AN INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER JILL GODMILOW
by Lynn C. Miller
Writer, producer, director Jill Godmilow has been making films and videotapes, independently, since 1967. Currently, she divides her time between New York City and South Bend, Indiana, where she teaches film production and critical studies in the Communication/Theatre Department at the University of Notre Dame. Godmilow has just finished production on a new film, "Inextinguishable Fire," a re-make of a 1969 German film about napalm, and is in post-production on "The Lear Tapes," a five-hour documentation of Mabou Mines' work on their 1987 cross-gendered production of "King Lear," starring Ruth Maleczech.
"Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman," which she co-directed with singer Judy Collins, was the first independently-produced documentary to enjoy extensive theatrical exhibition in the United States. This film about the first female symphony conductor, heralded as a "girl genius," was nominated for an Academy Award and broadcast in eleven foreign countries.
Her non-fiction feature, "Far From Poland," about the contradictions of the Polish Solidarity movement, was celebrated in 1986 for breaking new ground in the documentary genre. Unable to obtain a visa to shoot the shipyard strikes in Poland, she revised the documentary conceit of "the real" by shooting the film entirely in the States; the distance prompted her to interweave fact and fiction and to both critically probe and deconstruct her subject. These theoretical tactics led directly to the dramatic feature, "Waiting for the Moon," which won first prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1987.
"Waiting for the Moon," a fictional portrayal of the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, is set in 1936 and chronicles an imaginary interlude in Stein and Toklas' relationship of thirty-nine years:--a time when Gertrude is seriously ill and hiding her illness from Alice. As director Godmilow describes it: "It's what we call a `biographie imaginaire.' The film says `Lets suppose that this is Gertrude and this is Alice, what might have happened?' We weren't concerned with straight biography or history...we were attempting to project a persona that was true to Gertrude Stein's literary spirit". While now-famous habituees (including Picasso, Hemingway, and Apollinaire) of Stein's salon are also featured,"Waiting for the Moon" largely focuses on the couple's collaborative processes, both domestically and creatively.
In 1994, Godmilow directed "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith," an interrogation of Ron Vawter's performance piece of the same name which features back-to-back performances by Vawter of the infamous right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn (a gay man who denied his homosexuality throughout his whole life), and of Jack Smith, vanguard underground filmmaker and performance artist, for whom queerness was the center of his artistic production and public persona. Both men died of AIDS in the late 1980's. As Godmilow notes: "They represent two extreme enactments of homosexuality that are ostensibly antithetical. Both are distorted dramas of the self--frightening disguises that function also as entertainment, played to an imaginary, always hostile (but seducible) audience--ourselves." The film explores the performance of self and the performance of gayness, both through Roy Cohn's pandering speech to the American Society for the Protection of the Family (written by Gary Indiana and Ron Vawter based on segments of recorded Cohn speeches) and through Jack Smith's bizarre, camp performance of himself, in full "arabian" drag. Godmilow intended for the film to "record and thus preserve Vawter's performance, but also to destabilize and interrogate Vawter's `cinema audience' in the face of it--making inescapable (and hopefully comprehensible) the necessity of `performing' the gay self in the face of repression and the paradox of its reception as well."
"Roy Cohn/Jack Smith" and its director were a fundamental part of the Performance Studies preconference on "Seeing/Saving Performance" which took place at the Speech Communication Association national meeting in San Antonio on November 17, 1995. The following day, I met Jill Godmilow on the Riverwalk in San Antonio to talk with her about film, theatre, and performance and, particularly, the strategies she employed in "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith" and "Waiting for the Moon."
LM: Today I'd like to talk to you about your 1987 film, "Waiting for the Moon," and the recent "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith." There are obviously some parallels between the two films--in both cases you're dealing with gay/lesbian identity. You're constructing for an audience gay personae and in both cases they're historical impersonations.
JG: I make no claim to historically accurate reproduction or an objective rendering in either case. That's explicit in "Moon" because the film blatantly pokes fun at historical accuracy in cinema. Hemingway was not in Paris when Apollinaire was in Paris, for example, but they both appear in the same film's continuous time and space.
LM: That's right, Apollinaire was already dead by the time Hemingway came to Paris but there they both are in Gertrude Stein's salon.
JG: And Alice and Gertrude never had a baby [as they do in the film]. I was actively and specifically refuting the possibility of representing history with any verisimilitude on film. Also in "RC/JS," Ron, in his introduction in the theatre, disclaims accuracy and says something like, "this is not impersonation--this is what is important about these two people."
LM: The Roy Cohn speech, though a complete fabrication by Gary Indiana, is brilliant and seems to be the essential Roy Cohn performance of self.
