GINA TELAROLI with Phil Coldiron
Gina Telaroli has produced feature films (the quasi-narratives Traveling Light (2011) and Here’s to the Future! (2014)), still-image essays, and traditional criticism (dossiers on Allan Dwan and William Wellman), all while working full-time as an archivist, and the streams of her various modes of cinematic activity have finally run together in the form of her video collages. She has made more than a dozen of these over the last four years, culminating in her most recent work, SILK TATTERS, “NEC SPE NEC METU” (2015). The film draws its title from the third of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and while it would be both possible and advisable to produce a thorough taxonomy of the points of contact between video and poem, I’ll content myself with noting that it is first of the Cantos in which the poet himself appears—lounging broke in Venice, thinking of “one face” before dissolving into disparate histories. SILK TATTERS likewise opens from a single gaze (on a 35mm print of Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954)) onto a heavily composited history of nearly a century’s worth of cinema. Telaroli might just as easily have borrowed a title from the man who sat at Pound’s feet and called her video Surface Tension, animated as it is by the automated, athletic tussling of visual information of differing densities for expression within the finite pixels of the digital image. She has described SILK TATTERS as an attempt to emulate in video the experience of watching Minnelli’s film on film, a statement which captures her work’s Poundian preoccupation with translation, and which is further echoed by her openness to a variety of exhibition formats: following its premiere as a theatrical screening in Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series, the video was then presented as a gallery installation at Coupé International Vol. Two at 308at156 Project Artspace. But the work also functions as a machine for expressing the filmmaker’s emotional experience (bringing it into the lineage of Anne Charlotte Robertson’s cine-diaries), and explores the formal possibilities opened by the historical situation of the image, whether celluloid or digital.
Telaroli and I, both a bit worse for a New York winter’s wear, met one afternoon at my apartment to discuss, among other topics, her working process, the role of language, and what’s ailing narrative cinema today.
Phil Coldiron (Rail): Having watched SILK TATTERS grow over nearly a year, I wanted to ask you first what you think about time—both as it relates to what ends up in the movie and to your working process of accumulation and accretion.
Gina Telaroli: SILK TATTERS came about after seeing the 35mm retrospective of Vincente Minnelli at BAM, and in particular the last film in that series: Brigadoon. It was a beautiful print, and preceding the screening, [programmer] Jake Perlin gave a talk about 35mm and DCP, because that was a really key time in that transition. So those things were always linked: that screening of Brigadoon on 35mm and the shift happening from 35mm to DCP, which connects thematically with Brigadoon.
The goal was to somehow make a movie that captured digitally what made Brigadoon sobeautiful on 35mm, which is a weird idea. So I started to collect clips that made sense in this academic, kind of boring way: I got a lot of Minnelli footage; I got really early silent cinema because the way the light works in it is really good for compositing and creating depth, and if we’re talking about transitions like silent to sound and 35mm to DCP, it makes sense to look at an earlier transitional part of cinema. And then I started to see how the footage worked together, to see what story this footage was telling: how it worked together when you composited, when you layer the clips. I’m not someone that has an idea and then I set out really literally to capture that idea. I always kind of come up with a concept that allows me to get materials, allows me to get footage, and then through the footage I figure out the project.
The second thing is that SILK TATTERS is full of footage that I randomly saw in movie theaters over those years, or footage that was a direct result of where I was living: stuff I shot in Central Park and at the Met when I was living in East Harlem and spending a lot of time in both places. There’s a clip in SILK TATTERS from this Robert Wise film called Until They Sail (1957)that I saw 40 minutes of at the gym one morning while I was running on the elliptical, and I saw Joan Fontaine walk up to a map and point and I thought, “Oh, with that I can fix this transition in my movie!” So I pulled it and put it in there. The last clip I added is from Gone to Earth (1950),which I think I saw a week before the movie premiered.
Rail: What drew you to incorporating your own footage?
Telaroli: I think that the light was especially interesting to me, because I was having a hard time with the Minnelli footage. The way he films, the ways his movies function visually, there are big frames that are always super-filled, but there’s not a lot of depth, at least in the digital transfers. When you see these movies on film, when the light is there, and when the light adds the depth on the film print, they come alive, but it doesn’t come through in the same way digitally. So I was having a really hard time compositing Minnelli on Minnelli; it was just flat and cluttered. I knew I needed something colorful and full of light to break that up, so I started shooting the flowers in the garden. The footage of the paintings helped with this too and also makes for a really easy comparison to 35mm. Again, it’s an academic thing: paintings and 35mm, which is so boring but it works as an analogy. What I ended up doing was taking pictures of all the different angles of a painting and projecting them as a Ken Burns slideshow on my wall, which I filmed, and that’s what we see in the movie. I have an old crappy projector, that’s where the colorful lines come from.
