Last night, I saw one of the more beautiful paintings I've ever stood in front of. It felt like more than a painting but it wasn't trying to be an exclamation point; it was happy to suck in the world and simmer it in the frame, and going over to it was like checking in on a stew. I couldn't figure out what the cook put in it to make it smell so amazing. Some cooks make you immediately ask the question. "What's in it?" You want to break it down and understand the effect it has on you. Anywhere I went in the room I could see the painting stewing over there. The greens in this thing made me so happy and weirdly emotional. There were shapes and shades in there that reached little pockets of memory I kind of allow to atrophy without realizing it. I feel like that painting understood something and if I got alone with it I might begin to understand it too.
Melissa Dunn is an amazing artist. I've been enjoying her work--really, her point of view--for over fifteen years now. I feel like I've been having a conversation with her paintings, and each time I come back to them they've been out living a lot more and know so much more than I do. Whenever I make a film and I start thinking about color, I think about those paintings and about Melissa's house, the way she arranges things or allows them to arrange themselves--then trains my eye to see it all. Last time, I put her paintings on screen, I framed them with the movie I was making, placing them in the natural setting of the characters. In a lot of ways that film is an attempt to have a conversation with Melissa's work, to get at the effect it has on me by putting it in front of the viewer, so we can kind of look at it together. I think of the characters and the audience being influenced by the paintings around them the way I am in real life, in ways we aren't even aware of.
Melissa's a great writer. Many artists have no idea how to talk about their work, or they have an idea but it's an outside idea; they go out where you're standing and try to look back at it from your point of view in a way that you can understand or relate to. It's kind of bizarre. When asked to "talk about" our stuff that's where we tend to go, without seeing it. Maybe keeping a blog has changed that for Melissa. She can speak to you from in there and bring you in now in ways I don't remember her doing before. Blogging has given her the ability to edit her own magazine, not just in words but pictures, and not just pictures other people have taken but her own. She sees something, zeroes in on it, snaps it, posts it, and talks about it from the inside on her blog. I don't think I've read a more lucid artist statement than the one she's posted for her show at Buckman Center, where I saw this green stew. For once, I felt like I was having a conversation with the artist, rather than with the conventions presented by the gallery experience. I go back to Melissa's blog all the time. I've never seen someone capture her world and work so well--not just what's in it but how she apprehends and engages with it and the words she puts it all into. You can see all the intersections there between world and work. Melissa uses words like she uses color.
In my first movie there's a little bit where one of the characters is walking about the room straightening things up. There was a bench there--it was on set when we arrived. But I'd bought a dozen or so colored pillows from the thrift store to decorate it. And I asked the actor to stop and notice these as he was moving around, to zero in on them and attend to them. In the film he starts arranging them. He goes into a tiny fugue there. That's how I imagined it, anyway. The colors drew him in, and he engaged with them, and carried that schema away with him. It was kind of a rescue from the relentlessness of his thinking. I think maybe that was yet another tribute to Melissa.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Thursday, December 16, 2010
I've been looking back at the experience of my first film a lot lately, not just because it's been offered distribution but because it was a vastly different endeavor than the one I'm working on now. We edited that first film, THE WAY I SEE THINGS, over the course of several years, then I started taking it around to festivals. The music we used consisted of tracks already recorded by Harlan T. Bobo. There really wasn't much to the process besides a lot of reflection and attention. It was stressful, particularly when I engaged in the festival experience, but it was pretty manageable.
WOMAN'S PICTURE has been something else entirely. A bigger cast, for one thing, some of whom have management. That's a new one for me. A bigger crew, too. There are more people to organize when something needs to be done, and still, a year later, much needs to be done. Music issues, edit issues, legal issues, sound issues, marketing, contracts, a thousand niggling details, little stray threads it takes forever to get woven into the larger tapestry.
These are all long term relationships; each one a marriage. You're not always the best people for each other. You got involved because of this child you had together, the film. You try to work around your partner's personality to raise the kid the best you can. It can be kind of combustible. Not everyone speaks the same language. I spend a lot of time trying to express myself as clearly as possible with a pathetically inept vocabulary.
