Tom Sachs Takes Aim at the Paradoxes of Morality

Video still from Paradox Bullets (2018)
Video still from Paradox Bullets (2018)

Tom Sachs’s latest film, Paradox Bullet, screens at the Paramount Theater on February 15 as part of the Frieze LA film program. Directed by Van Neistat and narrated by Werner Herzog, the film follows a wandering man—Ed Ruscha—who is left in the Mojave Desert to find his way home with nine bullets. We sat down with Sachs to talk about what Paradox Bullets means and how it came to fruition.

Paradox Bullets is based on five different paradoxes. What was the genesis for this when you already have a film like Ten Bullets that's so seminal to your culture around the studio? How did you come to the next step? Ten Bullets are like the Ten Commandments. They are a kind of utopian, perfectionist vision. But no one's perfect, nobody can really follow the Ten Commandments perfectly. It might not be a smart idea to sleep with your neighbor's wife, but to covet your neighbor’s wife is something that's more natural. I mean that's why the French do placement at a dinner party so you can alternate boy, girl, and when you go home to your spouse at night you both have something to help your imagination. Our Ten Bullets are more of a compass, just like the Ten Commandments to help guide you in the right direction for living a good, functional life.

When I first posted Ten Bullets, for every fan mail letter there was a hate mail letter because of the extreme, dogmatic nature of the film. But, again, when you're running a company you have to have the hard and fast rules so that you have a target or a compass towards building in the right direction—so you can improvise and break those rules when you need to. Paradox Bullets is a film I wanted to make to help people come to terms with the irrational and to realize that things don't always make sense. In school, we learn one plus one equals two, but in in the Studio we learn one plus one equals a million. And you can only get that equation of equaling a million when you put the right two wrong elements that combine to make an exponential expansion of energy.

Those elements have to make sense at just the right-wrong way. And the only way to really get to that place is to trust your intuition. So, for every bullet like “Do the hard things first”—and there's lots of reasons why you want to do that—the opposite's equally valid, which is to do the easy thing first. And there's a time and place for each. This movie serves to show how each of those things work and to illustrate how sometimes it's important to do the easy thing first and sometimes important to do the hard thing first.

Video still from Paradox Bullets (2018)

Are any of these bullets more important than the others? Not really. In fact, they're all kind of the same bullet—which is that it's important to see the opposite, that the opposite is equally valid in almost any situation. We live in a world where there's a culture of certainty over truth that makes it easy to sell political ideology. That's why we have people like Donald Trump in the presidency because he's really good at selling certainty. The truth is harder to swallow. We are in a state of decline. We lost the Concord and Man on the Moon and iTunes. Things are getting worse. I should actually say that some things are getting worse as other things are getting better, and it's not a linear half, it's an arc.

You're born, you grow, you become weak and you die. And that's the reality of all systems, whether it's Western civilization or our bodies and cells, and it's not an easy way to sell products coming to terms with that idea. Advertising promises immortality because it is something we all want. This is a reminder to make the most of your life instead of working towards some myth that doesn't exist. It’s like the ultimate fake news—religion—that promises there is an afterlife. There may be but we don't know. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And instead of coming to terms with those, with that reality, we've got a gigantic smokescreen saying, "Hey, there is life after life. There is something after this.” But the truth is that we just don't know.

You said, "Equally, things are getting worse and things are getting better," and you were describing things that were getting worse like politics and iTunes and things like that. If that's the case, what are the things that are equally getting better? Well, I think that things like Waze and ride-sharing services have the potential to reduce waste. You're finding that young people don't own cars as much so they're being freed of that responsibility and danger I think information services are—there is the notion of a collective consciousness and it is becoming true through our devices. Things are becoming more streamlined. Materials and information are more and more accessible than ever before. There is a free exchange of information. Things are less hidden, more transparent. In the age of the Panopticon, there's less crime. People may not be being watched but they fear they are being watched, so as a result, they behave themselves. Of course, that all comes within the dark side. Free exchange of goods and materials creates more excessive expenditure. When you have right sharing services, you are independent. You trade that for a good value.

Video still from Paradox Bullets (2018)

Is art an irrational use of endeavor or does it offer something of greater depth to humanity? Both. Art, like marathon running, is an irrational use of endeavor but we extend the enormous energy of demands anyway because through our efforts, we expand the threshold for the human spirit. In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the top being oxygen, and then maybe water or sex, food, shelter, all that stuff at the top but art is at the bottom. But it's also what separates us from the cows in the field. Humans are different from the other animals because we have all these rituals in life. Whether it's through advertising and fake news like religion, or embracing it and coming into terms with the lifespan of materials; whether that's building a car or the materials of ourselves; it’s how we make the most of our time here. Art finds itself in everything, from the industrial arts that are linked to consumerism to the highest form of art—like painting or dance or performance art, theater, or music—that only exists in time because our lives really only exist in time. I think that's why music and theater are so important. After the apocalypse, the next day, theater will still exist. People will gather around the campfire and talk about what happened and tell stories. And that's what humans do.

How did you come to include Ed Ruscha and Werner Herzog in the film? When I was a kid, VHS tapes were really expensive. They were like $75 each in the '80s. In our house we only had three or four. I think we had Up In Smoke, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Apocalypse Now, and Fitz Carraldo. Of course, Fitz Carraldo was the one that I watched least because it was the most difficult and boring, but as I got older it became the one I loved the most. Werner's writing voice, from when I was a teenager, is kind of the voice in my head when I write. There is a no-nonsense kind of bootstrap poetry to his approach. I mean, Werner is a DIY filmmaker, a real pioneer in making stuff happen on your own terms. He has made dozens and dozens of movies over a long career and they're all great. His approach is no bullshit but also never letting the truth get in the way of telling a good story and finding real truth through taking license where needed.

Werner—because he was so influential to my youth—his voice, his writing voice, has always been in my head. So I've always written and been influenced by that without even thinking about it. So then when we made the movie with Van Neistat, for me it had always been in Werner's voice. When we were looking for a narrator for I was thinking, wouldn't it be great if Werner would do it because he's kind of—it's for him. I asked him and he said yes.

And the same with Ed. Ed is about my dad's age and he is one of my “art dads,” to quote Tremaine Emory. Art dads are those people that have influenced you and that you look to. They could even be your peers, but people that have influenced and encouraged you, even if you've never met them. And I mean, Ed, who has become a friend—his art has always influenced me since I was a student 40 years ago because he was a pop artist but also a conceptual artist. There was a real division between those two subgroups of contemporary art in the 1970s and Ed's managed to kind of keep a foot in both camps but keep his identity his own, and he is for sure the greatest living contemporary artist.