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.