All posts by Ken Paul Rosenthal

About Ken Paul Rosenthal

Ken Paul Rosenthal is an independent filmmaker, photographer, educator and activist. His films are visually sensual, emotionally intelligent works of art that also function as tools for personal and societal transformation. Ken’s current projects are poetic mental health documentaries that weave personal, societal, and musical narratives through natural and urban landscapes, home movies, and archival social hygiene films. He is the recipient of a Kodak Cinematography Award, numerous festival awards, and is widely recognized for his media work in mental health advocacy. His Mad Dance Mental Health Film Trilogy has collectively won seventeen awards, screened internationally in fifty-eight film festivals, is circulated by 236 academic libraries, and been presented at dozens of peer support networks, universities, mental health symposia and community events worldwide. Ken holds an MA in Creative & Interdisciplinary Arts, an MFA in Cinema Production, and has taught film as a means of cultivating personal vision in workshops and universities in North America and abroad.

May 27: The Language of Extermination

May 27: The Language of Extermination

“I don’t want to talk about winning the war on bi-polar, walking to end suicide, and eradicating mental illness. This language of extermination is very harmful. I see how we perpetuate this language of a fix, of curing something because we have no place for extreme emotional states in our consensus reality. Maybe we don’t want to recover into a world that we feel sick in. We actually want to actively create sustainable worlds where all of our complexities are valued.”
– Bonfire Madigan Shive

Comment: Bravo if it works for you. For me, I’m still trying to figure out how to live in the middle of the extremes, because the extremes are not happy places for me or the people around me, and the creativity that came with the extremes took a huge toll on me. The last 30 years have been not much but misery, and at last I’m finding some sort of balance in the liminal space between ‘either’ and ‘or’. If one doesn’t have children or dependents it may be easier to justify living in an extreme emotional state for the sake of some idealised sense of purpose or higher spirituality; but I have two kids and the last thing I ever wanted to do was fuck them up. They didn’t ask to be born merely as witnesses to my madness; they don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve having a mother who views suicide as a ‘transformation’, or mania as ‘an emergence of flight’. So I will seek normalcy, or some semblance of stability, thank you, for their sakes as well as mine. – V.

Reply: Hello V. I’m very sorry to hear about your 30-year struggle, but glad that you are now finding some sort of balance. As with the suicide quote below, I am aware that it’s challenging to understand these statements as intended when removed from the broader context of the film and the lived experience of the character that Whisper Rapture portrays. Madigan not only has children of her own and experiences with suicide that I will leave for the completed film to detail, she was a founding collective member of The Icarus Project, of which a core value is navigating the space *between* brilliance and madness. I respect your opinions in regards to your life, but in relationship to my film or our movement they are entirely inaccurate.

In the above quote, Madigan is not saying she doesn’t want people to end their suffering! She is inferring that our societal narrative around recovery is about quick fixes independent of exploring the deeper roots of our problems and complexities. In fact, it’s the suppression of the latter that compounds our suffering. Many years ago, I too yearned for ‘normalcy’ to offset my internalized feelings of ‘abnormality’. But as a square peg, I’ve come to realize I’m too multi-faceted to fit into our culturally mediated round hole of normalcy. And for many of us, the harder we try and shove ourselves into that hole, the greater our suffering.

Madigan is challenging us to rise up and “…actively create sustainable worlds where all our complexities are valued.” This is neither an easy nor idealized path, but a crucial one to undertake because it flies in the face of the restrictive diagnose and drug mind set of mainstream psychiatry. We all yearn for stability, but how we define that is a unique experience for each of us. There are a lot of differently shaped pegs out there!

Whisper Rapture portrays a unique and courageous visionary who transposes her madness into music and mental health advocacy. I pray that Madigan’s journey and my film will inspire your path towards wellness, however that best unfolds for you. – K

May 25: An Urging for Emergence

May 25: An Urging for Emergence

To commemorate the home stretch of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve been posting a few lines from the Whisper Rapture script on my Facebook timeline each day from May 22 to May 31. Some of the more provocative quotes have elicited comments that I in turn replied to with as much clarity and compassion as I could muster. I’d like to share some of the more insightful exchanges over the next few blog posts. Here’s the first:

“I came to believe that suicide is a deep, deep urging for emergence. We want to be mid-wifed, we want to become another us, another possibility. So maybe it’s not just wanting to die, it’s wanting to be transformed.” – Bonfire Madigan Shive

Comment: Madigan, is there some context that slightly changes the punch of this? I mean…I get it, but maybe I don’t get it coming from you. I understand pushing the natural tendency for self destruction that is a part of so many of us to be something that is not a flaw, but a function…maybe it just doesn’t jive with past conversations we’ve had. Maybe I need to ponder on it and write you later to integrate this statement into those in the past. – N.

