Once Every Day may be Richard Foreman’s first feature film in 35 years, but the New York experimental theater guru is no stranger to the medium. The productions of Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, founded in 1968, typically incorporate moving images into their live action. Last Friday, the 75-year-old Foreman braved Nor’easter Nemo for a Q&A following his film’s opening at Anthology Film Archives. He spoke about his work with an openness peppered with dry wit and just the right of amount of self-declared pretension.
In many ways, Once Every Day resembles a backstage look at the director’s process. As his camera presents the actors—often in uncomfortably long close-up, ostensibly rehearsing in a dilapidated theater—Foreman’s voice can be heard directing them into mannequin-like positions and carefully composed tableaus: “Lift your head a little and say your line!” “That red shirt is too much!” The disjointed imagery, shot on digital video, unfolds against a manic soundscape, while titles that range from the philosophic to the frivolous flash agitatedly across the screen.
The film gets its shape—which Foreman characterizes as “carefully edited sloppiness”—from a year-and-a-half-long editing process, which followed four days of shooting in Buffalo. Contrasting the solipsistic freedom of digital editing with the Steenbecks of yesteryear, the director explained that with digital, you are left completely to your own devices: you can “allow your mistakes to surface. No one else is there to tell you what to do.”
Though “reputed to be an intellectual,” when it comes to art, Foreman doesn’t believe in theorizing, but in “blanking out the mind and seeing what comes.” It’s not about knowing what’s good so much as feeling it “in your gut.” As Foreman put it: “I think all art is all rhythm . . . It’s a sexual thing. It’s the rhythm involved in using your whole system to make love. And this incorporates interruption.” Interruption figures highly in Once Every Day, which consistently coaxes the viewer toward climactic crescendo, only to frustratingly pull back, or altogether halt.
The goal, for Foreman, is not to induce pleasure, but rather to demand acute—even obsessive—attention in his viewers, something that is “easier [to achieve] in art than in life.” Favoring abstraction over narrative, the film is most striking for the emptiness of its signs. A woman’s feet, clad in high heels and bound together with rope, or the stern face of an old man, do not necessarily signify anything outside of themselves. The effect falls anywhere between refreshingly liberating, mildly amusing, and stalwartly infuriating.
Foreman is able to speak frankly about the fact that his work may not be for everyone, noting that his plays—particularly the early ones—consistently guaranteed a handful of walkouts. Despite the fact that taste is inextricably bound to our faculty of judgment, he sagely admits to its inherent subjectivity, the way in which aesthetic choices are merely “part of conditioning.” While his artistic tendencies have certainly progressed and been refined over the years, they haven’t necessarily changed. As he succinctly speculates: “maybe we’re all [just] trapped in our own conventions.”