SB: You seem to take on most of the roles and responsibilities when creating your films. On the credits you are usually billed as more than one of the following: writer, director, producer, editor, cinematographer, and actress. Do you take on so many jobs because you have a specific vision and want to be extremely involved in order to ensure it is realized or is it more out of necessity and the need for the ‘do it yourself mentality’ which is necessary to getting your film made when resources and extra hands are limited?
ES: Well, the simplest answer would be yes and yes, but I think that probably the more interesting answer is just that I really was more trained as an artist, not as a filmmaker so I wasn’t brought through the kind of industry logic of a kind of hierarchical production where the labor is divided into different roles but more really thinking of it as a medium like painting or sculpture or poetry, and, therefore, it didn’t really ever occur to me, except for when the projects started getting bigger that I would need more assistance. So I think that economic reasons are often why artists work in so many roles. Also, when they were small and like intimate I did want to have control over everything and I didn’t even know how to conceive of it beyond that, but when I made Shulie, that was the first point where I started realizing that I needed a lot more help.
SB: How much of the work do you do completely alone without a crew AND do you run your ideas past other people for their approval and opinions, or do you tend to come up with your ideas independently and execute them without consulting anyone else?
ES: It really depends on the project, I mean so much of Swallow is really exploring ideas and metaphors in a very kind of intimate way and so I did a lot of that alone or I had one or two people there helping me with the lighting, or if I was performing especially, but even then I did a lot of it alone or with one person. With Shulie, things started getting bigger and then with The Fancy there were sections in there where I probably had like ten people on the set of the painting critique scene in Shulie besides the talent, and in the fancy, the whole tracking section that was fivecrew and me and as far as ideas, I have a circle of artist friends who I’m close to, actually one in particular who I’ve always kind of process-
SB: Sadie Benning?
ES: Not Sadie actually- Leah Gilliam.
SB: I’ve heard her name, but I’m not familiar with her work.
ES: She’s on the credits of all my films, and she’s who I really process all my ideas with. Her work is probably in the library.
SB: Have you known her since art school?
ES: Yeah totally. I mean I haven’t known her since undergrad. Another friend of mine named Mora Jasper who’s also on the credits I run a lot of ideas by. But it also depends on the ideas I mean if I’m working on something that’s psychoanalytic, I might go to a friend of mine who’s an academic and say like I’m feeling this is a kind of Lacanian approach to things, can you just look at it from a scholarly perspective, am I on top of it?
SB: I noticed in your films a recurring technique of dividing separate parts by chapters or listing thoughts in numbered lists. Why do you feel compelled to incorporate this type of structure into your experimental style which derives much of its charm from the sporadic linking together of images which influence the viewer to interpret the message as opposed to spelling it out for them?
ES: That’s a really good question. Um, well, I absolutely do do that and I think when I was starting to develop my own stylistic devices and responding to work that had already been made and wanting to really find ways to work that felt like my own, one thing about working outside of narrative in just montage- its kind of a given that montage is just the logic of experimental film and I was actually more interested in a lot of structural films from the seventies and ideas about ordering things that aren’t just about the kind of Brakhagian lyricism of collage and I think also because my work is so emotional a lot of the times, there’s something about the coldness of numbering and also the idea of science and any kind of structured system of knowledge that I felt like really complimented or contrasted in controlled ways and interesting ways the just kind of overflowing of emotion or problem really in the work. I mean all of the films are about mental illness and there is something about containing them in more mathematical structures. [It’s] the idea of evidence and trying to produce evidence for things that people say they can’t see whether its mental illness or, in Shulie… the evidence of a woman’s experience that is erased. I think there is something about just the tropes of numbering that is the most light science; there is a light kind of organizational methodology that numbering seems to work with in a kind of superficial structural way that I like, which is also another reason why I number them.
SB: Also especially in Swallow it worked especially well because it paralleled the concept matter with the counting down of pounds.
SB: After dabbling in experimental short film (with projects like Shulie, Swallow, and The Fancy), documentary (like Crisis in Woodlawn and Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery), Television series (like The Judy Spots), music video format (for the band Le Tigre’s Well Well Well) and now feature film (with Up), do you feel that you can pin down any genre as your forte, or are you still exploring yourself as an artist and have yet to determine that?
ES: Often when people see my work, they think that I haven’t shot it all, or they are surprised because it looks very different to them each piece whereas for me they feel very much all like me and I think there is certain things about how I compose a frame or the way I cut that is similar across the tapes but I think at a certain point what for me links them is more content driven and about the ideas that I care about the most. And that if you went through all those projects all of them have in a certain way to do with the erasure of history and the excavation of the emotions that are uncomfortable or that people are less interested in exploring maybe because they are so uncomfortable.
