Monday, June 13, 2011

Sam Wells

November 4th, 1950 - June 3rd, 2011

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:

Stan Brakhage

Hou Hsiao-hsien

Carl Theodor Dreyer

Robert Bresson

Gregory Markopoulos

Kenji Mizoguchi

Peter Kubelka

Nathaniel Dorsky

Jean-Luc Godard

Josef von Sternberg

Abbas Kiarostami

Ernie Gehr

Jacques Rivette

Yasujirô Ozu

Jean Cocteau

Sergei Eisenstein

Fritz Lang

Chris Marker

Alfred Hitchcock

Douglas Sirk

Stanley Kubrick

Andrei Tarkovsky

Pedro Costa

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.


Sam Wells on Wikipedia

Sam Wells' Website

ABOVE: Frame from Finding the Criminal. Left to right: Sam Wells, Andy Rector, Pedro Costa.



  1. Thanks Craig for making sure that Sam lives on & that his films are known by more people.

  2. Thanks so much for this. It's a kind of balm for those of us who remember Sam, to be reminded of how involved and passionate he was in his work. That will live on.

  3. Craig,

    This is unreal - I can't tell you how enlightening this flurry of media and consequent Sam-dialogue is. So much of our relationship and our time was (and I am thankful for this) in word and thought exchanged in the most bare of locations. The response to Sam's death has brought, at least to me, an entirely new flora to his life.

    I hope there can be continued correspondence between us - your e-mail is evillights@gmail, correct?

    My primary objective is the preservation of my dad's work - inclusive of all minutiae (primarily because the minutiae is often what was created on a paper napkin as we lingered for hours on a bench in....)

    With a "thank you" that is likely insufficient,

    Julia Wells

  4. The chiaroscuro of Sam Wells

    Sam Wells was a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship for his exceptional work in film. -- Few are awarded this fellowship. His cutting edge work was shown at Sundance. --A master of chiaroscuro in film, he mined mythological greatness and rendered his legendary scenes in poetic light and shadow. --Ah, the chiaroscuro of Sam Wells. There is no one like him.

    As a fellow Princetonian, I know Sam loved Princeton, and the streets belong to those of us who grew up here – we all feel that way. Then as now, Princeton is blessed with beautiful public spaces. This is evidenced in his photography – mother and child at Yamasaki fountain, fashion and beauty at the grave yard, through the looking glass of Small World were all captured and made extraordinary.

    Sam’s interest for other filmmakers’ work is known by anyone who met him or worked with him. There is the love of film and the “what it takes” to make it happen. --He brought that energy to projects. Sam was giving of his expertise to other artists. There was a depth and breadth in him - as he traveled through the spheres of the arts.

    The making of Wired Angel can be described perhaps as Warhol’s Factory of the 90’s – the sets, the filmmakers, the pyrotechnics, actors, artists, composers, engineers, and cast of hundreds. Sam’s inclusiveness in the process, high spirited ability to wing it, intense focus on knowing how to get it right, knowing what he wanted, and precision at the editing table made Wired Angel belong to all of us before it was a hit at the festivals. He shared these gifts as no one else has.

    Two weeks ago the world lost someone very special. His work will live on as a unique remembrance of a beautiful mind and human being. --Greatness always lives on. I hope one day that Wired Angel will be shown in Sam’s memory – just the way he wanted: outdoors, under the stars, with big projection, and big sound. --Larger than life - like Sam.

    Amanda Ford

  5. Julia, you can send me an email at the address you've noted. At least one person, a Betti Schleyer, is trying to get in touch with you.

  6. Sam was a member of the Greater Princeton Filmmakers' Group and members recently asked about him. He was very kind in loaning me videos that involved avant garde puppetry. Our recent conversations involved his wanting to film something in my rectangular koi pond. I just informed the (filmmaker's) group. Sam will be missed.
    Sharon Murray


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