Apr 3, 2017
“From a whisper…”: Leslie Thornton at BAM
April 3-May 8 at BAM
The incredible Leslie Thornton makes films and videos of electric energy. A work like Another Worldy (1999) actively animates the past through the use of archival footage, in its case an eclectic ensemble of older cinematic dance scenes reedited in tune with East German techno. A film like Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981) disquietingly deploys footage shot closer to the time of its making as it presents a little girl applying lipstick that leads her to transform into other beings, a transformation accompanied by a chilling unsourced soundtrack. The work of this American artist (who was born in Tennessee in 1951) continually mixes past and present to create a sensation of suspended time, filtered through one streaming consciousness. Among Thornton’s most celebrated works is Adynata (1983), in which a photograph evocative of an Orient-based past leads the director to change before the camera into figures from her imagination, with the sum of them suggesting an identity in ongoing formation.
Thornton’s masterwork, for many years, remained a work-in-progress. She began the creation of Peggy and Fred in Hell (1983-2016) with the intention of it being a serialized work released in periodic installments. Although more than one version exists today, the closest to being an official cut—Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding—runs 95 minutes in length. Its black-and-white scenes (shot, found, and cut together between a variety of formats and sources) show two children (played by Donald and Janis Reading) exploring a post-apocalyptic setting comprised of their cluttered home and a vast wild landscape through which they wander. Their chief companions are technological items—video games, telephones, and televisions included—in addition to one another. Throughout the series, different pieces of archival footage surge forth onscreen without prior notice, as though they were items suddenly found by the children and used for the sake of helping the living move forward.
Destruction awaits throughout many of Thornton’s films, whether in her series of pieces exploring the atom bomb’s conception titled Let Me Count the Ways (2004-6) or in her new works Crossing (a 2016 collage-based piece co-directed with James Richards) and the terrifying SO MUCH MUCH (2017), a high-contrast black-and-white study of animal survival. These works are also permeated by a disarmingly playful spirit that, over time, a spectator can increasingly associate with the artist. Thornton appears before her camera in her first film, X-Tracts (1975, realized in close collaboration with Desmond Horsfield), and over the course of the many audiovisual pieces that she has made since then, has sought diverse ways to articulate her voice.
There is ample chance to discover this voice over the course of the next month-plus thanks to BAMCinématek’s enormous, periodically unfolding Thornton retrospective, which begins tonight and will continue with Monday-night screenings through May 8th. The director herself will appear at most of the screenings to discuss her films and those by others. Some of her works explicitly pay homage to other artists, whether they be personal friends (such as the late actor Ron Vawter) or more seemingly distant figures (such as the 19th-century Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt). Yet other filmmakers are also represented throughout the series’s programs, which often present Thornton’s films together with ones by directors including Su Friedrich, Werner Herzog, Will Hindle, and Pere Portabella.
An impression that the series gives is of a person in constant conversation with her surroundings. When I met Thornton in advance of the series, I quickly discovered her to be in possession of a dialogic self. I sensed so many rich thoughts at work in her words that at a certain point I felt my questions were blocking their path. With gratitude to the artist, I therefore opted to step aside.
Leslie Thornton: Adynata was the first film that I made entirely myself, and it was the massive shot in the dark. It was also the only film derived consciously in part from reading a theoretical work, which was Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978). I embarked on the project after seeing a book of photographs taken in China in the 19th century by a Western photographer. I was struck by something suggestive within the postures of the males versus the females in a set of photographs of a wealthy family—the father and sons look directly into the camera, while the females are seated at a canted angle, seeming to stare off into space. These photographs appear at the core of the film. I had myself filmed posing in costume as both the male and female subjects. It felt very different to look into the camera as male, and to be looked upon as female, and yet here I was in charge. I was in power. It was a visceral register of a cultural difference.
At that time, I was also reading the autobiographical work Dictee (1982), by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, which contains poetic passages about being unable to speak. Adynata was a chance for me to address something about Orientalism as a circus of surfaces, but the force of the work comes about because I was essentially and deliberately manifesting my own shyness and doubts about language. You hear mumbling, and that is me swallowing the words as I read aloud from Dictee. I made use of my thwarted voice within an implicit critique of the very overt presumptions of Orientalism. That’s how it worked, and it set in place what I began to see as an empowering position, which is vulnerability. Vulnerability makes something alive, voices ringing true.
When I finish a project and am waiting for the title to hit, I like to look through books. My eyes almost always fall on something, often on the first page I see. In this case, my partner and constant reinforcement Thomas Zummer had given me a book of rhetorical terms, and when I opened it, I saw the word “adynata,” from ancient Greek. The definition given was, “a stringing-together of impossibilities; sometimes a confession that words fail us.” And I thought to myself, “That’s everything. That’s it.” Adynata eventually became my most important work from the first half of my career as an artist.
