What the Living Do: Mike Gibisser’s ‘World of Facts’

Filmmaker Spotlight: World of Facts and dialogue with Mike Gibisser

FilmScene — Thursday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m.

Gretchen Akers and Alex Stein in Mike Gibisser’s ‘World of Facts.’ — video still

Filmmaker Mike Gibisser’s World of Facts (2018), filmed in Iowa City, is not a meditation on grief so much as a metabolizing of it.

“I like that word,” Gibisser says. “Maybe because it suggests how the waiting becomes part of you, part of your routine.”

Gibisser, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies for the department of cinematic arts at the University of Iowa, was recently awarded an Obermann Center for Advanced Studies 2019 Interdisciplinary Research Grant. World of Facts will screen at FilmScene on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. followed by a Q&A with the director. Tickets are free for students, $6.50 for the general public.

This film often fixes on moments in between action. It’s a generous impulse to have the audience spend so much time in the space of waiting (in hospitals, at bars, in bed) that we all share at some point, at some time.

Bryan Saner dances, in ‘World of Facts” (2018). — video still

World of Facts follows Maureen (Gretchen Akers), whose partner is unexpectedly hospitalized, precipitating her move back home while he’s under his family’s care. Maureen’s father, Peter (Bryan Saner) is in a situation that twins her own, as he cares for his hospitalized partner, who is dependent on a ventilator for air.

Though the film is often punctuated by silences or prolonged long takes that underscore the camera’s unwavering gaze, there are also eruptions of movement, most often in the form of dance. The dances, performed by Saner, gesture towards an embodied experience of grief that dance can express, but not verbalize.

Gibisser cites Notes on Gesture as a text that describes the gesture as “communication of a communicability … the gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language.” And throughout this film, Maureen and Peter exist in that liminal landscape where nothing is figured out and everything is tenuous. To quote the Paul Auster memoir that lends the film its name, it’s a space both intimate and irritable, a realm of “brute particulars.”

The first shot of the film is of Maureen and her partner, Ted (Alex Stein), asleep in bed. The shot lingers, luminant. Gibisser recalls the shooting of this scene: “[I] asked the actors to take their places and made the crew wait quietly in the room for 20-30 minutes, hoping the actors would get into some semi-drifty state,” he said, intimating that the suspension of time in the narrative is also conducive to the filmmaking process, too.

Gibisser added, “One of the first images I thought about for the film was of the couple in their apartment at sunset with the faint sunlight coming in through the open windows, and I imagined it in the kind of under lit, bluish or slate tones. I felt that the muted palette fit with the tone of the film.” While Gibisser said that “the trick was not pushing [the bluish palette] too far so it felt overt or cliché,” the muted tones of the film both serve the narrative themes and also evoke both loss and longing. It’s a color that’s both understated and fertile for thematic, associative possibilities.

Gretchen Akers as Maureen in ‘World of Facts.’ — video still

World of Facts is about “grief in its complexity: grieving for change, anticipation for the possibility of grief,” Gibisser said. But there are also interjections of humor that affirm and make space for joy. Another long take, this time of a hand planar on the carpet while an exercise video plays off-screen, is almost absurd: The camera’s stasis undercuts the huffs of breath, the exercise instructor’s snappy instructions. In a separate sequence Maureen, her sister and their father dance with abandon to Zebra Katz’s “Tear the House Up,” limbs helter skelter, momentarily unfettered from loss and uncertainty as they get down with the beat.

In Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do,” she writes, “What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to / pass. We want / whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss — we want more and more and — then more of it.” World of Facts is a film that both affirms the wants of life and the consequences of loss. The wants are almost impossible — to want, not death, but to be released from waiting, to allow ourselves grief at that moment when, as Howe ends the poem, “I am living, I remember you.”

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