JG: As Ron tells it, he read a book that came out a few years back called "Citizen Cohn," in which the writer, Nicholas Von Hoffman, interviewed a limousine driver who used to ferry Roy Cohn and his lover, David Schine, around to nightclubs and things. The guy recalled that one night he drove the two of them to the Hotel Diplomat. Roy went in and did his incredible gay-bashing speech to some group like the American Society for the Protection of the Family, going on and on, as he often did, for hours. David Schine sat in the limousine for a while and then went in and watched Roy from the wings. Vawter was amused by, and wanted to exploit the irony of it all, but he couldn't find any record of that particular speech. So he asked Gary to help him write one, based on existing Cohn speeches that were available. One of the shots in the Cohn part, the side close-up from the wings, we sometimes called the "Schine shot" or the "lover's shot." It's the only shot that's definitely not a possible audience position.
LM: That speech is an amazing piece of rhetoric. I wanted to ask you if that incredible moment when Vawter, as Cohn, steps away from the lectern and drinks a glass of water was as elongated a moment in the stage production or if you made it longer?
JG: He does it twice, and both times it's longer in the theatre than it is in the film. One can't read it precisely because of the ambiguity of the gesture. Was that something Cohn used to do when he spoke publicly? And if he did, was it part of Cohn's carefully scripted dramatic presentation of himself? Or does Ron Vawter need a rest? Is he sick or exhausted or upset by performing Cohn's filthy thoughts? All of those possibilities,
and combinations of them, flicker through the audience in those formal pauses. They were breath-taking in the theatre but hard to reproduceon film in their full ambiguity.
LM: Is he breaking the frame?
JG: Yes. Classically, we experience only two modes of a performance - when the performer is either in character or not. In those formal pauses, Ron creates a third space. He stops performing Roy Cohn, but it's unclear whether he's returned to Ron Vawter, or to Roy Cohn, when Cohn's not performing himself. That third space was impossible to represent adequately in the film, because the cutting, not to mention the intercutting between the Cohn and Smith performances, has already broken the frame too many times.
LM: Is he unmasking Cohn? Because that's what I thought as an audience member.
JG: Yes, he's doing all of that in that one gesture. His Cohn performance is based on speed and facility. So when he just stops, you sit there like this in the theatre [silence and tension] and tremble: is Ron going to say I can't go on? Or is he suggesting that Cohn actually hates himself, that he has moments of self-doubt? It's a bit hard to tell from the film, but in the theater his Cohn talks across the theatre audience to an imaginary audience of middle class tourists sitting at those little tables and chairs in the hotel banquet room. So when he breaks his address to those imaginary people and walks out to the end of the podium and looks out into the theatre, it's very confrontational, but then maybe it's not. That theatre audience is not quite sure whether he's confronting him or not. Built into Ron's performance, there's already a kind of aggression toward the audience-- although I understand that it's a milder form of what Jack Smith used to do.
LM: And your film amps up that aggression through camera movement and cutting. And the audience is placed in an ambiguous position. First, the shots of the in-house theatre audience complicate the film's audience's role ast "the audience" Smith is performing for. You begin with him creeping toward the film; then the slide show serves as his backdrop, which is always there but can't be well attended to by either the live audience or the film audience. He seems to be saying simultaneously (and your film seems to be stressing), how dare you look at me--look at me!
JG: Yes. Right there, in those "viewing difficulties," is the central aesthetic and political tension of the project: the aping, so to speak, in both the Cohn and Smith sections, of relationships around "the closet." Smith performs the transparent disguise of "What are you looking at? I'm no different than you, I'm not going to act out my freakishness for you," though he is and does -- but on the other side, his performance is strongly marked by resistance to the classic, complicit silence of the closet - that one that says "you know I'm gay, I know you know I'm gay, but if you don't insist that I'm gay and weird, I won't force you to deal with my difference." So he's always pushing and pulling the audience up and back through the closet door. The Cohn piece does the exact same thing, but on different terms. And all those "techniques" I use are there to inscribe those "closet tensions" in the film.
LM: What are your thoughts about how your film heightens the theatrical experience, or critiques it, or augments it? How do you see the relationship between the original performance and your film, which is separate from the theatrical experience, yet
is derived from it?
JG: I hope it critiques it a bit. Certainly it intensifies it. But that's not enough. The biggest question I faced was what can the film do that the theatrical performance couldn't do. (That's why all that talk yesterday at the conference about "documentation" was missing the most mportant question. As I see it, Performance Studies professors are not yet totally accepting that what they're doing when they "document" is moving into another medium--with different propensities, different temporal and spatial potentials, different rhythmic possibilities than the live performance space). Yes--you give up liveness or live presence, but you give it up to get something else. There's a trade. More than a trade, there's total difference. You have to engage with the medium you're in. All that talk about the problems of "saving the live" is self-suffocating because it's not acknowledging or accepting what can the film or video can do with such and such material.
It's not about reproducing the theatre experience; it cannot be. Better to frame just the middle third of the stage and see what happens when performers move in and out of that frame. I mean that's a better idea than trying to sit in the tenth row with your video camera and hope to reproduce it by "recording it all". That's why that stuff sucks. You have to think about what this new text is--the one that will be made out of bits of film and video recorded images of time and space and sounds. You have to think about a medium (film, or video) that is highly constructed--resembling collage more than music, except that it takes place in time. Nobody wants to look at "documentation"
because it doesn't have an idea of its own. It's a facsimile--and a poor one. How could that facsimile have presence, or tension, or even beauty?
