Christopher Jason Bell has been making movies on the margin, funded only by himself and shot with a small crew as and when they can, for quite a long time now. He started in the late 2000s, and since 2015’s The Wind That Scatters he has released three features and one long-form series, two of which came out in 2023. But he takes this marginal position seriously, using his limited resources to follow characters, and the people behind them — the line between whom, as between fiction and nonfiction, is thin and blurred — who are seldom given space in bigger productions. They too are pushed away.
Currently, Chris lives in New Jersey, close, but at a slight remove from New York City, which Failed State (2023) is set in and, in part, takes as its subject. Maybe these distances are what allow him and his co-director Mitch Blummer to shoot the city without the sentimentality it’s usually rendered awash in. Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn, contained in a little glass box, becomes a neat and cutesy metaphor in Past Lives (2023, Celine Song), but is here intractable from its real context: it’s a vulgar, stupid monument to nothing, closing itself off from the suffering and economic strife that surrounds it.
Miss Me Yet, then, might seem like a swerve from Bell’s usual docu-fictions; each episode follows one year of George W. Bush’s administration utilizing only archival footage, but it too mixes nonfiction with fiction. Literally, in fact, in the sense that speeches and news footage of atrocities sit alongside advertising and prestige TV, but also more deeply in the way that in a world seen through the small window of television — which the series emulates beyond the necessity of footage — the lines between truth, lies, and soap commercials blur; it all becomes a kind of fiction, something to be passively engaged with. One can see through this fugue state, in the space between sharp cuts, but that doesn’t stop it. The fantasy continues, just as the world keeps on turning.
In January, I had the opportunity to video chat with Chris while he drove around, though I’m not sure where exactly he was going.
Esmé Holden: Miss Me Yet goes through the Bush years with Bush as the kind of main character of this little enclosed media world. What was the reason you wanted to go back to that time and to him as a figure?
Christopher Jason Bell: I started [the series] in 2014. I was really paying attention to how much he was being rehabilitated and it was really gross to me. So I thought it would be interesting to have a movie where you start with Bush and you do 9/11, you do the Iraq war, you do all the bad stuff that his administration did, and then you end with Bush on Ellen. I thought that was like a pretty intriguing concept for a movie, and I got so obsessed with it, which meant that I had to do it because nobody else was going to.
EH: That’s interesting because 2014 is Pre-Trump, and from moment one of the series [which features right-wing protestors calling for the vote count of the 2000 presidential election to be stopped], there are these more modern echoes.
CJB: It’s pretty interesting to go back and look through the footage and see how not different things were, or how you can see the seeds growing into something; seeds that were planted, how far back do you want to go in America? I tend to think in material terms and system terms, so making a film about Bush was always a little tough. I tried not to make him a main character by including pop culture and things that would broaden the scope, and I tried to pay some mind to not “the president,” but the presidency and the system around that seat of power.
EH: At the beginning of each episode, a title card says: “This is an attempt to recreate what the preceding years felt like.” What does that goal mean to you?
CJB: The series could never be everything, so I crafted it in a way that hopefully leads the viewer to see that it isn’t all encompassing. In the last five years or so I learnt more about Chile and Allende and the overthrow, and I think back on Bowling for Columbine [2002, Michael Moore], it has this montage of all the countries that were overthrown by America: Guatemala, Chile, and I was like, oh, I already knew that. But it got lost. Why didn’t these things stick? I wanted to make this series have a little more permanence. I think that was my attempt to make something more lasting for the audience.
EH: To stay on Michael Moore, actually: You’ve got to hit on some really big, famous moments, ones we’ve seen many times before, and it really struck me the way you present the moment when Bush is told about the second plane [hitting the towers on 9/11]. The Michael Moore version is super cut up to show the length of time he waits, and the callousness of that, but you hold in the seconds and really feel the panic; you see the little boy out of his depth. Was giving a different angle on these moments something you were thinking about?
CJB: Some of that is just ingrained style at this point. When I was learning about film, I got really into Michael Haneke and [Andrei] Tarkovsky and Chantal Akerman; slow cinema is in my blood. Something enticing about the project was to make it, I don’t want to say unintrusive, but I didn’t want there to be voiceover — I wanted the footage to speak; I knew there was power in there, and I didn’t want to crowd it. So, revisiting some of the more famous moments was to sit in them: let’s be in this moment and let’s see what happens.
For that in particular, I haven’t seen those Michael Moore movies in a long time, so I didn’t remember that. But obviously there’s the meme of [Bush] being whispered to, and everyone knows the clip where he says “watch this drive,” it was really amusing, but did anybody watch that drive? So we’re going to watch it, and see what that does for the feel of the greater project. I’m not even trying to reframe it, just giving it a chance to live a little bit longer.
