To hear Marie Losier tell it, she fell into filmmaking entirely by accident and has been working almost completely alone for the last 20 years. That may be true, but her career origins were a perfect confluence of environment, influence, and skills, and she is responsible for two of the most engrossing and inventive documentary features of recent years: The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye and Cassandro, the Exotico!.
Losier's films usually center around her relationships with other artists who – on the surface – don't seem to have anything in common with her. In her first feature, she explored her friendship with the proto shock rocker Genesis P-Orridge. In Cassandro, Losier focuses on Saúl Armendáriz, the gay lucha libre superstar, who alternates between his volcanic alter-ego in the ring and a haunted vulnerability offstage.
The past year has been eventful for Losier. After two decades of living and working in New York City, she returned to her native Paris to continue working on her third feature. Also, last November, the Museum of Modern Art hosted her career retrospective, Just a Million Dreams. She spoke to Metrograph over Whatsapp from her apartment in Paris.
Austin Dale: Your new film Cassandro, the Exotico! is opening at Metrograph, but it had its premiere during your MoMA retrospective last year. What was that like?
Marie Losier: To me, it was one of the most moving moments ever, because I rarely showed in New York. And suddenly I left New York, but I was able to come back finally showing all the films. It was so touching to see this world of experimental cinema and art all gathered together in New York. It was a very warm, very happy moment. It was very special to me.
AD: So let’s start there. You lived in New York for 23 years. Why did you first move to New York from France?
ML: I was obsessed with New York since I was a kid, because I used to watch all the Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder movies. My parents had a cinema and we always showed those films. I was obsessed with American cinema. And then when I got older, I studied American literature, especially Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. I got a grant to do an exchange, to write a thesis on that subject. And I went to New York, but I never came back. And I didn't follow the grants, and I didn't write the thesis, and I went to art school in painting.
AD: How does one go from studying painting to making experimental films?
ML: It really began because I started working in a wonderful cineclub, Ocularis, and that lasted ten years, in Williamsburg. I acquired a Bolex that was a gift from Brian Frye, who was working with the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema. And so I went to the Millennium Film Workshop when Mike Kuchar was there, and I learned to use the Bolex from him. I made my first film without knowing anything, and it was a portrait of Mike Kuchar, Bird Bath and Beyond.
AD: Were you aware of New York experimental filmmakers like Kuchar? Or were you kind of exploring it as you went along?
ML: In art school, when I was still studying painting, I was already skipping a lot of classes to go to the cinema, and I worked to make money for Richard Foreman, making sets. So I was already sort of connected the underground. But then I really learned about that type of cinema at the Anthology Film Archive.
AD: It’s an exposure you certainly wouldn’t have had in Paris.
ML: No. When I grew up in France, I used to sneak out of literature class to go to the Cinematheque Française, but they were mostly classics: American films and also Japanese films. That was much more that legacy that I grew up with, and that is still very present there. But the experimental cinema is much more structureless and minimalist than the kind of films they show in Paris.
AD: In your films there's definitely the kind of handheld, structureless immediacy that you find in movies by Marie Menken or Jack Smith. I’m curious about how you developed your style.
ML: It came with time over 15 years. First I was making short films in one day, more performative films, but then suddenly I started making films on friends like Mike Kuchar, like Tony Conrad, like Richard Foreman. And since they were close friends I would take my time. I would spend my time recording sounds, stories, and then filming a mix between fiction and documentary in my own way, always relating to the creative process of each of these artists. And sometimes it would take one year, sometimes it would take five years. I would always do the camera work, with no crew, no one to help. It's just me and the camera and the sound.
And slowly, without knowing it, I made the feature film with The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, which was finished after seven years. And that is where I started crafting more and more the collage between the documentary-style: I was shooting the everyday process of creating, and then constructing more fictional, performative parts out of that. And with Cassandro there is even more narrative, in the sense that there was a mix between archival footage, Skype, video, and film. The collage was extended even to the medium itself.
AD: One thing that comes across to me in your movies it that you come to these people, your subjects, kind of from the perspective of a fan, and I relate to it very much, you know, as someone who interviews people I admire all the time.
ML: That’s interesting. I don't think at all like a fan, otherwise I think I would not be able to make these kind of films. Sometimes I don't know anything about the person I meet, like Genesis P-Orridge. It was more a friendship that developed, and I discovered their artwork and who they are as I was making the film. But it's because there's a pure friendship, and not being a fan, that the distance is possible, because it's a very humble, horizontal way of making the film. There's a trust on both sides. On my side, but on their sides, without questioning the process of making.
And I think that's why it becomes what it becomes, with a lot of emotion, a lot of feelings. And it's not a written script with a fact-basis. It's more like a love-letter to the person I share a piece of my life with through our friendship.
AD: Maybe I'm getting it confused because over the course of watching Cassandro, I become a fan of his myself. Maybe it's a little bit like that. Do you know what I mean?