LM: I like your idea that you have to have a separate idea for producing the film version of a theatrical experience. Your film of "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith" is completely different than the theatrical version. Certainly they're related but they're not the same experience. At the conference, there was too much emphasis on how to preserve a vanishing art, a vanishing act...
JG: That's the genius of theatre; it does vanish. I just happened to be reading an obituary of Jack Smith by the film critic Jim Hoberman. Here's the first paragraph: "Somehow I guess I thought that Jack Smith would survive AIDS the way he survived poverty, landlords, neuroses, rip-offs, lack of recognition, life in New York, LSD, and the exploitation of `Flaming Creatures.' Given how little he ate, it's amazing Jack lived as long as he did, but then virtually every one of his performances was about the impossibility of its coming into existence." That is directly related to the wonderful fact about theatre which is that it is ephemeral and it does disappear (Jack's theatre, as Hoberman notes, plays on the idea of barely ever arriving, as theatrical experience), and its loss is made most meaningful by the fact that you can't reproduce the experience--you can't get back there, you can only have been there then. To have it again it must be made again. Those performers are there in their body and voice and head and giving it to you then or are in front of you giving it to you, now. That is its power and its meaning. The question of how can we have that again if we tape it or film it or even write about it is such a false question and so unproductive when you're thinking about how to reuse some of that gift of those writers and performers. I know that's a very strong statement.
LM: We need a strong statement. How much were you thinking, as a director, in "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith" and in "Waiting for the Moon," about the construction of a gay identity?
JG: It was very much at the center of both projects, though much more consciously in "Moon," because there was no pre-existing text. In some way, Ron had already taken care of most of those issues in "RC/JS". In "Moon", one of the big issues I had to work out was how, or how much, or not at all, to write Gertrude and Alice, visually and verbally, into the text of the narrative as sexual partners. Really interesting problem. In the end, I took the position that I should not burden the film with the task of representing them as lesbians--by offering the spectator visual proof that they kissed a certain way or slept in the same bed, or whatever. I felt they should just be lovers, and they are in the film: they live, eat, sleep, work and entertain together. If they were heterosexual, that would be more than enough to make them "a couple." In other words, I refused to use sex, visually or verbally, as "confirming evidence" of a homosexual relationship... you know, sexual identity as explanation. I don't believe in that and felt it was exactly the wrong thing to do. Why? A few reasons.
First, especially for a homophobic audience, insistence or proof of their homosexuality becomes "explanation"--it accounts for all the ways in which they exhibit "difference"--even their genius difference is accounted for by dint of their "life style". As it does with anybody who's gay, Gertrude and Alice then stop having a life--and start having a "life-style," which then explains everything about them.
Secondly, I wanted to make a film that assumed that everybody knew that she was gay. If I made a film that assumed that, I could then go on and look with some specificity at the nature and quality of the emotional and literary relationship they shared--which you talked about a lot in your other article.
Thirdly, I consider Gertrude Stein, along with Joyce and Beckett, the most important influence on the English language in the 20th century. She changed language and what it was possible to do with it and express with it, literally. For me, that had nothing to do with who or what gender homo sapiens she preferred to bed with--otherwise known as "her sexual preference."
So that was my choice. I understood that the gay--specifically the lesbian-- community wanted to claim this extraordinary couple for their own and have a film which confirmed--even insisted--that Gertrude Stein was a gay writer. And the film was criticized by certain sectors of the gay community for not doing exactly that.
LM: Do you still feel the same way?
JG: I've thought a lot about it since and still feel that was the right thing to do. Here's my proof: the film was exhibited theatrically in about fifty American cities and so the distributor put me on a press tour and I did about fourteen cities in twenty days. In every one, there was the interview with the local critic (and ninety-five percent of them are men). What was the first question, or perhaps the third question, but always the most important question to the male critic? "Well...um, were they or weren't they? Were they what? You know, (after much hemming and hawing) gay?" What did these guys want?
LM: A way to dismiss Gertrude and Alice as artists and as important participants in history?
JG: Yes, I think so. The male critic, and I guess the male audience, needed to be able to eliminate Gertrude and Alice as persons they had to deal with, or as important participants in any kind of historical moment, or literary moment, by othering them. They wanted to be able to say, definitively--okay, they were gay and that's why they were the way they were. and why Gertrude wrote the way she wrote. In other words, they wanted homosexuality as an explanatory grid of experience. Many of the male critics were angry at the film (and me) for not giving them their homosexual handle. One guy actually yelled at me, "Well if they were, why don't you tell it in the film?"
