Published in San Francisco Cinematheque’s monograph Lynne Sachs Retrospective 1986 – 2010
Between Yes and No: An Interview with Lynne Sachs by Kathy Geritz
Lynne Sachs and I were graduate students in San Francisco State University’s Cinema Department in the mid-eighties. We met as TAs for a huge undergraduate cinema history class, and became friends as we scrambled to stay two—or at least one—steps ahead of the students. New to teaching, we discussed ideas for films to show in our sections and also shared strategies to get discussions going. One disadvantage we faced was that neither of us had actually taken the film history course; instead, we had fulfilled this requirement through an independent study that entailed viewing films at Pacific Film Archive, where I worked. Together, we watched films religiously every week in a small screening room; but rather than the classics, we were drawn to experimental films, cinematic essays and offbeat narratives that fueled our enthusiasm for our field while providing an idiosyncratic survey of film history. Our friendship deepened during our wide-ranging conversations that continue to this day.
I spoke with Lynne about her film practice by telephone in January 2010. She was at her home in Brooklyn. — Kathy Geritz
What initially drew you to working with film?
All my life I’ve been working in the arts. I drew, took pictures and wrote poetry a lot as a kid. Later, when I was a teenager, I got very excited and disturbed by a number of issues—particularly the reinstatement of the draft and abortion rights. I realized, “There’s this part of me that cares about social and political situations; but, I’ll still need to keep this other part that is about my more private self, the part that wants to play with images and words, exploring the everyday.”
It was 1981, the year I went to live in Paris, when I started going to film programs, and I discovered the films of Marguerite Duras and Chantal Akerman. I also saw classic films like Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise (1945) at these sweet revival house theaters. I didn’t know terms like “avant-garde” or “experimental film.” I just knew that this kind of cinema was not about plot or movie stars, but about the expression of ideas or what it was to be a woman in the world, which seemed much more visceral and intellectual.
When I returned to the U.S., I didn’t yet think “I want to be a filmmaker;” I was just thrilled by this medium that I had discovered. I finished Brown University with a history degree, and thought I’d like to get into film, so I started to look for jobs in New York. In between desperately looking for paid work, I spent some time hanging out at what I later realized were some very important, even revolutionary, places. One was Downtown Community Television in Chinatown. The other was Global Village in Soho, which was a renegade community of people who had been followers of Marshal McLuhan and were committed to teaching young people about media. In 1984, I had a job answering the telephone and hanging film trims at documentary filmmaker Robert Richter’s office. He said to me, “You’re interested in documentary.You’re just out of college. Maybe you should go to the Flaherty Seminar.” I applied for a scholarship to go in the summer of ‘85. It was by far the most experimentally oriented year they had ever had. VéVé Clark was there to talk about Maya Deren. They showed a film that Meredith Monk had made on Ellis Island. I had never seen a documentary that used dance to create such a fluid access to space. Plus Bruce Conner was there! I said, “This is what documentary can be? Found footage films by Bruce Conner?” It was eye opening for me.
I applied to graduate school at both San Francisco State and San Francisco Art Institute. I had not really completed a film yet, so I wasn’t accepted at SFAI, but I got into State. Eventually I went to both. I’m glad that I went to State first, otherwise I wouldn’t know about film history, film theory or have worked with Trinh T. Minh-Ha. The documentary impulse was a tableau where I thought I would feel comfortable and enthralled. Documentary also allowed me to knock on people’s doors and ask questions, and be the nosy person I thought I already was. But the first four films I made were strictly experimental. I felt that I could only work out my initial investigations of the medium this way. I also had the chance to intern with Bruce Conner in his basement, helping to organize his archive and talking about art for hours. It was, to say the least, a transformational time for me.
Looking back at that time, I think the films of Jean-Luc Godard—particularly Vivre sa vie (1962) and France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1978)—were major influences on me. …deux/enfants was so fragmented and yet it left you with a philosophy of childhood that we lose as we become adults. Then I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982) and I knew from then on, I wanted to make experimental documentaries, although I probably didn’t yet use those words. I was already drawn to things that were political but when I saw Vivre sa vie I realized that political work could be more nuanced and more about form. Honestly, I didn’t understand that at all until I got to San Francisco and saw Craig Baldwin’s RocketKitKongoKit (1986) which was so confrontational and engaged. It made me think about culture, knowledge and historiography in an entirely different way.
A distinctive aspect of your films is your capacity to make connections and associations. Sometimes the resonances are immediate and poetic, and other times the associations build over time, which becomes a way of opening up a film.
I feel a closeness with writers, poets and painters, much more than with traditional film “directors.” We share a love of collage. In the kinds of films I make, there are fissures in terms of how something leads to something else. Relationships and associations aren’t fixed. I always learn from an audience, about whether or not the convergence of two images is actually expressing an idea. I hope it’s doing one thing, but I might learn that it is doing something completely different. In this way the films are kind of porous; they are open to interpretation. One thing I realized recently is that I have this rhythm when I make films—ABABAB or yesnoyesnoyesno. For example, I call House of Science a “yes film” because any idea that came into my head, pretty much made its way into the movie. The yes films are full of associations—some of them are resolved and some of them are adolescent; they’re still trying to figure out who they are. Other films are “no films.” Window Work is a single eight-minute image of me sitting in front of a window. It’s very spare and kind of performative. I felt like it had to be done in one shot. “No, you can’t bring in any clutter.” Sometimes I try to make films that don’t have clutter; other times I make films that are full of it.
You have always made both short and long films. Do they offer different things to you?
