Love Song: Marie Losier on The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye
With Marie Losier’s retrospective, Just a Million Dreams, now running at New York’s MoMA through November 11, we’re reposting our interview with Losier from our Winter, 2012 print issue. The film discussed here, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, screens tomorrow, November 3.
What should one expect when one artist turns their camera on another? Although the “portrait of the artist” doc is one of nonfiction filmmaking’s most durable sub-genres, audiences often expect the least from it. In the presence of a great painter, musician or author, directors are frequently expected to sublimate their own styles in favor of a respectful sobriety, an aesthetic unobtrusiveness that allows the artist subject center stage. Of course, the paradox here is that by using cinema to interpret the work of another artist, that artist’s work is necessarily altered, reaching the viewer in some new form through the strategies of the director.
Recently there have been several artist documentaries that have resisted the urge toward the American Masters, “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Films like Gary Tarn’s Black Sun (about the author and painter Hugues de Montalembert) and Sophie Fiennes’s Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (about the painter Anselm Kiefer) are spirited engagements with their subjects, films that assume if viewers want to know where the artists were born, they’ll go to Google. Opening in theaters this March is another film to add to this list: Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. Off the bat, Losier is gifted with not one charismatic subject but two: Her film is a portrait of the artistic collaboration between radical British composer and performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and h/er (P-Orridge’s preferred pronoun) spouse, Lady Jaye Breyer, a stunningly charismatic and mysterious performer and former nurse. Performing together in P’Orridge’s band Psychic TV, their project together was dubbed “pandrogyny” — through fashion styling but also plastic surgery the two altered their appearances so as to resemble each other, intending to one day fuse into a single being, “Breyer P-Orridge.”
Prior to this project, P-Orridge was best known as a member of Throbbing Gristle, the British industrial music progenitor, and COUM Transmissions, the radical art collective. With live performances backed by autopsy footage and songs about burn victims and child molesters, Throbbing Gristle made music that, decades later in remastered collector’s editions, is still profoundly discomforting. So perhaps it’s a bit surprising the first feature-length documentary on P-Orridge is one by Losier, a New York experimental filmmaker whose whimsical 16mm films, in the words of director Guy Maddin, “wriggle with the energy and sweetness of a broken barrel full o’ sugar worms!” Admitting that she didn’t start out a fan of P-Orridge and h/er back catalogue, Losier approaches P-Orridge and Breyer with curiosity, empathy and a giddy enthusiasm. She dresses P-Orridge in outrageous costumes, revisits past influences like Brion Gysin and goes on tour with Psychic TV, creating in one sequence perhaps their best performance document — even though the sound is non-sync. And while Losier’s approach is playful and at times silly, the documentary also contains sadness. Bryer died suddenly, mid-filming, of complications from stomach cancer.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Teddy Award. It will be released this spring by Adopt Films. To interview Losier, Filmmaker asked Esther B. Robinson, whose own documentary, A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, was another personal approach of one artist by another.
I want to start by talking about your work before the feature? How did you begin making films? I came to make films without knowing I would ever make films.
What do you mean? Well, I come from literature — that’s how I came to the states. My parents had a cine club [in Paris]. I could never sleep at night, and I would watch these old films secretly. I was obsessed with film, and yet I was scared to make them. So I studied American literature, and then, miraculously, I got a grant to write a Ph.D. on adaptations of Tennessee Williams’s short stories to plays and movies. I said, “Oh, I have to go to New York because that’s where I can find a lot of documents,” but I had planned for a long time to come to New York. I was obsessed with New York from films like Taxi Driver and Manhattan. So I took the money, came to New York with two suitcases, and I wound up deciding to paint. I had never painted before in my life. In six months I built this little portfolio of paintings. Very early on I started cutting up the papers to create a kind of stop-[motion] kind of animation and also made giant paintings [that were like] projection films or stories on the walls of the studio. One day a friend saw them and said, “I’m supposed to do Richard Foreman sets for a year, and I can’t do it. I think you would be good.” I had no idea who Richard Foreman was, but I said okay. I was doing a master’s degree at Hunter, but for one year I’d build these props in my studio and secretly skip classes to go to Richard’s and be obsessed with his play, which was called Hotel Fuck at the Paradise Hotel. I became really obsessed with his world. It opened a door, and I started to go to the Anthology Film Archives and dive into experimental film. During that time I found a place called Ocularis in Brooklyn, and they did experimental film programs every Sunday. I knew nobody there, but I asked them if I could be part of the programming team and for 10 years it was like a home for me. I was also in a relationship for four years, and when we broke up, that nice boyfriend of mine gave me a Bolex as a goodbye present.