SB: So the format doesn’t really matter as much as the content?
ES: Oh no. The format matters more. It’s just that the format responds to the content. Its just about the relationship between form and content where I feel like their utterly intricately entwined and you can’t have content without creating a form that supports it or articulates it otherwise you have boring work, meaning most work you see in the world is either, like in the documentary film world, heavy on content and absolutely no form, and then I think a lot of the work in the art world or the experimental film world tends to be – I shouldn’t make this generalization- but the work I like the least is the work that is very formally driven without any content.
SB: That is exactly why I was drawn to your work of all the works I have seen in Media Mavericks because it very much does focus on the creative structure, but there definitely is a message, like in the work I like most which is narrative driven. I love the possibility of experimental films to layer and send a subliminal message across and your films appealed because they were a combination of the two.
ES: One of the things I’ve told my students which I only started saying recently is that I don’t think there are any formulas to making good art, but I can guarantee that if form and content are not responding to each other, the work will not be good; it will not be really strong or innovative work.
SB: So have you found that you can have fluidity and glide into whichever format you need to use?
ES: No no, it’s all about learning. I came to film more from photography and from video art. Each project is about learning how to do something I don’t know how to do. That’s why I took on narrative because I just spent ten years working against it without really having a rigorous understanding of the codes and forms of narrative. I like doing things I don’t know how to do or else I get bored, but I certainly don’t feel like I have a mastery over them, I just feel like I like learning.
SB: How have all these experiences with the film/video medium compared to one another; what in particular did you like/dislike, for example, about collaborating creatively with other artists versus working independently or how did creating a one-shot film compare with having a five-spot continual project on television?
ES: What are you thinking about as the one shot film?
SB: Well, I just mean being able to do a film and finish with that project-
ES: Right, as opposed to episodic. Collaboration is really amazing. I think it pretty obvious what’s good and bad about it, I mean, you lose control but you gain inspiration. What I like the most about collaboration is not having the burden of all your ideas and having to solve everything, and just the amazing ways you can bounce ideas off of somebody else. And also just companionship, because making small films, just like being a writer or in my process of screenwriting, is exhausting and isolating if you are working alone. With screenwriting, I can’t even listen to NPR or music I just have to be completely focused. So, I kind of like going back and forth and I also after having the burden of all the ideas on me all the time, I love being assigned something. Like with the Le Tigre video, I was like I have to service the music and just like here’s my job to like come up with a concept and a visual articulation of these ideas and done, just do it.
SB: There’s a lot more guidance and you can get inspired by the idea when there is something to start with.
ES: Yeah and I’ve spent like 1-2 years doing research and thinking before I even get to shoot for those three shorts. And with Le Tigre, I was in the middle of my screenplay and I really needed a break and I really needed to shoot something and preproduction was a week and we shot the whole thing in a day and it was just a really nice break for me.
SB: How did you come to get involved with a more commercial project like creating the music video for Le Tigre?
ES: The Le Tigre video was not more commercial at all in any way, I don’t know if you have seen it-
SB: I just saw a twenty second clip because it was basically unavailable to me, but is a music video format and I know you were affiliated with MTV.
ES: Sadie and I made these spots for MTV, but the way MTV works is that all their shows are contracted out so a production company hired us for the two hour special called “Ain’t nothing but a She-Thing” that we made these spots for. I didn’t really have any contact with MTV except for their lawyers.
SB: So they basically gave you complete creative control?
ES: Nothing with that kind of money gives you complete creative control, but as much as one could. But Le Tigre only on their last album were on a major label. They were on Mr. Lady, so there was no money. I think our budget was a thousand dollars.
SB: As far as budgeting goes, do you take care of that stuff yourself?
ES: Oh it’s all grants. It’s all grants.
SB: But I mean as far as budgeting the money that you receive?
ES: Up until this point, I have been the producer. So, yeah I have had to deal with all of that.
SB: Was it learn as you go?
ES: Totally. The music video thing really helped me because I was producing that and Sadie was the one who shot them. I mean, I helped develop the idea but ultimately Sadie was the director and I was the producer for that. And I had friends fax me budgets from the companies they were working in so I could just study them, because- its weird- in the industry, budgets are kind of intellectual property, like, people won’t just hand them to you to study, so it’s hard to get your hands on them but that really helped me when I looked at other people’s budgets to learn.
SB: I was just wondering because I am, personally, good with the creative but not with the financing because I have no conception of what things cost.
ES: It’s so much easier now because you are online. You just call places and get rates and then comparatively shop and talk to people and also figure out where people can get deals for you. But, also, you just learn from moving from a small five minute project to a ten minute project, and you start becoming more familiar with things.