I love making both. My longer films are almost like diary films. It usually takes me three to four years to make them. In the case of The Last Happy Day you could say eighteen years, at least in terms of the thinking in my head. The short films have to do with an impulse or an idea that might come to me when I’m taking a shower or eating dinner. Or maybe I read something that sparks me, and I think I’m going to try that out. I’m very envious of photographers, particularly ones who still use darkrooms. They walk into a room with a blank piece of paper and walk out with a thing. It’s that kind of coveting of a thing that often drives me to make short films because I like that they have a relationship to a moment.
Some of your films take the form of a letter, others include notes and observations, others aphorisms. Will you talk about the role of writing in your films?
Writing has always been a vital part of my creative process. In House of Science, I tried to look at all the manifestations of writing. I wanted to include the gesture of journal writing and how that is an extension from your mind to your fingers to the page. I included the sounds of pencil on paper and I even included the sounds of things you might do before you write, as in the sounds of a woman sitting on a toilet and urinating. Some of my best writing has been done on airplanes because I am concentrating and there is nowhere to go. Other times I might be in a subway or walking down the street where I don’t have access to the utensils but I have access to the plodding, pleasurable aspect of putting words in order and expressing an idea.
In Which Way is East, I tried to think about the nature of translation in relation to text as a series of visible icons. I was interested in writing as an articulation of a thinking process but also as an indication of cultural identity. I was exploring the experience of being an outsider or a tourist. I like for my viewer to come to see any language as an opportunity for an awakening outside your most familiar universe. In Which Way is East sometimes you see the unfamiliar lettering of the Vietnamese language while hearing it in English. Other times you hear a parable told in Vietnamese but you see it in English. There are shifts between what is given to you and what’s not given to you. You have to think “How does something that is so familiar in one culture, move to another, and how does it shift in meaning?”
You asked about letters, and yes, this aspect of the creative process has been vital to the way I have written for several films, in particular States of UnBelonging. For two years, I exchanged emails with my former student Nir Zats, an Israeli writer and filmmaker. He was in Tel Aviv and I was in Brooklyn. We struggled during a time of intense Middle East violence to make a film about a woman neither of us had ever known. It took me a year before I realized that our back and forth “conversation” was actually the foundation for the whole film.
Does your working method differ when you begin with another writer’s work as source material?
The seeds of Wind in Your Hair were the stories “Final del Juego” and “Casa Tomada” by Julio Cortázar. I played with his original texts, hoping they would speak to the four “actresses” (including my two daughters) who performed the roles of girls who were just about to reach adolescence. I shot the entire film in Buenos Aires, with a group of Argentine super 8 filmmakers. For both the adults who were making the film and the children who were in it, these stories quickly entered our consciousness. The text gave us a shared experience which in turn allowed us to jump into an extremely playful and engaging dialogue (in Spanish and a little English).
In A Biography in Lilith, I wrote a lot of poetry and then turned it into song with a cellist, a Talmudic scholar, and the wonderful performer Pamela Z. Music enlivened the writing. The poetry was inspired by my having read the Midrash—stories from Jewish folklore and mysticism. It all happened between my becoming pregnant with my first child and giving birth to my second, from 1994 to ‘97. The film reflects that time of my life, when I was keeping journals and was interested in observing the changes in my body, grappling with the oppositions between motherhood and my own sexual identity.
When I was working on The Last Happy Day, the part of the Sandor Lenard story that held me up for the longest time was the Winnie the Pooh part. I knew that this incredibly fascinating distant relative of mine had become famous for translating the Pooh story into Latin, but I couldn’t wrap my head around why someone would do such a thing. In this country, Winnie the Pooh has been trivialized to the basest form of Disney. When a child grows up, he or she grows out of Winnie the Pooh. I have learned that Europeans think Winnie the Pooh has a kind of philosophy to offer children—it represents a child’s first introduction to thinking about the ephemeral, the unattainable. This isn’t necessarily how we see the book. I had to keep doing research so I could excavate Pooh in a way that had meaning for me outside his American identity. I kept rereading the book but it didn’t click. I couldn’t find a way to like him enough to make this movie. Sometimes you come upon a kernel of an idea, and it doesn’t speak to anybody but you. In this case, it was speaking to lots of people but not me. Part of it was that I had the idea to make the film before I had kids, then I had kids, and I started reading the book to them. Once I could bring it alive to children, I knew how to make it into a movie. I hope that all of this “process” does in a sense become revealed in the film.
I’ve heard you refer to your longer works as experimental documentaries or essays, and just now you said they are like diary films. Do these terms mean different things to you?
The key to the whole question of the kind of film I make has to do with how I see process. This goes back to why San Francisco was important to me. I felt like in that city, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were so driven by process; we had a commitment to innovation during each and every phase of our production. For me, the film essay isn’t simply a series of questions that are asked about the act of making a film. We often say that the film essay is self-reflexive, that it opens up the maker’s tactics. The difference between process and tactic is that tactic is procedure but process is continual exploration. Process remains unclosed. I’ve always said that an interesting film is never a work-in-progress but rather a work-in-process. That’s where the experimental comes into play, because the maker is continually trying-out strategies, and willing to fail. My measures of success aren’t necessarily that a film is entertaining or that it conveys a sense of authority, but that it takes the medium to a new level of public consciousness. I want the film to struggle to create a new kind of visual expression, moving me and in turn my audience to think in new ways.
Kathy Geritz is Film Curator at Pacific Film Archive and co-editor of Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, to be published in Fall 2010.