Really? Yes. So I went with the Bolex to Millenium Film Workshop because someone told me they could teach me how to load film. I was really shy, and I saw this old man eating a huge pint of ice cream and it was Mike Kuchar, twin brother of George Kuchar. He makes experimental films, but I had no idea who he was. I just loved his face and something happened that I ate ice cream with him and we became friends. I would come see the films he projected, and then, one day, he said, “Can you play in my film, Marie?” I was like, “Sure, that would be fun.” And I learned from that how he filmed. He was so clumsy. The camera would fall. He would write [the dialogue] down on a piece of a paper he would tape around the room. It was so free and campy that I was like, “Oh, I think I can do that.” My first film was a portrait of Mike called Bird, Bath, and Beyond. And that’s really how it started. His brother George asked me to make one on him, Electrocute Your Stars, and I started doing these film portraits that took sometimes a very long time. The Tony Conrad one took four years. So cinema has been much more about the friendship, and understanding and loving a person, discovering their world and creating this kind of collage of impression. It’s a sort of love letter to a person, a tribute that makes them accessible to people who would not know anything about their underground world, or weird art making or creativity.
In the end, my film was really a conversation between me and Danny’s films, and I felt that same kind of conversation in your film. When did you first meet Gen, and how did you decide to do the film? What was different with Gen from [the subjects of] my other films is we didn’t know each other originally. I first saw Genesis perform seven years ago at the Knitting Factory. Watching him perform was pure enchantment. His words from the stage hovered somewhere between song and speech, deeply poetic, primitive, at times frightful. It completely hypnotized me. I knew immediately, I had to film this perplexing and powerful figure, perhaps as a way of understanding what I had experienced, but moreover to have proof of the existence of a being I was convinced had arrived from somewhere else! In a typically miraculous New York City coincidence, I later met Genesis at a gallery opening in SoHo, in one of those sardine-can spaces where you can barely walk and hardly breathe. Being relatively small, I got pressed into a corner where I inadvertently stepped on someone’s toes. I turned to apologize and there was Genesis, smiling, his gold-capped teeth glittering down over me. We spoke briefly, but in that time I felt something special had passed between us. He asked me about my films and gave me his e-mail. Whether it was fate or pure clumsiness, this marked the beginning of an artistic collaboration that would develop into a close friendship.
I e-mailed Genesis a few days later and very quickly she asked me to come over to her home; I really didn’t know anything about her music and her past, which is I think why we got along so well, I was not a fan and not looking for anything. I was just drawn to meet her. The door opened and Genesis made me sit in her basement archives on a giant green plastic chair that was four times my size and asked me to wait. I waited and Lady Jaye came down with coffee, a beautiful, tall, intense woman. They both sat in front of me and asked me about what I do and just chatted very lightly. About 10 minutes into the conversation Lady Jaye pointed at me and said to Gen, “She is the one!” Genesis said, “Yes, of course.” I asked softly to them, “I was the one for what?” They responded at almost same time that I was the one who could film them and their project of pandrogeny. Of course I didn’t know what that was at all…but I just knew my instinct was, “yes, sure,” and they asked me if I could come on the road with Psychic TV in two weeks. Of course I said yes, and I rushed home, bought 20 rolls of 16mm film, and arranged a leave with my job. And I left for this seven-year adventure.