A few weeks ago, we recorded piano cues for the middle section of WOMAN'S PICTURE. It was frustrating, trying to get what I wanted. I had no facility for the instrument and no real idea how to communicate about it. I'd worked with the engineer once before, but not with anyone else in the room. I felt the same way in the sound studio, where over the course of a week and a half I worked 10-15 hour days, one on one, with a succession of three very different personalities.
Ultimately, THE WAY I SEE THINGS was housed on one hard drive, with another as a back up. WOMAN'S PICTURE is spread across four drives, and just keeping track of those can be a major ordeal.
I'm tired and I find myself wanting to move on. I remain incredibly committed to the film, but every other relationship in my personal life has suffered for it. On the rare occasion I do speak to my family these days, I imagine they must think I have a drug problem. It's as if I've disappeared off the face of the earth. My behavior doesn't seem to make sense to them. It doesn't make sense to me. Making a film, not just shooting it but producing it, finishing it, isn't a real time, real life enterprise, especially when working outside of a context most people could understand (Los Angeles, for example). No one wants to hear about someone else's job, especially when it bears little recognizable relation to your own. And this one never seem to end. It's been very difficult to cut it off at the end of the day and to make myself available emotionally or even just on a casual, conversational level.
THE WAY I SEE THINGS was shot over a month and a week. WOMAN'S PICTURE was basically a twenty day affair. Maybe I'm romanticizing the past. I don't know. The shoot for WOMAN'S PICTURE was chaotic and ambitious, though it didn't feel that way to most of the people involved, I don't think. It was a madness I kept private and contained, the way you do on set, trying to inspire everyone with confidence, as if what you're all endeavoring to do is the simplest of things and you have everything you need to accomplish it. At the same time, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I finally felt like I understood, viscerally, what it means to fit in. I felt for that twenty day period that I was a fully functional, fully feeling social being. There wasn't a problem I couldn't solve. There wasn't a piece of that process I didn't find a way to authentically own. A 10 thousand dollar garage door broke, leaving all the equipment exposed. We got a flat tire on the light truck. People didn't show up on any given day. None of it mattered much to me. I was beatifically happy.
I look at other filmmakers who've worked this way and study them with a new scrutiny. What kind of cost comes from this independence? Doing it yourself is great but I'm now trying to build a team of trusted collaborators, not just for that exciting two or three week shoot period but for the long haul, when, during the months following the recording of footage, it all has to be assembled and carried forward. I'm trying to build a better vocabulary and a support group of translators ahead of time, so that as this gets more complicated I can be more of a person off set as well as on.
(Above is a picture of our homemade sound booth, made of sleeping blankets and mike stands, during post work on THE WAY I SEE THINGS, 2007-8)
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Building sets was a big part of making WOMAN'S PICTURE for me. So many of the characters are trying to create and control their own spaces, spaces which vary in degrees from total constructions to practical locations, just like on a movie shoot. What makes each space real has more to do with powers of imagination than anything else, and the level of vigilance used to enforce certain desired impressions. I wanted as much as possible for the cast and crew of WOMAN'S PICTURE to be just as engaged and invested in the spaces we were creating, everyone working hard to cultivate and sustain a collective sense of reality. I'd never built sets before. I'd never really wanted to. But WOMAN'S PICTURE had a lot to do with a certain kind of movie and a certain kind of fantasy-making, and things like shooting on a sound stage, with a truck of lights and dressing rooms and sets we'd built from scratch using materials out of the local Home Depot seemed a necessary step towards understanding the characters we were creating.
Miriam Masterson's QET Home Shopping Network set is a total fabrication, but for her and for a lot of her viewers it takes on varying degrees of reality. It's the fantasy of a room which broadcasts nationwide, becoming other rooms in other people's homes, one room among many inhabited by thousands of individuals, mostly women. Miriam goes into a different headspace when her show goes live. The camera filming her and the individual TVs broadcasting her show frame Miriam's set, creating the illusion not only that the set is real but that it extends indefinitely, intimately attached to additional, unseen rooms. Miriam's set works like a movie set; it's presented selectively through mis en scene and performance. The strength of Miriam's personality invites people in, as if she's sitting in her den. Her viewers join her, sharing the room. She speaks to callers on a telephone, though they're connected through the studio's hidden technology. Miriam's show pipes into the other women's stories in WOMAN'S PICTURE, making her a narrative convention in more ways than one. She serves to connect the segments of the movie the way she connects her viewers, enforcing the illusion of interrelationship.
