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The Gigging Economy: Laura Parnes on Her Tour Without End

Tour Without EndTour Without End

For more than 25 years, Laura Parnes’s multiplatform films, video installations and photographs have provoked and charmed audiences with genre-bending satirical narratives about teenage rites of passage gone terribly awry. From County Down, an episodic series about an epidemic of adult psychosis that coincides with a girl’s invention of a designer drug, to Blood and Guts in High School, which reimagines punk-feminist icon Kathy Acker’s titular book against the backdrop of early 1980s televised disasters, Parnes fuses comedy with pathos to probe social and political trauma. 

Her newest feature-length work, Tour Without End, has the feeling of an epic—think a feminist, queer Nashville meets a punk rock This Is Spinal Tap with some Medium Cool notes. Casting real-life musicians, artists and actors as bands on tour, this doc/fiction hybrid expands into a cross-generational, Trump-era commentary on contemporary culture and politics. From 2014 to 2016, Parnes embedded a fictional band into actual subcultural music scenes to create this inimitable work about artistic survival in the 21st century. Downtown legends (The Wooster Group luminaries Kate Valk and Jim Fletcher, Gang Gang Dance underground goddess Lizzi Bougatsos) play the members of Munchausen, whose interpersonal relationships and struggles form the center of this kaleidoscopic portrait of New York musical communities and sub-lebrities, also featuring members of members of Light Asylum, Le Tigre, Eartheater, The Julie Ruin, MGMT and MEN, as well as iconic downtown artists, writers and performers. Presented in theatrical settings and as an installation with video projections, photographs and a digital archive of performances, Tour Without End, despite its irony, is hopeful and moving in its depiction of its characters’ vulnerabilities and its vision of anti-hierarchical, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal creative communities. 

Having just wrapped its two-month stint at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, Tour Without End will next be seen at Rhizome DC on March 2. —Elisabeth Subrin

At its essence, Tour Without End asks how one survives as an artist and creative community in late capitalism, especially in New York and, specifically, in the shadow of Trump-era policies. What made you decide to focus on musicians as opposed to filmmakers or writers or visual artists? 

Music has always been a central part of my work. Musicians now are in an incredibly difficult bind with streaming: How do they survive and continue making money when no one’s paying for music anymore? Being on tour can be exhausting and more challenging with age, but it’s essential to the survival of a band. Also, musicians often work in groups and maintain sometimes very complicated collaborations. So, it seemed like the perfect way to ask questions about working and surviving in a creative field. It’s an extreme version of what many artists go through.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the boomer band members (Valk and Fletcher) within these subcultural young music scenes you present and us, early Gen Xers, trying to survive as artists and filmmakers within film and culture industries that fetishize the young?

My past work was always connected with youth culture, and that made a lot of sense for the topics I was talking about. What is real rebellion? How do rebellious acts or symbols of rebellious acts get appropriated into mainstream culture? How do we work in a way that’s moving forward and that is anti-capitalist, in a sense?

But, at a certain point, I decided that I could use the perspective, the distance between youth and adulthood to crack things open. I’m a mother of a 14-year-old, and my voice is not adolescent. I love that I could bring middle-aged characters like Cookie (Valk) or Cameron (Fletcher) to the forefront of a project, and that they could hold their own, visually and in terms of performance, with all these incredibly vital young musicians. That to me is a source of inspiration to keep going—not just making films as someone over 40, but also making films that pertain to my life or our lives as older people.

We see all these headlines, “Move over millennials, Gen Z is taking over”—this trope where generations are always in conflict, and you must destroy the last generation to rise above them artistically. I was interested in confounding and subverting those ideas. Part of what Tour ended up doing was creating actual, real situations where people across different generations could meet and make significant relationships or connections. Even though they’re playing characters, it gives real artists and musicians an opportunity to interact in a way that they never would otherwise. And that’s something I hope to be an actual radical act in terms of moving against these ridiculous paradigms where generations and different scenes are always portrayed as being in conflict.

In the film, you often address the tensions of binaries: young/old, Black/white, male/female, queer/straight, rich/poor, corporate/collective. Tour Without End seems to be an argument against binaries. The last line in the film is Cookie talking to the writer Eileen Myles about suicide after Trump was elected. They’ve been talking about a loss of hope and about love. Cookie says, “I want to rewrite the stories. I want love to survive. I don’t want to be the ’she’ in the story. I want to be the ’they’ in the story.”

