Interview: Renaissance Woman and Philly Native Kate McCabe

Kate McCabe in her desert home. Photo credit: Doug Beale

There are few artists (if any) that take on so many wildly different mediums of art quite as frequently and as impressively as Kate McCabe. Native to Philadelphia, McCabe currently lives in the desert near Joshua Tree, California. She has crafted the popular sketch comic book Mojave Weather Diaries, she’s made a collection of short films, and she has even taught film at CalArts and UC San Diego. And that’s just barely scraping the surface. Her first feature length film Sabbia (made with the stoner rock musician Brant Bjork) is what brought her to the desert, and during her time there she also founded an art collective called Kidnap Yourself. In addition to everything else listed (plus a weekly radio show!) her work also delves into painting, photography, and short fiction. If you’re not extremely impressed yet, you’re a complete noodle.

Most recently, McCabe made a 16mm film called You and I Remain. Cinedelphia was able to ask the dynamic artist a few questions about this film and other highlights of her career. Her insanely diverse film retrospective is coming up soon at PhilaMOCA on Wednesday, October 7th at 8pm.

Still from You and I Remain

Cinedelphia: What can we expect from You and I Remain?

Kate McCabe: My latest film is an apocalyptic lullaby inspired by the Anthropocene and the Fukushima disaster.  In a way it’s my most serious film and my most beautiful as it’s both hypnotic and at times unsettling in the way I like to sculpt twilight worlds with light. 
Lindsay Anne Needels of Canyon Cinema describes it well: 
”As time-lapse shots of California landscapes transform at an eerily still speed, the pros of nuclear fallout are recited in voiceover borrowed from government films extolling the benefits of radiation. Throughout all of this, there is an unmistakable sense of loss: Humanity itself is largely absent from its landscapes. Instead, we are given re-contextualized remnants of the world we’ve created and, perhaps, destroyed. ”

C: Tell us more about your Mojave Kitchen Dance Diaries.

KM: Mojave Kitchen Dance Diaries is my radio show on Radio Free Joshua Tree and I just finished my 100th episode. I’ll be taking a break after show 100 while I tour with my films. It began as I started a chef business in the desert 3 years ago, and I have a comic that I do about the weather and living here called Mojave Weather Diaries. Since all my favorite house parties have always started in the kitchen with dancing, I thought about combining my comic theme with my chef life and love of dance together. It’s an hour long show every Friday night. I have cart blanche and I play every thing I can dance to from Lyn Collins to The Edgar Broughton Band to Tame Impala.

Panel from the latest edition of Mojave Weather Diaries

If I may explain the comic for a second: Mojave Weather Diaries came about as I discovered desert female writers who homesteaded in my neighborhood near Joshua Tree. They would write and publish their poems and journals in Desert Magazines in the 1940’s and 50’s. My films take long to make, so I like to write short stories or paint in between. These comics became my way to add my voice to the history of women in the Mojave Desert as a modern homesteader. It’s become an almanac like Poor Richard‘s or a sailor’s log. I’ve done four so far and the last I was able to release with a reading at Andrea Zittel’s High Desert Test Sites.

I love making books as limited edition art objects and for the fans of Sabbia who collect all things desert, I’ve been able to send the Mojave Weather Diaries to collectors around the world.

C: You have an impressive smattering of artistic endeavors that deal with many different mediums. Are there any means of expression you haven’t tried but want to?

KM: It’s funny in the film industry, producers need you to have one thing you do- like ‘prop master’- can’t be the same guy as the ‘scenic painter’ or the ‘art director.’ I frustrated producers when I got out of school and was working commercials in LA. They wouldn’t put me on camera where, to me, I could improve and learn the most. Since I could also do art department, I was the art girl. It drove me kind of nuts sometimes. Being a Renaissance woman was frowned upon because they couldn’t place you. I don’t necessarily belong in that commercial world even though I’d direct a car commercial willingly!

Part of art making is to have access to any and all tools. My mother danced, taught dance (her school was under the Church Street El stop) and she oil painted- she was never a dancer who painted or a painter that could dance, she was just rad. I’m cut from that cloth- writing and drawing led me to photography which led me to film and then to animation. I’m never without something to inspire me.

I do work with music and sound design in a serious way in all my films. My recent film was sound designed and had tracks contributed by the drummer of Nitzer Ebb, Jason Payne, who I met in the desert. I learn from every musician I work with, that collaborative part is one of the greatest rewards.
I want my next big film to have a live music score, for the whole event to be performed immersively for the audience. That’s something I haven’t done yet.

C: What band are you currently listening to the most?

KM: Well, Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk has gotten stuck in my car’s CD player. My last car had an AUX jack and this one doesn’t, so in my car it’s the 90’s again (Captain Beefheart is not- the CD is!). I’ve been writing about working in Wildwood, NJ on the boardwalk as a teenager so I’ve actually been listening to a lot of Dion and The Belmonts recently on vinyl. Oh and a comp from a friend with soul garage tracks called Chains and Black Exhaust.

Cover shot of the latest edition of Mojave Weather Diaries

C: Can you tell us more about your art collective, Kidnap Yourself?

