Charles Mudede is a Marxist from Zimbabwe who makes poetry out of impenetrable philosophy, dogs' assholes, and uncanny masses of energy shrouded in deep space. Robinson Devor is an American aesthete who bridges the gap—the gap where so many great ideas go to die—between full-bodied artistic commitment and the ability to get shit done. The two make movies together.
After watching 14 minutes of footage from Devor and Mudede's next experimental documentary—about Sara Jane Moore, the first woman to fire a loaded gun at a U.S. president—the Genius Awards committee came to an awkward realization: Much as we tried (and for years we have), we just couldn't keep ignoring Devor and Mudede's films. Together, the pair (Devor as director and Mudede as screenwriter, along with New York–based cinematographer Sean Kirby) have completed two feature films, Police Beat and Zoo, both of which premiered at Sundance. Zoo also screened at Cannes. Their third feature, currently going by the title Untitled Sara Jane Moore Documentary, is a Sundance 2011 hopeful.
Self-conscious avoidance of these world-class local filmmakers was getting ridiculous—becoming the, um, rearing stallion in the room, if you will. So after months of deliberations and watching many, many other films, too, we simply couldn't justify not giving them the award, even though Mudede also obviously has a day job here at The Stranger. (Mudede recused himself from all deliberations as soon as his name came into consideration, and he is donating his half of the $5,000 Genius prize to Northwest Film Forum.) This is major, genius-level filmmaking coming out of Seattle and bringing international attention back home with it. These movies matter.
New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called Police Beat one of the highlights of Sundance in 2006, describing it as "a delicately funny tale about everyday surrealism." And of Zoo, she wrote: "Characters don't just walk in this film; they float across the frame, pouring like liquid toward their inexorable destinies." Untitled Sara Jane Moore Documentary will chronicle the very weird existence of Moore, the seemingly innocuous wife/mother/accountant who tried to assassinate President Ford in 1975 and was released from prison in 2007 at age 77. It shares the previous two films' uncanny atmospherics, nearly imperceptible blending of reality and fiction, and mesmerizing, hyperchoreographed visuals.
Mudede and Devor met in 2002, when Devor was looking for a script consultant: "I was writing a script about an African child soldier, and I thought Mr. Mudede, given his African background—little did I know how middle-class it was—that he'd know about African child soldiers. He agreed to take a look at it." On hearing this, Mudede let out a mad cackle: "I turned over the script to my mother—I really did! I said, 'Look at this and tell me what is African and what is not African,' because I had no idea."
Devor had moved to Seattle after a decade in Los Angeles trying to make movies in the mainstream industry. While down there, he directed a documentary about Angelyne, the eccentric L.A. "model" and self-made celebrity whose pink Corvette and cryptic billboards (featuring nothing but her name and a painting of herself in a sexy pose) became a beloved staple of local counterculture kitsch. Angelyne's career of delusion resonates perfectly with Devor's later projects: documenting the humanity of outsiders and freaks, misguided revolutionaries and unrepentant horsefuckers.
Devor's first feature, The Woman Chaser (starring Patrick Warburton, about a used-car salesman who becomes obsessed with making a movie), achieved moderate success, but Hollywood, it turns out, was a disappointing dead end. "The Woman Chaser turned out really nicely, I thought, and after that I had this mistaken notion that I could kind of do arty films and do my own thing," Devor says. "But instead, I just was doing a lot of meetings in Hollywood and they weren't going anywhere. So that period of disillusionment was good timing—it freed me up to go up here."
Devor and Mudede teamed up to work on Police Beat—Mudede's script partially inspired by his long-running Stranger column of the same name—a slow amble through a series of human transgressions, small and large, which caress and capture Seattle's dark green, dark blue, dismal beauty. The film is almost pathologically restrained.
Devor describes the pair's shared aesthetic: "It's so important just to have a sense of atmosphere—a sense of place, but really atmosphere—and atmosphere is composed of light and sound and emotion. It could be a low-wattage emotion, a simple thing. Maybe because I don't have a car and I'm happy to just sit in the woods and film something."
"Charles is the most poetic prose writer in Seattle," says Carey Christie, a local filmmaker and youth educator, "and Sean Kirby is the most poetic cinematographer. And Rob doesn't want to tell stories, he wants to make poetry, and that's why their collaboration keeps happening, and why it keeps getting better." Like Police Beat, Zoo is a movie about transgression (man has sex with horse, man dies), and poetry, and the dusky, bucolic silhouettes of the Enumclaw plateau. It's difficult to think of a less gorgeous way to die than a perforated colon, and a less glamorous instrument with which to perforate one's colon than a stallion penis. But Zoo is a gorgeous, dignified, intellectually curious piece of art nonetheless. "Rob makes movies about people that don't fit," Christie continues. "He shows us how we are like them. It's the reason I keep supporting him, because in person he can be a real asshole." She laughs. "He holds local filmmakers to a higher standard, and in that way he presents our community with an opportunity for growth—I wish more filmmakers would do that."
Why do Mudede and Devor keep choosing to work with the other?
"I enjoy the care he takes in filmmaking," Mudede says. "Absolutely. I hate to say it, but when it comes to the artistic process, a lot of people are lazy. Or they give up before all the possibilities are investigated. And there's a certain thoroughness to Rob's work, not only in the writing process but in the way he crafts his films. And that sometimes goes against the producers. Producers are concerned with getting the most we can out of the least we can. Rob has a commitment to what's going to cause the most grief. That's really the creative process."
And Devor: "I say this with great sincerity: If somebody offered me anybody, the most famous novelist, the most tenured professor, the most laureled screenwriter, American or European, I really would stick with Charles. I think it's his commitment to originality that is the absolute key thing. He has no desire at all to do what has been done. It also is a slightly maddening thing, but it's mostly very positive: He doesn't need it as much as I do. By that I mean that only something that's really exciting is going to stimulate him. If you're in a company town like Hollywood, and you're grinding things out, you're going to sell out."
Mudede and Devor are Seattle filmmakers—both agree that they couldn't do what they do if it weren't for their adopted city. "The projects we've had outside of Seattle have all been suspended in one stage or another," Mudede explains, "but the ones we've had in Seattle have all gone through because we've had this support." And Devor: "We're just down-on-our-knees grateful when somebody supports filmmaking. It's a tough investment, but somehow it happens. And I'm proud."