Phantom Rhapsody Interview

Filmmaker Sarah Pucill in Conversation with Art and Film Historian, Dr Margherita Sprio

Published in Sequence Magazine Issue No1, Summer 2010

To start off with shall we have a more general conversation about the thematic concerns of your films? How might you summarise some of the most important concerns about your work?

I like to experiment with film language in different ways for each new film, so for me the actual film language is the subject matter. My early short films took on a particular kind of language, all close up, often using a macro lens, mostly on a table; object and liquids were the ‘content’. Then Swollen Stigma(1998) and Cast(2000) incorporated performances within a Surrealist language, where I began to work with performance and literally a wider spatial frame. Within that, issues of the body, from a feminist and lesbian perspective were key concerns for me. Then my work took a turn, after the death of my late partner in 2001 (the film maker Sandra Lahire), where I wanted to break the seamlessness of the staging, and instead wanted to expose some of the filmmaking process. I wanted to do this to incorporate something of the subject, or the subjective, which included the autobiographic and the performance of the filmmaking; the arrangement of camera, sets, lights etc so that that mixes with the performance that is framed. I also wanted to retain the quality of staginess, the contrived artificiality, and constructed set-ups, to show the process of that staging. The exposing of the process then becomes a calculated artifice but I find that interesting to work with.

‘Important concerns’ encompasses quite a wide selection but I could say the importance of the image, a focus on how the film is edited as being part of the image. The silence of the image has been important in my work, even if sounds are heard they work usually to re-enforce the dumbness of an image, but by dumb I also mean to say the silent speech of the image that triggers responses that go beyond the rational or the easily known. There is a distance and a potential space for reflection if part of the normative audio-visual language is taken away, which I think is very important. I suppose I seek constructed images that are strong, and that somehow go beyond just being an image. Also, texture has been important throughout my work, an attention to tactility, expressed visually as well as through sound, which is about materiality. I could describe all my work as being very concerned with a materiality, and latterly, in my later work, in mortality; my interests have shifted to being more about the connections between materiality and mortality.

Can you say more about the connections between materiality and mortality? This is something that seems relevant in your films Stages of Mourning (2004) and Taking My Skin (2006).

The three films that spring to mind are Stages of Mourning, Taking My Skin, and Blind Light (2007), all of which were made in succession after my bereavement. In Stages of Mourning , the materiality of the moving image is examined for its capacity to carry the ghost of the deceased. In Taking My Skin, I talk with my mother about birth and death. We compare her experience of giving birth to a child and feeding it, with my experience of the sudden death of a lover, so the transition between immaterial and material is a focus of the film, which is the edge of our life span. I have been interested in the space between the psychical, the emotional, and the material. In Blind Light, the material is in the performance, the light, the camera, the room, the moon, sun, and clouds in the sky. The voiceover describes an experience that could be a death, though it is unclear. In each of the three films, time is important: inStages of Mourning, the time when my partner was alive, and the time of filming when she is dead; inTaking My Skinthe ages of myself and my mother, and our reflection on an earlier time when I was tiny and dependent on her, and on the time before I was born.

How does this connect to your last film, Fall In Frame(2009)?

I thinkFall in Frame is less concerned with those areas. The film maybe marks a break into a different way of working. The material is still important but the film creates a distance with the viewer. A difficulty is being expressed, a difficulty around constriction that connects feminine identity with a self-reflexive structural film practice. It is not, therefore, a film that provides an experience of the materiality of cinema viewing; instead, the viewer is thrown out of being enwrapped (enrapt) in the sensuality of film. In that sense, it isn’t an easy film to watch in parts. There is a seduction, but I think you get thrown out of that too.

Tell me more about your thoughts on the spectatorial experience here.

I think there is an irritation that the performer (a young woman) incites as she looks at herself in a mirror repetitively. Along with a seduction of the lighting and kind of picturesque interior image – that obliquely references historical (Western) painting of the woman by the window, sewing or reading or brushing her hair – there is a sense that the viewer is being excluded from this narcissistic action. Also, in the moment where the performer lifts her dress to, or for, the camera, the sense of a rational order starts to crack; I think the viewer’s reaction is to not want to look. After throwing everything on the table out of the window, the trail of her dress follows her, and with it clichéd objects of femininity such as dolls and a pram,, as well as film cans and a camera that films her. At the end of the film, when she reaches the sea, she leaves the camera on the trail and then leaves the frame.

