Above: Still from Madsen Minax's film Kairos Dirt and the Errant Vacuum
A circle of queer people living in a small Southern dystopian town that is hard to pin down feels like the 1980s but suggests something futuristic at the same time. This is the setting for director Madsen Minax’s Kairos Dirt and the Errant Vacuum, where a gender-ambiguous kid, a queer lunch lady, a mystical mortician, a phone sex operator/astrologer/life coach, and many others cross paths and unite on their travels through dream states and alternate realities. As in his previous film, The Year I Broke My Voice (2012), in which variously gender-ambiguous characters have a shared communal experience — in this film, it was a queer adolescence —Kairos Dirt similarly situates a group of people on a journey that’s simultaneously revelatory and mind-altering.
Minax stops into the Twin Cities on Thursday, October 19 at 7 p.m. for a screening at Bryant-Lake Bowl. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets go for $6-$12 (sliding scale). To buy tickets, click here. I caught up with Minax while he was en route to the Twin Cities, somewhere in the middle of nowhere Iowa.
Alicia Eler: I love it when like there’s some weird, intuitive, mystical connection between a bunch of people, and it’s people that wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with each other but they’ve all come into this space and are experiencing something. What was your inspiration for making the film itself?
Madsen Minax: The film itself was setup as sort of a challenge. A lot of times you’re making stuff because it’s intuitive or whatever. With this one I really set up a couple of particular obstacles that I wanted to work from. I wanted to work from a formulaic script, which was not something I had done before. I wanted there to be plot points, which is not something I usually do. I really wanted to work with the idea of an ensemble cast and have the ensemble cast be a stand-in for this idea of like, the multi-verse. Each human is sort of like a stand-in for one dimension of an idea. And that was the original challenge.
Then I had this story that is this weird unspoken intergenerational romance between this queer middle school lunch lady and this gender-ambiguous kid, and the only way their relationship can be imagined or consummated is through these weird erotic landscapes with this queer ghost who is a stand-in for the kid in an alternate space time. That’s my idea and I wanted it to be this ensemble, so how can I like bring in all the things I am thinking about in terms of ingestion and expulsion and death and decay and sex, like all those things meet in the same place in this movie. So I wanted each of the characters to carry a weight of that. Rosie the lunch lady has got the food situation, the folks that are sort of like guides into the realm of death — the hospice care provider is a transitional character and the mortician is a transitional character, and religiosity is sort of a transitional character, so I wanted that void space, that other world space where sex and death could meet, and then I wanted those characters to facilitate those concepts where they could meet.
AE: What about the phone sex operator/astrologer/life coach character? She was my favorite. What’s her story?
MM: She’s great. All these people are guides, so she does the medium work of leading you to the other side similarly to the mortician, but she also literally gets to do the sex work, so she embodies both of those ideas of sex and death in the same place, which is cool. I didn’t want characters to be predictable, but I didn’t want them to be stereotypical. I wanted everyone to have idiosyncrasies, and that was important to character development, and not having things be like — “oh, this is a character of color so they’re going to perform this way,” or “oh, this is a lesbian character so they’re going to perform this way.” I wanted to really ride against that.
AE: So I was thinking just about like, collective conscience and how that operates within this community. This is a pretty general question but for you as the filmmaker why is that significant?
MM: It’s like the idea that everything is a part of the same thing. Like I love that stupid movie I Heart Huckabees (2004), where Dustin Hoffman is doing the blanket philosophy — but it is like, if we are all on the blanket, then you are this piece of dust and I am this piece of dust and these people are this piece of dust, so all these people are sharing an experience whether or not they want to share or acknowledge that.
AE: Why did you set the film in the decaying American South?
MM: I have that dystopian landscape fetish, but I don’t think it is so much about ruin porn as much as it is about having an anachronistic space-time. So when there’s not a lot of development and a sense of post-industrial decay, it’s easy for things to become a-temporal or placeless because you cannot pinpoint time or place.
Memphis is a little bit of a city that’s been forgotten. It had its heyday in music and Motown in the 60s and 70s, and it’s sort of like, not in decline but it’s definitely not a place people go to when they’re like: ‘I wonder where this was shot.’ There’s a lot of older building and neighborhoods you can go in where it doesn’t look like anything has been revamped since like 1985. And the film does this sort of anachronistic technology thing as a way to collapse place, collapse time, have it be less recognizable. So, the location was really good for being able to have a placeless place, but also the film really hinges on this grittiness, and Memphis is this super gritty city. That’s one of the things I love about Memphis — you can make anything happen there, and I feel like the film is one of those things.