The studio brass feels locked out of this space she's created and they engage in a struggle to gain access and control over what goes on during her show, in her room. Miriam fights to maintain her sovereignty, essentially trying to lock them out. All of the women in WOMAN'S PICTURE are involved in trying to keep someone out of the room. You see people locking doors a lot. You see them barring other people's entrance. Loretta talks to Joan, her boss, through a chain lock. When she does let Joan into the room, the two stand awkwardly, several feet apart. Loretta doesn't invite Joan to sit down. She starts when Joan makes a move toward her, as if wary, treating Joan like an unwanted intruder. For Loretta, the motel rooms she cleans are as much fantasy spaces as Miriam's TV show. When Loretta does fantasize, she pictures herself on TV, in black and white, the way she experiences Miriam in the maids' break room. She doesn't imagine herself as Miriam but as someone in the old movies Miriam describes having watched with her mother as a girl. Loretta's injury occurs when someone returns to one of the rooms she's supposed to be cleaning. She's deep inside an ongoing fantasy and the room's real occupant comes back unexpectedly. I liked the idea that a motel's rooms keep changing occupants. The rooms keep getting inhabited by different people, each enacting some specialized fantasy of escape or isolation. I liked the idea of using one motel room to serve as all the motel rooms we show. We changed the furniture around but the basics stayed the same, increasing a sense of interchangeability and deja vu.
Ingrid I think has figured out a way to keep this idea of a room with her at all times, making it portable, a state of mind rather than a place of being. She makes whatever space she inhabits that "room", the place she can live out her fantasy self in. She could walk into your room and in that sense it becomes her own, because she leaves you trying to make your way around in it. She changes the furniture around and commands the space according to her own tastes. I feel a lot of empathy for her mother, Gladys, because Gladys isn't really there yet. She might never get there. Gladys has her house, and she tries to control all the rooms in it, so that she can maintain a fantasy she's been enacting for years, since she was a child. She grew up in the house; it belonged to her mother; and when she was a girl her mother controlled the house and excluded her in various ways from feeling ownership of the rooms the way she controls it and wields that power herself now. She tries to wield it over Ingrid when Ingrid and Mackie come home for a visit. She makes Ingrid stay upstairs in her old attic bedroom. She won't let her stay downstairs in her grandmother's old room. Gladys has changed the room anyway, making it her own. But Ingrid is used to being told where she can be and who she can be there and has evolved past that to a degree her mother wouldn't begin to understand. Her visit ends abruptly on bad terms and Ingrid moves to a hotel room with Mackie. Gladys has the house to herself. One thing we never showed was Gladys' bedroom. You feel you see every room in the house but her own. I wanted it to be the one place the viewer doesn't have access to, so that you'd wonder what it must be like and want to get in.
Monday, June 14, 2010
When Ingrid and Mackie arrive at Ingrid's childhood home, they park outside with the windows open. Ingrid stares hard at the house as Mackie struggles with the tie she's made him wear. He complains, wondering what they're doing there. Ingrid hasn't spoken to her mother in a decade. The woman is obviously a bore. Why is Ingrid, who seems so independent, subjecting herself to the scrutiny, Mackie wonders. Mackie himself is like a kid, squirming before he gets dragged into church. You can hear children throughout the neighborhood, laughing, screaming, or crying. The noise they make is pretty ambiguous. Childhood as raw energy.
Ingrid wants to stay in her grandmother's room, but her mother takes her up to the attic, where she lived as a boy. Ingrid's character is a different person than she was as a kid, something most people can relate to, if not to such an extreme. As an adult, you're a different being altogether; not physically necessarily, but in almost every other conceivable way. For a lot of people I know, adulthood becomes a mission to actualize the sense someone had of him- or herself as a child, impressions typically contradicted or denied by parents. Ingrid's mother preserved her boyhood room like a museum. "I didn't decorate that room; SHE did," Ingrid tells Mackie, when they sneak into the bathroom together to gossip conspiratorially. That's pretty childish, too. They're even dressed in their PJs. As a boy, Ingrid felt like her mother's doll.