SB: As far as your equipment; did you purchase it or rent it on your earlier projects?
ES: At first it was equipment checked out from schools or borrowed from friends. Then, I remember, when I graduated from art school, I bought a high-8 camera, and that was a really big deal. And, yeah, I slowly accumulated my own equipment and then when I got grants I would buy things like a light kit. But it’s also, again, just a lot of bartering with friends. I think the main thing is that making independent film, especially, personal cinema or experimental- making work like mine is not commercially viable. You don’t make a living doing it. There is one way I probably could have, but the timing was a little off, which is if, rather than put these films into exhibition, I had brought them to a gallery and gotten a dealer and exhibited them as single channel projections, that could have been a direction I may have gone. But what happens then is then you have to limit the exhibition, meaning your work has to be considered an object. It would be like positioning the work so there were only five available- at that time- VHS copies of the tape, and that’s just ridiculous.
SB: So you can’t distribute it?
ES: Yeah. Matthew Barney or any of the artists who are in galleries can’t put their films into distribution, because buyers buy them which is absurd anyway because it is a reproducible medium, so I’m kind of opposed to that approach. If you try to pretend a reproducible object is irreproducible and therefore has a market value, that would be the only way.
SB: Most of your work deals with dark subject matter: depression, anorexia, miscommunication, suicide. Do you feel these problems are inherently related to women artists? If so, do you believe it is an internal development, as suggested by the 2003 study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry which found that designers and people who have been to art school were five times more likely to suffer from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an obsession with imagined or slight imperfections in appearance, or are they more a result of societal pressures, in your opinion?
ES: Do you mean specifically eating disorders?
SB: I mean image disorder because it kind of encompasses them all.
ES: That is a really weird way to approach the disorders for me. It’s more the response to an image perception that to me is the problem. I mean…I don’t know. I don’t really care about that thing. I’m more interested in statistics about the fact that artists are five times more likely to suffer from depression or manic depression or just the percentage of women to men who suffer from anorexia. For me, each disorder really comes with its own set of problems, and I don’t think that you can divide what’s societal from what’s psychological or domestically based, but I can say I think there is an overemphasis on attributing a lot of body image problems to society, meaning that, like, Vogue magazine makes people anorexic. I think that a preoccupation with beauty expands far beyond a media culture and has existed for thousands and thousands of years There is a fascination with women’s bodies; people love the form of the female body and different body sizes and weights. But I really think in our culture, a lot of it has to do with feeling out of control and has to do with much more real material and psychological ways women don’t have power, and that this is one place where they can have power.
SB: It’s interesting that you say that eating disorders span centuries, because what I have been taught in media studies has all pretty much just attributed it to the media.
ES: I think that’s really simplistic. When you just think of Egyptian times, there was makeup then and exoticisation of women’s bodies, like the length of their neck or the adornment they put on them. It hasn’t changed, and, I’m not saying it doesn’t have an impact now, but if that was the case and it had that much impact then all women would have body image problems. To a certain extent everybody has issues of self-consciousness but not everyone is anorexic or bulimic. So why? Its not that the only ones who aren’t are the ones who look like models. It just doesn’t make sense.
SB: Jacqueline Goss, an associate professor at Bard College, stated in one of her articles that “The avant-garde digs for its radical roots long after they've died. The novel tries to stay novel. I strive to bring a videotape to the margins, but no closer to center. … Authoritative discourse -- once dethroned (which is inevitable) -- immediately becomes a 'dead thing, a relic'. We stay in the margins because they live longer.” Would you like to see your work recognized by a more mainstream audience, or do you thrive ‘in the “margins”?
ES: Having a bigger audience has never really obsessed me. I’ve shown my films to theatres of 250 people; to me that feels big. I mean, that seems a lot bigger than how many people walk through a gallery and look at your paintings or something. I don’t care that much about huge audiences in terms of my experimental work. They feel big enough. When I premiere my films at the New York Film Festival, or something, those five hundred people see them. And then they [the films] go through distribution and hundreds more see them, so it gets into tens of thousands probably ultimately with each work. To me that is a lot. Also, all three of them have been on T.V. They’ve been on the Sundance Channel. They’ve been on PBS. It just doesn’t feel that marginal to me. In relationship to the industry, of course it is, but I don’t see the industry as art, and I don’t really care. I don’t see myself as a margin in relationship to dominant media, I see myself as an artist within a media art world. So, in that way, I feel really privileged and feel like I’ve had the privilege of having my work shown a lot, and seen a lot, and getting grants- I think I’m incredibly lucky. When I’m going through financing for my film, if people haven’t heard of me in the industry, I just don’t care. But in terms of audience… Again, the motivation with making a feature film, which will be a commercial project…I definitely wanted a different audience. I was definitely tiring of the avant-garde audience and the types of dialogue, but it was more about the form than the number of viewers who would see the film, meaning, I no longer wanted to have Q and A’s about my structural approach; I wanted to talk about the ideas in the work, and that always felt secondary in the avant-garde audience, whereas, as I have been work shopping the script and talking to financers and producers and actors, and advisors about the project, we are actually talking about ideas, and that is more interesting to me.