EH: There was another series of moments that stuck out to me: the Christmas celebrations and those awful dog videos [comedic sketches in which members of the Bush administration, including the man himself, tell Bush’s dog Barney that he has to decorate to White House for Christmas]. What made you want to return to them over and over? Every year we see another dog video and the same celebrations all over again.
CJB: It was too good to give up. The Barney videos were a real discovery. It was impossible not to include them because with every president — at least in modern history, maybe increasingly so after Kennedy — there was an idea of performance, and if you’re doing something about Bush where you’re talking about rehabilitation and him going on Ellen, you’re talking about the performance. So to have these videos where literally the president is acting, and his family is acting, his dog is acting, Karl Rove is acting… it’s a kind of remarkable discovery that was sitting in front of our faces. I’m surprised we don’t all watch these things.
And then the idea of these Christmas celebrations with terrible things happening; I didn’t want to be too glib or obvious about it, but you have to sit with that as well. He’s making goofy videos with his dog as people in this country and not in this country are being murdered. Is it on the nose? Okay, but it also happened, it was a real thing. I mean, America is not subtle.
EH: You don’t just show footage of Bush, or the things he’s talking about, to show he’s lying. You also show TV shows and ads, and to me that reads as showing reality starting to blur together; all television becomes a bit fictional. Do you think that was something that was really present or escalated in this period?
CJB: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That’s definitely in there. I would say it’s the overall media apparatus, the propaganda machine, with politics that feed into one another; one gives and one takes. They have a conversation with one another. In terms of Bush, he’s very into born-again Christian values — and forget that he’s killing people, that people are dying on his watch and that it can easily be prevented — he professes to believe in sanitary Christian values. And then on the flip side, you have very sexual sitcoms, like Friends, and you have that soap commercial where a woman loves the soap so much that she’s orgasming in the shower. So of course, it’s very funny, but the way these things feed off one another wasn’t exactly new. It’s an interesting evolution from television to the 24-hour news cycle, and then, something the series doesn’t necessarily get into: the birth of the Internet.
EH: Another choice I found interesting was that at the end of each episode, you puncture the little media bubble with title cards [that bluntly explain some of the on- and off-screen atrocities]. Obviously, that information is useful, but what were you trying to achieve with that sharp effect?
CJB: Yes, perfect. I was trying to do Metal Gear Solid. Do you know Metal Gear Solid?
EH: Not really.
CJB: Okay, I love the series, so if it sounds like I’m making fun of it, I’m not. It’s a spy action-stealth game, and it’s got a lot of big ideas about everything, and a lot of their endings are very long. There are a lot of cut scenes, and then it’ll show you white text over black; you’re treated to these very emotive cutscenes and then something very stark, very simple and quiet that you have to sit with. And then you would get more cutscenes, so it would go back and forth until the ending was over. That was the kind of thing I wanted to replicate.
I had early test screenings, and some people wanted more information, and because I didn’t want to bulk it up with title cards and I never wanted to have voiceover, I decided that this would be the best for what I wanted to do. And after watching each episode and all the things that happened in them, it was an interesting comedown.
EH: And like you were saying about the Metal Gear Solid games, you come to that ending and then go straight back into it again; it’s a kind of cycle. I think that’s interesting, and accumulative as well.
CJB: The series was supposed to be a movie, but it was a three and a half hour movie, and a friend of mine, filmmaker Zach Fleming, said “what about a series? It’s kind of a lot.” At first I was like “fuck that,” but I thought about it and he was correct. The way that people watch things now, like binge watching is a thing, they would end up watching it as a movie anyway. So it’s the best of both worlds: someone can watch it at their own pace, and you still get that cumulative feeling that I wanted.
[If Miss Me Yet showed the process of being consumed by the abstraction of entertainment, where everything becomes democratized, distant and unreal — by the last episode, Bush’s transformation is complete and he has become a character for video games, talk shows, and an interactable museum exhibit where the audience choose what they would have done in his shoes — then Failed State shows the material world that was left behind.
In that film Dale A. Smith plays a version of himself, searching for any connections he can find in the five minutes between the freelance deliveries that send him all across a rundown and Covid-struck New York City, directed only by a mysterious voice across the phone (played by David Hayter, who voices Solid Snake in the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid series), who asks more and more absurd things from a man with an independent spirit but little choice.]
EH: Moving on to Failed State, the first thing I want to talk about is Dale. You’ve made a couple of shorts with him before [The Finger & Trammel], and he’s such an interesting presence, very actorly. He’s affable and charismatic as a guy and as a performer, but there are things he doesn’t show to the camera the way an actor does. Basically, my question is: who is this guy?
CJB: If you’ve seen the movies, you know him; that’s basically who he is.
I’ve known him a really long time. I met him in college, which was maybe 2005 or 2006, when I was in an Arrested Development MySpace group. The creator of it was a film student at NYU, and he was shooting his thesis film and said he needed extras. I thought it’d be a good way to meet people, and then I met Dale — Dale was an extra too — so I talked to him, and then I just kept running into him on sets. For a long time, he was just being an extra because that was interesting to him. And for a long time, I was trying to figure out something for him, a way to use his specific personality and tool set. It was kind of a long process, but we finally did it.