You're a different being but that kid is still in there, and Woman's Picture is preoccupied with viewing that strange phenomenon where childhood becomes the ghost town resided in by adults. Loretta, another one of the movie's protagonists, is probably going to lose her children. "She neglected them," she says, pretending to talk about someone besides herself. "She was neglectful." They got into rat poison when she wasn't looking. She was probably never looking, unless she happened to be playing with them, but if she played with them it was as an equal. Loretta is a child, too; like Ingrid, she's a totally different being. She's a grown woman but she has the mind of a little girl. Her body ages but her mind stays put. She repeats what other people say--the women she works with; the things she hears from Miriam Masterson, on TV--the way a child explains grown-up concepts to her dolls at a tea party in her bedroom. Loretta hears children wherever she goes. In a few dissociative moments she goes off somewhere in her head and you lose touch with her, but the sound of a child in distress gives some indication where she's gone.
Miriam's TV show set comes across like something out of her childhood. She painted it girly pink. She plays dress-up on set, basically, wearing clothes that make no sense the second she steps off camera. There's a lot of dressing up in Woman's Picture. Clothes are the step you take toward becoming that other person. A lot of the clothes in the movie don't fit perfectly: Mackie's pajamas are at least a size too big; Loretta's maid uniform seems like a hand me down from an older girl; Miriam's trademark on-set gown is the right size but the cut has a lot of sweep and some extra length, reinforcing the impression that she might not have grown into it yet. "I'm going to find my pink belt. You will not upstage me again," Ingrid tells Mackie in their hotel room. A big part of their relationship is dress-up and play-acting.
Miriam talks incessantly about her childhood on camera and you hear it piped into everyone else's home and consciousness, but childhood is off limits for the characters in the movie--even for Miriam. The only kids you see might be a mirage. Loretta sneaks into one of the rooms at the motel where she works. She's hiding from someone, listening at the door. When she turns around, she sees a boy and a girl sitting on the bed, staring at her. The boy is chewing on his fingernails, the way Loretta does. She doesn't speak to the kids and they don't speak to her. They stare at each other like a long distance separates them. Ingrid's mother can preserve her son's room but the son she remembers is gone forever, unless she's willing to admit that he was a figment of her imagination to begin with. At one point, Ingrid plays the piano in the den, stumbling through "Power in the Blood" from memory. Her mother hears it from the kitchen, and gets as close as she ever will to her son, who as a boy must have rehearsed while she cooked dinner.
Friday, May 28, 2010
The last third of Woman's Picture involves an incident with a bottle of perfume.
The bottle sits out on Miriam Masterson's dresser, away from everything else. It belonged to her mother. Miriam doesn't seem to wear it, but at night, sitting there alone, she sniffs from it, stepping into some parallel dimension of stillness beyond regret, self-doubt, and the hamster wheel of ceaseless daily thoughts which keep her outside herself. During these private moments--the only time you see her alone--she gets a faraway look on her face; later, when you watch her selling perfume on TV, you believe in her sincerity, because she goes to the same faraway place, and you see that she finds ways to genuinely relate her own solitary experience to her viewers, however heightened and well-rehearsed the delivery.
She visits her mother in a nursing home every day. She sits on the edge of the bed, staring at her. Mentally, her mother has left the building. She's in her own distant place, and you know on some level that the perfume allows Miriam to go there, too, looking for her. Later, when her stoner boyfriend of five years breaks the bottle, Miriam flips. It's a trigger. A portal to another world closes. There's no getting back through. Russell can't understand why she's so upset. A pothead has his own parallel universe and the door is always a bong hit away.
Miriam wakes him up on the couch. You could hear him snoring when she came in, right before she discovered the broken bottle in the bathroom sink. Miriam spilled what was left of the perfume--mere drops--as she picked up the pieces of glass, and as she and Russell fight she keeps thrusting her hands into his face. You get the idea the perfume is evaporating as they speak. He'll buy her another bottle, Russell keeps saying. There was a little bit left: did she see? He doesn't get it. That was her, Miriam says. That was her in a bottle. There will never be another bottle like that. Your mother? says Russell. What are you talking about? The house is full of her shit. You never even liked that woman, he says. All she ever did was tell you what a fuck up you were.