Rail: I’d been wondering about those—they make me think of Agnes Martin, or Easter eggs. They’re an integral part of the dynamic between texture and flatness here.
Telaroli: I’m giving away all my secrets! But the Ken Burns effect pushing in and out really creates a depth, and I love the idea that a shitty projector would really enhance the color and make something appear more textural.
Rail: Something that I find fascinating about the way that you use found footage is the way that characters are picked out and set moving in your scenes: there’s the sense of a rather clean break from their original context.
Telaroli: I’m always a little disappointed when someone watches a found-footage movie of mine and says, “Oh, it was pretty, but I’ve never seen those movies so I don’t know.” I know no one has seen all these movies—I haven’t even seen all of these movies! I’m always aware that it needs to not just be about context. I choose everything pretty specifically, but it can’t just be about that. Jennifer Jones appears a lot in SILK TATTERS, which makes sense, since she’s in Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949), and Portrait of Jennie (1948) relates thematically to this. Or Ruby Gentry (1952), which is about a character who’s stuck, caught between expectation, economics, and emotion, which creates a tension that I think underlies all of SILK TATTERS. Gone to Earth deals with similar tensions, just in very different ways. So none of those choices, when you look at what those movies are, and the context of her characters, are out of place here. But it’s not just about the movies; it’s about a person going on a journey in a different way: her body, Jennifer Jones’s body, is a character in this movie.
It’s the same thing with Charlie Chaplin, although I would think most people know who Chaplin is. He’s someone who, whether he’s playing the tramp or someone else, he’s always Charlie Chaplin. He’s never playing a character; he’s always himself. So there’s a Charlie Chaplin narrative in this, and even if you’re not familiar with Charlie Chaplin’s work, it’s a through-line. Who else stars in this movie?
Rail: There’s a decent amount of Gene Kelly.
Telaroli: Yeah, there’s some Gene Kelly. He’s in Brigadoon, but there’s not that much footage of him from that film. I’m trying to put these through-lines, because I always want it to be a movie—you know, to function as a whole piece. Bodies and people are a big part of movies so I want there to be smaller figures throughout. They give people something to grasp on to a little bit, especially if they feel weird about not knowing what the clips are: if you keep seeing a presence then maybe you’re not worried as much about what the clips are as much as you’re thinking, “Oh, there’s that person again.”
Rail: Do you think of this as having many narrative arcs that are all in the shape of one big one?
Telaroli: I didn’t sit down and say, “This is the story, and now I’m going to tell it.” I think there are a ton of little arcs, little stories going on, and that’s the nature of using footage from movies as much as it is any kind of narrative arc that I’m creating. The movie goes up and down a lot. Part of this is using musical moments from movies, where there’s an emotional story regardless of whether or not you’re paying attention to where the characters or the themes are going. When you hear Judy Holliday at the end there’s a natural emotional cue. The same thing when the song from Frisco Jenny (1932) comes in at the end.
Rail: There’s a stunning moment with Gena Rowlands.
Telaroli: Yes, from Love Streams (1984). But it doesn’t matter what those references are, because there’s emotion. Music has emotional undertones. Colors have emotional undertones. Slowing footage down, or speeding it up, gives it an emotional arc. I could probably, if I wanted to, sit down and watch this and tell you what the story of it is; there’s a loose story about loss and about being lost and about trying to find love and looking back while trying to move forward.
Rail: No one seems to quite know what the state of storytelling in the movies today is.
Telaroli: I watch a lot of old movies, so I watch a lot of narratives—very traditional narratives. Something that I like about traditional narrative is that when you have a known structure, all of the other things become much more interesting. When you don’t have to figure out the structure of the movie anymore, you can really look at all the fun, weird aspects of it. And I learn a ton about movies when I can just focus on the weird aspects of things. I’ve never thought about it this way before, but what you’re seeing with SILK TATTERS is something like a Hollywood movie with the narrative pulled out, so you’re only seeing all the other things that are going on.
I was sitting at MoMI watching a Howard Hawks movie one day—I think it was Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964)—and some friends were talking about going to see a Lav Diaz film the next day, one of the 8-hour-long ones, and someone was saying how it’s going to be difficult to do that, and I said, “That’s not difficult: you sit there, you think about yourself, you look at the movies, things happen, you make a note of it, and you go back to thinking about your life.” A Howard Hawks film is difficult, because it’s always throwing something at you. You are constantly working. Could you imagine watching an 8-hour Howard Hawks film? You would die.
Anyway, there is this thing happening today with films that are being called unconventional narratives, or that are playing around with these unfamiliar structures, and sometimes it’s interesting, but I find a lot of the time it doesn’t make me think as hard. For me, a Lav Diaz movie will always be easier, not that I think there’s not value in what those movies do. I may be the wrong person to ask about them in a critical sense, but a lot of current arthouse movies—and even independent films that are more traditional—I don’t learn a lot from them, and I don’t know if I like to watch movies that aren’t keeping me learning. [Laughs.] I don’t think I said that right.
