What Kind of Art Will Hold a Viewer's Attention? 'My Art'
From "contact highs" to Be Kind, Rewind, Laurie Simmons discusses the inspirations for and making of her debut narrative feature film, My Art.
30 Jan 2018 (US)Other
Laurie Simmons' My Art stars the celebrated photographer as Ellie, a single, childless art professor of middling art-world success (ironically enough), who leaves New York City for a friend's upstate country house to spend a summer on her own work. And that work? Recreating scenes from classic films like The Misfits (1961), Some Like it Hot (1959), Jules and Jim (1962), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), mostly through projecting backdrops onto a sheet in the attic and donning the appropriate wig or set of accessories for maximum verisimilitude. Initially insisting upon working alone, free from anyone else giving her ideas (a request which ultimately goes ignored several times over the course of My Art), Ellie gradually brings Frank, a widowed gardener with dreams of acting (Robert Clohessy) and John, a self-important lawyer (John Rothman) into the fold. As she prepares to film a Misfits scene, she tells Frank (who's already wearing the requisite cowboy hat): "you can never be Clark Gable. I can never be Marilyn Monroe. It's exactly about the impossibility of us ever being able to be them. We can never be them… but let's just try."
At once both episodic and strongly narrative-driven in nature, My Art, ultimately, is about the art of performance, and of the possibility of self-(re)invention. Ellie is a performance artist by trade, and a complicated protagonist in her own right. Firmly ensconced in the New York art world, initially she bristles at the attention Frank and the upstate locals give her as the archetypal new girl in town, undoubtedly seeing them as stereotypically provincial and nosy small-town folk. Her reaction is easy to understand: she came to the country house to focus on her work, on developing herself as an artist. Yet over the course of collaborating with Frank, John, and eventually others, Ellie finds herself warming to the feeling of spending meaningful time with other people, realizing that being a fiercely independent artist is not synonymous with being alone. She even falls into bed with Frank, whose affection for her is palpable, and which she seems to return in her own way.
Or does she? When the opportunity to show her work in the city arises, Ellie reverts to her brusque, prickly self. As she quickly sheds the personable skin she's adopted over the summer, the shift provides a sense of emotional whiplash both diegetically and extradiegetically. When Frank comes to see her show in the city, he's rendered just as awkward and hesitant around her as the day they met. Simmons leaves us ambivalent in the end; we're unsure of how Ellie actually conceives of the events of that summer, and whether her change in worldview was legitimate or merely a performance.
Laurie Simmons' grain of the idea that would become her new film My Art was alluded to as early as 2012, in a Calvin Tompkins article in the New Yorker; he describes Simmons' desire to make a feature-length movie as being a year old. Simmons corrects the record on that front: she began conceiving of the project in 2010, based on her experience acting in her daughter Lena Dunham's debut, Tiny Furniture. Tiny Furniture wasn't Simmons' first time on a movie set, though; in 2006, she made a three-act musical called Music of Regret starring puppets and Meryl Streep.
In fact, it was the character Simmons portrayed in Tiny Furniture—a photographer whose subject matter gives the movie its title—that got Simmons interested in creating a portrait of a woman artist that would accurately reflect her experiences. As she says, "I'm always critical of the way artists are presented on film." Even though Simmons is a working artist, is married to another working artist (painter Carroll Dunham), and raised Lena in the thick of the New York City art world, "seeing Lena's portrayal of a woman artist left me with a lot of questions […] I still found that even her representation of an artist on film had some aspect of caricature, exaggeration." Add in the promise of new, inexpensive digital filmmaking techniques, and creating a rejoinder to the popular way artists are depicted in film—difficult, arrogant, out-of-touch, pseudo-intellectual—became, as Simmons puts it, "an obsession". (There does seem to be a hint of playfulness, however, in the character Lena Dunham plays in a cameo: a former student whose success has outpaced Ellie's own.)
While the Tompkins feature largely focuses on her photographic oeuvre, Simmons confesses, "that's what was on my mind: it was like a disease. I was riddled with this obsession to write this movie." So My Art, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, has had a gestational period of around seven years—quite a long time to carry a metaphorical baby. Simmons laughs as she recalls how long the process eventually became, admitting that taking seven years to make a movie isn't exactly a feasible plan; I point out that, for the record, Terrence Malik takes that long between movies—she's doing fine. (Terrence Malick had a twenty-year gap between directing Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), and then another seven years until The New World (2005).)
It wasn't just the writing of My Art that was stretched out over a long period of time: Simmons reveals that several of the scenes in the movie (mostly those featuring her dog) were actually filmed in spring 2013. As she puts it, "even though the story wasn't fleshed out, I felt that my dog was going to have a really big role in the movie." (He does.) One of these early sequences features Simmons' character Ellie poking around the country house and finding a stash of marijuana cigarettes in the freezer; she proceeds to get almost comically high. I ask her how she crafted her portrayal of a person stoned out of their mind; she cites time spent around pot-smokers and experience with contact highs, noting "a lot of very respectable stoners told me they were very impressed with that scene."