She might have been referring to nonbinary pronouns, but I think it was even deeper than that. I think she was talking about the premise of languages in which historically “he” describes the collective “we.” The male voice becomes the universal storyteller, with “she” as a supporting role. And Cookie refutes both the supporting role and the “he.” She’s making a case for the collective “we” as the way a story, a history, could be told. And I feel like that’s what you proposed in the film—an alternative to binaries by having such a multigenerational, multigendered, multiracial cast.

What was amazing in the making of the film was that sense of collectivity, that innate need to be together. Especially as I was shooting during the leadup to Trump’s election, near the end of production, I had already scheduled a brunch scene to bring all my characters together, which ended up happening right after the election. There were other lines scripted and ideas planned. But it really became a place where we could just connect because we felt so alone after he won. It was a very intense, kind of beautiful moment. 

I think you identify, like I do, as an artist who makes films that are presented in galleries and theatrical settings. But your craft as a filmmaker isn’t discussed enough. For example, you’re an amazing editor. In Tour Without End, you’ve shot and edited the film in the tradition of cinema verité, and in other places you’re cutting with nods to traditional fiction editing—shot/reverse shot, match cut, etc. If the default form in narrative storytelling is three-act structure, in your case, you literally skip the first act. You dump the establishing act and jump right into the central conflicts of the film, except that it moves forward with ideas as plot rather than action as plot. 

Exactly, so the audience is immediately immersed. I also felt that it was the only way to connect this ensemble. I am not someone who’s interested in plot, per se. I am interested in ideas. And that’s why I consider myself to be an artist who works in film. I don’t have to be always engaged with some conventional idea of moving a plot forward. I can focus on concepts.

But there is a conceptual narrative progression that has a beginning and end. It’s almost like the structure is critique/destruction/utopia.

I have to think about it, but I like it. Let’s keep that. Part of my research was to have extensive conversations with people who were in bands with long-term collaborative projects, and all of their different issues and the complications that occur. Then, my own ideas about the problems of making and developing art really informed how I devised scenes for these different characters to be in. It felt like the only way to get to those points was to eschew some of the conventional ideas of how you bring a character to the screen. It was very challenging because I’d never edited in a nonfiction format. Everything I’ve worked on before was tightly scripted, where there are few options editing-wise.

I got a lot of helpful feedback from a good friend, Enat Sidi, who’s a brilliant documentary editor. I was able to conceive of the structure through loosely narrative vignettes, in which you’re walking into their lives as they’re dealing with a conflict or an issue that the band must face—receiving a bad review, dealing with the death of a friend, addressing cultural appropriation or just dealing with branding and social media. Even if you’re an established band, there’s all this nonsense you have to negotiate to maintain an audience. Big data is so involved with who is trending, and it’s an exhausting experience. This culminates in the conflict between the sometimes enlightened bubble we aspire to live in and our disturbing historical reality. The utopic element is woven into the film through the collaborative process of improvisation as the characters search for ways to deal with the trouble. 

How did you raise the money? And who did you work with? How did you operate as a crew?

It’s totally grant-financed. It’s taken me forever to get grants, but I ultimately got the Creative Capital grant and the Guggenheim, which was very helpful. In terms of shooting, I just had a Canon 5D. But we shot on everything because at times we really needed multiple cameras. I was working with Adam Khalil and Sam Richardson, who are super enthusiastic and brilliant. I really relied on them to sometimes get extra crew together. Some people brought cameras that were 10 years old. It was really making use of anything that was available and making that the aesthetic of the film. There was no other way to do this when shooting over the course of four years. With improvisation you might not have any opportunity for setups or lighting.

Let’s talk a bit about how the film lives in multiple spaces, including your music performance archive.

It’s a digital archive that you can go through with a touchscreen to see every performance that we shot during those four years of production, in addition to screenings and events at places like The Kitchen. It’s really a time capsule of the period. A lot of these spaces have already closed as New York rapidly gentrifies. Having it be a multiplatform installation allows for so many ways to experience what otherwise would be raw footage. You can see uncut scenes, or the unedited complete conversations that people in the film had, which kind of exposes the director’s decisions. 

It also kind of solves a painful problem of editing because you didn’t have to really throw anything out. What about the photographic portraits you present of all your main characters?

Justine Kurland shot the photos, and the theme is “art workers.” The portraits are all taken in basements, either my basement or the basement at the New York gallery PARTICIPANT INC. I love the idea of thinking of [these performers] as cultural workers and literalizing the idea of the “underground” by having them pose there. But the whole project is really an ode to the eternal underground in all its banality as well as brilliance.

Also, the fact in capitalism that art is labor.


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