The bottle I picked out for the scene at an antique store was totally different than the one I remember. It had a cut-glass stopper, shaped like a dagger. The stopper was bigger than the bottle. The bottle I remember was a tiny thing. It fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. My grandmother kept it in her medicine cabinet, hidden between pill bottles, ointments, band-aids, bobby pins. I used to lock myself in the bathroom to smell it. I never put it on. I couldn't risk being discovered smelling of it. But for years I enjoyed it behind closed doors. It smelled of violets and faint aldehydes, powdery and sweet, and reminded me not of my grandmother exactly, but of fantasies I entertained about her.
Toward the end she was frail. She seemed to have always suffered from arthritis but by her seventies her hands were so disfigured that she couldn't button her own shirts. She managed to light her cigarettes but it took her several minutes. You didn't dare offer to help. She spent the year before her stroke in a brace. She was so weak she couldn't hold her head up, and the doctors worried she'd break her neck. She never wore perfume. I have no idea where she got the bottle in the bathroom, but I know it must have meant something to her because it was very old, maybe older than she was, and whatever else changed in her house, whatever else moved around, that bottle was always in her cabinet, in precisely the same place.
I imagined she probably locked herself in the bathroom to smell it, the way I did, afraid that if she wore it some secret part of her self would incriminate her. My grandmother was a tough woman--always wise-cracking, always a wry smirk, a chain smoker. I never saw her in anything but pants and shirts--save for the times she square danced, and that was more theatrical than persuasive. It was as if she would be mistreated, like a woman, were she to act and dress like one. She was mistreated anyway, but at least in male clothing she could pretend, like a man, not to be bothered.
I like to believe she had hidden reserves of sensitivity she couldn't afford to declare. She was surrounded mostly by men, with only her daughters and the wives of male friends to give her away. The year before she died, I stole the bottle. I knew no one would give it to me, and I couldn't let her know it meant something to me. I think it would have been thrown out when my mother and her sisters took inventory. I was willed a stuffed coyote instead (also in WOMAN'S PICTURE); a more masculine legacy. I brought the violet perfume home and put it in my own bathroom cabinet. I want to say it was about an inch and a half tall, but practically full. I kept it there after she died.
Early one morning, she had a stroke. She was alone, in the bathroom, of all places. My mother arrived and found her on the floor. She wasn't wearing her neck brace and couldn't keep her head up. She was lucid for moments at a time but mostly disappearing into nonsense or silence. She was rushed to the hospital and put on life support for several days. Seeing her in the hospital was horrifying, because it wasn't her anymore. It wasn't anybody. I was glad I'd taken the perfume.
We were cleaning house one day and I heard glass break. It had a weird sound of finality to it. I rushed into the bathroom and my boyfriend was already making excuses. The bottle had fallen out of the cabinet, shattering on the sink. He'd saved what was left, he kept telling me. I can't explain how I was feeling, other than to say it was like someone had killed my grandmother. I don't think I've ever gotten any nearer to what people mean when they say they flew into a rage. I was essentially possessed. The bottle hadn't even been labelled. I still don't know what the perfume was called.
Ten years later, as we filmed the confrontation between Miriam and Russell, I kept taking Ann Magnuson, the actress who played Miriam, into an adjoining room. It was near the end of the shoot and I was exhausted. Various resentments had been stuffed to get through the thing, but I let them out in the controlled environment of that room, trying to free her up into some irrational anger, some response or place beyond justification, cause and effect. It had to be primal. It wasn't about the relationship. It was about losing someone. I wanted her to fly into the room, to poke Russell awake as though she were stabbing him. I wanted the camera to linger on the broken bottle, the spilled perfume, the finality of it never being whole again. The bottle I found was perfect; only the stopper remained intact, shaped like a weapon to drive home the injury.
I wanted a special kind of cluelessness to Russell's response. How can anyone be prepared for that--or truly be blamed? How can anyone know what the bottle held for you? It's the curse of trying to maintain some sense of significance in a world full of stupid spinning collisions, where flimsy things are broken on impact, their parts flying off in opposite directions. I remember my grandmother's body jerking from the life support machine, as fragile as that stupid bottle, no more or less impermanent, certainly just as tiny in the larger scheme of the universe. I relate to the smile on Miriam's face as she sells some other bottle of perfume on a TV show which offers that fantasy of attachment and personal investment to anonymous viewers. There was a running dialog as we filmed, questioning whether Miriam was for real. It was such a non issue for me, ultimately. She seems to be locked in a bathroom of her own making, and you could just as easily ask how real the world outside the door is. Who's to say the film we were shooting wasn't real, invested with those ghosts?
