Three, Two, One…
Chloe Lizotte on Cross Eyed

Cross Eyed screened July 24, 2021 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 20/21 festival.

“You reignited my faith in contact,” Amit Desai says in the closing moments of Cross Eyed. He’s sitting across a table from Queens teenager Jack Salmon in a gel-lit room: a liminal-seeming space where they’ve been meeting to discuss The Highway, a coming-of-age play that Desai wrote several years ago in Sardinia and has tapped Jack to direct. (We’ll use first names for the film’s subjects, including the version of Amit that appears in the film, and Desai when referring to his behind-the-camera duties.)

It may be simplest to describe Cross Eyed as a film about this play, but “about” is the key word. Jack rallies a group of like-minded teenage actors to rehearse Amit’s text, but the plot or shape of the play is almost beside the point; Desai sometimes runs through a few takes of the same out-of-context line, emphasizing the performer’s energy more than the individual words being spoken. Meanwhile, Jack and Amit’s conversations about the play eschew the practical in favor of the metaphysical—as one example, they talk about identity as something “brutal and unfinished, to be finished by creation.” Desai interviews the teenagers about their backgrounds, hopes, and anxieties, but also focuses on moments where they’re idling, skateboarding, dancing: simply existing alongside each other.

As it progresses, Cross Eyed—whose titular metaphor hinges on destabilizing one’s sight line—uses the conceit of performance to reach the untamed emotions it can house, especially on the precipice of young adulthood. The play is a portal for the actors to explore versions of themselves that may not have outlets in “real” life; it’s a trippier practice than creating distinct characters, but it’s also a challenge that they seem elated to play with. At points, Desai drops in quick-moving montages of news items from the days they spent filming, of a bizarre Mona Lisa deepfake, of protests in Hong Kong, of oddball viral videos, of ice sheets melting. The film’s most moving quality may be its ability to express the breadth of the teenagers’ present without imposing a reading of their “moment.”

Desai—who was born in New York and has lived in Queens, India, and London—has been interested in the idea of interaction throughout his work. After 9/11, he embarked on a ten-year multimedia project throughout the United States, which included a multi-part documentary, Possible Psalms, structured around casual conversations with people he met. His 2016 photography exhibition Ancestor Bone Hug also sprung from collaborative studio sessions that combined “theater, photography, and therapy session.”

I spoke to Desai about Cross Eyed over the phone. He was in Sicily, where a few members of his family live, and at the beginning of our conversation, he mentioned that nearby Mount Etna had quietly erupted the day before.

Reverse Shot: How frequently does Etna erupt?

Amit Desai: Being from New York and not really living near...a volcano!...we tend to think that these things are monumental moments. But actually, a volcano, like all other ecosystems, has a kind of fade-up and a drainage. One of my favorite memories of living near Kilauea is that after eruption, there is this process where it sucks the remaining lava that didn’t make it to the ocean back into its crater, basically to drink it back and cook it again in the magma, and prepare for its next birth. You would see this lake of fire rising inside the crater.

As humans, we always want the fireworks. We want the show. But actually a volcano is always erupting. And, as is also true about cinema, the more you learn about a director’s language, the more you can appreciate the idiosyncrasies or the details.

RS: I like that image to start. The film is so much about process and finding a form for something formless. It almost feels like you’re seeing something expressed in a very specific way that . . . shouldn’t be broken down or demystified after the fact. So, I wanted to ask you your thoughts on that, and also about the hybrid documentary genre. It’s a popular mode right now, but I think you’re doing unique things with it.

AD: It’s funny that we started with the Hawaiians, who do feel that certain rites of passage are sacred, or shouldn’t be broken down, as you just put it. That’s one of the reasons that I chose this age group for this film, because the twilight of youth is one of those impossible rites of passage between formlessness and form, which is universal. But it’s so hard to grip it. Like taking a picture of a newborn baby, you feel almost embarrassed or shameful for gripping it. The most elusive things in human life feel like they should be set free, that you should not freeze them in the river of time. We all have such a different relationship to that period, but one thing we can certainly agree on is that it’s gone, never to come back.

