kronos [Quartet] board. And the Kronos knew me because I had worked with Terry Riley. With [poet] Lyn Hejinian, I'm a friend of Doug Hall, her brother . [Composer] Todd Boekelheide I didn't know at all. But I went to Todd and told him what I was doing. Actually, he didn't like the film very much, but as he stared scoring it, he got into it. [laughter] I'll be forever grateful for what he brought to the piece. So I think, because I've been in the Bay Area long enough, I've created some momentum in relations to other creative people.

What do you hope for this short?

There are two levels. It will be a miracle if I ever get my money back, and I don't have any expectation of doing so. If it works, it will show in the [Film Arts] Festival and someone may reassess their point of view about the problem. Somebody called me who wasn't sure if they liked the film. They said, "Wow, it came back to me in my dreams." The film succeeds if it creates discussion about one's perspective on the problem. Urban poverty isn't going away. And, in a selfish way, it's affecting the quality of all of our lives. But to be organized, and to put your attention on the problem, collectively that is, takes great concentration. It's something about the landscape of being alive in this part of the 20th Century that you have an obligation to consider in more than a superficial way. If I could bring up these kind of issues for any individuals, I would be very pleased. To have made the film is of great satisfaction. To make it work for other people would be extraordinary. [laughter]

Can you keep your shorts in circulation?

They're all at Canyon Cinema and some prints are owned by museums here and there. Unfortunately, I'm not very organized in self-promotion and [the films] are souvenirs of a life led. Sometimes they're shown, they're rented. But I haven't gone out and sold myself which, in some way, is an obligation I am eventually obligated to take on.

Have your films been too esoteric for TV?

I've had things on television, but unless you are out there putting the effort into getting them seen and distributed, you can't expect the people to be knocking at your door. I hope to cut out some time to place the films. I mean, this film I'd like it to find its way into the high school curriculum, to stimulate the students to talk about their point of view of poverty.

I think it should be on P.O.V.

I sent it to them [laughter].

Citizen was in 1982. That must make it a granddaddy of independent feature filmmaking in the Bay Area?

Oh no, no. Rick Schmidt, Jon Jost, there have been lots of pathfinders. I also was friends with George Manupelli who did a Dr. Chicago series in the '60s with Alvin Lucier, which is one of the funniest series of feature films you'll never see, because it's not in distribution. So I had friends who were doing it for many years, who, in the face of all common sense, continued to tell stories about being alive. I'm part of a whole group of people. I'm part of a stream.

Well, I still say you're a modernist despite Citizen picaresque post-modernism.

By the early '80s I had several films out, shown on the film festival circuit and in museums, and I wanted to take on the longer form. The funny part about Citizen is I did a lot of research on anarchy. I even went to the jail in cast Boston where Sacco and Vanzetti were held. The robbery took place where I grew up. I was born in Quincy but I grew up in Braintree. The robbery allegedly by Sacco and Vanzetti was in Braintree. So I did research on anarchy, thinking that I was making a film about anarchy. After all was said and done the film wasn't about anarchy, but the making of the film was anarchy. It was a free-for-0. I intentionally kept the camera away from everybody. The style of the film is kind of a homage to Bertolt Brecht. I didn't want any close-ups. Well, not having close-ups has helped keep this film out of distribution for over 20 years. Hollywood people look at it and they say, "Well, we'd have to electronically rephotograph some of the shots for the close-ups and it would cost too much money." Citizen is raw as hell. But I think the energy in it, the records of these people walking the planet in the early '80s, alienated from institutions, is itself a raucous account of being alive. [laughter]

Your second feature, Of Men and Angels, was also ambitious as a more traditional narrative. How do you feel about the feel about your two features?

With Citizen, I rode the wave of film festivals. I was feted in Florence and went to Deauville in France. It opened at Sundance. I had a wonderful ride on that film even though it didn't generate any money. That it didn't find any kind of commercial outlets I always blamed on what aesthetically wasn't accomplished in the film. I didn't have the ghosts with Citizen that I did with Of Men and Angels. Of Men and Angels was a limited partnership. I asked a lot of people who believed in me to give me money to buy into the film. And no one got their money back. It laid me flat for about a year. I had very unrealistic expectations and I didn't succeed to the degree I wanted to aesthetically. I had a very hard time forgiving myself However, at this point, five or six years later, making of Men end Angels was like getting a Ph.D. in narrative filmmaking. I'm grateful I had the opportunity. [The film] probably had six subplots more than it needed. [laughter]

Have you been teaching over the years?

I taught a film class to graduate students and undergraduates for six years at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College. I stopped teaching for 13 years. Then I taught a directing class at California College of Arts and Crafts in 1993. Now, I'm at San Francisco State teaching a graduate class in cinema.

How have you seen students change?

It's very interesting. If people have dreams of making Hollywood films, they pretty much keep it to themselves. I find that there's an enormous momentum with the majority of students to want to tell their own stories. It's encouraging. Of course, everyone would like to have millions of dollars to tell their story. But I find that a lot of the students, in 1995, are very much committed to being artists. Which is amazing considering the economic pressures. Maybe, on some level, there's a convergence of need. The pressures on us today tend to make a lot of the population live at a less deep level. Maybe, the emergence of this energy of the young film and videomakers is coming from seeing their family, their parents struggling against the devaluation of our money, and the devaluation of the quality of life. Maybe ... an urgency to figure out what's important for them to be alive. It seems the stories they try to tell are very personal stories about themselves and their contemporaries. They seem to be issue driven. But sometimes the issues are subtexted and their stories are emotional stories. If you're this youngest generation and you've seen your parents, who have had some material success, still struggling for meaning and happiness in their lives, then that may just power you to move deeper, to try to experience life and reach out to life in a more meaningful way.

