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INTERVIEW WITH JANIE GEISER
The Red Book
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Janie Geiser in May, 1997.
Where did the impetus for making this piece come from and what is the over all meaning of it? It's really dense. I find that this work, particularly, has many different things in it. I think there's a lot there about women's identity and dealings with culture, and things like that. So, if you could just speak a little bit generally about it...
Well, it started
actually about ten years ago. I had read this book
about a man who had lost his memory by actually being shot in the head.
And it just started a kind of series of readings and paintings and
different things on the issue of memory, and through that gestation came
this story of this woman who loses her memory through a fall. That's the
literal starting off point. It's about a woman who has lost her memory,
but that becomes a more metaphoric kind of story, too. In this loss of
memory, she has aphasia, which is known as short term memory loss. And when
you have that, you really lose a lot of your ability to communicate and to
hold thoughts in your mind. And it started me thinking about how language
is so important to identity and how we're defined culturally a lot by what
we say, what we think, and what the culture says about you. And so there
are a lot of images in the film, say, where she's writing and the writing
disappears immediately. Without this sort of intersection point into
culture, you know, and without memory, you have no sense of your own
identity. You kind of lose who you are. So that's the literal place where
it all comes from.
Well, sort of the incomprehensibility. But it's also that I really like to work without dialogue a lot. It's a preference. I mean, I work with language also, but to me [working without dialogue] kind of a freer place to work. And with this piece I wasn't trying to, make a literal narrative, but more what I call an emotional narrative. You're going through something, but I don't necessarily expect someone watching it to get the literal story that I'm starting out from. But I think you get some kind of feeling that comes through. And that's going to be very subjective in terms of how you see it...like some people say, "Oh I see so much about how hard it is to live in New York City."
Some sounds I collected, and then I worked with this sound designer, Bale Moralis, at Harmonic Ranch and we just, you know, started collecting sounds that we liked. And it was a fairly long process creating the sound track, working back and forth, sitting there with ProTools and just playing with different things that we liked against different parts of the film, and coming up with this very dense sound track... You know, the density has to do with the indecipherability in some way - for [the woman in the film].
I made several little painted books as I was thinking about the film and came up with key images that I knew I wanted to create in the film. It's all painted backdrops and painted cut out figures, and a few photographic figures that I painted on also. And so the first part of making the film was simply painting and gathering materials until I felt that I had critical mass enough to begin to animate. And so I started with the animation of those key images, but then as I was working on those, other ideas would suggest themselves. It was then kind of a phase where I would combine and recombine some of the things I had made, or make more things or find certain things. Like I had seen years ago in this store on Fifth Avenue that sells miniature, little miniature sets of silverware, so that came to mind. I thought with this kind of domestic memory that she has to have that this silverware falling would work. So some things were suggested by materials I knew about or had seen, or saw while I was in the process of making the film. It took about a year working on it off and on. I didn't work on it continuously and that was kind of a good process because new ideas would come and materials would come to me, and certain things I just found on the street. And I knew I wanted to use a lot of superimposition in it. So then really developing that process and getting better at doing that -- it's all done in the camera. So it was kind of a long gestation process with this film.
I have a 16mm Bolex on a tripod, and I work either just putting materials on a table or on the floor. I don't really have an animation stand. Some of it...when she is falling over the city, I made this city that was kind of almost between two and three dimensional. It's two dimensional, but it's mounted on a background standing up in such a way that it creates shadows. So that's about as technical as I got doing that.
Well, this image of the body being split apart was very early a key image, and it's one of those images that kind of just came to me, and I trusted that it was right. There was something about these hands coming in pulling her body apart which felt emotional right for her predicament. And then also the way that the medical field responds to certain personal issues, and how they try to fix it or not fix it in ways that aren't always helpful. So that was one of those images. And that was one of these things that the first time I shot it, and I shot it in different sections, it came out just right. The sections even functioned as edits that I didn't even have to cut. And that doesn't happen very often. The rhythm of it was really right, somehow I had been thinking about it enough that it turned out right. And the last scene where the room is spinning around was something that was also just kind of an intuitive image that I felt the necessity for the circularity at the end and the confusion of that. And that was three different passes in the camera. So, luckily that one I got right the first time.
Right, that's a good word for it.
I think that that really developed in the process and then came to fruition in the editing. You know, when I was editing first, which I often do, I kind of set it out in a more linear way to just get in everything that I wanted to use. And then I knew that that wasn't right, so I started working with this more elliptical structure of large circles becoming smaller and smaller as the film went on. Like something that starts out sort of slowly rolling down a hill and then picks up speed as it gets to the bottom.
Yeah, there's also images with a key, which is one of the real objects in the film. Before she falls, this key falls, and it's a very "Alice in Wonderland" kind of image to pull out but those are from all of our collective unconsciousness. There is something about a key to the door. And so the key appears and reappears. And it sets off the very last sequence, too, that she finally gets the key in the door, and then actually everything that was moving in a certain direction now starts moving backwards, so the circle kind of moves in a different direction. And the sound goes backwards at that point for a little while. So it's that she finally gets to the door, but then it's almost like a tornado hits.
Again, right when I first started thinking about the piece and making these paintings, [the colors] just happened. And part of that was this dream that I had was in black and white and red. There's something about the limitation of that, and then the archetypal quality that it adds to the piece. Sometimes limitations actually open things up, and I think that that's what that did for this piece.
Right, and it's also without ever showing blood, you have the feeling of blood.
Gosh, because I'm just working by myself most of the time, if something funny happens nobody is there to see it.
It was one of those pieces that really needed time. You know how some things that you make you're fairly clear about it, or there's some concise quality about it that allows you to just go forward. But this was one of these pieces in which I didn't set out with a deadline, and I was really happy about that because I allowed it to develop in this way that I think was a lot richer for having the time to do it. This isn't always a luxury that we have, you know.
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