SB: Out of curiosity, financially have you been struggling in making your films, or, yes maybe when you started out and then as you started getting more clout in the experimental industry, it took off? Or are you still struggling as far as money goes when you are making a project?
ES: Everything is made with the logic of having no money, because that’s what an art project is. I’ve never gotten as much financial support for my films as I have to make this transfer into feature film making. I got grants from Rockefeller and Guggenheim and just a bunch of different organizations basically to learn how to write a screenplay, but the reason I got those grants were on the strength of the short films I made. Those films never had enough financial support, because I was not known yet as an artist. So, for example, if after The Fancy I had sought financing to make a forth experimental film, I probably would have gotten all the money I needed. I have always supported myself as a professor. I had no student debt. I went to Massachusetts College of Art. It was very cheap. I had a full scholarship to the Art Institute. So, I’ve never had debt, and that meant that I could use some of my income to support my projects. But it’s not glamorous.
SB: How have issues of copyright and the legal status of artistic reappropriation affected your work? Did you take these things into account before making the films and how?
ES: This is like the most popular question that undergraduates ask me, and I have to say I find it pretty uninteresting, because they just don’t care about us. We are not threatening. If you don’t make money off a project, they are not going to come after you, unless you do something really threatening, like Todd Haynes film Superstar that he made in Super 8. I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but he basically made the Karen Carpenter story with Barbie dolls, and it got kind of a cult following. And both the Carpenter estate and Mattel tried to sue him. With my films, I got a lawyer, because I decided in terms of Shulie and The Fancy I would rather spend my money on legal advice than on buying the rights to things. But Swallow was the only thing where I use archival footage, and so there aren’t really any intellectual property problems in the other two. And I just didn’t really care. I was like, they’re not going to come after me, and if they do, I have a strong case in terms of my right to critique this work and I also use really little clips. But it’s interesting because students ask about this so much and I don’t understand why they are so obsessed with it.
SB: Well, I read in an article, for example, that Firestone had an issue with your reproduction of the work and also I thought maybe personal issues with the girl you mentioned in Swallow- she was a real person, right?
Sarah Marks was based on a real person who is dead. She was really a friend of my sister’s so I went to my sister’s friend’s parents and told them about it and gave them the film and they loved it, and so that was done. And then with Shulamith Firestone, it was really sad to me that she didn’t like the film, but she didn’t own the film. And I wasn’t making a film of her, I was making a film of a film of her, so she actually didn’t have any legal rights to it.
SB: And then with Franchesca Woodman, I know from the narrative of the film Fancy that her work was very guarded-
ES: What could they do? There’s no images, there’s nothing- I mean the film is kind of about that. The film is provocative in that way. It is about how you represent someone if everything in their life is copy written.
SB: Does it bother you when viewers do not catch on to your references? I didn’t realize where some of the sound clips in Swallow came from until I read articles informing me afterwards. Knowing, for example, that one byte was from Blade Runner added so much more meaning and enriched a scene that I did not really understand while watching it. Does it annoy you that your investment in careful planning in order to convey specific messages was lost on some viewers without the background to understand the appropriated sounds and footage, or do you just figure that your films will find the right audience?
ES: I think that this is a really important question because it’s true. There’s no way that people will catch on to every reference, and I do think that for a film like Swallow, it kind of is a puzzle that you have to unpack, that has layers of references with lots of winks and little tricks and codes and keys. And I think ideally with any really strong work of art, the chance to see it many times is the way you can experience it the most, but the irony is of course that it is the hardest to do because at research institutions or schools, I mean, they don’t show films twice in a row. Although at festivals, actually, you can go see things more than once, and I definitively have had people come and see my work a lot. But I think the answer in the long run is – at least for my films now- I don’t mind that people don’t pick up on everything, because I don’t expect them to be able to. And I’ve had enough audiences with Swallow that I can tell that a lot is coming through anyway, and I’d rather have something be dense and there be more mystery. Usually when people see it a second time, they actually say ‘I thought it was a different film or that you had changed a lot because I saw different things.’ I kind of love that, because it means that it is like a living organism, whereas with so many Hollywood films, you see it and its like you get it before its even over and you’d never want to go see it again.
