Zeitgeist 20th Anniversary Salute at MoMA Presents Two Films From Todd Haynes
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York began a celebration this week of the distributor Zeitgeist Films 20th anniversary with a retrospective of some of their best releases from over the years. Friday night, Todd Haynes presented two of his earlier films from the Zeitgeist collection, the short Dottie Gets Spanked and the controversial feature Poison , both shot by the great indie cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who most recently lensed Alex Gibney's documentary Taxi to the Darkside and whom I've had the personal privilege to work with on two short films in my own early days of independent film, a mere eight years ago compared to Zeitgeist's, Haynes' and Alberti's longevity. As an aside, Dottie Gets Spanked stars two former One Life to Live castmates, J. Evan Bonifant (ex-Al Holden) and Barbara Garrick (Alison Perkins). I state this because a few weeks ago, I posted notes from from the OLTL 40th anniversary panel discussion (speaking of anniversaries) at the Paley Center. Haynes also cast Garrick in his 2002 film Far From Heaven. She is a great character actress and I hope to see her in more of Haynes' films. Where is this aside going, you might ask? I suppose it just shows the point I addressed in my intro to the OLTL notes where I said "both genres (that being soaps and independent film) when done right, are often bold, risky, and deal with thought-provoking socially relevant issues." Nuff said. For more reading on Haynes, check out The Film Panel Notetaker's notes (here and here) from last year's New York Film Festival. And here are my notes from Friday night's discussion featuring highlights from the opening remarks and audience Q&A:
Haynes opened by thanking MoMA for bringing him to New York from Portland, Oregon. "This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to pay tribute to these two unbelievably talented, brilliant, smart and innovative distributors." Haynes is speaking of course of Zeitgeist co-founders Emily Russo and Nancy Gerstman, who were also present. "They are without a doubt the best distributors and best people I've ever worked with in distributing any of my films," Haynes said. On his films, Haynes said Poison was conceived, financed and approached at the time as an art project, outside the realm of traditional film financing and production. Russo and Gerstman were so committed to what Haynes was doing (along with Apparatus Productions partners Christine Vachon, producer of many of Haynes' films, and Barry Ellsworth, who shot the black and white scenes in Poison) that they wanted to distribute Poison even before it was completed."We had distribution of this art film at a time when that isn't something that filmmakers in their right mind should ever expect," he said. The film became the subject of great discourse and debate. It was one of the early films that sort of "branded with the new queer cinema mantle" that fell into a lot of controversy from the far right. On Dottie, which Haynes said was sort of the most autobiographical film he ever made, came three years after Poison and was made for ITVS , then was picked up for distribution by Zeitgeist. Haynes also dedicated the screening of Poison to Jim Lyons who both stars in and edited the film, and passed away last year.
Immediately following the screenings of Dottie and Poison, Haynes took some questions from the audience. Here are some of the highlights:
Q: Which of the Jean Genet stories (in Poison) were related to which of the stories you wrote?
Haynes: The clearest source for the film was Miracle of the Rose. It's sort of encapsulated in the prison story. I felt in a more general sense that I was interpreting aspects of Genet in all of the stories and I was very clearly interpreting the two more American genres...the horror film and the tabloid documentary story...into a vernacular that I felt I could speak in which is an American one. A lot of the same kinds of questions about transgression, about issues of the outsider, about issues of disease and the monster and so forth were things that I had encountered in Genet's writing. I felt this interest in bringing to a discussion that related to what was happening at the time, which is very much in the height of the AIDS scare. I was living in New York. It was sort of the center for a lot of political activity and activism and a lot of struggling that went on around those issues. I was also very much aware as we all were of how the media was beginning to depict AIDS and creating this sort of comfortable us versus them boundary. Those were the kinds of things I wanted to challenge, but I think even more than that, I felt that the gay community, which at that point was in a state of shock, where it wasn't being expressed through activism and through political activity. There was a retreat. There was an almost sense of culpability following the experimentation of the 70s and sexual experimentation that characterized that decade that people sort of felt that they had brought this on themselves. Genet had only recently died around that time and I felt like he was somebody that I could try in my own humble way to apply to some of these questions and embolden some of the issues that I felt might have been getting lost in the public assault around HIV.
Q: Genet did a film (Un Chant D'Amour) in the late 1940s or early 1950s which had a prison sequence in it. Was that an inspiration?
Haynes: I knew the film well when I made Poison and I love that film. Un Chant D'Amour is an exquisite work on film by this playwright and fiction writer and poet Jean Genet. I didn't want to literally re-produce those scenes. They're too specific to that film. There are some proverbially erotic scenes in that film that were shocking for it's time. Maybe the most provocative is the one you described where one inmate sticks a little piece of straw through a hole in the granite wall and smokes a cigarette and exhales the smoke into his neighboring inmates cell who inhales it and blows it back out. So simple and so minimalist...so powerful.
Q: What was it about the early 1990s that allowed you to push the envelope and make the kind of films you wanted to make? Why did you decide to make a feature after making so many shorts?
Haynes: I don't know if anyone would do that today. I bet it would have even been easier in the 60s and 70s to conceive of and get support for and get interest behind a film like this possibly. For me, and I think this is true for many ways Christine Vachon and Barry Ellsworth, were interested in aspects of experimental filmmaking...had all gone to Brown University where there was this very interesting theoretical program where any film classes were taughtwhich was called at the time semiotics. It has since expanded in a full-fledged department called Modern Culture & Media. We've seen these kind of departments of critical theory expand at universities throughout the country and the world. We were being exposed to critical theory, post-Freud and feminist, that looked at Hollywood classical cinema from the critical perspective. We were also witnesses the end of that purist era of American experimental film...the Stan Brakhage era, let's say, which was amazing work, but very anti-narrative. That period was beginning to be re-examined by some experimental filmmakers like Sally Potter whose film Thriller we had all seen in college. It was these filmmakers who were beginning to take genre and references to Hollywood film and references to narrative formulas and formats and applying them to experimental strategy. I think that excited all three of us in different ways. For me, in a weird way, my education was even more in Hollywood traditions and classic genre traditions than even experimental traditions. This melding of the two opened up our eyes. At the same time, Blue Velvet came out in theaters. You sort of saw in a sort commercial venue or parallel platform, something very similar where in a narrative film, experimental strategies...and playing around the idea of artifice and pushing the boundaries was being played out in commercial cinemas with great critical response and great potential for a lot of filmmakers. Probably gave birth to a whole generation of filmmakers. With all of that in mind, I think we sort of informed what Apparatus was about, a non-profit organization aimed at what we call the experimental narrative where narrative was being accepted from a critical perspective. It was something that was very much a part of that time and a real sense of necessity...some political response to the climate of HIV. And yet all of those films approached their narrative strategies with a sense of innovation and different from one to next.