(Photo: Ann Magnuson in WOMAN'S PICTURE. Hair and make-up by Alicia Boldreghini George)
Saturday, March 27, 2010
It's exhilarating to watch Tilda Swinton in JULIA. The director says their film was inspired by Gena Rowlands in GLORIA. I would say the inspiration is a lot more expansive than that, because while Julia, like Gloria, is selfish and tough, she's also channeling a certain alcoholic dishevelment that Gloria doesn't share. True, there's the uneasy relationship with a child. Both Gloria and Julia are forced into the position of caretaker, and their stories explore issues of maternal instinct through the manipulations of the thriller genre; violence, risk, pursuit, forced separation, charged reunion.
Gloria is a much more commercial film, so that, when ex-moll Rowlands assumes responsibility for the son of neighbors who've been taken out by the mob, the story involves itself with chipping away at her tough guy facade, showing a softie underneath. Julia's ward needs more protection from her than from anyone else. It's Julia's bright idea to kidnap the kid, and she treats her hostage pretty horribly, tying him up with phone cord at night, secretly drugging him, locking him in the bathroom, abandoning him in the desert to collect ransom money.
Audiences responded to JULIA unfavorably during its festival run, and no wonder; the comparison to GLORIA sets up a series of expectations which are never fulfilled. Anyone familiar with GLORIA will bring to JULIA the need to see a traditional transformation in the protagonist, a motherly denouement. Julia will need to atone for her involvement in the kid's reckless endangerment; however grudgingly, she'll need to accept her rightful role as mama figure, curing her directionless alcoholism by awakening latent instincts. It's easy to see why people jeered. It isn't just that JULIA ends abruptly, with no real indication what Julia will do with the child, now that they've escaped from their pursuers. It really boils down to Julia never making amends.
The film is messy this way. Rather than work toward the kind of redemptive resolution audiences have come to recognize, Julia keeps getting in deeper. Like a real alcoholic, as opposed to a movie alcoholic, she persists in viewing her behavior through various self-righteous, self-pitying filters. The film practically cuts her off, mid-sentence, in the middle of what might be yet another in a long line of excuses, prevarications, or series of lies. Julia is never forced to tell the truth to anyone. You can see the wheels of that addict mindset spinning right into the credits, the same bewildered look on her face that you see in the beginning, as if like most alcoholics she only fleetingly recognizes the deep shit she's in, at which point she's dog-paddling her way out of it. Nearest exit will do.
I've loved Tilda Swinton since Sally Potter's ORLANDO, but I'd grown disenchanted with her. Seeing her in MICHAEL CLAYTON recently felt like a step in the right direction. That film uses Swinton's reserve, her mannered, controlled screen presence, in useful ways, harnessing that rigidity to a character you would expect to possess those qualities. The moment of collapse at the end of the movie, brief as it is, was a pay-off, one I realized I'd been wanting for years. It gave a detailed presence to Swinton's reserve. It showed seismic activity underneath the surface, and provided a sense of contrast. Often, Swinton's edge feels smoothed out, divested of shading and contours. Her performances can end up feeling flat for me; they're too preoccupied with the kind of slow burn she does so well, and you never see the cinders.
JULIA'S so called messiness allowed Swinton a lot of freedom, it seems to me. It's a character study in the truest sense of the term, someone caught in a series of moments. The focus isn't on arc necessarily--though one is there and can be determined by each indivual viewer--but on texture and depth. It's the closest Swinton has come to feeling like an American on screen, full of contradictions, unfocused energy, abrupt moments of inspiration and despair, possessed of a free-wheeling, hubristically makeshift sense of agency. I would say JULIA'S inspiration has more to do with the various iterations of her persona Gena Rowlands detailed on film for Cassavetes, with nods to OPENING NIGHT's restless pacing and WOMAN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN's blackout narrative sensibility among other things. It's hard to say whether JULIA would have been better served by these atlas points of comparison, but those films share with JULIA, more than GLORIA, a vivid sense of keyhole voyeurism, implicating their viewers in the random sloppiness and improvisational hazards of less commercial views of identity.