Viggo Mortensen, The Man Who Would Be King

If you’re a hardened J.R.R. Tolkien fan feasting on the “Lord of the Rings” largesse that’s possessed popular cinema over the last few years, then you don’t need an introduction to Viggo Mortensen. But for those who haven’t followed Mortensen too closely before he landed the meaty role of Aragorn — the king-in-exile whose ascension to a scrupulously avoided Middle Earth throne is one of many subplots embedded in “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” the vastly popular trilogy’s final installment, opening Dec. 17 in theaters around the world — then now’s the time to, as they say in hip-hop, recognize.

Mortensen has been a busy man since his debut in Peter Weir’s 1985 thriller, “Witness.” The New York native, who just celebrated his 45th birthday, has put together a series of compelling roles in films by auteur types like Gus Van Sant (“Psycho”), Sean Penn (“The Indian Runner”) and Jane Campion (“Portrait of a Lady”), as well as a couple of blockbusters (“Crimson Tide” and “G.I. Jane”) from the Bruckheimer and Birnbaum wing of Hollywood. He’s spent years in Southern California’s arts scene, whether participating in poetry readings at Venice’s Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, jamming with Buckethead and other fixtures in L.A.’s sonic landscapes, or exhibiting paintings and photographs in well-established galleries.

Along the way, he teamed up with Pilar Perez, a curator and former editor at Smart Art Press, and formed the independent Perceval Press. Perceval’s first few books were an assortment of books by Mortensen and various young, lesser-known artists, and their popularity allowed the start-up to stash money away for further offerings featuring figures as diverse as L.A. artist and poet Georganne Deen (with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore), “City of Quartz” author Mike Davis, Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara and more.

“There was no particular goal in mind, no ideology other than the desire to put information and images out there that might otherwise not be available,” Mortensen explains; his latest book, “Miyelo,” follows that free-flowing train of thought perfectly. Filled with one-take panoramas of Lakota tribesmen re-creating the controversial Ghost Dance — a practice that brought the full force of the United States Army down on South Dakota’s Native Americans, and led to the massacre at Wounded Knee — “Miyelo” is also a current installment at L.A.’s Stephen Cohen Gallery, through Nov. 8. It offers a significant amount of commentary and context on what remains a relatively obscure and tragic chapter in American history.

But exploring the dark chapters of history and experience is something in which Mortensen seems to take pride. An upcoming Perceval book on the Iraq nightmare — “Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation,” featuring contributions from Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, Mark Levine, Mike Davis, Kristina Borjesson, the embattled Joseph Wilson and more — lays bare the unbridled corporate arrogance at the heart of the Bush empire.

Then, of course, there is Peter Jackson’s amazing vision of Tolkien’s “Return of the King.” Ever since its publication half a century ago, Tolkien’s masterpiece has had nothing but sad tales to tell about those who use and abuse power for its own sake. By the end of his “Lord of the Rings” run, Viggo Mortensen will have graduated from mercurial Renaissance man to full-fledged star.

How did you approach the photography for “Miyelo”?

Well, the idea came from a scene in the movie called “Hidalgo” [about long-distance horse rider Frank T. Hopkins, forthcoming in 2004] where the character I play, who’s at the end of his energies and in the middle of nowhere without any water or hope left, begins to hallucinate. In a delirious state, he starts to hear these voices and see these fragments of people. I wondered how one would use a still camera to represent images of the ephemeral dancers in wide-open, empty landscape — how the ghosts of Ghost Dancers might look. So I really approached it as an exercise. In the end, I didn’t actually use my own camera. I wanted to include more of the landscape, and Richard Cartwright, a very fine photographer who was shooting the official stills for the movie, was kind enough to lend me his panoramic Hasselblad camera.

I shot the one roll of film at different settings, with increasingly longer exposures. The sun was very bright, so I was hoping to get one interesting image from the roll. Luckily, this was one of those rare situations where intentionally doing “the wrong thing” with the camera worked in an interesting way. As conscious an exercise as making these particular pictures was, there are accidents in the images — weird spots, unexpected areas of saturation and contrast variations — strange things that I couldn’t see when shooting and still cannot really explain. The longer the exposure, the more room for surprises. I like the fact that even with a medium as supposedly controlled and predictable as photography is meant to be, there still is mystery in the results. You won’t necessarily be sure what you will get, where you are going.

Which is cool, because it bleeds thematically into the idea of the Ghost Dance.

Yeah, it felt right. I was initially inspired to do it partly from what I heard about the Ghost Dance, but more by the serious way that the dancers and singers had prepared for the scene. The dance had been performed once before in South Dakota, and now we were in the middle of the California desert trying it again, as a sort of mirage, a distorted memory. Just as they had done for the Wounded Knee reenactment, the dancers took their responsibilities in the ritual very seriously; there was an atmosphere that was created through the sheer earnestness of their effort. It transcended anything else that was going on with regard to the filming of the scene. When the dancers had finished and it became my turn to be filmed observing the dance, a pair of dust devils and weird crosswinds suddenly blew in on what had been a completely still day. As soon as the last take of the scene had been shot, the winds instantly and completely ceased, leaving everyone and everything calm and silent for several moments.

Sounds haunting.

Yeah, it was. I wanted to remember it. In taking the pictures, I wanted to join it rather than observe from a distance. Or at least to take pictures in the spirit of the event itself.

Talk a bit about Perceval Press. What led you to start it?