Reply: Hello N. As the director of the film, I hope you don’t mind my responding to your concerns. I am aware that this is a very provocative statement. And even more so, when isolated from the broader context of the chapter in which Madigan further extemporizes on these reflections. In fact, during our interviews, I asked Madigan to readdress and temper her initial way of articulating suicide as a means of “wanting to change your identity as you’re living it in this moment” into a more accessible and expansive expression–to change the ‘punch’ as you aptly worded it. And she did so beautifully by including the words, ‘mid-wifed’, ‘possibility’, and ‘transformed’. The focus is on the path, not the end. I’m very conscious of language and my invitation into the progressive mental health movement, as exemplified by The Icarus Project, was to develop fresh language and metaphors to discuss extreme emotional states that were otherwise defined by the pathologizing constraints of mainstream psychiatry.

Radical mental health is not about romanticizing psychological distress in any shape or form! What we do is find authentic and inclusive ways to discuss experiences in a mad society that has traditionally not offered the tools and community to heal ourselves. My films are a conscious attempt to create compassionate, community based antidotes to the conventions of mainstream mental health care as well as the standard documentary form. In no manner whatsoever do I wish to deny the distress from anyone’s lived experience or the friends and families of those who suffer. This is intense stuff and it’s triggering for me even to make the films. So I really do respect your concerns and anyone who is sensitive to suicide, be it in the form of ideation or ending a life. Just as there may be many polarities of experience within a bi-polar diagnosis and hearing voices isn’t always about hearing an actual voice, one’s relationship to suicide can manifest in various forms and feelings apart from dying.

Upon reviewing all ten of Madigan’s quotes from the in-progress film, I hope you will recognize that our mission is to offer an alternative way to think, feel, and talk about our mental health so that all of our complexities are valued. – Ken

February 9, 2017: Macrobiotic Filmmaking

February 9, 2017: Macrobiotic Filmmaking

Like a macrobiotic diet, my film practice is sustained by harvesting images locally and seasonally. The term ‘macrobiotics’ means “big life”, from the Greek words “macro” and “bios”. The images I seek are all within gazing, walking, and biking distance of my front doorstep. When I film a Fall moon through barren branches, Winter rain trickling across a car hood, multi-hued reflections on a swollen Spring creek, and Summer fog tumbling over a hill, I’m ingesting images that live and grow in my region at a very specific time of year. Although the conditions that produce these images are much bigger than me, filming them is like taking a bite of the world so it can nourish me from within.

The time-lapse sequence below was gleaned from the window beside my dining room table, at a rate of one frame every twelve seconds over the course of three and a half hours. The animate interplay of dusty glass, metal fencing, and sun cast shadows is an intimate reflection of living in tune with nature—the core principal of macrobiotics. The music track is Madigan’s composition, Heart of Hearts, performed and recorded in Grace Cathedral Church, San Francisco. In the completed film, this sequence will function as an interstitial pause for the audience to sit with feelings stirred by the narrative, before the final song. In/joy this at full screen by clicking on the arrow icon in the lower right hand corner.

January 9, 2017: Embodying Voice

January 9, 2017: Embodying Voice

The singular challenge of making a first person documentary in which the featured subject is not seen speaking is how to embody their voice. Positioning the interviewee in a setting that compliments their ideas or vocation as they direct their attention towards an unseen interviewer has always felt contrived to me. So what will we see when we hear Madigan narrate the story of her life?

