MAKING AND BEING “DRAWN & QUARTERED”
BY LYNNE SACHS
My great Uncle Charlie was a prominent Memphis businessman who took a giddy pleasure in shooting some of the most elegant, compassionate photographs I’ve ever seen. I remember his close-up portrait taken in the late 1950’s of a wizened black man looking into the lens. I would sneak into the back hall of his house to look at this image, as if those large eyes revealed to me all the horrors of a segregated South that was beginning, thank god, to disappear. The face still haunts me.
None of Uncle Charlie’s children or even grandchildren took much interest in photography. My teenage obsession with the camera thus became the reason we developed such a long-lasting relationship. He and I would spend hours together looking at the photographs we’d both taken. These were the first rigorous, aesthetic dialogues around image-making I’d ever had.
One afternoon in 1984, when were sitting side-by-side in Uncle Charlie’s study pouring over some travel slides, I announced that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was 22 years old. Uncle Charlie’s response was immediate and silent. He got up abruptly, pulled an object from a bureau drawer, and handed me a heavy, brown camera that looked and felt like an army hand grenade. This was the first time I had ever seen a Regular 8 Filmo camera. He carefully explained to me how a 50 foot reel fit into the casing, that I needed to shoot half the reel one way, then open the camera, flip the reel and camera and shoot the rest. “Beware,” he warned me, “if you forget to shoot the second half with the camera right-side up the world will appear topsy-turvy. After you shoot all three minutes, send the film to a lab to have it processed and split down the middle.”
“SPLIT IT DOWN THE MIDDLE?” I thought to myself, “How violent, how intriguing, how corporeal.” Strangely enough, I didn’t actually use the camera until three years later. It was the fall of 1987, and I was a new graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute. By this time, I’d aligned myself with the film avant-garde. Every normal way of doing anything with a camera was anathema. My little Filmo cine hand grenade still had an aura I couldn’t resist. It finally beckoned me to be used. On one of those rare, warm San Francisco afternoons I convinced my new boyfriend John to follow me to the roof of the Art Institute to make the first movie I would ever shoot in Regular 8mm. Despite having no experience whatsoever with the camera, I’d meticulously planned every shot we would make together. Perhaps I’d been inspired by the organized fluidity of Maya Deren’s “Choreography for the Camera”. Just as significant, I believe, were the mechanical properties of that Filmo. What would happen if I didn’t rip apart the spinal chord of the film itself?
Once we reached the roof, I surprised John by informing him that we would both have to take off our clothes. I then explained that I would shoot images of him for the first 1 1/2 minutes of film and that he would shoot the second half of me. He wasn’t happy with the rules, but he accepted them for the three hours it took. That must have been the year I first encountered Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze”, seen Carolee Schneeman’s “Fuses”, pondered Yvonne Rainer’s “Lives of Performers”. The artistic practice of being a feminist in the late 1980’s was whirly wildly in my mind.
When I took the roll to the lab, I begged them NOT to split the film as they normally would, to leave it all in tact after the processing. The resulting 8mm footage was simultaneously thrilling (artistically) and humiliating (personally). There were our two nude bodies on the same screen but also divided by four equilateral frames. I looked at John (fine…); John looked at me (yikes!). Within the parameters of the image gestalt, we are dancing together without ever touching. Our two bodies remain totally distinct and apart.
My immediate reaction took me directly to the editing room where I cut out all the frames of my face. I wanted to erase myself from the film. I held these “out takes” in my hand, breathing a sigh of relief at knowing that my nude body could never be identified. Then I felt strangely ashamed at my own un-hip cowardice. A few days later, I returned to the splicer and “reconstituted” my body by replacing my face, owning up to what I’d made, and, in a way, accepting my own body with all its flab and flaws. This was years before the time of “nondestructive” (digital) editing, so if you were to look closely at the finished film print now on 16mm you would see those cuts (SCARS!!). You would see the mark making that reveals so much about my apprehension in those days.
At that moment, the technological limitations of Uncle Charlie’s hallowed regular 8mm Filmo movie camera lead me to a know place as an artist. Scared and anxious but also aware of a burgeoning excitement, I named my little movie “Drawn and Quartered”. Months later, I screened the silent movie to a packed audience at San Francisco’s Red Vic Theatre on Haight Street. Within those few painful minutes, the crowd went from absolute silence, to raucous laughter and back to an exquisite quiet. I was shaking.