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but Pilar [Perez] and I talked about how it would be interesting to start a press. We had no idea how it would go — most small presses have a hard time of it, really. For books to pay for themselves is a huge accomplishment, and most small, independent presses don’t seem to last long. It’s a hard thing to pull off, because you’re not counting on big distribution and the chain bookstores. The idea was to try to publish books that had to do with art, writing, ideas. There was no particular goal in mind, no ideology other than the desire to put information and images out there that might otherwise not be available, in terms of artists or poets or photographers. Books that might not get published in the form that the writer or the artist would like to see it published. That goes for the look of the book, the contents, the subject matter. The idea was to allow the material and presentation of each book to take shape as organically as possible, independent of any other publication and true to itself.

Where did you come up with the name?

Well, the legend of Perceval involves, in part — I’m sure you know about this — the notion of choosing and making your own way. A group of knights comes to the edge of a forest and each one makes his individual path. They consciously choose not to take a path that’s already there, but instead create their own. Symbolically, that was the idea behind the press, and that is what we have tried to do with each book.

How has it been collaborating with Pilar on this venture?

She’s pretty extraordinary. It’s been really good working with her. A very satisfying adventure in teamwork. We seem to have the same goals in mind. It would be impossible to do this without her. She keeps everything running smoothly and has so many good ideas, such a good eye. Gives complete attention to every detail.

How are you doing so far?

It’s a lot of work for us, especially in this second year in which we have made so many books. But the system of preparing them — with the invaluable assistance of our designer, Michele Perez — has become pretty efficient. We have stayed small, in contrast to some publishers who’ve come out of the gate doing well and then have either added too many books or felt a need to bring in partners to expand. Our goal is to stay relatively small so that we can guarantee quality books that are made well and have something to say. If you expand too much or leave the job in other people’s hands, then you’re not taking the book from concept to finished product, including supervising the printing and everything else. So even though you could make more money as a company and therefore have the resources to publish a greater range of books, I think the price that you pay in terms of losing creative and quality control is not worth it.

What about the upcoming book on Iraq, “In the Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation”? You’re moving away from art books to more openly political books. Are you worried about that?

Not at all. It is simply one more book from Perceval Press. There is no plan on our part to begin making any one kind of book as a general rule, whether it be about current events, painting, chess, blow guns or animal hospitals. We would certainly find it dull to limit ourselves to making sociopolitical commentary or history books. I think the majority of Perceval’s books will continue to be art-related, but we have nothing against publishing — if it seems interesting — a textbook on 19th century Russian astronomy, for example. It’s OK not to have a master plan. We like not having to justify the books we publish on any but their own terms. First of all, we’re pleasing ourselves, and then, hopefully, we’ll be able to please others. I think there’s a certain integrity in that approach.

We’re under no illusion that everyone will like what we do. If we’ve served the artist or the writer well, and they’re happy with the finished work, we simply hope that people will gravitate toward it. That has proven to be the case so far. In the end, you’re not going to please everyone, and I would defend Perceval on the grounds that we definitely don’t have an agenda or, as I’ve pointed out, even a specific artistic course that we’re on. Now, it’s very possible that someone might pick up the book of essays on the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq by the predominantly Anglo-American …

Consortium?

Yeah, consortium. That’s a good word for it. If someone picks that up and it’s the only thing they’ve read from Perceval, they might say, “Oh, I see, it’s that kind of place.” But hopefully they’ll look at the Web site and see that we’ve got a whole range of books. I think the information contained in this book will be the kind that many people will, unfortunately, not have had the chance to read. But I don’t see us being crusaders, other than in the role of defending the right of people to express themselves.

What do you think about the fact that many in the U.S. want part of the money we give Iraq to be considered a “loan” to be repaid with oil revenues?

[Vice President Dick] Cheney was speaking to a bunch of Republicans the other day, and he said that the U.S. taxpayer would not pay a single cent for the Iraq reconstruction. He said Iraqis would have to do that themselves. I think this is not only a lie — one that he is quite conscious of telling — but the statement itself, true or not, displays the horribly arrogant attitude of the current administration. We went into Iraq and made a friggin’ mess for no reason at all — well, for economic reasons that will benefit a lucky few — and we’ve seriously undermined any kind of global community.

As many problems as the U.N. has had and as much hypocrisy as it has displayed, I would rather have them taking care of business over there as opposed to our government’s piecemeal, self-serving efforts. To see the president of the United States and his administration admonish the U.N. and individual wealthy nations to pitch in with reconstruction now that such a mess has been made by the U.S. government — which, as everyone knows, chose to deride and completely ignore the grave concerns expressed by the community of nations when invading Iraq in the first place — displays a degree of arrogance that’s as frightening as it is ridiculous. For the American citizen, real dialogue and balanced information about these matters has been largely choked off. In some way, I think that small companies or individuals that are willing to help draw a broader picture, offer more information and contrasting views, are especially valuable at this time. They’re worth their weight in oil! [Laughs.]

You have to speak in terms the administration will understand!

Yeah. If I said, “They’re worth their weight in gold,” one might think it sounded a little corny.

That’s so 19th century.

Worth their weight in uranium?

Has the political volatility of our time hindered your ability to travel significantly? You’ve been to Cuba, and I know that you were thinking of going to Iraq before the war started.

Last year, I had made plans to visit Iraq and Israel. I was interested in seeing those places a little for myself, to take pictures, get to know people. Unfortunately, due to professional and personal obligations, I was unable to go. Later I read that Sean Penn and others were going. The mainstream media in the United States were highly critical of Sean for having gone to Iraq, calling him “Baghdad Sean” and the like. Those who run this country and hand-feed carefully crafted propaganda to the media will immediately and automatically label a show of genuine curiosity about the world and the role of the U.S. government in it — which is how I view Sean’s trip — as unpatriotic.

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