We have had different conversations recently about the title of your new film (currently in post production). Would you like to say something about how you arrived at Phantom Rhapsody?

The Phantom part of the title I will talk about separately; it’s the ghost of lesbian identity in art history or in cultural history generally. Rhapsody, came about whilst thinking about being enraptured by an image or of someone. Then I was thinking about the wrapping and unwrapping of an image. The way in which I am showing the process of arranging lights, costume and set, is as if the image is being wrapped and unwrapped; to affect a desire in the audience, but also the magician, who is in a state of rapture over her image-making and her model. So out of rapture came Rhapsody, which described something unpredictable, inconstant and unevenly or irregularly structured, all of which seemed to fit the film and what I wanted to communicate. I also liked the idea of a title referring to sound when there is none.

Performance is a very big part of the new film, which is a departure from your earlier films. What were your intentions?

I chose to not have professional performers, as I didn’t want the performances to have a seamless veneer of acting. So although a performed veneer is there, so is a gap that exposed the transition from the person to a character, or emotional state, that they were being asked to perform. This is consistent with the film where the build up is shown between preparations for the image before completed images from paintings are performed. The performer moves between different identities – as camera crew, actual self and the performed or theatricalised character.

I have experimented with film language in different ways for each new film. In Stages of Mourning, Taking My Skin, and Blind Light, and to some degree in Fall in Frame also, the filmmaking process is exposed through moving lights, opening window blinds, moving tripods, preparing the set etc; all these things have become a part of the performance of the film, so that the performance that the film frames becomes synonymous with the performance of making of the film. In my last film Fall in Frame, the first half focuses more on the performance of the filmmaking process, and the second half focuses on the performance within the frame. A self-reflexivity of the filming process is juxtaposed with the self-examination of a young woman, so that a structural film approach is conflated with the question of gender: the constriction of self-examination within femininity is set against a constriction of self-reflexivity within structural filmmaking. So there has been a natural move towards performance.

In this film, I wanted to think about the idea of a surface as both an image and an act, and performance was a way to do this; the idea of an identity as a surface that can change positions as he/she changes costume or performance.

In this film, I wanted to think about the idea of a surface as both an image and an act, and performance was a way to do this; the idea of an identity as a surface that can change positions as he/she changes costume or performance.

The new film features female archetypes, which relates to the question of performance.

The female archetypes that the film suggests refer to the Venus image in the Western canon of Art History, which includes both Christian and mythological iconography. Two scenes in the film show a specific Venus from a well-known painting – Valazquez’s The Rokeby Venus (1650) and Bronzino’s An Allegory of Love and Time (1545) – but other scenes show a more general Venus-like Goddess figure. , The Venus images traditionally assume a heterosexual positioning, but I have intervened in these images, inserting a woman in place of the cupid figure.

Cloth and painting are very much interrelated in this film, tell me about this.

Female nudity in the Western Canon of painting has always been painted with cloth; drapery intersperses between clothing, backdrop, curtains, and furnishing covers. The folds of the cloth mimic the folds of the body. Cloth and the painting become synonymous as the specific histories of pigment in paint and in cloth and their symbolic references were interrelated. It is symbolic of the feminine as a construct in patriarchy; the cloth takes on the shape that it surrounds, itself having no substance as a shape. The cloth is used both to project an image onto (as a film screen) and to screen off the image.

I wanted to make the connection between the stage set in painting with the theatre and early cinema. I wanted to draw connections between these three mediums specifically thinking about female nudity or semi nudity. I was interested in the act of constructing an image, the spatial problem; the magic of making three dimensions appears two-dimensional. The use of cloth to hide or reveal the body or hide the background is used as an aid to arrange the 3D image onto a 2D surface. I was interested in the shift from the actual space to an abstract space by covering the background with cloth and so making a stage that masks off the actual space. In Stages Of Mourning and Taking My Skin I explored these ideas by showing the covering of the actual space I was filming with cloth to render the space an abstraction, a stage. In this film, I make a stage set, and as such, it is placeless in physical terms, even though it is symbolically specific.