Tell us how Bill Farley became an artist.

Once again, things I muse upon. I grew up outside of Boston and my father was an Irish Catholic and my mother was Protestant. That was considered a mixed marriage when I was a child. So people looked at me a little strangely. My mother was American. But her father was from Scotland and her mother was English and had been in New England for a couple of hundred years. It was a Yankee Protestant marrying Irish Catholic. It was extremely controversial. My mother told me that some of her neighbors, some of the girls she'd gone to high school with, were forbidden to talk to her after she married my father. So, even as a child, the way people kind of looked at me skewed allowed me to look at being alive in a slightly skewed way .... The only book I read in high school was a book that was circulating among my friends, On the ,Road by Jack Kerouac. It had a very strong influence on me. It showed me a world I didn't even know existed. The other thing in high school [is that] I had gone pretty much to the nightclubs in Boston with phony IDs. I had seen, you know, Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, I even saw Lenny Bruce perform. Not knowing what I was doing, my extreme interest in the world brought me into places that I had no business being in. After high school, I went in the tradition of all my relatives into a factory. But all my life I used to draw. I used to do little drawings. They were a way for me to create a space for myself in a very small house that was filled with people. I lived with my grandmother who was born in 1880, died in 1970. She was born before electricity and saw them land on the moon. That was my mother's mother. It was a very small house. I always did drawings that comforted me. I don't know where they came from. I had an uncle who worked in a factory. I was about seven years old, and he brought over a roll of tracing paper. I ended up tracing everything, cracks on the floor, newspapers, linoleum. From that tracing, I started my own drawing. My mother showed my drawings to a woman who was an artist. The woman said, "Oh, he's very talented. He should go to art school." My mother suggested this to me. Not only had I never thought of it before, but it was like being paroled from jail. I thought it was the greatest idea I'd ever heard!

Your mother was an angel.

What a miracle! So I went to art school in Boston, and I went as a commercial artist, because coming out of the working class, you had to do something. If you were going to be creative, it had to be something you made money at. While I was in that school, there was a teacher, a young man who had just graduated from Yale, a painter named Bill Georgenes, who took me under his wing. He saw something in me that I did not see in myself He, in his very subtle way, turned me on to things as a student. That was the beginning of the path of being an artist. I had the great fortune to be tutored by people continuously. I graduated from that art school and was drafted into the army. I graduated from art school May 19. May 22, 1 was wearing a uniform. I didn't know what hit me. But again, the serendipitous thing .... after basic training the assignments were listed up. I was assigned a job as an army illustrator. And in the army you could take classes in your job and the army would pay for them. I ended up going to Maryland Institute College of Art, at night, and discovered sculpture. I came out to San Francisco on a merchant ship in 1969. 1 had never been on the West Coast. I hadn't traveled much at all. We went through the Panama Canal. We came under the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, late July. It was absolutely spectacular. The city was illuminated. The lights were coming up. The combination blew my circuits. We docked and I quit. [laughter] I jumped ship. I think I still haven't totally separated myself from the romance of that moment.

When did filmmaking come in?

When I was in graduate school, I took a film history class. The instructor said, "You can either write a paper about a film, or you can make a film." The idea of writing a paper was absolute terror to me.

You were so afraid of writing that you would even make a film?

I said, what the hell. Because it wasn't so far removed. At the time I was working as a conceptual artist. So all of my objects were about ideas. Also, there Was a real movement in sculpture to be doing videotapes. This is when videotapes were on reel to reel, and black and white. There was a level of permission I had never seen before. So by the time I got out of graduate school, I had more credits in film than in sculpture. [laughter] I was hooked. The camera has been my tool for self-discovery, recording what happens to me or what I'm thinking.

I'll tell you a story. I made this film, Marthain, which was about the idea of being Irish. I went to Ireland and walked around for two months with a camera and a tape recorder. I came back and spent a year cutting the film. The film was dedicated to my father and my Uncle Tom, his brother. I made it for those two men. I had an evening of films, including this film, at the [SF] Cinematheque in 1978 or 79. After the showing, a man came up to me. He was about 6'4", about 75 years old. One of his hands was the size of both of my hands. And he took my hand and shook it. He kept shaking it and thanking me in a very quiet way for making the film. And his face was the map of Ireland. He wouldn't let go of my hand. And I recognized that man. That was my father. It's hard even to tell the story. I recognized that all of my reasons for making that film were for that man. I didn't have to show that film anymore. The film had reached beyond anything that I could ever hope for. Those kind of moments inspire you for a very long time. They're so fundamental, they're not negotiable. I was not hallucinating. I was in real time. I had a very, very powerful experience of that man as the essence of my father and uncle. He gave me everything back at that one showing. What are one's expectations for being successful?

I love the phrase, "those kind of moments are not negotiable."

[laughter] What I was getting at was that no one could talk me out of it.