Inspired by a fashion photographer’s video short that presented dancers moving through space in extreme slow motion, I envisioned a series of tableaus that would feature Madigan silently playing her cello in a variety of staged and natural environments. By slowing down her trademark kinetic performance style, the emotional fabric of Madigan’s inner world becomes graphically embodied in the undulating material of her clothing. I searched two dozen first and second hand stores for an outfit with a texture and weight that would allow light and shadow to slip and slide against one another like the surface of a tempestuous ocean. Slowing down Madigan’s wicked bowing, kicks, and cello spins also reveals a nuanced realm of facial expressions and physical gestures which I can align with key moments in her voice-over as I edit. Unlike conventional lip sync, I am animating Madigan’s voice and amplifying her spirit. This method of embodying voice becomes a more deeply felt experience for the viewer because they are actively connecting sound and image.

Whisper Rapture’s narrative arc follows a woman who moves from being overwhelmed by her shadow towards embracing it. As you can see from the frame stills below, the tableaus parallel this transformation over the course of a prologue and six chapters. Madigan is initially wearing white against a dark background to portray the shadow surrounding her. By the end of the film, she is wearing black against a luminous backdrop to portray the shadow nestled within her. Each tableau is followed by one of six original music compositions.

The Prologue introduces us to Madigan’s magical and itinerant childhood roots. She is playing cello in a lush cathedral of ivy-strewn trees on Mount Davidson, in San Francisco, California.
Mount Davidson

Chapter 1 recalls the traumas of Madigan’s mother, and Madigan meeting her childhood fantasy companion, Whisper. She is playing in a black box theater space.
Cello Arm Wrap

Chapter 2 presents Madigan’s discovery of the cello.
Cello Kick 1

Chapter 3 explores Madigan’s experiences with the mainstream mental health system and hearing voices. She is jumping into the bottom of the frame with the aid of an off screen trampoline. This sequence will be twice as slow as the other tableaus so that Madigan will appear to hover like a hummingbird.
Jump 1

Chapter 4 addresses Madigan’s struggles with suicidal ideation. We lit her from the rear and sides to produce a thin silhouette.
Silhouette 1

Chapter 5 offers Madigan’s fresh language for discussing madness. She is on a cliff off Highway 1, south of Half Moon Bay, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Ocean Cliff Standing 1

Chapter 6 connects the survivorship of Madigan’s mother to her music and activism.
Ocean Cliff Sitting

Lastly, here’s an assortment of production stills from some of our tableau shoots.
Jason Black Box Shoot

Mt Davidson Shoot 1

Mt Davidson Shoot 2

Ocean Shoot

January 3, 2017: Why It’s Worth It

January 3, 2017: Why It’s Worth It

A recent post on the documentary film listserv, Doculink, posed the question: “Is making documentaries worth it?” Here is my reply:

One day, back in 2005, I returned home to find a magazine on the coffee table featuring an essay called, Anatomy of Flight, which detailed Jacks McNamara’s challenge to authentically navigate the space between brilliance and madness. I was immediately inspired to make Crooked Beauty, a documentary that was as novel in form as was the radical language and progressive principles that Jacks used to address their mental health struggles. And given how prescient the subject matter was, I intuited it was time to get out of the ‘studio of my mind’ and make a film that would inspire tangible change for communities in need. That is why it’s worth it.

We make documentary films to indulge our private passion for a particular subject while offering the public a means to refresh their most steadfast values and beliefs. All the better if you can cultivate community with your work on the grass roots level. I never imagined myself as an activist or advocate for any cause or issue no matter how much I identified with or supported it. But after seven years of presenting my mental health themed docs in venues of every size and stripe imaginable, I’ve discovered that worth is defined less by the number of awards and critical accolades one’s film might garner, and more by the palpable, collective inspiration felt by people yearning for transformation.

J–, please try this: write out the ‘purpose’ (a better word than, ‘worth’) of your work–whatever that might be–in one sentence. I don’t mean to over simplify the complex, logistical challenges of making a documentary film. But I do believe that clarifying one’s purpose and going to bed and waking up with that can be liberating. For example, mine is: I am committed to making emotionally immersive films that help alleviate human suffering by cultivating beauty and building community through live, conscious dialogue.

Given today’s unsettling political climate, I truly, passionately believe that making a documentary film based on no more that one’s personal interest in the subject is shortchanging our selves, our work, and our communities of a vital opportunity to experience meaningful, even transcendent, change. To consider one’s audience is to make ‘worth’ manifest.