While I think of the film as living, it is also an object, a final print in 16mm, and the gestures of film have to be complete. I soon learned that video was different. I was living in San Francisco when I finished up Adynata; during the two years that I lived there, I also started work on Peggy and Fred in Hell, which became a life’s work.
When I started that project, I thought that I was making a strange feature. I did think so. Soon after I started, I began teaching at Brown University (where I still teach today), and I worked with Todd Haynes on his thesis project. That early period of American independent filmmaking was rich, especially the punk narratives, and I thought that Peggy and Fred in Hell would fit right in as an experimental “science fiction.” It took me a couple of years to understand, “No, darling, you’re not doing that.” What Todd is doing might be a little unusual, say in a film like Poison (1991), but he’s basically shooting for continuity, an approach to form that isn’t alienating to a reasonably large public. I was a little annoyed (not at him, more at the world), but the lack of a broader audience for my own work signaled a kind of liberation. My approach was not based on a script, but rather on a concept that was written down, then sniffed out and carried through to the end. This gave me a lot of freedom. I didn’t owe anybody anything, and I didn’t need to succeed or to appeal.
From the very beginning, when I started to work in film, I saw it simply as another medium for artistic practice. I did not regard what I was doing in relation to the history of cinema, but rather approached it as an outgrowth of what I had been doing in painting, but with many more dimensions—the whole world, in fact—available to me. I was identified with “experimental film,” but that wasn’t surprising—all of us within the Lower East Side crowd disliked the term, but none of us ever came up with another one. It was overly associated with work done in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in America, and primarily by a group of men, along with a token woman or two. (And Maya Deren didn’t even make that many films!) I was a student of all of these men at SUNY-Buffalo, and their work was so powerful, at the outer edge of art, extreme. I loved and grew with it, but from the very beginning, I reacted against their ethos of the jealously guarded temple. Even as a 21-year-old, I had thought to myself, “You don’t have to be this way to be a great artist. I don’t have to be a cowboy. I can’t be, and I won’t be, and I’m going to be a great artist.”
I saw many, many films at Buffalo, pretty much the full menu of the avant-garde, but the film I probably thought about most was A Movie (1958), by Bruce Conner. The reason that I couldn’t stop pondering that film—because “pondering” is the right word—was that it was not possible. It was a not-possible film. Nobody could have that feeling now, because everything’s jumbled together, but back then, it was something that could not be recuperated. It was only film, but not in an aggressively self-reflexive way—it was mercurial and ineffable, with a sense of, “Why did that just happen?” A Movie still goes circling around inside my membrane and focuses me on recharging images, in a way that brings forth a record and a witnessing of something from the not-now. In Peggy and Fred in Hell, this approach is crucial.
Part of the idea of Peggy and Fred being alone in the world was that they could have everything. They could have all of the past. They had their own present, which they had to invent every day—as we all do, and especially as children do—yet everything was theirs. That was the narrative conceit that allowed for the film’s slippages into almost anything that could drop into its lap, including very old footage, drawing especially on the paper print materials from the Library of Congress of some of the earliest films ever made. My interest in using this material, in part, was to give it a place in the here and now, to encounter it. I didn’t want to tuck it into a documentary context or build some kind of narrative historical framework to tame it, but rather to use it frontally and directly.
The easiest shot to talk about in relation to this comes in an episode of Peggy and Fred called Dung Smoke Enters the Palace, which is a panoramic overhead view of a Westinghouse factory in 1900, in which workers are making huge turbine machines. The shot appears from nowhere, all of a sudden—there’s nothing to help you with it, but in the singular terms set forth in the backstory, Peggy and Fred own it. It’s in their place. It’s within this whole little universe that’s being made, and they seem to have no direct relation to it, but their voices begin to come through until they finally own it. At the same time, it’s being given to us as viewers.
My number one goal in working with archival material is to bring it forward to us, into our lives, in a phenomenological way. In Peggy and Fred in particular, I wanted to incorporate material from a cultural history and a technological history. I filmed a lot of things that look like they are archival—there are some lines blurred. I also wanted the older materials to be fully present in the linear, forward-moving plan of the film. But strange.
My general sense about editing is that editing is writing. When I edit, I’m writing, and through that process, I’m finding out what I want to say. I may be speaking about some issues, yet not so directly, because I want the viewer to do what I call “thinking-feeling,” which are not separate actions and never can be. I have never said out loud in a film, “This is the case,” but I can put people in places where they might think to themselves, “That could be the case.” I create an open framework that involves the giving away of an experience, through which a person drifts, and which he or she has to learn to operate.
I do not have a philosophy of editing, but I can tell you this: I do not ever want to put anything together such that a work closes or self-defines. This practice started consciously in Adynata, which had to continually become something other than what it seemed to be at any one moment. You think that the film may be about bound feet, until it becomes about something else, but it is never really about China; it was essential that the film only keep pointing, turning a corner, pointing in another direction, turn the corner, keep turning. I felt profoundly, who am I to say anything about China? I know nothing. That was the critique of Orientalism implicit in the experience of the film.