SB: Do you think about your audience when you create an experimental, layered film like Swallow, or do you maintain the philosophy that it is ok to make art which is cathartic for yourself and it doesn’t matter so much if other people understand it; a concept I have recognized to be integral to other experimental filmmakers’ theories about filmmaking?
ES: I totally understand the impulse towards catharsis and definitely in generating imagery there is catharsis at times, especially in something like Swallow, but I think catharsis as art is not that interesting most of the time, or at least my catharsis wouldn’t be that interesting. And everything I have done whether it is personal or has the illusion of personal is highly controlled and filtered thorough form. But on the other hand, I don’t think I think that much about audience. I think about trying to make the strongest work possible. I do think about what other work is already out in the world and not trying to reinvent the wheel. And I think about making sure that what I’m trying to say is communicating beyond myself and is articulate about what I’m trying to say- like, am I really saying what I want to be saying there even if what I’m saying is a feeling, an evocation, a question. I don’t see my work as message driven because there’s no reduction to one’s senses, but I do want, whether it’s a poetic analysis or a question or a challenge, for it to be articulate within its own form.
SB: Many of the visual images in Swallow were potent, original, and loaded with symbolic meaning within the context of the film. Two in particular come to mind. First, the image of you painting the circles under your eyes with white out, which of course symbolized personal denial and social censoring involved in ignoring problems. The second was the image of the marker being taped to a gun which was then used for writing the beginning of a suicide note. For me these images really made the film, and this sparked my curiosity about a statement included in Jaqueline Goss’s commentary. She wrote, “When Subrin told me about Swallow in 1992, all she had was the title and one idea. At some point she wanted to include an image of a girl firing a pistol at a television monitor…The gun survived the four years, but turned into a weapon which wants to fire words at Mom and Dad, not the TV.” How did your original idea for the pistol evolve into fulfilling the purpose it serves in the film?
ES: At one point I actually did shoot, in kind of a film noir way, an actual narrative section of a dream of a woman who wakes up and finds a gun and shoots it at the T.V. set. And I was just like… I shot it and I was like this is stupid, this is just really dumb. And I guess that film noir in the audio from the film and ideas about the hard boiled detective novel weave through Swallow, and Blade Runner is kind of like a modern film noir. Film Noir is so much the search, and its also about psychological repression, because it emerged out of the 40’s when continental idea about Freud and psychoanalysis were becoming popular in the U.S. So the gun is a very loaded cliché or metaphor especially in noir. And, I just…I don’t know- it’s like writing and writing an idea and then reenvisioning it and reenvisioning it sometimes through drawing sometimes through textual writing sometimes by shooting something and then reshooting it… I made a whole tape called Swallow- a thirty minute tape- and there is only one image in that tape that is in the second tape and it’s not even an image I like very much. I can be really aggressive towards myself and come up with an idea and be like that’s not good enough and then keep going. But its not that it’s not good enough for someone else, it’s just what’s driving me.
SB: Also I felt this was interesting because I interpreted shooting a gun at the T.V. as blaming the media for causing the image problems in young girls, and you said in this interview that you don’t think that is necessarily where they are coming from.
ES: And it’s also not in the film.
SB: Did that influence your decision not to include it?
ES: I honestly can’t remember. I really think I did have a dream that was like that and I just thought it was cool and so I shot it and then I thought it was completely stupid. But for me the ultimate gun with the magic marker and the letter ‘Dear Mom and Dad’ is about knowing that by telling your parents that something is wrong, you are basically hurting them, but there’s also some sort of suicide, hurting yourself thing. So it’s kind of layered and the whole gun-tape-pen thing can kind of go both ways.
SB: When making Shulie, did you ever want to exit the realm of the original and infuse the remake with your own creative insights and comments? In other words, did you feel constrained by the boundaries you set for yourself to copy the original verbatim? As long as you were putting the work into create a film in general, didn’t you feel that you should leave more of an obvious personal mark on it?
ES: Well, definitely when I first saw the original film and imagined working with it, I really did think it would have recreated scenes and more of my own ideas. But what I realized as I kept whittling away all my ideas for how to approach this film Shulie is that it felt more and more pure and more true that the utter desire to revisit that physical location and be in those spaces was so deep on so many levels. And anyway, every moment of creation is making decisions. If I choose a coat that has this much fur, not this much fur, that is making a comment on the original. Like every single fucking thing I did, every time I out the frame somewhere- I’m all over it! And that is something that the audience can’t really know, except there are tricks all over it. There’s like a Starbucks cup in one scene. There’s a sign about sexual harassment in another scene. I mean those things could not have been there. I put the clues in all over the place.
