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The Emerging J. Van Auken

November 2, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Part of “Best of Chicago DIY Film Magazine,” originally posted April 1, 2011.

Brian Welesko

The Rooster, a film written and produced by J. Van Auken, follows Ray Ghering, a veteran of the Vietnam War, who resides in a mental hospital. He must convince a psychiatrist to release him “before the last of his memories fade into darkness and Ray loses the life he had forever.” In Redlined, another short by Van Auken, the text that carries the trailer reads: “In Minneapolis, the police respond to only 51 percent of violent crime reports. The other 49 percent are never investigated. What happens when no one is coming to save you?” And in Van Auken’s latest project, The Last Cosmonaut, the trailer offers provocatively, “There’s the story we know, and the truth we don’t.”

The Last Cosmonaut purports that during the Space Race, Soviet failures were private and highly classified. The film is about “the last secretly launched Soviet space pilot in 1958” who supposedly is the “first and only person to ever leave the solar system.” The film aims to depict the Cosmonaut’s last moments in orbit. The teaser opens with a lengthy, subtitled audio transmission of the final launch. Later, a quick montage of cosmonaut imagery concludes with military officers staring solemnly at something vaguely human, blackened and mangled, on an exam room table. Photographs of a group of pilots fades into the same images with one of the pilots removed. It is an effective piece of promotional material, and the “documentary” audio and images lend it a certain seriousness and heft.

Van Auken is a tall, self-assured twenty-two year-old who seems both gracious and humorless. Hair smoothed back, dressed in a black suit and overcoat, he looks as if he has cultivated his style from his grandfather’s wardrobe. Originally from Maple Grove, Minnesota from a German heritage, Van Auken, intelligent and articulate, takes himself and his work seriously. “If I’m not making the movies I want to make, then I don’t want to make them.” If it wasn’t for his boyish face, one might forget that Van Auken is a film student at Columbia College raising money and interest for his final film there.

School feels like an afterthought to Van Auken. He spoke stridently of his work as independent productions, elaborate and made despite the parameters of a low budget or a classroom film. For many young filmmakers, the classroom is a testing ground and, perhaps more crucially, a safety net. For others it can simply be an opportunity to use equipment that would otherwise not be available. In any case, the ability to say what one wants to say or make the movies one wants to make is at its most attainable in film school. There are limitations of course, like time and resources or shortcomings with one’s equipment, but these aren’t what is at stake.

J. Van Auken

Van Auken spoke of 1916, a film about being a hero by doing one’s duty. 1916 puts us in Verdun, France with a German regiment of young soldiers on the front lines. It was his final film for Production II, a class that emphasizes color composition and recording sound that is asynchronous. He “set out to make the most difficult film possible,” which meant a large cast, far away, with lots of dialogue in a foreign language. “No matter how many people are there or how much is on the line, even if I’m nineteen years old and I have a cast of thirty guys, fifty miles out into the forest, in full costume, burning daylight, and there’s a helicopter burning through jet fuel at 450 bucks an hour, running out of film, running out of people, food, I’ve been able to keep it together better there than in most other situations.”

What’s on the line though isn’t “everything,” but a lot- probably something like personal talent or self-worth and efficacy as a filmmaker. I got the sense that these self-imposed rules to make a difficult film were set up as metrics to show clearable benchmarks. This isn’t to say Van Auken is not a talented filmmaker- 1916 is a solid piece that shows true promise and ambition. But the rules set up a clear path for success and failure (meet the criteria and succeed, don’t and fail), and it obscures what probably should, at nineteen, be murky and gradual. In listening to Van Auken speak about his work and his emerging career, it was hard not to feel that overconfidence obscured some lingering doubts, too.

The Last Cosmonaut shoots March 24 through March 27 on 35mm in Chicago in studio, Urbana, IL for exteriors, and Cleveland, OH for Soviet mission control. Through Kickstarter, over the course of two months, the project raised six thousand dollars, thirty-five hundred more than was set as a goal. He contacted different film blogs and took out Facebook and Google ads to promote the project, which Van Auken contends helped minimally. However when the project reached about 75 percent of its funding, “Kickstarter featured it on their front page and Films to Know list, which pushed it over the top.” By matching each dollar with his own money, Van Auken will have a budget of twelve thousand dollars and a considerable boost from the five thousand he sought.

“There’s a bar now. There’s people with expectations, who have a vested interest in you producing something of quality,” he said flatly of the responsibility he had to his donors. It is a lot of pressure, but the pressure seemed to be another afterthought. Everything about Van Auken points towards a person who wants to do big things. “Hollywood is a means to an end. There’s stories that I want to tell for one, two hundred million dollars and I’d like to be able to tell them in thirty years.” He’s attached to direct a film he wrote called Sanitarium that is being financed through the Madison Film Group in New York, due out next year. Witnessing a drive and conviction in a talented person who spoke thoughtfully and respectfully about his crew and classmates, I got the feeling that I was seeing someone on the cusp of a vital career. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I suspect this is on Van Auken’s mind.

It isn’t an accident that the ideas of Van Auken’s stories deal with notoriety and obscurity. The Last Cosmonaut, Redlined, and The Rooster all paint a horror in being erased from memory and dying in utter loneliness, or in the very least, being put in a place where no one will come to save you. Van Auken spoke to me about his interest in heroes, where a person is put in a position to do the right thing. “A character is defined by the choice, ‘am I going to do A or B?’ That will tell you everything about that person.” 1916 places honor in doing what one is meant to do, that heroism is personal. This may be prescient, and doing good work in obscurity has value, but what if you want more than personal? It’s an exciting time to be young, a filmmaker, and alive all at once.

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