In all of my films there is a kind of glue, and it is in the sound, which is almost always an area of subversion. In general, the sound is the glue and the power of my works, and this is something that is sought out and developed in editing, I would say cunningly. You would know from reading film theory that, for many years, sound was not part of the story, which is extraordinary, but it is invisible, after all. Just turn the sound off during any narrative film, and the film goes to cuts. That’s what you see. I need to use sound to keep things open, within question. In Peggy and Fred, it is the sound that moves things forward. I needed to use sound to produce enough of a sense of linearity—enough of a possibility for narrative—that the viewer would care to stay. It is often the sound that instills that feeling of being haunted and of needing more.
I have also, more and more, been drawn to using the slights of narrative to form engagement. I would say I am a formalist in my use of the conventions of narrative. The way I thought about Peggy and Fred for many years was as a piece of continual anticipation. The film used very simple devices from the tradition of suspense cinema and from older serials, even from something as basic as The Perils of Pauline (1914). A sequence would end and leave the viewer with the sensation of “That was different. Now what?”
I conceived of Peggy and Fred as a kind of suspense serial for the first five or six episodes. After September 11th, though, it became something else. From the beginning, the apparatus and technology being used to make the work was part of the story. There was no way (sort of) that in 1984 I could have anticipated the perfect thing that happened with digital media, the Internet, and the various manners in which the social world has moved from meat-based to fractal. After 9/11, the children went from being protagonists, subjects, or primary figures of the project to being absorbed into a technological abyss. There’s nothing after the chapter in Peggy and Fred called The Problem So Far that gives them the space to move within a world that belongs to them. They are only acted upon, placed within something, watched, witnessed. There’s no linearity, no feeling that maybe there will be a story here. With 9/11, that’s gone.
The beginning of Peggy and Fred in Hell was focused on the idea of having too much data during the information explosion. Computers were coming online (although we didn’t yet know about the Internet), television was everywhere, and we were getting more and more input through media. Fred was obsessed with video games, which shaped his brain, as it does with many children. The apprehension about all of this technology (much of which, in fact, was fruit of the needs and desires of the military) was a driving impulse for the work. It was the anxiety of having too much.
Nowadays, with those who are younger than me—such as my filmmaking students—there’s a growing gap, but there’s also a growing interest that we have in each other, across generations. They have a curiosity about this other way. They all want to use the Bolex. They want to home-process. They live online in a sophisticated, powerful, and subversive way, but they also want to touch stuff. I’ve just noticed this happening during the last couple of years, and I feel like the trend is something biological that makes it OK for me to stop. We live in Peggy and Fred’s hell today, and we need to make things by hand again.
Peggy and Fred is finished—I’m saying that really loudly. And now, I’d like to give some advice to people going into the theater to see this film or any of my other works. In a very practical way, it’s important for audience members unfamiliar with less conventional forms (although, really, who doesn’t watch YouTube?) not to worry about whether they understand what they’re watching. Instead, the encouragement would be for you to relax into the work like you would with a piece of music. You can slide into it gently with the sensation that there’s something special going on, even if it’s a bit out of the comfort zone. It’s not a waste. It’s not hurting anybody. It takes nothing away from anyone. And if it’s too alienating for someone, then that person should leave, because it’s just there. It’s a gift. I don’t own it. It’s just something that’s shared, and it’s part of a long tradition.
As you can see, I love talking about my work. I couldn’t talk for a long time, but I can’t stop now. I do have an analytical voice, and I want to say that my work is thoughtful. When I make, always, I want to give thought and pleasure at the same time. It’s thoughtful and pleasurable always, even if the subject is devastation. For example, my most recent piece, SO MUCH MUCH, ends inside broiling water. We start to recognize that there are fish in there, but then some sweet Chinese music comes on. Maybe we’re reaching the end of the world, but the matter isn’t settled. There might be music.
I sit on this knife’s edge in all of the work between thinking and pleasure and horror. I don’t know about hope anymore—the hope is pretty much gone. But, as I say in SO MUCH MUCH, “Something will come of this! Something will come.” I don’t use the current President’s name, but you kind of know what I’m talking about, and something will come of it. I have friends who, right after the election, said, “We need to spend more time together, and we need to stop following every newsfeed, and we can’t link to everything about everything right now. We need to be together.” There’s a social knit that has been breaking for a while, and maybe it will return.
I embrace vulnerability and presence from a position of helping other people to experience something. As a teacher, I work that way. As a person, I work that way. As an artist, I work that way. Today, I recognize an arc across my work of having gone from a whisper to speaking out loud, and with a sense of urgency.
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