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You Had to Be There: Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman Discuss "Two Plains & a Fancy"

The irreverent American filmmakers talk about their "Spa Western," their approach to comedy and satire, and geologist parlor tricks.
Paul Farrell
Two Plains & a Fancy

Following their Nineties-set dissertations-and-denim feature L for Leisure [2014], Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn have created another wry document of contemporary languor via fashions past with their self-categorized “Spa Western” Two Plains & a Fancy. Set in 1893, Two Plains concerns three explorers—a geologist, a watercolorist, and a con artist-turned-mystic—and their quest: to visit the best hot springs Colorado has on offer. What ensues is a tenderfoot’s journey around sublime vistas, featuring chance encounters with time travelling inventors, a brothel populated by ghosts, and a possessed cat, all to the sound of casual chatter on the topics of rock formations, experimental painting techniques, and the “sub-natural”. Conversation is the bread and butter of Horn and Kalman’s pleasure cruise as the trio wax lyrical regarding the varying satisfactions of their trip, their intellectual statements and observations are at times competitive, and their appreciation of the natural world borders on performative posturing.
These characters are tourists, not only geographically, but temporally, their behavior marked by a 21st century cadence out of step to the setting. Starring L for Leisure’s Marianna McClellan, filmmaker Benjamin Crotty and Jeune femme’s [2017] Laetitia Dosch, Two Plains offers an offbeat but credibly researched Old West, reveling in the factual oddities of the period (did you know American Express and Levi’s were available out on the range?) to reflect modern-day proclivities for misinformation and consumer culture. Touristic entitlement enhances a grander contrast within the film: between its inhabitants and its landscape. Although this conflict is not direct, Horn’s cinematography paints a disconnection between the trio and the environment they inhabit, at times disengaging with their small talk to look out at the horizon and vegetation, and reminding the viewer that the mountains and clearings will be around long after we’re gone. 125 years is a blink of the eye, geologically speaking.
We spoke with Kalman and Horn—Kalman, although turning to Horn for reassurance on specifics, did the talking as the duo’s raconteur—about their field trip around Colorado, having an eye for legible landscapes, and the resurgent enthusiasm for “magical” technologies.

