A little over a week ago, Sam Wells died. Sam, ever humble and self-effacing, was a gifted filmmaker and photographer; a lifelong and devout cinephile; an expert on movie and Mac tech; a fellow Princetonian and friend. With Jason Murphy, Sam did the image-lighting and sound-recording on my film Finding the Criminal, a two-hour conversation-picture featuring Pedro Costa, myself, and Andy Rector, which was shot in late 2008, and which I was finally able to finish work on only a few months ago.
I first encountered Sam on an online listserv in the early '00s. I remember him expressing at times his admiration for the work of Stan Brakhage and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and, when called for, demonstrating a far-reaching grasp of the science and (im)practical limitations of optics, lighting, the apparatus of filmmaking.
When it came time to assemble a crew for Finding the Criminal, Dan Sallitt suggested Sam, noting his Princeton vicinity. As it so happened, Sam was the same guy I'd spotted a couple times a week for the last few years, hanging out in front of Small World on Witherspoon, drinking coffee, chain-smoking, chatting with passing acquaintances, and whom I'd catch sight of at some of the (rare) film screenings on campus: Gehr, Kluge, Kiarostami, Bresson.
Sam was thrilled to take part in the shoot. When I told him in no more than forty-five seconds what I wanted in the way of lighting and sound, he replied with a refreshing matter-of-factness assuring me there would be no problems, suggesting we use this, that, and the other. Perfect. No bullshit, no film-technician preciousness. Three days later, we filmed in a single session lasting from 8 at night until 4 in the morning. An hour setup, hour break-down; the only difficulties arose from minor paranormal incidents at the start of the shoot. (We filmed in a friend's studio loft which had once been part of an enormous 'funeral home complex' on the outskirts of Williamsburg.) We got everything exactly as we'd set out to. During the car-ride back to Jersey, Sam raved about various things that Pedro had said in the course of the filming, exclaiming that finally someone gets it, how finally someone had put a certain idea into words.
One evening last summer I ran into Sam outside the A&B. He told me he had finally caught up with watching both In Vanda's Room and Ne change rien, and clearly he was blown away: the ideas in both films moved way beyond words. Sam said: "Goddammit, he cracked it. Someone finally cracked the fucking digital video thing. Before it was only Godard, but now it's Costa too." He said: "Those images are as beautiful as Rembrandt. There's a Rembrandt living in our time. Now I've seen Ne change rien, and I can say I helped make a film in the presence of Rembrandt." It wasn't just that Sam was emotionally overwhelmed by the film itself — and he was, obviously — it's that Ne change rien had confirmed for him, shown him, the existence of New Possibilities that he was desperately eager to begin exploring in his own films, specifically the recent work(s)-in-progress he'd been shooting for several years.
A word about those films: I don't know what the status is of the materials or work(s)-in-progress that Sam has left behind. Hopefully he had time to prepare some kind of direction for their archiving and preservation. He had been hoping to screen his 1999 film Wired Angel in an outdoor park in town at some point last September, but various obstacles rose surrounding the availability of necessary equipment for the projection.
Because Sam was a fan of this blog, and because for Sam cinema was life (and often better), I'll post the following epitaph: the artists he loved:
Carl Theodor Dreyer
Josef von Sternberg
I'm probably leaving out many others, but those are the names I'd heard him passionately invoke.
Ah: and one more: he had a special place in his heart for Bulle Ogier.