LM: I've been performing a monologue called "Gertrude Stein as Gertrude
Stein" where she speaks in the first person and many audience members have been uncomfortable with their unusual marriage: one man just a week ago in Chicago was agitated, saying, "They were really really weird and there was psychological tension in their relationship, surely you must see that!" He was so upset by what they were to each other that he couldn't get past it to see what else they were. He wanted to label them as freaks. Somehow the critics wanted you to show the freakdom...
JG: And then they could deal with it. I knew it was a tricky choice in terms of the gay reception of the film. But you know, I don't think Gertrude and Alice chose to live together because they were gay. I think they were together, and I wanted the film to suggest this--big and bold on the screen--that it was, in fact, their ability to play in language, to engage endlessly in verbal pleasures, that made the relationship successful. This is what the film is actually about--what binds people to each other and what happens when one participant, Gertrude in this case, breaks the rules. Gertrude was not a homosexual looking for a wife to cook her meals. I just don't think that's what it's about. In "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas", Gertrude says that Alice says it was Gertrude's deep throat, (forgive the pun), the warm quality of her voice...
LM: ...And the brooch that she wore...
JG: and the brooch, right. Certainly Alice was as smart as Gertrude. If you read carefully, Gertrude herself writes that Alice is a master with language...it's all there.
LM: Alice's mastery is certainly there if you read Alice's books, "What is Remembered" and "The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook."
JG: Yes, there it is. Gertrude loved fighting with Alice; she loved proof-reading with her, she loved playing with her in every way; and she loved her cooking. Alice seemed to be enjoying herself as well. That's what I wanted to be the center of their relationship. Now, presumably Gertrude loved playing sexually with Alice too, and Alice with Gertrude. But who knows--neither of them chose to write about their sexual relationship. I felt that to do the compulsory "bed scene"--to insist that their sexual relationship was primary--would be repressing all the rest. Anyway, who knows how much they screwed, or who was on top?
LM: Gertrude's poetry indicates it was a very sexual relationship.
JG: "Do you really think I would yes I would and I do love all you with me. Do you really think I could yes I could yes would love all you with all me." Of course! So does Hemingway (laughs). According to him, it was brutally, brutally sexual, but who can trust Hemingway, who was deeply jealous of their relationship?
But you know what I really feel, deep down? I don't think I'll ever do a sex scene in a movie. I developed this attitude when I was getting started back in the sixties. I felt, if I am not privy, in life, to watch Gertrude and Alice fuck, or Richard Gere and whomever fuck, I don't--this is a probably a crazy, tight-ass moral position but it's mine and I see it all over the place in my films--why would I offer Gertrude and Alice undressed to the world on film? By what right and for what purpose? Let's put it this way--I would have to have a very,very very good reason. It's like the Holocaust. You don't do the Holocaust casually. If you touch it in cinema, you should have such an important idea--one that can't be articulated without figuring the Holocaust. You don't do what Spielberg does in "Schindler's List". You don't use the Holocaust to prove you're a good boy and reclaim your Jewish roots. You don't call up and represent that particular horror, or any particular horror, you don't call up that much destruction, you don't brutalize your audience like that, and entice your audience with brutality, if you don't have a better idea than he had (laughs)... to locate and heroicize one guilty Nazi collaborator--that in the face of the history of fascism and 9 million dead.
Well, I feel the same way about sex. What's great about sex is that it's terribly and gloriously private... it's a very private space where you can dissolve, in the presence and perhaps with the help of another, the ties that bind. It's such a special space--should a camera be there watching it, and delivering it to anyone and everyone? Should the filmmaker display it for someone else's kicks? I say not without a very very good reason. I wouldn't do it to Gertrude and Alice. Instinctively you know that there is something wrong and suspect about the world wanting to see their two bodies naked. Get it from someone else. I won't give it to you. Spielberg's totally unconscious of his own desires--all the big scenes in "Schindler's List" are about sex and power. Sadism and masochism. Should the Holocaust be made to serve those unconscious desires?
LM: I wish every filmmaker and television director would think as carefully about using violence or sex; that every time you use it it has to be to show something else. It has to be significant.
JG: Resnais taught us. Look at "Hiroshima Mon Amour" which is such an important movie for me. He uses just a little of the atomic horror show and he uses it very cautiously. The same for "Night and Fog"--about the Holocaust. He's not exploiting the sensational and sexy aspects of destruction. Instead, he shows you its essential banality. He shows you how the Holocaust is simply a banal and natural aspect of industrialization and capitalism's process.
LM: "Night and Fog" is still the most brilliant film on the Holocaust.
JG: Yes. And don't touch the subject unless you have something to add to "Night and Fog."
LM: And no one has outdone it. No one has come close....
JG: Maybe "Shoah" did, but certainly not Spielberg, a Hollywood boy, worried about the fact that he's not much of a Jew anymore. Spielberg, you don't get to do the Holocaust - you haven't thought about it enough...(laughs).
