Gary Tarn’s first feature Black Sun defies definition and categorization. Mostly screened at documentary film festivals, and soon to be shown on HBO, the film is more cinematic essay or visual poem than traditional documentary. It ostensibly tells the story of the French painter Hugues de Montalembert who was permanently blinded in 1978 when, during a violent scuffle, a mugger threw paint thinner in his face. In the film, de Montalembert, who is never seen on camera, narrates his own journey into blindness, partially by employing texts from his memoir, Eclipse. His speech, edited and scored like a piece of music, is laid by Tarn on top of a series of disparate images from around the world –– closeups of passing New York pedestrians, ritual dances from India, landscapes of Maine, architectural animation. Mixing de Montalembert’s voice, these images, as well as a haunting score composed by Tarn, the film becomes as much a visual and emotional experience for the viewer as it is a recapitulation of de Montalembert’s own experiences.
Ultimately Black Sun is not about blindness, but ways of seeing — anatomical, neurological, philosophical, spiritual, and cinematic. With each new story or meditation, the film reframes our vision of sight. At one point de Montalembert describes flying to India completely unaided and allowing the beggars at the airport to assist him. With this scary, heroic anecdote on having to rely on the seeing of others, the film raises the rarely considered ethical dimensions of sight.
But more than anything the film stretches our sense of how to “see” a movie. No doubt part of this comes from Tarn’s own background as a musician and composer. “After early success with a band,” relates Tarn, “I set up a studio at home and soon became very comfortable with technology.” Working with friends in advertising, Tarn quickly became adept at composing music to match ideas and images sent to him on storyboards. This work also led him to score the Quay Brother’s animated short film The Phantom Museum. “They let me do something very original,” recounts Tarn. “And afterwards I realized that this is what I liked doing. That’s what made my soul start to glow.”
BLACK SUN DIRECTOR GARY TARN.
Wanting more creative opportunities, Tarn waited for his artistic advertising friends to get started on the feature films they kept talking about so that he could score them. When this didn’t happened, he turned to himself.
“I was obsessive about film, about directing and cinematography,” acknowledges Tarn, “but it never occurred to me that you could do it yourself.” So picking up a Super 8 and then 16mm camera, Tarn started shooting. Yet he was far from making a film. As he admits, “I would rent an AVID, and it would sit up in my room.” While he was uncertain what to do next, Tarn knew he wanted to make a different kind of film. “There was a video shop very close to where I lived that had a section labeled ‘unclassifiable.’ That shelf contained all the films I loved, everything from Dziga Vertov to Koyaanisqatsi to The Thin Blue Line to Sans Soleil. [They were] all quasi documentaries that did not play by the rules and which also had strong cinematic and musical elements to them. These films demonstrated to me a film’s power to change your mood and change your perception of the world. If you have a great narrative film, when you come out of the theater that is where it ends. But these films had the power to linger a lot longer.”
While wanting to work in this “unclassifiable” genre, Tarn also wanted to avoid the pitfalls that befall much experimental work. “It was important for me to know how abstract a film you can make without making some wanky art piece. I am not interested in art films where I watch ten minutes and know what is going to happen in the next hour. I have spent too much time in galleries for me to want to make that.”
Before starting down the path that led to Black Sun, Tarn explored various directions and themes. “But I kept thinking about a book that I had read some 20 years ago,” he remembers. “At the start, I didn’t have the film at all planned out. All I had was a feeling for the film in my head. So I rang the publisher [of Eclipse], and told them I was an experimental filmmaker and I wanted to do 10 minutes on the book. Next I met de Montalembert in Paris and played him some music and showed some of the images I was working with. While he couldn’t see the film I had shot, there were people who described them to him.”
With de Montalembert on board, Tarn started the film in 1999. “We set up a DAT recorder and did a series of interviews,” he says. “The next step for me was turning that informal conversation into a grid. So I spent four months attacking the interviews. I would cut every single word, or every couple of words, to create these poetic phrases and then place them on a timeline.” To get the conversation to follow the rhythm of music, Tarn looked to examples like Glenn Gould’s radio piece “The Idea Of North.” “I liked the way he would treat those recorded voices as music,” explains Tarn. “Many people think that it was an actor or de Montalembert reading a script. But to end up with that poetic feel, I had to be meticulous about chopping the conversation up, gridding it and then giving it space.”
Tarn then looked to an experimental biopic about Gould, François Girard’s 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould for how to structure the piece. “I turned those phrases into chapters, even as the film sometimes blurs the lines between them. In putting them altogether, I knew the beginning was the attack, and the end was the [anecdote by a] Cambodian taxi driver.” Putting the rest of the story together was a bit of a puzzle. “Sometimes de Montalembert didn’t quite say the things I needed, but I knew the story was there. Trying to construct a narrative out of all these images and texts was a bit like making a sculpture –– there is a figure within this block, you just have to let it out.”
After structuring the basic narrative and inserting some images, Tarn took off to find more visual material. With a borrowed 16mm Canon Scopic, he traveled to New York, Maine, India, Iceland and parts in between in search of images. While he had a sense of what should be in each chapter, Tarn didn’t follow a script. He followed images as they presented themselves. “What I found is that I would shoot something as a matter of looking, following things around the corner, ending the shot where it made sense, like with a passing cab.”
Just as he got ready to finish his film, Tarn jokes, “real life encroached, and I met someone, and we had some kids, and time passed. Perhaps I wasn’t sure how to start climbing the mountain, though I talked about it a lot. Finally my wife said, ‘If you don’t go in there and finish that film I don’t want to hear about it.’ So I went into the studio in June of 2004 and came out in February 2005 with a finished film.”
With his film almost done he turned to producer John Battsek and Mexican film director Alfonso Cuarón for help. “I’d met Cuarón through my wife (who is friends with Cuarón’s wife), I asked him to take a look, and he really liked it. So right before he started shooting The Children of Men, we sat down with a DVD player and went through the rough cut, chapter by chapter.”
In the end, Tarn has created a film that speaks to every one differently. “I have no idea what to say it is about,” he says. “I suppose it offers a philosophical perspective on how life is lived. You can take a lot from that. People with much bigger brains than mine tell me all kinds of things about the film and insist that I must have meant them. For me it was important to leave open just enough to give people the space to interpret it as they would.”