Western / Contemporary Color - Interview for Hammer to Nail

Interview for Hammer to Nail


With the premiere of the David Byrne-helmed color guard concert film Contemporary Color this week at TriBeCa Film Festival, Bill and Turner Ross shut the door on their lo-fidelity trilogy of documentaries that came before. Their previous films, including the most recent Western, were marked by a style best described by Agnès Sire: “No attempt is made to reassure the spectator. There are no captions…just a flow of images that must exist on their own terms, fragments of the ordinary.” Sire was describing the work of photographer William Eggleston, but the definition is perfectly applicable to the Ross Brothers’ style, each film a thoughtful snapshot of its subject presented to the audience as an encapsulation of a moment, consciously avoiding the clarity of high-definition images and the politicization of the outside world.

Not so with Contemporary Color. The film explodes with beauty in a Busby-Berkley-meets-The-Muppet-Show glitter bomb of joy and friendship that culminates in a brief glance to the politics of the outside world. Just before David Byrne (here characterized as a sweater-wearing Mr. Rogers who cheers on teams of color guard with seemingly uncontrollable fits of exuberant singing) takes the stage, we see a brief shot of a television playing in the backstage green room: a news report shows the White House lit in a rainbow. The Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage. In this small moment the film ascends into a document of America’s changing political landscape. How beautiful that Contemporary’s titular color might actually be a spectrum: the rainbow.

The trajectory from their previous film, Western, to Contemporary Color on its surface seems like a huge leap. The brothers shot the former over the course of a year with a pair of standard-definition DVX-100 cameras while the latter employs a team of camerapersons to catalogue two massive, single-night performances in 4K resolution. But a look back on Western with Bill Ross illuminates the path.

Even as the dealings of Mexican drug cartels threaten the business of cattle rancher Martin Wall, Western resists focusing on the larger, global scope of the problem and instead documents how the existence of cartels feels in every day life: as a leering, invisible threat, sensed but not seen. Thunder rolls over the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras, Mexico in a Shakespearian show of force, but the film punctuates itself with musical interludes, predicting and informing the musical structure of Contemporary Color. As the landscape of Western becomes increasingly threatening to its inhabitants, the Ross Brothers insist on focusing their camera on the porch-front, beer-in-hand conversations that take place amidst the fear. You can almost hear Contemporary Color’s Zola Jesus singing from the future, “I don’t want to see the world, I only want to see you.” We sat down with Bill Ross to dig deeper into Western as well as the Brothers’ latest, Contemporary Color.