FILMMAKER: As the film progressed, how did your collaboration with Genesis develop? She gave me total freedom. I just spent time with her and Jaye, filming daily life. She got used to me, and since there were no mics — sound was always recorded separately from the image — she almost totally forgot I was there. It was more like a friendship — she would talk to me as I’m filming her. I would go into the frame to bring something she needed. She would call me if she knew there was something important I should film, like, finding letters from William Burroughs in her archive. But there was this other part of the collaboration, me setting up a funny scene with costumes in the basement of her house and those she would never question. She would just laugh and say, “Okay, what silly costume are you going to put on me today?” She’d put it on and start playing, and that playfulness would open a lot of private stories between us, and those became part of the film. I think the time that it took to be made was essential to really build that film.
Filmmaking becomes immersive in a different way when you’re in your subject’s world for so long. It becomes more intimate, the conversation you have with another person’s aesthetic over seven years…. Because you are also living life. Things happen to you during these seven years — dramatic things or really good things or sad moments. You share them and that really creates another level of the filming. Jaye’s death was completely unexpected. I didn’t know what to do. I was completely brokenhearted, and I felt completely lost about the film because I didn’t want to intrude with the camera. I thought, “This is really the end.” I was there as a friend, so I would go and just hold Gen and stay by her side. I forgot about the film, and then Gen said, “You’ve got to finish it for me to continue living and as an homage to Jaye.” So we continued for two more years, and I think the film got even more personal and deep.
I think we’re similar in that the people we’re interested in are not separate from us emotionally. They’re our friends and people we love. I don’t want to cheese-ball it up and be like, “We’re women filmmakers, and this is about love.” But in a way, it really is, right? It is. I don’t write scripts, I don’t know how to load any other film but this three-minute 500 ASA tungsten film roll in my Bolex. I don’t know how to do anything other than press the record button on the sound. If the computer crashes, I don’t know what to do. So, it really is just about feeling.
But I don’t feel like your filmmaking is random. You have a specific aesthetic. Well, for me, it comes from painting in many ways, and silent film, like Melies, which I watched since I was a kid — this very kind of tactile film where anything happens, anything is superimposed, it makes no sense, but it’s bigger than life and you believe in it and you laugh with it and you go with it. Silent film has this poor campy aesthetic that’s so beautiful. And then, doing costumes where you see the flaws but it doesn’t matter. And having done collage is so important to the way I edit. Because I don’t have a script; everything is almost done on the editing table after years of filming. I edit with the sound, so it’s all about rhythm. I learned that from Richard Foreman because he collaged tapes of sounds, and each sound creates a light in your face or a change of scenes, or a rhythm, a change of character, a change of emotion. And that’s why I love 16mm and three-minute rolls of film. For me, the flare at the end of the roll passes a chapter to another emotion, another high or sadness or just another scene.
Talk to me more about sound and how you use it. I collect 78rpm records, and the sound of the crackle from bad records is as important as the song itself. And so, when it came to editing the first film, even though I really don’t know anything about how to make music or edit sound or create sound, it soon became as important as the image. With this feature, it was seven years of interviews on little recorders — really bad ones at the beginning, and then I got a grant and I got a better one. But, you know, it was badly recorded. We recorded interviews when we were in places when there was the whole band recording or doing rehearsals. It was hard work for several years because I had to listen to so many layers of sound to find one word or another. I would take pieces of words to paste them together to make the sentences because sometimes Gen would say the same story but with a different tonality that would not work in the energy of the editing of the film. I also wanted to use sounds to create the feeling of Jaye’s presence, because I had so much less sound and interviews of her. I wanted to create her presence with sound, even more than with the image.
What do you mean? Well, Jaye, by nature, was someone who was flying away from everything. She was more mysterious than Gen in terms of telling her life and being filmed. She was much more shy, much more reserved, and she had many lives. She was a nurse. She was a dominatrix. She was a performer. She had a crazy life. But a very kind heart and, yet, really strong, like kind of “the man of the couple” sometimes. When she passed away, I didn’t have enough images or sound recordings of her. So I went through all the sound and found those moments where she would talk or sing or would be moving dishes in the background and really placed her in that space, which is actually the way it is really like. Even in death it feels like she’s still alive because Gen makes songs about her, writes about her and talks as if she and Jaye are still together. She’s still there in the air. Some people reproach me like, “Why didn’t we see as much of Jaye as Gen?” But to me, it remained very faithful to what I experienced with Jaye, so I didn’t feel like I lacked something in a way.