Rail: Do you see yourself as working apart from the world of video art?
Telaroli: I suppose I see myself as not working in any one tradition. Of course I recognize that I'm doing some things that belong to that tradition and it has been interesting to see SILK TATTERS exist in that context, as an installation. What has always been interesting to me about my films, especially my found footage work, is how they morph depending on space, projection equipment, and how I’ve delivered the film. Each combination results in a different movie! Thus far I haven’t been interested in making things that aren’t flexible in terms of their presentation, and to go further I would say that that flexibility and in turn the different presentation of the works is ultimately what defines it. SILK TATTERS will be different in a gallery than in a traditional theater setting, and I like both options and I am interested in how the experience is different in both.
I guess for many digital artists both labels and control are key. Classification allows the work (and the artist) to be marketed and eventually sold. And for whatever reason, people seem super-hyped up on control and precision these days when it comes to digital works; it’s what is expected and I’ve found that when I express my excitement for the opposite of that, people seem to take me less seriously. I’m not a real artist because I'm not being tyrannical about the sound or something.
Rail: We’ve talked quite a bit about its visual elements, but SILK TATTERS is also a film full of language, both verbal and literary.
Telaroli: The title SILK TATTERS comes from Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which I was reading a lot in the park that summer. His use of language functions a little bit like SILK TATTERS in that if you read through all the notes you can figure out what all the things mean, but if you don’t read the notes there’s still a quality and a rhythm to the language. The words that appear in the movie have a lot of different connotations: they're connected to the movies themselves, so if you know the movies they’re going to have a different meaning, and if you don’t then they’re only going to have meaning in the context of what I’ve done. So there’s always two levels, and everyone is going to come to the movie with a different level. The thing I love about Shutter Island (2010) is that when you watch it for a second time—spoiler alert for Shutter Island, I guess—you’re watching everyone act twice. Mark Ruffalo is acting as two characters: he’s acting in the movie itself, and he’s also acting for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. And that’s how something like SILK TATTERS functions: there are these two layers, and everyone’s going back and forth between the two.
In terms of the voice, there are parts where people’s voices are slowed down, and parts where a voice is very clear or a voice is very hidden. There are a lot of female voices.
Rail: One of the most striking of those female voices is taken from Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), which you’ve manipulated so we hear the dialogue before we see the character speak it.
Telaroli: There are three or four moments like that, and it’s always hard for me to reflect back on what the specific thought was that led to that. Part of me tries to forget the movies when they’re done because they are really personal, and I let a lot of it go, which I think is probably healthier for me. But makes it a little bit harder to think back and figure out where I was going with a decision like that. Half of the time things get out of sync because I can be a messy editor, but more often than not, I think it’s really interesting how the “mistakes” affect the flow and rhythm and the pacing and the emotional arc, so I purposefully end up leaving those edits in.
For a long time the Body Snatchers footage was linked together. In a really basic way, taking it apart gives the movie more of a disembodied effect; it makes you feel more lost. What she’s saying specifically is about “you’re alone, there’s no one for you, you’re all by yourself,” so to hear that without a face or a body is really affecting, and then to see the person afterwards is a little bit terrifying, or sad, because you hear it twice, the message comes across twice, rather than just once.
Rail: Since you’ve mentioned recurring ideas, perhaps this would be a good place to close: do you think that nostalgia has a productive capacity?
Telaroli: I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia recently, as I look at the Americana films of Henry King. King often gets pigeonholed as a director of nostalgia—he often traffics in years past and small towns—and I think it's an unfair label. He isn’t looking back longingly or with sentiment as much as he is looking back while simply being true to people and place—he did immense research into both and probably shot on location more than any other Hollywood director. I think SILK TATTERS functions in a somewhat similar way, which is to say I don’t think it is nostalgic. I think it uses material from the past to tell a story.
Generally though, I don’t think of myself as looking back longingly on Classic Hollywood as much as I think there are things about that time in movie history that are interesting to me in the context of how things are today. There’s a tension in films from the classic Hollywood system—maybe from the ways art and commerce functioned alongside each other during that specific time period, and in turn all restrictions and compromises that came with making films then—that I find strikingly absent in many arthouse and independent productions and I suppose in many video art contexts as well. I’m really interested in exploring that and figuring out how to bring that tension to my work today, which is of course not being made in Hollywood circa 1930 – 60. I don’t know if nostalgia is productive but I think there’s a lot that is productive about looking back and about examining, whether in video or criticism, how things used to be.
PHIL COLDIRON is a writer living in Brooklyn.