LM: There were two things you did in "Moon" that I thought were incredibly courageous. One was to give the audience credit for knowing something ahead of time. You didn't recreate Gertrude and Alice from the very beginning - you just dropped us in. You assumed that these were powerful historical figures whom people should know something about. I thought that was wonderful--a great risk to take. And the second thing, which no one had done yet, was to show their marriage, their partnership, as a collaboration, so we could see that they were really building their lives together. No one else has shown their collaborative poetics.
JG: It comes right from them.
LM: It comes straight from the books.
JG: I know. I think that's our society's desire to produce, on one side, "geniuses," and then on the other, "everybody else," and to erase bridge of labor between the two. Every public television documentary portrait of a famous artist does that trick--endows the artist with some mystical or magical quality of genius... so much so that sometimes the artist begins to believe it about him or herself. It's not that. It's work. You get it from life: you observe, you sharpen your observations; you sharpen your technique; you get a good idea and then, if the time is right and you're bold enough to try it, and everything works well and your timing is good, it might turn into something that's interesting to more people than your immediate family....you know.
LM: What inspired you to do a film on Stein?
JG: The sources of the film were three. First, exactly the theoretical issues we were talking about just now--the cinematic representation of historical figures and situations: like Gertrude and Alice as a "lesbian couple"; like Gertrude as a "genius." Second, I happened to read the very last thing Gertrude wrote--a one-page essay about why she wasn't interested in the atomic bomb. It's one of the most amazing, mind-blowing (at least for me) one-page texts in the history of ideas. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had just been dropped - each one had killed I think about 80,000 people in a single afternoon. Someone asked Gertrude whether she was terrified or not. She wrote a short piece to say that atomic bombs weren't that interesting to her because they were so blatantly and simply and factually destructive, and totally so. Nothing of interest there for her. Just facts. She said there were so many more complex things to be interested in.
I read that and mused: she would probably feel the same way about her own death. Simply an end of living--too simple to be interested in. An astounding idea because if there's one thing unites us as human beings (laughs), it's that we're all worried about our own death, (unless we've been sitting Zen for more than 5 years). So that was where the idea of the narrative dilemma of Gertrude's terminal illness came from for the film... and her refusal to share it with Alice, because, she convinced herself, it wasn't interesting enough to mention. We felt that probably it was too emotionally difficult for her--to tell Alice and to begin to say her goodbyes, that Gertrude would have avoided those difficulties with this atomic bomb intellectual stance.
But the script-writing really started when Mark (Magill, the screenwriter) and I were sitting around speculating on what feature film we could make with a hundred thousand dollars! (Not that we had any such monies, but what if we could find it. We were just theorizing a budget--that ubiquitous thing that critics never think about (laughs). So Jill said, "It would have to take place in one room." Mark said, "What room would that be?" Jill said, " 27 rue de Fleurus, probably the most interesting room in the world--through which has passed everyone who was interesting in the early 20th century (laughs), and in which is hung the greatest paintings of the twentieth century, and in which sat Gertrude Stein. That's the room you could shoot an entire film in for $100,00 and it could be very interesting." That's really how the whole thing got going.
LM: That's wonderful. I'm glad you told me that.
JG: In fact, before we had finished the film, the budget grew to nine hundred and fifty-two thousand dollars, but at that early dreaming moment, there was no reason to believe we could attract that kind of money to the project. We were really looking for a film we could make with pseudo- Picassos and Matisses and wonderful characters and brilliant dialogue that we could write that could all happen in one room.
LM: Let me ask you this because there's been so much written about it. Some people have said "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" is an enormous literary joke, because Stein wrote in Toklas' voice.
JG: It's an extraordinarily brilliant piece of writing.
LM: Some people have thought, and I think this is getting closer, that it was a huge gift to Alice. What greater gift could Stein give her than to speak in her voice. I'm curious if you think that they wrote that book together?
JG: Not really. Well, I'm not a literary historian but my hunch says Gertrude did it herself, with a wink and a smile to Alice, and that probably Alice proofread it and made some suggestions.
LM: She was the editor.
JG: That's right. They were both engaged with it, but I think Gertrude wrote it. It was the breakthrough for her in terms of fame and attention. She was having difficulty finding an audience for her writing, so I'm guessing that she decided to write in a language style that was not so difficult for a general audience, and it worked. She was a fucking genius about managing her career--I mean no one ever managed a career better than Gertrude Stein (laughs). I don't think. She used her silly side, her sense of play to write it. The book gets a little silly sometimes, but she had a strong silly streak. She liked to play, and be goofy and hang out with young soldiers and listen to them tell what they knew. She liked the names of the states they came from.
Anyway, the "Autobiography" was a wonderful solution to many things and finally, because of it, people started to know about her and to enjoy her writing. And, in the long run, that's why so many people today like to say about places, things and even people, "There's no there there". It's a wonderful thing to have written three "there's" in one four word sentence. That's my opinion, anyway. I have students saying it now.
LM: You know there's a sign in Oakland now saying: "there."
JG: (laughs) I didn't know that.
LM: You know some people say that history is really recorded gossip and you could say that "The Autobiography" is brilliant gossip.