NOTEBOOK: In Two Plains & a Fancy, the travelers are on the lookout for authentic experiences and your use of Kodak Super 16mm film relates to this idea of authenticity as a physical medium. Although the movie is steeped in absurdity, do you feel you are closer to the authentic shooting in Super 16?
LEV KALMAN: I think that in both cases the Super 16 indicates a kind of realness to our presence there, that sometimes maybe gets lost with digital. One gets the feeling of how the movie is made with Super 16, if only because somebody understands the physicality of the film. The method is more tangible. In the same way the film has a very uncertain relationship to authenticity, but a commitment to actually being in that space for real. You can tell that no matter how absurd the movie is, we really are making our way around Colorado and, in a similar way, even though the film is absurd in its approach our commitment to working in Super 16 means some sort of deliberateness.
NOTEBOOK: Bringing up the splitting of authenticity, at times it’s as if the film itself gets bored with the characters and their self-absorption, the camera wanders off and looks to the landscape for its realness.
KALMAN: That’s exactly the tension we tried to create with the film, we want the viewer to be invested in the characters but also invested in not the characters and what they are missing around them.
NOTEBOOK: A through-line with your previous feature L for Leisure can be made, where you found room to both mock and empathize.When writing, do you start with characters you'd like to lampoon then find aspects to relate to, or do you start with sincere characters whose faults you draw out for humor?
KALMAN: Our characters almost always come from a starting point of sympathy or affection—especially with Two Plains, where they are basically just aspects of ourselves. Our goal with the film, and this is where perhaps the satire comes in, was to emphasize that ideas are inseparable from the people who have them. So, like there's the scene where Alta Mariah [McClellan] fumbles through explaining her enthusiasm for Franz Boas' anthropological research. She comes off kinda foolish and ultimately is embarrassed by Ozanne [Dosch], who speaks with authority and jargon, into almost apologizing by the end of the scene. But what Ozanne is defending is racism and chauvinism under the guise of science. Our hope is that who and what is being mocked in that scene shifts under the audience's feet.
NOTEBOOK: Two Plains starts and ends with some clever horses, first seen looking off-screen, aware of something that we’re not. None of the characters have a real grasp on “the nature of things.” After making the film, do either of you have a better understanding of our relationship to world and its more spiritual aspects?
KALMAN: I would hope filmmaking in the way that we do does provide that to some degree, that the experience of making films and going out there and trying to make a space of certain history and to make it make sense, I think stuff like that definitely creates more of an understanding for ourselves that we wouldn’t have gotten just speculating about it. So, yeah, I hope for me and Whit, as artists, the process does lead to some deeper understanding.
NOTEBOOK: You hope it will?
KALMAN: [Laughs] I think that the process of making the film proved to us something that we suspected going in, which is why we had a geologist along with the other characters. The idea that the landscape is visually legible, the idea that you can look at a mountain and with the trained eye be able to at least guess at the history of the mountain just from the way that it looks. We were out there with a geologist, and were forcing him to do that kind of parlor trick all the time, but it was really fascinating and it changed my perspective when I looked at things here, in Southern California, where we have our own geology.
NOTEBOOK: Which happens in the film, they’re having a kind of field trip pointing everything out and constantly asking questions.
KALMAN: [Laughs] Yeah, we had a geologist who took us and the whole cast—it was very fun—on a tour around the state area and what we ended up doing was almost just transcribing that experience. He was the one who told us about dykes [a type of newer vertical rock between older layers of rock] and me and Whitney were like, “the characters in the film should say “GASP! I see another dyke!”” Then all we did was change some of the geology to be more incorrect, to be the 19th century perspective on how the landscape was formed.
NOTEBOOK: Even with this 19th century perspective, the characters themselves are more 21st century, leaving the impression that not much has changed between 1893 and 2018. Do you think we’re doomed to repeat ourselves?
KALMAN: It seems we’re doomed to repeat the 1890s in a major way. When I see things like biometrics and the enthusiasm for “magical” technologies that will tell people secrets about psychology or behavior, this sounds exactly like phrenology or physiopsy or all the other racist sciences that were popular back then. Over the years of researching it and then shooting it, it’s hard not to see the parallels.
NOTEBOOK: I saw another parallel to the present at the end, when the trio overstep their bounds and a volcanic event occurs. Would you say the film is outright concerned with climate change?
KALMAN: I think that it only really hit us when we were editing, like “Oh shit! This really deals with that.” A cataclysm had always been just on the script like “there’s a few environmental cataclysms” and actually in making it, trying to think what visual cues would make sense to us, it started to feel very much like that. That’s definitely a resonance for that scene, the idea of climate change, but I also think that a reference we thought about more in the planning was the nuclear disasters of the 20th century and the fact that so much uranium had been mined from the same area that gold and silver were mined in Colorado.
NOTEBOOK: With so much research involved, you lean into accuracies and contemporary inaccuracies regarding the period. A pair of time travelers arrive and speak about traveling through “the metaphysical mind,” through memory. What do you think draws you to make period films not as account but as approximation?
KALMAN: Yeah, the time traveling through the mind is by no means in the film accidentally. In the script we tried not to have too many factual inaccuracies or anachronisms, like the American Express joke, American Express was available in 1890s. We looked for things that seemed out of place but were not. Michael Murphy and Travis Nutting were both wearing Levi’s jeans and those were available. We were latching onto those things that felt wrong but were right. But also in the way that the characters speak, the way we filmed it and even in the costumes, our goal was to make it seem like a film that was being made right now with low means and not pretending to be from another era.
NOTEBOOK: I’m glad you’ve brought up Michael Murphy, for me his presence connected Two Plains with McCabe & Mrs. Miller [1971]. Were there any westerns that were a touchstone for this project?
KALMAN: The part that I always think about from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, that was a touchstone going in, is the usual Altmanesque way seventeen different dialogues are going on at once. One is a guy talking about what did people think of his sideburns, if they were too long or too short, and I just love the way that it draws attention to all the things we take for granted, like “oh people just looked that way back then” but instead think about the way they might have been self-conscious of what their new beard style is. That part really inspired us going in. The other western that I think we watched closest was Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys [1968]. The campfire scenes were lit with us remembering the way Lonesome Cowboys looked.
NOTEBOOK: The low-light and granular texture.
KALMAN: Yeah, the opening of Lonesome Cowboys is basically invisible and so daring that we were trying our hardest to brush up against that.
NOTEBOOK: A majority of the film is scenes of leisure and play—antithetical to the western which is usually full of propulsive action—yet are very engrossing. Why do you think leisure on screen is so engaging?
KALMAN: It’s like a lever to shift people’s attention in a film from, like you mentioned, propulsive action or something plot-driven to something more observational. People stop being these active subjects and become receivers, taking in the scenery itself and there for our pleasure to look at. Their bodies become not what they’re doing but how they look when they’re not doing anything. I think that is a really helpful key for us to unlock what we’re interested in.
NOTEBOOK: When casting actors like Michael Murphy and Laetitia Dosch how do you explain this unconventional approach?
KALMAN: Luckily, we do have our previous films. I think that is what allows us to bring in new actors without having to explain to much about what the approach is. I remember Michael Murphy took a look at L for Leisure and Blondes in the Jungle [2009], and he was like, “I don’t know what the hell you guys are doing, but I like it.” He did actually, totally fulfill my life because we were talking on the phone after we’d sent him our previous films and he said, “oh yeah, you’re doing what Bob was doing, you guys are really interested in behavior,” and it took me like 10 seconds to realize that “Bob” meant Robert Altman and uh... even now I’m getting choked up thinking about that. But he understood that we were interested in a different perspective on filmmaking and he was excited about that, he’d been doing a lot more commercial projects so he was excited to get on something wilder and cheaper.
NOTEBOOK: Your films are like anthropological studies, observing people's foibles and idiosyncrasies from different times. Are there any other eras you're interested in bringing to the screen?
KALMAN: More than doing anthropologies, I think we're using other times as ways of reflecting on ourselves now. And no, we're not done with that approach! Our next project is set during the late 90s, so it touches on end-times feelings, workplace sexuality, fax machines, et cetera.
NOTEBOOK: Finally, do either of you have advice on how to be "in the moment"?
KALMAN: [Laughs] That sounds like we sell Moon Juice! Perhaps another way of saying it is that when filming, we try to put everybody on the spot—the actors, ourselves, the weather. Everyone has to show up and do their thing, or it just doesn't come off. That's part of the reason we work handheld, and why we often shoot wide. Or if you don't make films—jazz music.

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