This film also started with a battle: how do you point your camera at something and protect it, while also celebrating it? When I knew that some of my formal questions about fiction and reality could line up exactly with what I understood to be the strange, delusional space of the late teenage years and early adulthood, I was like, okay. The axes lined up. I knew that I could protect them without exploiting them. One of the cast members just sent me a text that said, “We’re lucky that someone like you is telling our story.” And that really means everything.

RS: Because it centers on that relationship and care, sort of like you’re talking about. How did you originally connect with the theater troupe?

AD: Some of my friends who also grew up here in New York—they keep an ear open, crawl their way through the city—they had heard about these young people who were throwing these art parties. They were finding a way to do these strange hybrids of theater, music, and performance art—which, to me, is a quintessential New York hybrid, almost like a laboratory, starting with the Kitchen and Artists Space.

All those feelings were there, when you feel people are present for contact itself. Not for their career. I think people always forget how non-ambitious the high arts are. Like, New York music is high art jazz, when Miles and Coltrane and Parker were all in New York at the same time in the ’50s. But there was an atmosphere of people getting together to do what they loved. And it just happened that the quality of the musicianship was so high, that what they were doing was so sophisticated. So I am always drawn to that. Where is there a lack of ambition? Meaning, where is there an ecosystem that people are drawn to? There are very practical things that make them difficult to sustain, and I’m always looking for the elusive quality of that.

Some of these New York institutions are being...basically, if they want to continue to get money, they’re encouraged to show, let’s call it, international-level work. But there’s all these kids who are growing up in New York, all around us. What about them?

RS: That’s what I found so interesting about it—the drive to locate what’s going on now, especially in New York. I also moved here drawn to this idea of cultural moments that are hyperlocal, whether that’s the ’50s that you’re describing, or the No Wave scene in the ’80s. It also seems like that’s a delicate dynamic to preserve on film. Capturing something quite tender that comes from the group’s artistic impulses, but also from their particular moment. How did you go about negotiating those elements with them?

AD: I think…I’m sure you know you can’t get anything past teenagers in New York. They just won’t show up. They’ll play a massive game of catch me if you can. “Oh yeah, you have a cameraman there? Oh, you have five cameramen there? Then I’m definitely not going to show up.” These are kids that I really understand because I was that kid. If I don’t trust you, I’m as skittish as they are, which is why I think, in a strange way, they trusted me with that care. They knew that I had given my middle finger to as many people as they had. It seems like a trite point, but it’s quite important for...formlessness. I wasn’t going to be too curated about how I presented them. I think Jack says it best in his last line in the film: “It’s really hard to be something that I’m not yet.”

So, to get back to your question, how do you let a formless thing play out within an aquarium? You let it wiggle around—if you can imagine an eel. It also comes back to our beginning image of a volcano. It wakes up, and it yawns, and then it spurts, and then it dreams. All you can really do is put a container around it. As I say in one of my last sentences to Jack, I felt this incredible peace of letting go. I think you, as a writer, know how complicated that feeling is. Of just letting it be, and not holding on, and trusting that this river—which is created out of relinquishing, even slaughtering, the ambition within yourself, the ambition to form—will, in fact, create something.

RS: I noticed the logline focused on this idea of overexposure. I’m a young millennial, so I’m maybe the last age group to not totally grow up with smartphones, but I was thinking about how a social media-heavy upbringing might lead to a greater openness to the idea of the world being a theatrical space. I’m wondering if you felt that helped the cast be less rigid about separating the film’s layers of “reality” and “not”?

AD: Absolutely. They knew all the layers that Jack and I were presenting between reality and fiction. In fact, they helped me carve a couple of others. It’s a language that is completely natural to them. I mean, anytime I said “reality” or “fiction” to Jack, one of those words without a contradiction, he would just look at me and kind of roll his eyes and be like, Oh, you’re old! They’re just not into it. Their universe is hybrid. Otherwise, it would feel forced in a way that felt uncomfortable, like I was playing chess. I didn’t want to leave that feeling out completely, because again: it’s another contradiction.