JG: I'd say everything circulates in the form of gossip. Except for a few lectures in a few academies, that's how everything worth knowing circulates.
LM: Another question I have for you is and I know you've heard this one before...
JG: Well, I haven't talked about this fi in ten years so it's fun for me.
LM: Good. Why the choice not to have Alice and Gertrude working on a piece that Gertrude actually wrote? Not exactly verbatim but...
JG: ...An actual Stein text?
LM: Yes, an actual Stein text.
JG: I love this question. (pause) First, because of the rights. There's no way we could have done what we wanted to do in the film if we'd tried to use actual Stein texts. We didn't even try. The family foundation that controls her stuff is not interested in her being seen as a lesbian. It would have been years of struggling with them for the rights to the material, and they would have asked for lots of money as a way of discouraging us. But more important, we found out we could write it--that is, Steinese. Like everyone else who starts to love Stein, we wanted to try our hand at it...which is the greatest gift that Gertrude Stein gave the world--or the English-speaking world--that sense that you can do this too, and make brilliant discoveries about language and how the world is constructed through language.
So Mark wrote the Steinese and he was very good at it. "She saw what she saw when she saw it was she that she saw." Fun to write. Gertrude encourages that, I think, this play with language. I find her very generous. And since the whole film is pseudo-biography anyway, and makes no claims for historical truth, why not?
LM: And once you were into "Steinese" instead of Stein, you were free to do what you wanted?
JG: Originally we had an idea of going much stronger in the anti-biographical direction. For instance, we did not at all want to cast the roles according to the photographic record. We didn't want a big, heavy centralizing Stein and a more delicate, darker Alice. In fact I offered tiny Linda Hunt the role of Gertrude Stein. She walked into the casting session and before she had crossed the room and taken her seat, she had said, "You know I can play Gertrude Stein with my hands behind my back but I'm not interested in that. I'm always cast that way, as the 'other'. Personally I'm much more interested to play Alice, the female, the one with the emotional life." I loved her for that. Linda, I said, you can play Alice if you can tell me who Gertrude is against your Alice. She said I'll make that my problem. So in the end, we ended up with more historical casting than we had wanted--in that Alice is smaller and frailer and dark and the British actress, Linda Bassett, whom Linda Hunt helped us find for Gertrude, is much larger boned and taller and classically Gertrudy.
LM: Bassett brought a softness to Gertrude that was there in real life, I think.
JG: I think so too. And a kind of sexuality through the gaze,and through the way she would allow her vulnerability to show, although she was very tough. In the last scene, you could feel that Alice was all over Gertrude, she totally controlled that scene.
LM: The Waiting for the Moon scene?
JG: Alice is dominant there, and Gertrude allows it--the hardest thing for Gertrude to do. Now that is love!
LM: Tell me about the genesis of the intriguing title, "Waiting for the Moon."
JG: Actually, I'm not crazy about the title. I just live with it now. The film was originally called, literally until two or three days before we had to actually order the graphics, "On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine."
LM: The name of her favorite song.
JG: Yes. Very Gertrude, we thought--lovely to the ear, giving away nothing about the film. That was always supposed to be the name of the film. The various producers didn't like it: it won't fit on the marquee, they said. Everyone in 1986 was doing short titles: "The Hunters," "The Radio" (laughs) "The Table". But Mark and I fought and won a hundred battles over it and finally it was cleared to go through, because nobody had ever named it any better. We ordered the title search--it's the last thing you do before you physically make the titles. (The insurance company won't give you an Errors & Omissions policy without a title search, to make sure you're not infringing on anyone's copyright and going to get sued.)
So they did the search and it turned out that MCA was about to release, in the home video market, a film that was made in the '20s based on the Broadway play, "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," for which that song was originally written. The insurers wouldn't approve our title (wouldn't give us the O & E policy for a film called "On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine"), because MCA could sue us because they had a previously copyrighted property under a similar name. So it was two days to go and we had to rename the film.
LM: And I thought there was this incredible, brilliant deliberation about the moon, suggesting the unconscious and so much of Stein's writing by her own admission...
JG: You're right--some of that plays, but that name came to us much more unconsciously. For some reason, when we wrote the script we had given every scene a name, just to have a quick recall handle. The last scene in the film was called Waiting for the Moon. In the course of two days, we came up with hundreds of new names, but finally the best was the name of that last scene in the film, and it was approved.
LM: The title echoes the idea of the moon as a female symbol.
JG: The trouble is the word "moon" has been terribly over-exploited in the cinema. Just that year, in fact, a film called "Racing With the Moon" was released and another film title using moon which I can't recall. You would avoid the word "moon" if you could. You know, people who have seen my film come up to me and say, "You made that wonderful film `Racing With the Moon,' didn't you?" Because of the way movies operate in the culture--the way we've bombarded with the names of films, with big full-page ads, etc., we feel intimate with the names of films we've never even seen, just because of the advertising. That was the reason that I was resistant to it; I didn't want my film to become another "moon" film and get mixed up with the others. If the insurance company had approved it, the film would have been called "On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine". It was the only detail in the film that's historically accurate. It was the name of Gertrude's favorite song. She says so.