January 2, 2017: Weaving Light

January 2, 2017: Weaving Light

I tramped through the forest on Hornby Island, grateful to be weighed down by twenty-five pounds of digital camera gear rather than twenty-five canisters of analog film. Though giddy at the prospect of recording hours of footage on a thumbnail sized card, I still felt driven to make critical choices about which images to harvest. Why film a spider web as the obvious product of an insect’s handiwork when a slight twist of the focal ring can transmute that same web into an undulating veil of light? Literally illustrating Madigan’s song lyrics with readily identifiable images would unnecessarily turn the music inwards upon itself. On the other hand, forsaking representation for abstractions transforms the forest into a habitat of metaphors where more expansive feelings and ideas can take root. I am not producing a parade of pretty pictures. I am cultivating an ephemeral field of colorful cadences, shimmering idiosyncrasies, and dark impressions as a broader stage for Madigan’s traumatic, transcendent, and redemptive music. This is the web I weave.

Spider Web Hornby 1

January 1, 2017: Swinging in the Rain

January 1, 2017: Swinging in the Rain

On August 1, 2014, the day after I took my very last psych med, I traveled to Hornby Island in British Columbia for a one-month residency where I’d learn how to use my first digital SLR camera; a Canon 5D Mark lll. Hornby Island had a population of 800, a downtown consisting of no more than a food co-op, a café, and a gas station, and no street lamps at night. There was nothing to distract me other than my fear of turning on my camera. That fear was a more powerful deterrent than the sunless skies, frequent rainstorms, and assortment of Seinfeld DVDs I had brought with me. Compared to the direct and intuitive relationship I’d developed with analog cameras over the past thirty-five years, my initial experiences with digital cameras felt serpentine and mediated. The pixilated LCD screens, endless user menus, buttons, and dials confounded me. I studied the 5D manual, poured through numerous online forums, sought the advice of shop technicians and professional filmmakers—but never turned on the camera. Not once.

Late one afternoon, almost two weeks after my arrival, I was napping in a small cabin in a forest of ferns and redwoods as the rain pounded the roof. Lying on my back, I saw an irresistible performance of crystalline water droplets dancing on the skylight. I pointed my camera towards the ceiling, flipped on the power, and was stunned by the 5D’s charcoal-like rendering of light and shadow. As I gently turned the focus ring, pools of crisp raindrops and silhouetted redwoods mingled in the space between glass and forest. I composed the image and was moving my finger towards the record button when the rain suddenly stopped and the night fell like a stage curtain. Luckily, I awoke the following morning to a hearty downpour and quickly harvested the very first image for Whisper Rapture. It was love at first sight and I kissed my camera smack on its hot shoe.

Skylight Rain Hornby 1

Skylight Rain Hornby 2

March 20, 2015: Welcome to the Whisper Rapture Blog

March 20, 2015: Welcome to the Whisper Rapture Blog

This mindful memoir will chart the evolution of my music and mental health documentary, Whisper Rapture: A Bonfire Madigan Suite. With heart in hand, I will guide you along my serpentine and mercurial path as I nurture this cinematic symphony to fruition. I will share my tribulations and triumphs, my cultivations and revelations, and my dances with divinity. I will also stitch, tangle, and unravel the intertwined threads of creativity and madness – a beautiful mess ripe with shadows and luminosity. To Oz!

Puddle_66A2306

How I Make Film

“Seeing is an act of creation.”   – Thomas Walther, Photographer

I neither shoot nor record images. Shooting propels one’s intentions towards the subject, while recording wrests an image from its native place. What can the world present to me outside of a climate-controlled sound stage, unfettered by the dictates of a script, and uncluttered by expectations? Where will I harvest that dialogue? How does the sentient earth invite me to cultivate a dynamic exchange?

70_House_Sidewalk_Shadows

I seek a more participatory relationship with the animate landscapes and city surfaces within hiking and biking distance of my front door. A quivering tree branch beckons like a finger; a splash of light winks at me from a shimmering puddle; restless shadows on a building side are passageways for my curiosity. These configurations of textures and gestures distinguish themselves by virtue of their fundamentally ephemeral nature; they are borderless, mutable, shape shifting entities. Engaging them is a process of deep listening with my eyes. I hear them call me from within my field of vision, and I respond by tenderly pointing my attention in their direction.