How does the film sit within the body of your work in terms of feminist and lesbian politics?

It is more upfront, but only in that the language is upfront because I am working with iconographic imagery. The lesbian element in my work has often been there in ambiguous ways, whereas in Swollen Stigma and Cast the lesbian relation is suggested. In this film the woman’s naked body is posed with her back to the audience, the magician woman has visual possession of her body which runs counter to (Western) artistic traditions of desirability of female nudity for men. A lesbian inference is clear, though it is also open. I’m not interested in presenting a fixed static image of what a lesbian ‘is’, rather what she ‘might be’. I’ve never wanted my work to be addressed solely to a lesbian audience partly because as experimental work my audience would then be very small.

The woman is naked and the magician, also female is clothed, thus implying a certain type of power relation. Why is this and how did you want the nakedness to function?

Women’s nakedness in the history of Western Painting has often been set against the man being clothed. The woman’s body is available for the audience where the gaze is assumed to be masculine and heterosexual. I wanted to play with this by giving one woman a cloak and stick and making the other woman (semi) naked. Also, it is the magician or other woman who has visual possession of the front of the naked woman whose back is turned to the audience. The actual women swap roles between different magicians and between different life models, so three performers play a magician as well as being the nude model. In this way, I wanted to create a fluidity of identities between the clothed and unclothed women, and between the magicians. What they wear comes from the curtains; as the lights are moved, their appearance changes. My intention here was to create a fluidity of identity to extend beyond the boundary of the skin, so that so that self-image extends into the light in the room, the set, the props etc.Tell me about how the film explores the idea of magic and illusion.

In my most recent films, I have focussed on exposing the filmmaking process, in as much as wanting to create a space between being behind and in front of the camera. So, that was about exposing the illusion of cinema. For this film, I wanted instead to work with the illusion of cinema in a way that enables its illusionist quality to take up space, to frame the illusion as an illusion. Inspired in part by the theatrical beginnings of cinema, where, in silent black and white, the edit join for example, is celebrated more as a moment of magic, rather than as a device to enable a narrative sequence (which is what it became in mainstream narrative cinema). The idea of the image as illusion also had to do with constructions of identity as a visual surface.

There are constant references to the idea of appearing and disappearing. Why and how is it significant?

It is an essential characteristic of film. It is mortality and it has to do with the female body, its capacity to make life appear from nowhere, her capacity to make magic. It is the basis for titillation, to conceal then reveal. This innocence of early cinema where the represented image is celebrated merely for its capacity to appear and disappear is a way of staying with the magic of the moment, so that the wonder of being here or of not being here, the wonder of cinema and the wonder of life can be felt to the full without the interruption of deferment that narrative and the build up of knowledge takes you to. But this is also about the politics of identity, where a surface image is only a layer that can be worn or taken off.

I wanted to create a fluidity of identity by making layers of identity with the wig and the cloak, and by interacting costume with props with the background curtains so that a relation between set, props, light and performance inter-fuse. In the film, the making of the image (the arrangement of light, set, background, costume) is a performance, which at the same time references painting, theatre, and cinema, and in each, there is an element of magic where images appear from nowhere.

What is the importance of the Phantom, in the title and as an image?

I don’t expect this to be immediately understood by the viewer, but for me the phantom resonates in terms of the invisibility of lesbian representation in mainstream culture where her presence is felt only in partial terms, that is with ambivalence, as a person only half present. A general feeling of unreality in relation to selfhood connects with the idea of an identity as being only a surface, as is the construction of femininity. So the phantom resonates both in terms of femininity as well as in terms of lesbian subjectivity. Inevitably, the phantom is an image of the dead so there is something in that for me at a personal level I guess. Before she died, my late partner Sandra Lahire was writing a PhD thesis that was examining the idea of the lesbian as a phantom figur). Terry Castle’s book The Phantom Lesbian, which describes the ghostly presence of the lesbian in the canon of Western literature, has been influential to me; the ghosting of a history that gets erased.

London, April 2010

Sarah Pucill lives and works in London

Dr Margherita Sprio lives in London and teaches at University of Essex, Department of Art History and Theory