LM: Another historical detail that was accurate that I loved was the play reading scene in the film. Apparently Stein was in the drama club at Harvard and absolutely loved the theatre and spent a lot of her later years writing plays--many of which are very difficult stylistically. But that really rang true for me: her life as drama, her constructing drama, her acting in a drama.
JG: Well, in that sense, I think the whole film is true. That was pretty important to us--to stay true to Gertrude's spirit. In no way did we toss anything in there that was stupid about Gertrude. It's all about how she was, not who she was. It's just that in terms of detail--the chronology of when she met certain people for instance--those things are not true in the film because Gertrude was not interested in those things. That's the sense of refusing history per se, in its most limited sense. It was a way to get to something that would be true to her literary spirit--to not be so worried about the sequence of events and the names of things. It was our desire to refuse the burden of "reproduction" in the cinema--to refuse to use a photographic medium (in which people walk and talk and seem to be alive) to say "you know this is what Gertrude Stein was really like because on this day, these people were in the salon, she did this play, it took three hours, etc. We wanted to refuse that yet still be able to say this is Gertrude Stein. That was very much the inspiration for the piece.
LM: Along the same lines, were you conscious of producing a filmic joke--in the way Gertrude constructed a literary joke with "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"--by taking one of the more famous figures of the 20th century and saying I don't have to be true to the dates?
JG: Oh absolutely. We felt, if Gertrude can write Alice's autobiography, we could write Gertrude's. We were always saying to ourselves, "Oh, Gertrude would love this, or that."
LM: She would have loved that.
JG: Those were the terms, the bottom line: would Gertrude like this? We wanted to get to Gertrude not by accurately reproducing the facts of her life, but to play in her spirit, in her pleasure, in her play, in her intellectual preoccupations with ideas, and not facts. What she says about the atomic bomb, that the making of it is interesting but the fact of it is not interesting, is germane here. So Mark and I said to ourselves, the facts about Gertrude, what was recorded, in photographs, in peoples' memoirs, are not interesting and are not Gertrude. Everyone has written about her: "I met her in 1921 and she was warm and generous." You could also find, "She was rude,"
or "she was fat," or "she was lovely." How are these `facts' anything about who she was? Maybe for other kinds of histories it's more appropriate to say "On June 15 she was wearing her Balmain suit." Maybe those are interesting ways to produce a picture of her, but to do that to Gertrude in cinema, a photographic medium, is to say "there is Gertrude and that is exactly what she is like."
Classically in the cinema, the natural tendency has been to use photography as veracity--to load the rooms with things that would "actually" have been there, to dress her exactly as she can be seen in photographs: to reproduce that dress, or that scarf, or that poodle, or that pair of shoes. This is a kind of reproduction that we had no interest in. It doesn't bring you any closer to Gertrude.
LM: In a way you were criticizing the idea of authenticity, criticizing the idea of cinematic veracity.
JG: Absolutely. Just before "Moon", I had made a nonfiction film (a fiction film in some ways, some would argue) called "Far From Poland." It's about the Solidarity movement in Poland and I think it's my most important piece of work to date. The experience totally revised my relationship to documentary but it also greatly influenced the way "Moon" was composed. I happened to be in Poland when the strikes in the shipyard started that set the Solidarity Movement off. I couldn't film the political situation (though I wanted to badly) because I was a guest of Jerzy Grotowski and the Teatr Laboratorium. We were there making a videotape about his work and officially we were his guests. It would have endangered him politically with the Polish government if we'd rushed off to Gdansk and started shooting the strikes. But there, in front of me, was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. I could see it. It was a brilliant moment: in a socialist country, when the workers start saying to the government, you don't represent us, we need a union to protect us from the State, you know that something is going to give out. I wanted very much to make a film about all that.
So when we finished with Grotowski, I came back to the U.S., raised some money very quickly in the Polish community, and tried to get back into Poland. But our visas were denied--the Polish authorities were overwhelmed by the multitude of foreign press in Warsaw, and they weren't letting anyone else into the camp. I was confronted by a dilemma--a fascinating one: I had the desire, the money, and the political contacts to make a film about the Solidarity movement in Poland, but I couldn't get into Poland. Did that mean I couldn't make a film? Why was my ability to shoot Lech Walesa in front of the shipyard gates the criteria of whether I could talk about Poland on film. There's something wrong with the idea of documentary footage as pedigree--as authenticating pedigree for the right to speak. So I made a film called "Far From Poland," which employs a variety of techniques to address both the political situation in Poland but also the problem of how the photographic image and its seeming ability to be objective and transparent has produced so much untruth in documentary cinema. My film, "Far From Poland" was shot entirely in the United States and I think it was the best film made about the Solidarity Movement. Since then, I've stopped trusting in "the document" and its claim of veracity and meaningfulness that's based on "I was in the shipyard (here's the photographic proof) and therefore I can and will speak about it truthfully". That particular insight inspires everything I've done since the "Far From Poland". That, plus Stein's relationship to facts versus ideas.