12_Fence_GG Park 2

Even though ‘image’ is at the root of imagination, I must hold lightly to any conceit that I am producing – or even finding – an image. Leaves and chain link fences rustle in anticipation of an indeterminate score as I raise my camera lens like a conductor’s wand. Then I roll the focus ring from side to side, and cast my curiosity back and forth through deep space until an image suddenly manifests quite literally from thin air. The images that enter my camera are offered to me. I often bow to my subject after I’ve received an image because making film this way is an act of gratitude. And a dance. Not forcing my ideas onto my subject keeps me from stepping on its toes. The world keeps spinning and light slips quickly! Each image is written on the wind and can evaporate as immediately as it appears. I am a kite, shifting and composing my self and my camera in relation to the animate mood of my subject.

Lands End_66A2337

The world and I play one another like instruments – a graceful, empathetic, and harmonious orchestration of light and sight. As image after image coalesces like notes in a musical passage, my muscles and bones begin to vibrate like cello strings. The edges of my flesh and the borders of my heart disappear. No longer a vessel for anger or a mechanism of madness, I am humbly suspended in Wonder, Contentment, and Compassion. I feel indefinably large and intimately woven into all matter – into the Divine. There is no self. There is no film. Only the pure, unfiltered, sustained breath of the ineffable.

72_Tree_Abstract Light_Lower Haight 1

What’s Up, Doc Opera?

Whisper Rapture is the echo of an enduring exchange that extends outwards like ripples from a stone tossed into a vast pond. Although my process of manifesting images is serendipitous, even magical, I have concrete plans for the film’s formal structure and how I hope to effect a palpable sense of bliss and illumination within the viewer.

43_Muir Woods Water

My first step, after months of harvesting thousands of images as described above, is to arrange each and every one of them into carefully annotated subject categories. For example, a folder labeled, Trees, will contain sub-categories of tree iterations such as; Trees With Sun Balls, Tree Shadows, and Trees Surrounding Telephone Poles. After placing one of Madigan’s songs into my editing platform’s timeline, I’ll begin choosing images with visual pulses and vibrations that rhythmically compliment the music, rather than how specifically they illustrate a particular song lyric. I’m deliberately foregoing a Bonfire Madigan stage performance because her music is the featured character of the film. Embodying her songs instead of literally picturing her words allows the images to perform the songs and invites the viewer into a more emotionally immersive space in which to receive the music. For more detailed insights about how and why I construct alternate representations of talking heads in documentary film, please see my essay, Crooked Beauty and the Embodiment of Madness.

28_Kitchen Table_Washing Machine 5

I’m thrilled to liberate myself from the conventions of continuity editing in favor of a more radical collision of images that do not specifically refer to one another in terms of content or where they were originally filmed. The picture flow will be entirely motivated by how sympathetically the visual tones, tempos and textures resonate with the music across the cut. In this way, rain puddles dancing on a skylight will cut to flickering shadows slinking across a washing machine followed by a tapestry of barbed wire and billowing weeds without feeling like a series of jump cuts. Whereas the images in my prior film, Crooked Beauty, existed as long takes over which we heard the featured character’s narration, the visuals in Whisper Rapture will function more like notes. They will appear onscreen only as long as the music can sustain them. Over the course of the film, the rhythmic intensity of the montage coupled with the intimate scoring of sight and sound will swell into an ecstatic collage of operatic proportions, thus re-imagining the traditional music documentary as a Doc Opera.

32_Barbed Fence_House_Flowers_Lexington St copy

While Madigan’s avant-garde pop and punk-influenced chamber music is essentially the featured character in Whisper Rapture, her story of trauma and transformation must be heard. Her autobiographical testimony on madness, art, and mental health activism is the social justice core from which the songs will emerge and the narrative thread that stitches them together. We will hear Madigan’s voice-over narration between each song as we see her kinetic cello playing silently rendered in extreme slow motion in a darkened, starkly-lit space. The dramatic interplay between her expressive performance style and the shadows that slip through the folds of her undulating clothing will graphically embody the emotional fabric of her transcendent life story.

44_Tall Grass Silhouette_Tennesse Valley 1

I’m making Whisper Rapture: A Bonfire Madigan Suite to cultivate beauty and help alleviate suffering in these chaotic times. This cinematic rhapsody will celebrate the enduring potential of our human spirit and help us feel that all things are delicately interconnected; that we don’t just exist in the world – we are of it.

xoKen

65_Puddle_Sun Ball_Clouds_Tree 4