KM: I moved to the desert ten and a half years ago with my (yester) husband in search of an art space. The idea was to have a creative space- that really I’d have anywhere- Fishtown! We almost bought in Fishtown.
 I did feel like I had kidnapped myself so the name stuck. It had been in my mind since highschool, from a song by the band He Said. Here was the promise of the big sky with all possibilities illuminated.

I got divorced after our first year and started inviting artists to share the space. I’ve had painters from Atlanta, jazz singers from New Orleans, founders of counter culture magazines, screenwriters seeking solace, etc. About six months of the year I’ll accept a person working on a project specific goal. Currently one of my former film students from CalArts is working on her air stream to convert it into a mobile production studio. It’s been great and my home becomes a launching pad for their next desert adventure.

C: How involved was Brant Bjork in the making of Sabbia?

KM: Making the film Sabbia was my biggest collaboration so far. Brant had always wanted to make an album length trip out film that showed the world his desert. From Kyuss [Brant Bjork’s band], the idea of desert/stoner rock built an international fan base. Brant could bring the desert to his fans this way and it could function as the opposite of the pop single. He gave me songs for my short Milk and Honey and knew after he saw it that I would be the perfect match for this project. He gave me complete control over the images and editing, especially giving me leeway on adding a layer of real sound design so it’s a truly cinematic sounding piece, not just music and images- but spaces you can hear the desert wind in. He let me reinvent his world through my lens. For music we used unreleased 4-track stuff, new songs from Saved by Magic and then he composed some original pieces for parts of the film.

I traveled all over the desert to film legendary places they had punk generator parties with a map drawn by Brant. I met his desert friends and they would take me out to dune buggy. It was a full time job! I spent a lot of time while he was at the Rancho de la Luna shooting little bits here and there. It took almost  two years to make. We are both proud of it. I saw him recently and he told me people ask him about it all the time. “It’s a classic,” he said. It brought the desert to Helsinki, Italy, England, etc., and in doing so it brought me to those places. Fans of Sabbia follow what I’m doing now, it united us desert lovers globally. It was nice to be trusted with my lens.

Cover art for the feature film Sabbia

C: At a time when digital filmmaking is so prevalent, what is it like working with formats like 16mm? What keeps you coming back to real film?

KM: What can I say besides film for me is pure magic. It started when I printed my first black and white photograph in high school. Just the stuff that makes the emulsion, the photo chemical magic of silver halides and latent images, the requirement of both light and dark to make the image. The dedication of the cinema and it’s darkness, light projecting moving images. Real film sees subtly like eyes see light.

It has an archival quality that your hard drive doesn’t. You and I Remain may be the last film I can afford to finish on 16mm. Often I shoot on 16mm now and digitize my negatives for editing. Yet, for a film about the end of the world, where the audience is being asked to preserve this message for the future, the film demanded to be finished to release print. It has a permanence that digital doesn’t. I wanted my fear of the end of film – (let’s face it, it’s getting harder and more expensive,) to parallel my acceptance of the Anthropocene and to function as a time capsule that way.

As a woman and artist who wants to get my images out, I respect digital and I think visions should be made by any means necessary, just stop adding fake film scratches to your digital stuff, it’s silly! Digital sound editing is a miracle and I love it. I’m excited by my digital SLR and taking long exposures with it has been exhilarating. Film is the purest manifestation of luminosity and radiance. I love touching it, watching it, ordering it…Kodak in Hollywood makes you pull into an alley now to pick up orders- it’s even clandestine! I shot Sabbia on this gorgeous Fuji daylight stock they don’t make any more and I’m just grateful I got to know it. Old heads feel that way about Kodachrome reversal films that are gone now too. Film is rare and beautiful. It’s my main man.

Still from You and I Remain


C: What work are you most proud of?

KM: I’ve been making films for over twenty years now and I feel like I’m most proud of being able to put a body of work together that incorporates a decade of my life. The salon film tour I started this summer is my proudest moment, and yes, it’s a DIY moment to not wait to be curated or for a film festival acceptance. To see 9-10 of my best shorts together with audiences. I’ve done a Love Letter series that’s in French with subtitles and they’re all relationship jokes. The Love Letters are really funny and audiences have gotten the jokes, it’s been worth it to share the work this way. I’m proud to know that I could take something like the genre of experimental film and breath brevity and joy into it. Otherwise I think the genre intimidates people. I’m proud to experimentally and simultaneously create visually stunning worlds and put smiles on faces.


C: In what ways has Philadelphia stayed with you all these years?

KM: Philly will always stay with me most likely in the form of hoagie worship and a 17-year case of WaWa withdrawal. Philly is a huge part of the short stories I want to keep writing- like now I’m writing about Wildwood and being down the shore so much of the summer. The characters of my youth are haunting me and need to be immortalized on paper. I’m doing it, just slowly.

C: What’s next?

KM: I plan on spending the next year doing as many film salons as I can, taking it to microcinemas in Europe and other states and continuing work on filmmaker Pat O’Neill’s archive. I’m working on two book projects, one a novelette and a photo book with short stories. And meeting you at PhilaMoca on October 7th!
(and hoagies…!)

Author: Catherine Haas

Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.

One comment

  1. Loved reading old about Kate Mcabe. She sounds so interesting and I’d love to see her films. I’ll definitely check out her books.
    Joan Barnes

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