Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
If you think Scottish actress Tilda Swinton can be summed up by the Academy Award she won in 2008 for her role opposite George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007), then maybe it’s time to redo your Netflix queue and dive into more of her films.
Winnowy and six feet tall, stunningly analytical, and fiercely political, Swinton is one of those actresses who utterly outwits the words acting, gender, and cinema. She migrates deftly and effortlessly between two completely different universes: mainstream and independent media.
Swinton is the world’s leading gender-bending actress. Her landmark performance as a woman and man in Sally Potter’s landmark feature Orlando (United Kingdom, 1992)rerouted feminist cinema—permanently.
Commercially, Swinton starred in The Beach (2000) and was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia. On the independent side, she’s collaborated with British queer avant gardist Derek Jarman and feminist media and digital artist Lynn Hershman Leeson.
Swinton rejects the smooth rhythms of seamless narrative acting. Instead, she proffers what she terms an “arrhythmic style,” one where the character is simultaneously imbedded in the narrative and edging out of the narrative, working the jagged edges of the story to install ambiguities and questions. It’s exhilarating to watch. And it’s as inviting as it is intriguing.
When I was a graduate student in the late 1970s at the University of Wisconsin, lots of us feminist film mavens talked about the performances, video, photographs and films of Lynn Hershman Leeson. She had an underground, almost cult-like following then that continues in new ways and in new generations to this day.
Jamming the personal and the political against each other, Lynn opened up a feminist embrace of new technologies, cracking open their possibilities to invent new futures beyond patriarchy. At a time when we were all debating feminist psychoanalysis versus a more materialist Marxist historiography, Lynn’s work offered guts, clarity and new way to get your head beyond these often safe academic debates. Her work simultaneously unsettles and engages—rare in any artist.
Working across a dizzying array of media including photography, video, film, performance, sculpture, painting, interactivity, Lynn pioneered interactive digital and net based art infused with a deep and gutsy feminism. She’s been producing breakthrough feminist work in new technologies for nearly five decades.
When I asked Lynn how she manages to make high end, complicated technologies seem accessible, something one notices in spades in a film like Teknolust that mines science, biotechnology, viruses, and computer code, she registered surprise--and delight. She explained that we should just dive into technology. It’s simple, she said. “You just do it.” Teknolust was one of the first films shot in HD, and an example of a digital mise-en-abyme, screens within screens within screens.
The history of cinema has a turbulent river of collaboration running through it, where directors hook up with actors to produce something beyond both. Think Joseph Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Zhang Yimou and Gong Li. Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz. Male directors. Female actresses.
Collaborations between female directors and actresses are rare. Very few features around the globe are directed by women. Very few screenplays give actresses much to work with beyond the femme fatale, the action star, the iconoclastic social misfit, or the maternal figure.
The collaboration between Tilda and Lynn is palpable. They’ve done three films together, all significant feminist works. Most are canonical, taught in feminist film classes. All wind together politics, feminism and technology: Conceiving Ada, Teknolust and Strange Culture.
During our interview, I probed Tilda to reveal the working strategies of this powerful collaboration. “Lynn makes a kindergarten for all of us to play in and to explore,” Tilda said. “it’s about play.” Lynn added that these films could not be made without Tilda.
Teknolust (United States/Germany/United Kingdom, 2002) is a feature length feminist sci-fi narrative film. A comedy that had the audience at the festival completely engaged and laughing, it’s the story of biogeneticist Rosetta Stone who concocts a recipe to download her DNA into a live brew growing in her computer. She breeds three Self Replicating Automatons—S.R.A.s, part human, part intelligent machine. All four roles—Rosetta, Ruby, Marine and Olive—are played in a quirky, loving, assymetrical style by Tilda.
To survive, the SRAs need to inject Y chromosones only found in spermatozoa. Dressed in red, SRA Ruby is programmed to seduce through images and dialogue from classical Hollywood movie seduction scenes. The men she has sex with get infected: they become impotent and barcodes appear on their foreheads. Health investigators come on the scene. Quarrantines and love ensue.
Female machines gone amok have a long pedigree in cinema. From Metropolis to Blade Runner to Battlestar Galatica, female robots are monstrous femme fatales. I asked Tilda if her gentle yet Brechtian acting strategy in Teknolust was making an intervention into this history. She replied “I am always an alien.”
Teknolust has garnered an enormous cult following as a feminist sci-fi classic. It’s more popular now than when it came out.
When I asked Tilda and Lynn what it felt like to watch the film in 2009 during a time of cyberwarfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, the H1N1 pandemic, and the explosion of Web 2.0, they shared it felt more accessible now than it did seven years ago.
To satiate this new user-generated international demand, Microcinema will rerelease Teknolust in 2010. It will include a DVD extra featuring our post-screening discussion from the Cinema Arts Festival Houston.
There we were, the actress, the director, and the academic, all dressed in black, SRAs of a different order, discussing technology, art and feminism, on the stage in the beautiful white stadium theater of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Blog written by Patricia Zimmerman, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College
November 11-15, 2009
Houston is one of those places that sprawls bigger than the Texas plains in the national imaginary: big oil, big energy, big medicine, NASA, high technology, and a lot of plastic surgery.