SB: The original film Shulie was created by four men whose voices can be heard interviewing Firestone. You went to such lengths to accurately reproduce the original concerning the awkward camera angles, difficult cuts, and locations, yet you used your own voice to ask the interview questions? Why? Don’t you think this undercuts some of the irony in the original spawned from the fact that male voices challenge Firestone’s ideas during this pre-radical feminist phase in her life?
ES: I did that really intentionally, because as the film is really a meditation on the relationship between the sixties and the nineties, some of the things that were interesting to me where about those differences. For example, we don’t call African Americans “negros,” but how different would an African American’s experience be in terms of working in the post office now and then. And how different is the culture? Are there real material differences around issues and material issues about race, or do we just have a different discourse? Ultimately, what the issues are with the painting teachers in Firestone is that they are about power. I really wanted to insert my own voice in there because I don’t think power dynamics are just gendered. I think that they play out in every relationship, and I really wanted to kind of implicate women in playing them out too.
SB: In what context did you discover Francesca Woodman, and why did you choose to focus on this particular artist’s life?
ES: I was introduced to her work in a photography class as an undergraduate, and, originally, I was thinking of making a trilogy of portraits of artists or characters that seemed to have kind of liminal relationships to their own historical time periods. And The Fancy, like everything I do, became so much bigger than I plan for it to be, and, by that time, I was just like ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I just want to make a switch.’ But, I chose her because I felt like I had noticed that her work really seemed to influence women, and a lot of young women artists- photographers- made work that looked like a lo like Francesca Woodman’s. And that the issues she struggled with in her work seemed very familiar. And I felt like all of her work was repetitive, and basically at the core was an artist repeating images that were about speaking about not being able to speak. And that was an idea that I felt like was very resonant. And also because she killed herself and the mythos around young women’s suicides has been so exploited in the culture, like Girl Interrupted, Virgin suicides blah blah blah blah blah that I wanted to take a stab at that.
SB: How did you research for this film? Did you speak to people who knew Francesca or did you merely piece together what you could gather from the limited materials available which described her?
ES: Well I didn’t merely do that; I specifically did that. What I was interested in was: how can you take public information and reorganize it to tell another story. I had lots of opportunities to deal with the Woodmans or people or knew her or get to archives, and I didn’t want to. Any information is a manipulation and a subjective organizing of information. I wanted to work with a public record and organize it another way to see if I could suggest another narrative.
SB: What can we expect from your new film “Up”?
ES: “Up” is a period piece. It takes place in 2000 and it stars an actress named Rachel Griffiths who was in the HBO series Six Feet Under and she got an Academy Award nomination for a movie called Hilary and Jackie. She is a really brilliant Australian actress. And she plays a photo archivist who gets a job in a dotcom. And it basically takes place around the rise and fall of the stock market. And Rachel’s character is bipolar, but she doesn’t know that. So basically, the arc of her mental illness kind of parallels the rise and crash of the stock market in 2000. It’s similar to my other work in that it is making culture accountable to an individual’s mental illness or is looking at mental illness in relationship to larger social economic psychological issues. For me it is a commentary on America as being manic depressive. You can basically anticipate that a lot of the obsessions of the trilogy are going to work through in a different form. It’s going to look really different from my other work. It’s going to be shot pretty classically, although I would imagine it would be very visual unlike a lot of first time independent film.
SB: Are you going to incorporate any of your same techniques of inserting in montage images?
ES: No. It’s really kind of classical narrative.
SB: Out of curiosity, how do you relate to the following statements made by Firestone in Shulie:
“I don’t care about happiness as long as I’m working…I don’t really have to worry about it…when I’m producing. I guess I am afraid of getting trapped in a kind of day to day living. I somehow want to catch time short and not go along, drift along in it. The initial reason for anyone to make an artistic creation is to surmount the fact that they are an animal organism that’s just sort of going along in time and growing older, with a past and a future and somehow transcend that. …I think the only thing that can really save you [from having a meaningless life] is some sort of activity or project… You’re just another person. You live and you die and nobody cares. I want to be a master of time because it’s not enough for me to just live and then die. I don’t like it enough. It doesn’t matter.”
ES: I most generally agree with it, but mostly the way I responded to it was just that it’s so cute, it’s so what a 22 year old feels. That feeling of ‘I want to do something. What have I done?’ It’s a very powerful emotion, and what I think is really beautiful is if you look over history, that kind of emotion has really been attributed to men. Like men feeling like women create and men go out into the world and produce, and women just create life. I love that she was just like ‘I want to something!” That is a feeling that I remember so strongly at her age. I agree. I think that for a lot of people creative production is a sort of medication in a way. It’s a way that they feel like they have meaning in their life and I definitely can relate to that feeling that my life feels a lot more meaningful when I’m making art and not just responding to day and night and human needs.