ML: In a way, they become characters and heroes for me. And that's what I wanted, a sort of homage in a way. So, to me, that's what comes out, and I hope it comes out that way to other people. So, even if the character or the world that inhabits is sometimes very unknown for some more general audience, I always hope that they can share something and feel close to the person, that they feel as if they were spending some time with them.
AD: You said that you made The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye over the course of seven years. How long was the making the Cassandro, the Exotico!?
ML: Exactly seven years, and the films were the same exact length: 73 minutes. But I didn't plan on it at all. When I finished the edit, I had no idea how long the film was, and it was exactly the same length. I hope the next movie will take less years!
AD: How did you first learn about Cassandro? How did you meet?
ML: I actually knew nothing about him, but I was in L.A. to show The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. A friend of mine took me to a lucha libre performance, and I completely adored it, and he took me backstage, and that's when I met this wonderful little man who ran straight to me because I had my camera with me, and he asked me who I was, and he kind of showed me around. And then we kept in touch, and when I went to Mexico we met, and there I learned more about him, and we shared more time, and he said, "Why don't you make a film with me?" And then he invited me to his home in El Paso, a year later I went, and we started.
AD: So he came directly to you because he saw your camera?
ML: I didn't fit at all in the universe, and the camera's an old Bolex, and no one had that type of camera around there, and he was wondering what it was. And he was kind of making fun of it.
AD: Yes, I want to ask you a little bit about the Bolex. So you’ve used the same camera for your whole career, right? That kind of reminds me of musicians who develop a relationship with one particular instrument, one particular trumpet or violin.
ML: I think because I had absolutely no rules and no schooling, it taught me how to look at the world: I look through the lens, approach the person, frame the shot, dance with the camera. And now it tells me the length of each sequence, the timing of the editing, the timing of the collage. The films have the rhythm of my clock, my body. And it feels very natural to me, and I'm always a bit lost when I don't have it.
There’s also the magic of working on film: you don't have the result of what you shot right away. So there's something extremely direct when you shoot. It's expensive, so you're also not shooting for hours. You're very precise about what you shoot, then you need to rewind the film, and it lasts only three minutes.
AD: I love that the rhythm of your body ends up informing the way the films. The subjects of your films are also using their bodies in their work.
ML: It has always been, for me, one of the main canvasses on which everything can be shown, seen, painted, transformed. It's the texture, it's the color, it has curves, it has beauty marks. Also the beauty is in what a body can do: incredible sports, transformation, dance. And it can be its own art: the lucha libre for Cassandro, the pandrogeny for Genesis.
AD: You’re working outside of the United States now. What’s that like?
ML: The only difference is really that I got a grant. It helped to have a little bit of color-grading and some post-production, which I never ever had on any of my films before, and suddenly I am surrounded and supported by a small production company, which never happened to me before.
AD: Does that change the way you work?
ML: I think it didn't, in the sense that I keep filming without having a script, and I just start without waiting for a producer to help me or write something. I have to start when the subject is there. And then along the course of the project, I met the producer, but they never tried to change me. Otherwise, I don't think it would work very well. You know, there's an inclination to do everything alone, but it's wonderful when you find some people who speak the same language as you, who help you, also, and bring their own art into it.
AD: Do you want to make fictional films?
ML: Yes. I want to make a musical.
AD: That makes me think of Golden Eighties.
ML: Yes, I love that film.
AD: I’m noting some similarities between your story and Chantal Akerman’s, in that you both came to New York and found your way into your work through looking at films at Anthology.
ML: What a compliment. I knew Chantal, and she was a very warm person in my life. I didn't work with her, but when she lived in New York we spent a lot of time together, and I also gave her a retrospective at the French Institute when I used to curate there. I programmed for 13 years at the French Institute, and that’s how I learned a lot.
AD: Do you see a connection between programming and your own creative practice?
ML: Yes, because it was a way of archiving cinema. And also another way to give homage to other filmmakers and directors and cinematographers, which is what I'm doing when I'm making films. And I learned to speak in front of people, which I was very shy to do before.
AD: And you feel more comfortable with it now? Like, what's the film festival experience like for you?
ML: For me it’s a little bit of anxiety because of the amount of people I'm with. But it's beautiful to meet suddenly other filmmakers and programmers, because filmmaking can be very lonely when it takes years. It's a sort of celebration when the festival is nice and not too commercial and not too big.
AD: I wouldn’t expect you to have anxiety with people. I see such a connection with other people in your films.
ML: It's true, but I focus on one person. In life, in general, I'm quite shy and uncomfortable, mostly.
AD: Do you think that’s why you have an attraction to performers?
ML: I'm sure, because they're shy too, actually. And in a way, when we're together, something else opens up and we can play.
AD: Do you ever think about moving back to New York?
ML: Of course I miss everyone so much, my friends and my community. But it's been five years. And I never thought I would leave New York, ever, but it's changed now, and also, I'm not the same age, and I see that New York has become so expensive and so intense. I just want to continue making films and making a living, and it was quite a battle in New York for me to survive.
AD: And Paris is easier.
ML: Well, here's more support, I think, for making art, in particular the kind of films I make. And there’s more support for health care. That's for sure.