I found a chart recently that I had made with Jack, literally a spectrum from reality to fiction. We tried to avoid identifying the easy layer, but always go for the contradictory one. Thinking about Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, and William Greaves—all of life’s a stage. There’s no better medium to make that Shakespearean premise come to life than whatever we call a “documentary set.” Even that word: What is a documentary location? Is that reality? Is it a set? Is it both? Of course, it’s both. Like a sushi chef, how thinly can you slice those layers? I also thought about F for Fake, by Orson Welles. You could be really honest as “the director” about your struggle with form and formlessness, which is as much of a topic in this curated puzzle of truth and lies that we call cinema. The cinema is a charlatan, so why not be honest about it? That’s what documentary has the chance to do: be true to all of it.

This is also something I learned and value from Frederick Wiseman. Documentaries are for the courageous, they’re not informative. Documentarians should be the most courageous in terms of facing this wild beast of contradiction that we call the human being. When you dilute that contradiction, you erase the feeling that things are going in separate directions at the same time. I find documentary to be a very trippy, tricky medium to work in because of that. And very exciting.

RS: Thinking about these ideas of form and formlessness, do you feel there are aspects of artmaking that get lost in translation when written about?

AD: One of the first editors who I was seriously thinking about cutting Cross Eyed, she was very interested in all of ephemera, the miscellaneous artifacts that remained from the process. She said, “Amit, everything that is surrounding the film you made is actually going to point directly at it.” That was a big moment for me in getting the aesthetic that you finally see. As always happens with film, I had some terror—the rough cut was awful! It was just so rigid, so untrue, until I let the ephemera in. Like, Amit, look through the books that you kept during your summer. It’s all there, in these weird, scribbled diaries. In a really personal way, I went through the experiences that get lost in translation.

The thing is, it’s a film, so how do you get that in there? After that conversation, I started culling... All of the found footage in the film is newsreel from the exact dates that we shot, from around the world. So, how wide does your lens go? How big of a picture can you take? And how small that can feel…these tiny moments. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do a behind-the-scenes procedural, that film you’ve seen a million times of the making of a show, but one that really didn’t have a denouement. So when you have that in mind, I think you are always looking for the types of things that you’re talking about. I was looking for an anti-climax, but one that doesn’t point at a climax, because then you’re just playing the same game.

RS: Right…the act of withholding the final performance can be a climax itself. But the film focuses your attention differently.

AD: That’s the tricky part—to deviate from the norm, but to not use the deviation as another example of what “normal” is. That’s what I really got from Symbio, the joy in its production. Every film that’s made is a moment in time, and that’s the documentary in every film production… Did you enjoy the film?

RS: I did, for the reasons we’re talking about. I liked that it sent me down all of these mental rabbit holes and had a real sense of life to it—like you were interacting and engaging with the actors, rather than trying to package them in a particular way.

AD: That’s great. I always like to ask, was there anything you would have done differently, or that you think you needed some clarification about?

RS: I don’t know about clarification...I found your artist’s statement afterwards, and you said, What does it mean to dislocate the shoulder of a movie? It reminded me of how I felt during the sequence where they explain the cross-eyed concept. I felt like it was saying something that was true, but I couldn’t really articulate why. It almost felt pre-verbal in my head.

AD: Wow! That’s an incredible, incredible, incredible word. I’m so happy you just said that because that really hits the final point. As soon as you’re using words like pre-verbal or primordial, it means that what you’re doing is pointing back at the feeling realm. Feelings are the direct enemy of commodity. There’s nothing else that can dismantle the capital machine like feelings.

RS: It’s true, because once you commodify a feeling, it’s not a feeling anymore, but this rigid, weird version of it that can be sold.

AD: It’s a blockbuster!