When it comes to the crafting of Ellie and her story, Simmons notes that working in a narrative format was one of the trickier parts, as her other projects are "decidedly non-narrative". It was a paradoxically intimidating sense of freedom to work in this different milieu: "I got set loose to write a story and I didn't know if I really could." Yet, as Simmons says, "[when it comes to making art], you gather all the pieces, you prepare everything, but to make something work you have to rely, in the end, on a song and a prayer, a little bit of magic. I don't mean to sound corny. The part that makes things work is the part that can't be put into words—the confidence that it will come together in some way that you can't predict." Simmons drew upon her experience and expertise at "making things […] making objects, making visual things, making exhibitions […] and I work by series, which is kind of like making a movie. I focus on a single work and message and subject for a year or two, and then I completely change to another subject, message, theory."
As the story of My Art accumulated and grew over time, Simmons found that "it seemed like I was really good at texture and I was really good at dialogue, much more than I was at story. I was just accumulating so many moments of Ellie's life and so many thoughts about what she wore and what she ate and how she acted." The hardest part, though, was coming up with what kind of artist Ellie was going to be; rather than going a more traditional route of depicting a painter sloshing paint around or a sculptor chipping away on a marble block, Simmons says, "I tried to think of what kind of art would hold the attention of a viewer," signaling a shift to thinking in cinematic terms. While what Simmons chose—performance art—translates to the screen in a visceral, visually interesting way, there's also the minefield of achieving accidental parody: "one of the problems with performance art in movies is that it usually ends up being a woman hugging a tree or doing some weird interpretive dance." Simmons brings up the (criminally underrated) 2008 Jack Black comedy Be Kind Rewind, oddly enough, as an inspiration for the kind of art Ellie does: not an exact recreation of films on a scene-by-scene basis, but a more low-budget interpretive performance.
After winnowing down a massive list of her favorite classic movies, Simmons decided that she would draw upon the format of the movie musical when deciding how to incorporate the film vignettes: "a musical works when the song and the lyrics carry the narrative along, bring the narrative to another place […] it has to be telling the story." For example: in the specific Misfits scene recreation from early on in My Art, Clark Gable's character has unrequited feelings for Marilyn Monroe's character, which is precisely the kind of groundwork Simmons wanted to establish for Frank's and Ellie's relationship as it escalated over the course of her movie. It's a subtle priming, giving the audience a taste of the dynamic that will emerge between Ellie and Frank before it actually occurs between them. "[Marilyn] is basically saying 'I don't feel that way about you,' and [Clark] has this funny little half-smile, he's completely unfazed […] he's just like, 'you might learn to like it around here and you might get used to me.' And that's what exactly happens in [My Art] […] Frank metamorphoses into Ellie's creation, and she just likes him more and more, the more he becomes involved in her world." Meanwhile, when Ellie recreates a scene from A Clockwork Orange, she's recognizing, and reveling in, her new position of power. At that point in My Art, she's gotten multiple people to do her bidding in her project—"she's feeling kind of like a director, kind of bossy […] at that point in the movie, Ellie is really one of the boys."
One of the more curious elements of My Art is the thematic similarities among the films Simmons chose for Ellie to work with. With two Marilyn Monroe movies and a movie about a man's love for a mermaid thrown into the mix, a story-beneath-the-story that Simmons is telling about gender comes into focus. In Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), which Ellie recreates with competing suitor John, "the message is very much this dream of a perfect female who is mute and childlike and loves you unconditionally." And Marilyn Monroe's mythic appeal functions in a similar way—the consciously-created version of Marilyn who was naïve and un-intellectual, that still has people underestimating her skill and finesse as an actor to this day. Simmons similarly likens the "malleable, beautiful, fragile" persona of Marilyn to her own series about Japanese sex dolls [The Love Doll, 2009-2011]—that invoking of the ideal woman, "a silent mermaid".
While John sees Ellie, arguably, as a kind of mermaid-like figure to be admired (albeit condescended and "mansplained" to), the main romance between Ellie and Frank flips the script on many a tale of muse-artist relationships. "So many of my feminist friends—really strong women—saw the movie, and afterwards they were like: 'well, are Frank and Ellie going to be together?'" Simmons admits to being shocked by this reaction to her film, though I propose that it's a testament to the strength of the film, to Frank being so appealing and downright sweet. Citing Swept Away (Lina Wertmüller, 2002) as a basis for Frank and Ellie's rapport, Simmons says, "I wanted people to meet Frank at the beginning of the movie and think that he was this gross, overweight, annoying guy, and by the end of the movie I wanted women to have a crush on him. I wanted him to become more attractive as the movie progressed." A scene later in the film, where Ellie and Frank take a break from re-creating Some Like it Hot, provides what Simmons sees as the moment Ellie becomes attracted to him: "Ellie sees him as sexualized, or a potential sex partner, when she sees him in drag, because she has made him that. It's almost like she's seeing her own artwork, her own creation"—a sort of reversal of the classic myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.Simmons, for now, is returning to her familiar stomping grounds of photography. One show recently concluded in New York, with another coming up at the National Museum of Women in the Arts later this Spring. But to hear Simmons tell it, she's a "young filmmaker" who's just gotten a taste of what immersing yourself in an unfamiliar medium can be—and thoroughly enjoyed it all the while.