When I sat down on Zoom to talk with Los Angeles filmmaker Ari Gold about time, the first thing he did was tell me he was short on it. He had to leave for another meeting in about half an hour. But, as any filmmaker and especially Ari knows, you can pack a lot of meaning into 20-some-odd minutes. Which is just what we did.
Ari is a filmmaker by trade. His short film Helicopter, a 22-minute kaleidoscopic meditation on grief following the tragic death of his mother and the music promotor Bill Graham in a San Francisco-area crash, won him the Student Oscar and a dozen other prizes. His feature The Song of Sway Lake was recognized with several awards at the 52 international film festivals it played at, while Adventures of Power earned him an eclectic accolade: a Guinness World Record for commanding the world’s largest air-drumming ensemble.
Successes aside, the term filmmaker doesn’t quite cover the extent of Ari’s creative output. He also writes poetry—he just finished a collection in collaboration with his twin brother and 97-year-old father—meets weekly with a writing group, plays in a handful of bands, recently launched a climate-focused zine called Fogtown, and hosts HotSticks, a drumming podcast that grew out of conversations with Rush drummer Neil Peart.
In all of Ari’s cross-genre work, time is a character, a material, a motivator. In Helicopter, a project he’s continuing to develop with the legendary avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ari grapples with loss as it ricochets through a family system and across temporal dimensions and spiritual planes. “That film is deeply personal,” says Ari, “and really takes a look at how we can work with our memories in order to address trauma.” Time is ever-present in his feature The Song of Sway Lake, with the first shot showing a clock sinking into a lake to symbolize what Ari describes as a film about “being stuck in or trying to erase the past.” The clock metaphor was also fitting, he says, “in the sense I was quite literally stuck on the edit of the film.”
The creative challenge of filmmaking for Ari is to convey the expansiveness of real experience in a format the mind and body can absorb in a relatively short window of time. “It’s especially tough right now, because the way we digest storytelling is so different than it was even five years ago,” he says. “When people watch TikTok videos, for example, they are making a decision about what they’re seeing in less than two seconds.” He compares this to what he calls the old cinema idea of making a contract with a film and disappearing into a dream. “That’s something that’s becoming lost,” he says. “I don’t know if that means we as creators need to be even more focused on time to grab people’s attention quickly, or if we go in the opposite direction—to change the way they’re experiencing the image on the screen and invite them back into the dream.”
At the same time, he tries not to think about it too much. “If I focus too much on how I’m going to edit for time’s sake, the creative process can be damaged,” he says. “I’ve developed what I call a ‘poop draft,’ because I believe it’s better to finish something badly and then improve it, rather than to chase perfection and trudge along never getting there. I believe a lot of cool stuff can come out when you’re moving with speed.”
That’s the tack he takes with his air drumming and poetry. For these practices, he focuses on a shortness of being, using the clock as a container. “When I do live air drumming performances I set the clock at 60 seconds because it’s so strenuous,” he explains. “It’s like running a 400-yard sprint in a football squad position, without a stool, moving both arms and both legs, all without the points of impact and momentum you’d strike if you were hitting actual drums. I challenge anyone to come up with anything more cardio-intensive.”
The fascination with air drumming began when he was a kid, and was mostly meant for comedic ends (the last laugh is Ari’s: his niche hobby lead to a successful feature film and Guiness World Record). His interest in actual drumming is more intellectual. “Some time ago Neil [Peart] and I started talking about the impact of drumming on mental health,” he says of the birth of the HotSticks podcast, which has gone on to host music greats like Marky Ramone, Todd Sucherman, and Ray Luzier. “Drumming is really good for the brain—especially children’s—because it forms pathways of understanding for mathematics and language development,” he says. “There’s the plain-old pleasure factor of listening to music, but there’s also a physical impact with your brain being stimulated by rhythm and melody.”
During the pandemic, Ari joined a weekly Zoom group with other artist and writer friends who held the intention of writing poetry together. They used a rigid system: pulling a prompt from a book or some other source, setting the clock for four minutes, writing whatever words or lines arose, and then regrouping to share their work. “The compressed time period, the instruction not to edit as you go, to just keep moving forward—it feels really good,” he says. “There’s always a lot of, ‘Woah, how’d you think of that?’ when we share with each other, and the answer is, you didn’t think of it. There wasn’t time.”
Using creative sprints to quickly see what’s reverberating in the moment has been meaningful for Ari—in poetry, filmmaking, and life (though he opts for 4 minutes and 39 seconds when he’s working alone on poetry prompts). “Usually, when you get to the finish line, you realize things will never be perfect anyway. I’d rather follow instincts and see what kind of wonderful things arise,” he says. “If you’re always editing and always trying to be perfect, I think you’ll miss out on the opportunity for a dream. You’ve got to stay in the moment. Speaking of which—I gotta go.”
Learn more about Ari’s work at arigoldfilms.com