FILMMAKER: What about technology in general? You’ve chosen an almost archaic way of making your films. I like the heaviness [of the video camera] and focus of the three minutes. The character has a different reaction because it’s an ancient, old thing with no sound. It’s very different than if I filmed forever on video, recording a lot. I would see things about Gen that I wanted to portray in a very ancient way. Like, she’s like a bird, so I built this bird costume where she’s just like in a black-and-white silent film, floating on the black background. I’d love to try to synch sound one day. It’s just I work alone with a 16mm camera, so it’s very difficult to do sync sound.
Have you been surprised by people’s responses to the film? I am surprised because, I mean, you know me, I come from experimental film. I don’t live from my work. I make it out of love, devotion. Sometimes I think I’m ridiculous to put that time and money and health into these things, but I have to. And so the audience, for years, has been small. I never thought of reaching out to more people. But in a way nothing’s changed. I still pay rent and work fulltime and I go to shitty hotels when I’m on tour [with the film]. It’s not a glorious life.
So much of your process is based on a connection to a physical person. And so much of the process of distributing a movie is about severing that connection. It is true, completely.
And it’s not your native world. You’re thrown from having an intimate conversation with a few people to having to be open and generous to maybe 200 people who have very decided opinions about your movie. You have to take that in and then you have to sleep in a weird bed. That’s what I felt like 10 days ago, coming back from the German distribution in small cities in shitty hotels. I learned a lot about cinema and me and the film, but it’s kind of this weird, lonely life. You reflect a lot about what’s next, you know? How you’re going to build the next film.
But see, you don’t have to worry about that. Your compass is just a person. You’ll find a person, and then you will be unable to not make the movie, right? So don’t worry about it. What about The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye in the context of documentary today? I think there’s a whole cinema of confirmation where people are going to the movies because they want to be told something they already know. There’s a whole critical movement against formal play in documentaries. What’s so exciting about your film is that the rules are your rules. There isn’t like, a three-act structure or whatever. I mean, [when I began] I never realized there were rules, or what the rules were. Then I was invited to go to IFP market for the first time.
I remember when you had to go to that. You were so upset. And it was like, “Oh, nobody wants to see me.” I saw three people in one week when people were seeing six people in one day. And the three meetings I had were like, “So, are you going to represent Gen and Jaye’s whole lives, where they were born? Are you going to interview famous people?” I was like, “Wow, I can’t think that way actually. I guess I won’t get money to make it.” That [experience] really helped me to say, “Oh, fuck the rules. I don’t even know them so I should just keep making the film.”
What about new technology. Do you think about it? New ways of making films? That’s a scary question to me just because I’m, like, so far behind in terms of what’s happening today.
What’s behind? Maybe you’re so far behind you’re ahead. I’ll use 16mm when it’s good for the subject matter as long as I can, but someday film might disappear, and I might have to use video. Every day there’s a new camera and a new way of using things. I think you just adapt to what you need, and all that matters is maybe two things that remain yours.
I think so too. I think you learn what you need to learn. Sometimes narrowing those choices is the most liberating thing you can do. But you always seem to have confidence in your frame. That’s weird because I’m always full of anxiety and doubts about myself.
But it’s not the average person filled with doubts who can put someone in a fish costume and fly them about. Well, I guess I don’t think of that. That’s natural to me.
But that’s confidence. Okay, well I just love the person and they just feel it and that’s fine. I can do whatever I want with them because I do it too. Playing through the camera is my way of relating. Film was a language for me to speak without always knowing how to speak.
I think that’s the most perfect metaphor, a language where you can speak where you don’t need to know. What would you have done if Gen didn’t like it? I don’t know. I’ve actually never questioned it. That’s maybe why it worked.
Oh, really? Yeah, because she didn’t see the footage during the making and she never saw the editing until before the end. She trusted me and I trusted her. I cried with the film, so I thought she would too.
So what did she think when she first saw it? She cried. She didn’t talk, actually, and she left. She called me seven hours later and said, “You made the most beautiful present I could ever have hoped for in the art world and I’ll follow you anywhere you need.”
So I guess it worked. Yeah.