But Houston, the fourth largest and perhaps fastest growing city in the United States, is also something more: a percolating arts community, with a world class opera, ballet and symphony, major museums, and an alternative arts scene. Everywhere you look, some arts event, festival or performance unfurls somewhere in the city, with a can-do Texas style that yanks away Yankee stereotypes about oil rigs, barbeque, and superhighways.
Almost unimaginable to launch a new major film festival in the middle of the worst recession in history, it seems to make perfect sense in sunny Houston. Curated by Richard Herskowitz, formerly director of the Virginia Film Festival, The Cinema Arts Festival Houston unspooled with over 40 films and events. It conjured the interweavings and cross-fertilizations between the arts and cinema.
“It's the only U.S. film festival devoted to films by and about artists of all stripes. The closest equivalent is the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal. Ours is also conceived as a multimedia arts event surrounding its films with live performances, installations, and outdoor projections,” says Herskowitz.
A city-wide celebration at eight venues (including the historic Alabama Theater, Rice University, the outdoor Discovery Green and the Museum of Fine Arts) the Cinema Arts Festival Houston mischievously torqued preconceptions about films about the arts, a genre typically associated with flat, preachy films explaining paintings in monotone you watch on hard benches at museums. The rigorous, surprising programming jolted audiences to consider the migrations, flirtations ,and infiltrations between novels, painting, sculpture, music, performance, acting, photography, drawing, architecture, dance, writing, digitality.
Herskowitz brewed up one of his trademark, eye-opening heterogeneous programs, featuring narrative, documentary, experimental, performance, and installation. The guest list exemplifies this journey into the interstices between the arts, and between commercial and public media cultures: Academy Award winning actress Tilda Swinton, Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, photographer Susan Meiselas, experimental filmmakers Holly Fisher and Jennifer Reeves, musicians Dengue Fever and Donald Sosin, feminist techno-director Lynn Hershman Leeson, prankster Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, commercial narrative film director Richard Linklater.
The festival opened with two sold-out screenings of films adapted from novels. Houston native son and Texas leading maverick filmmaker Linklater presented Me and Orson Welles (United Kingdom, 2008), based on a Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name, the fictionalized story of Welles’ production of Julius Caesar on Broadway in 1937.Winning three awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, the other opening night film, is the story of a Harlem teenager who overcomes enormous obstacles to discover her own beauty and potential.
Arriaga screened his landmark Mexican New Wave film, Amores Perros ( Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2000) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, USA/France, 2006), shot in Texas. Warm, welcoming, and wry, Arriaga, also an established novelist, shared that his non-linear narrative structures emerged out of his ADHD symptoms: “You are unable to understand logic but it develops intuition.”
Documentaries included What If, Why Not? Underground Adventures with Ant Farm(Beth Federici and Laura Harrison, USA 2009), the first film to chronicle the radical Ant Farm architectural group that made the land art piece Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo Texas, La Danse: Le Ballet de L’Opera de Paris (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA 2009), Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies (Arne Glimcher, USA, 2008), and The Yes Men Fix the World (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, France/USA, 2008). Most intriguing, the festival featured a retrospective of both photographer Susan Meiselas, Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986) and Pictures from a Revolution (1991), and her deceased partner, experimental diary filmmaker Richard P. Rogers, with The Windmill Movie (Alexander Olch, 2008) and Remembering Dick Rogers, a selection of key works by the filmmaker.
The experimental work maneuvered as palimpsests, layering differing artistic practices to open spaces for audience involvement. They provided some of the most powerful, jolting festival experiences. Holly Fisher screened Everywhere at Once (France/USA 2008), an entrancing, poetic meditation on aging, memory and female psychic landscapes. It featured the images of fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh and a voice-over read by iconic French new wave actress Jeanne Moreau.
Jennifer Reeves’ stunning, gorgeous and hopeful dual projection, baroque celebration of nature and 16mm film, When It Was Blue, was accompanied by live music by Icelandic electronic composer Skuli Sverrison. Organized around the four seasons, the hand painted, bleached, scratched, and chemically altered images suggest that a truly ecological mindset finds life emerging from decay.
Lynn Hershman Leeson presented a reprise of her feminist cult classic film, Teknolust (US/Germany/UK, 2002) with actress Tilda Swinton, who plays scientist Rosetta Stone and her three half human, half computer, Self Replicating Automatons. Their deeply collaborative process combined high end HD technologies, improvisation, and an arrhythmic acting style to splice together science, viruses, machines, digitality, sexuality, and artificial intelligence. A mobile cinema constructed from aerospace honeycomb aluminum and designed by Didier Fiuza Faustino, H BOX screened 10 international shorts. Audiences jammed into the small space. The Birth of RMB City (2009), by Chinese digital artist Cao Fei, composed with Second Life machima, was a highlight.
As festival curator Herskowitz observes, “Houston has some of the best arts institutions in the country-- the Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Aurora Picture Show, the Alley Theater, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, FotoFest, etc. It's been a revelation to me on my many trips here this year. So the festival has involved the collaborative participation of eighteen arts organizations who have had a hand in the conception and execution of our programs. I think it will alert the world that Houston has more than NASA and rodeos going on.”