SB: In a discussion during my class, Media Mavericks, someone suggested that they want to make art, because it will serve as a part of them that will live on past their physical existence on earth. That was his drive for creating. Conversely, Gregg Bordowitz, a guest visiting artist who spoke to us, stated that his motivation for creating art was to stimulate change in the present. Which of these perspectives do you more closely relate?
ES: I do think that there is something really powerful and beautiful about something existing after you, and I’ve certainly been deeply moved by discovering art from all different time periods that I can respond to. That’s a really human impulse to want to leave something behind. But in terms of like do I want to affect things right now, I want to speak and I want to be heard and I feel like I make the work I make because no one else it going to do it. There are things in the culture that enrage me and perspectives or worlds that I don’t think are explored or shared or legitimized. Curiosity and passion are probably the reasons that I make work, and, especially for the Shulie thing, it is a way that I can experience the world and feel like there’s meaning. Would I make work if I couldn’t show it? It’s a really good question. I really think the exhibition of the work is a really important part as an artist. So I’m not hermetic in that way.
SB: What is one piece of wisdom you would like share with a class of college-aged filmmakers who are relatively new to the filmmaking world (One example being: networking is the most important key to success in the film world because breaking into the industry is all about who you know)?
ES: Well, I’ll tell what my first film teacher said to us, and this is in the context of making work outside of the industry. It can apply to making independent films as well. I mean, I don’t know why you would even be in a class like Media Mavericks or even go to NYU if you weren’t- I mean the industry is just like…you don’t need to go to college to be in – I don’t know. The industry is not that interesting to me except for when there are people actually thinking with and trying to make work that the industry doesn’t want to have made. But what my first film teacher said to me in my first class at Mass. College of Arts was “if you have any desire to make a living, or have recognition as an artist, or to be physically comfortable, or to be happy all the time, or really to be recognized professionally- you should just leave the class right now.” What’s really funny is I actually told that story again when I won an award from the L.A. Film Critics Association, and I was a black tie event in a room with tables all around me and the one closest to where the podium was had Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Annette Benning, blah blah blah blah blah and I was like getting an award for that experimental film. And what I said afterwards was like if I ever knew that by not walking out of the room, I would end up here, I never would have believed it, because I really took what my teacher said to heart. And another teacher also said to me later in graduate school “Do not do this for anybody else. If you’re not doing it for yourself, you are going to be deeply disappointed.” So again I feel really lucky that the work has been received. I mean, to an artist, what I would advise is to learn how to trust their instincts really. Because I feel with the three works you’ve seen, Shulie is the one that I trusted my instincts about the most, and although I’m not saying it’s the best one, it’s the one that was the most rewarding to make. It was the one I felt the most joy in making. Everybody thought I was crazy; my friends did not….it was a huge risk. I didn’t know if it would work as a meditation. Whereas, The Fancy was really hard to make and it was less fun to make. And I don’t know if I was trusting my instincts as much. I think in some ways with The Fancy I was not hard enough on the estate and that the film was almost too diplomatic in a way.
SB: How do you mean “trust your instincts”?
I mean really take the time to get to know yourself well enough that when you are approaching an idea or material, that you are really are sure that you are listening to your own voice and not other people’s, and that you are not making lazy decisions about ‘oh well I wanted the camera at this angle because, I dunno, there was room over on that side. Oh I shot it from this angle because I was standing there holding it, and that was easy.’ That’s not good enough. And also really learn your craft and explore it and push yourself.
Elisabeth Subrin is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and video artist. Her films and videos examine the intersections of history and subjectivity within female biography. Engaging conventions of documentary and personal narrative, the works strategically undermine their own forms, shifting historical periods, genres and characters to explore the residual impact of the 1960's, and the hazy boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.
Subrin received a BFA in Filmmaking from Massachusetts College of Art in 1990. In 1995 she received an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taught there in the Film Department, First Year and Graduate Programs from 1995-1997. She was Visiting Assistant professor of Film/Video Production based at Amherst College from 1997-2001, and subsequently a 2001-2002 Visiting Lecturer in Film Studies at Amherst, as well as a Visiting Scholar at New York University's Center for Media, Culture and History. Subrin has received grants and fellowships from The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Creative Capital Foundation, The Andrea Frank Foundation, The Wexner Center for the Arts, The Yaddo and MacDowell Foundations, The Illinois Arts Council, The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Center for New Television.