EH: Is he an actor of some kind? Does he want to act, or is this just something he was doing?
CJB: I don’t think he really pursues acting, but he enjoys being on set. I think it’s been a while since he’s done any extra work, because what he does in Failed State is what he does for a living: delivery, and mostly he’s focused on his day job.
EH: Failed State mixes reality and fiction in a similar way to Iranian New Wave films, which I read you talking about in another interview. How was the movie constructed? Did you sit down and write a script, or was it just talking and letting scenes play out?
CJB: My co-director Mitch [Blummer] is a DP, and he was bored. He wasn’t getting any jobs, so he was just going out and shooting. And Dale just walks around and delivers, he never stops delivering. So we figured out a way to work together and make something. Mitch had followed Dale for a day, just on his job, and he sent me the footage to cut together to see if there was something there — and there was.
We did have a script, but dialogue would be a few topics that they could talk about. And it eventually just kept evolving; we were always rolling with things in a way that would let them develop. Whether it was something somebody said or the way they did something, or something Dale reacted to; we would write a scene out of it and follow that thread. So it was pretty loose and fun — we just tried to keep it organic. The gist always was that he works and he meets these people, but everything is strained by how much he has to work. We kept that baseline.
EH: On that note, obviously Dale is living on the very edges of this system, at its very harshest point, but he never really articulates it. He’s the type of guy to just say: “That’s work. That’s the way things are.” Is there something you found interesting in the disconnect between the really stark and the fact that it never quite gets spoken about?
CJB: It’s a Gramscian thing. When you’re living day to day and paying bills, it is what it is. There is a lack of hope that I’ve noticed whenever I talk to people, if I talk to family members or people in my workplace; there is a feeling that it can never get better. It’s a real feeling that I take seriously. I do find it very interesting. I find it very sad; I don’t think there’s many avenues for someone to even act upon that.
I was depressed, too, writing this. It was the first thing since Covid. In that sense, I wish I could have written something more optimistic and hopeful, but… it was sad. I didn’t know how else to do it because we went through this crazy virus, to some kind of shutdown, and then we didn’t even get healthcare in the end.
EH: One thing I noticed was that a lot of people were wearing masks, but Dale seems to only wear one when the person he’s talking to is. Was that a practical choice, or a more pointed one?
CJB: That’s just Dale. But, what did you think of that? How did you take it?
EH: Well, I thought it was interesting for someone who, by the nature of his job, is going to be coming into contact with probably the maximum amount of people possible. It stuck with me when he’s talking about his health and another character asks if he’s worried he’s going to get sick, and he responds: “I’m just not going to get sick.” There’s a sense that he’s just not able to think of that possibility because there is nothing that can be done if he does get sick; he can’t get sick because otherwise he’s fucked, so he can’t even take precautions.
CJB: We’re always playing with the disconnect and all the contradictions; we try to incorporate them into the story. I agree with what you said: it’s just another despairing moment, a weird unconscious acceptance. And what is it about society and the world we live in that would lead someone there? Some of these contradictions don’t have a comfortable resolution, if you ask me; they can’t be resolved within the system we’re living in, they can’t be resolved individually. How does one do some sort of communal project if they’re made to run around the city all day delivering things? Yeah, he’s got five minutes, but he’s not going to start a project in the five minutes between deliveries, obviously. He carves out a social life because he doesn’t really have any other option. But that’s good, there’s potential there; that’s the hopeful thing.
EH: There’s a scene near the end where we see Dale being filmed, and it sits somewhere between being another of the increasingly absurd things he has to do for his job, and showing the production of the movie we’re watching. I saw some self-critique in that scene, maybe the futility or even the cruelty of representing these things with the person who has to live them.
CJB: Yeah, it is self-critical. I don’t put these things in to be a get-out-of-jail-free card; I also don’t think I should go to jail. But I do wrestle with things like that because making a movie takes a really long time, especially the way I do it. All of them have been mostly self-funded by me, and they’re micro-budget with very little crew. We shoot when we can over the period of a year or two, and you wonder if that’s time better spent doing other things. You wonder if you’re moving the needle.
I feel like I’m cursed. I want to express myself using the medium of film. If I’m going to make something, then it’s important to show that things can be a different way. By that, I mean something as simple as doing something a little different than how things usually are, like in the way the film works or in the way the story is told. If it makes someone think a little bit differently, I think that’s probably a good thing to do. But, you know, I’m not actually changing someone’s life in a material way.
EH: I think that’s the internal conflict with any seriously political filmmaker, right? It comes down to how useful is or isn’t filmmaking; that’s always going be the question.
CJB: Yeah, and I wanted to be honest about that.