LM: Is that how you started working with actors and performed material?
JG: Yes. About a half of "Far From Poland" is dramatized texts. That's how I came to know people like Ron Vawter and Ruth Maleczech--performers who could do an analytical reading of an existing text and perform it at the same time. That is, who could produce two texts at once, in one performance: one that demonstrates (holds up for inspection, so to speak) the construction of the text and its ideology, and also one that embodies a persona (historical or otherwise) in the classical sense. Really I should speak about three texts--the third being the tension between the first two. When I teach a course on documentary film, I always speak of the "social actors" in those films--people performing their own texts for the camera. That's why I've come to refuse the distinction between documentary and fiction.
LM: Stein has a speech about her method in the famous line "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" that relates to what you're saying. She talked about bringing back vitality to the noun. She says at the end of it that "I know that in daily life we don't go around saying `a rose is a rose is a rose' but I think that in that sentence, the rose is red for the first time in English poetry in 100 years." She never uses the word red; she tries to give the illusion, the essence of red, without ever using the word itself. So she was far away from thinking that photographic representation meant anything.
JG: This is a woman who writes an autobiography and gives it to Alice: the paradox is on the cover of the book.
LM: She was far ahead of her time.
JG: About 150 years. We haven't arrived there yet.
LM: I have one more question for you. When Stanley Kauffman reviewed "Waiting for the Moon" he said it was "an understated yet Baroque mosaic." I was wondering how much you were thinking about Stein's fascination with cubism when you made the film.
JG: I don't think we ever went for it as a specific visual idea but we did sort of exploit it for structure. It allowed us the notion of using many small chunks of only vaguely related narrative material to tell a tale. We didn't pull it off as well as I would have liked. It's not entirely clear for the audience, for instance, that the five garden scenes are sequential parts of one afternoon in the country. That was the intention--to make a central narrative around the compelling question "is Gertrude going to die" (as basic a narrative as there is) but to break it with five scenes that are actually from another time, a later time when that particular dilemma has been dissolved. We did not intend a direct translation of cubism into cinematic form.
Mosaic is all about surface--it doesn't represent time very well. Our film is instead a broken narrative, rather two broken narratives: first, the salon in Paris, and the other a summer afternoon in the country home. That audiences didn't completely understand it--that's our failure. People resorted to solving the difficulty by understanding it as cubism, which is understandable; it was a way to account for the discontinuities.
LM: I want to reframe that. I was going to ask you about Stein's invention of the "continuous present," and really what you were doing by intercutting those garden scenes and having them be the same afternoon, it doesn't matter whether or not the audience got it or not, because you were creating a continuous present by returning, returning, returning.
JG: The continuous present--well, that is something you can theoretically do on film more easily than on the page, because the representation of continuous time and space on film can be accomplished simply by making sure costumes, and light direction, and props and sets and hair, are consistent from scene to scene, to create a sense of "same time and place." Yet we didn't succeed completely in escaping film's linearity. Why? Not completely sure--perhaps it was too much to attempt to overcome that strong film thing of "first this happened, then this, then this"... a series always produces sequence.
There is a tradition of "flashbacks" in cinema, but these are almost always used (I can't think of an exception) for psychological explanation: in this flashback, you can see how this character arrived in his or her present condition--this is why this character behaves as he does. But there's no tradition in cinema of flashing forward--probably because it has no "psychological use" (classic film narrative is always hung on psychological explanation--never social or political explanation). Flash forwards are also deeply anti-narrative. If you can know the ending--what will drive the plot?
So yes, the continuous present is, in part, the effect we were trying to achieve, but I think we saw it more as de-stabilizing narrative, or at least hanging it out for inspection. We hung the whole narrative structure of the film on the hope that from the first scene on, audiences would be needing the answer to the amusing question (and aware of themselves needing this answer), "How do two lesbians have, or get, a baby?" Everyone knows that Gertrude and Alice never had one. If you needed to know the answer to that question, you would follow the narrative--through both narrative time lines. But somehow, that didn't seem to play as a compelling question. We thought it would.
LM: Well, even Stein couldn't escape linearity entirely, so how could you?
JG: The difficulty in film is that it runs in time, like performance does. If the audience misses something, there's no time for reflection because more information is coming at you. You can't go back and read chapter four after chapter five because the film has already dragged you on to chapter six. But there's another way in which that's not a tragedy at all
1 Nina Darnton, "Waiting for the Moon." New York Times. March 6, 1987, C8.
2 as described in Lynn C. Miller, "Gertrude Stein's Collaborative Poetics and "Waiting for the Moon". Presented at the 1990 Speech Communication Association national meeting in Chicago.
3 Jill Godmilow, unpublished notes to "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith," 1995.