She has presented her short films extensively in the United States and abroad, including at the New York Film Festival, The Whitney Biennial, American Film Institute, Rotterdam International Film Festival, The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, The Guggenheim Museum and many other museums, universities and film festivals. One woman shows include San Francisco Cinematheque, Film Forum, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, The Vienna International Film Festival, The Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, The Northwest Film Center, The Film Center at The Art Institute of Chicago and The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her work has been covered extensively in The New York Times, Artforum, New Literary Histories, Los Angeles Weekly, San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Chicago Reader, Frieze, BOMB, The Village Voice, Afterimage and Film Comment.
The Fancy (2000) premiered at the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center and was subsequently awarded the 2001 VIPER International Award for Film/Video and Second Prize at the 2001 Black Maria Film and Video Festival. Shulie (1997) received the 1998 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Independent/Experimental Film/Video, and Best Experimental Film at the 2000 New England Film and Video Festival. Swallow (1995) was awarded First Place Experimental at the 1996 USA Film Festival, and Juror's Choice at the 1996 Charlotte Film and Video Festival.
In addition to her own work, Subrin has collaborated with many artists and producers, such as on Crisis in Woodlawn (1994) a documentary which traces the history of a Chicago southside housing collective for single mothers and their children. Other projects include The Judy Spots (1995) five television spots produced with Sadie Benning for MTV, and The File Room (1994), an interactive electronic archives produced by Antonio Muntadas. She has curated film and video programs for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Thread Waxing Space in New York, The Five Colleges Film Council, The MIX Festival, and Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago. She directed a music video for the New York-based feminist electronic band Le Tigre (well, well, well, 2002) and worked as a creative consultant and videographer for the historical documentary Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery, produced by Mixed Greens, to be broadcast on public television summer 2005.
Subrin was a 2003 Sundance Institute Lab Fellow, participating in their Writer's and Director's Labs with her first feature length screenplay, Up. She is a 2004-05 Rockefeller Foundation Fellow and currently teaches in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
SUMMARY OF WORKS
Courtest of Video Data Bank and Creative Capital Channel...
The Fancy is a speculative, experimental work that explores the life of Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) evoked by the published catalogues of and about her photographs. Structural in form, the video radically reorganizes information from the catalogues in order to pose questions about biographical form, history and fantasy, female subjectivity, and issues of authorship and intellectual property.
"Continuing her exploration of experimental biographical forms, the maker of Swallow and Shulie turns her critical gaze to the life and art of a renowned young female photographer whose early death left behind a controversial body of work rife with psychosexual implication. Rigorously structural in form, this speculative bringing-to-light meticulously sifts physical evidence and sketchy facts in an attempt to uncover the traces of a seemingly suppressed history embedded behind the photographer's pictures."
—Gavin Smith, Editor, Film Comment
"A cinematic doppelganger without precedent, Elisabeth Subrin's Shulie uncannily and systemically bends time and cinematic code alike, projecting the viewer 30 years into the past to rediscover a woman out of time and a time out of joint—and in Subrin's words, 'to investigate the mythos and residue of the late 60s.' Staging an extended act of homage, as well as a playful, provocative confounding of filmic propriety, Subrin and her creative collaborator Kim Soss resurrect a little-known 1967 documentary portrait of a young Chicago art student, who a few years later would become a notable figure in Second Wave feminism, and author of the radical 1970 manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. Reflecting on her life and times, Shulie functions as a prism for refracting questions of gender, race and class that resonate in our era as in hers, while through painstaking mediation, Subrin makes manifest the eternal return of film."
—Mark MacElhatten and Gavin Smith, Curators, Views from the Avant Garde, The 35th New York Film Festival
"It's a fascinating tape. Not a clone in the end, but a brilliant rethinking of history... Subrin has created a document within a document that makes us remember what we didn't know, then makes us realize all over again how much we've lost. Subrin turns the past into an amusement park attraction for the present, strapping us playfully into our seats, and in the process gives us a glimpse of the video of the future."
—B. Ruby Rich, San Francisco Bay Guardian
Based on accounts of girlhood anorexia, Swallow unravels the masked and shifting symptoms that define clinical depression. With a densely layered soundtrack, humorous and painful scenes of potential psychological breakdown reveal a critical loss of meaning, and the failure to diagnose mental illness. Weaving narrative, documentary, and experimental strategies, Swallow intimately traces the awkward steps from unacknowledged depression to self-recognition.
"Swallow examines the possibility that depression and anorexia are language disorders. The wrong naming of things, and the subsequent loss of meaning, is one of several devices skillfully and humourously applied to call into question modes of representation."
—Kristine Diekman, Language and Disorder
An experimental video for electro-feminist-performance-artists Le Tigre, the early eighties MTV aesthetic unpacks a thoroughly current obsession: the hidden erotics of office supplies.