Babette Mangolte in conversation with Corina Copp

Babette Mangolte in conversation with Corina Copp

babette mangolte 1



The avant-garde director and cinematographer Babette Mangolte speaks about her five decades of filming performance, subjectivity, loss, and Delphine Seyrig.

Life in Film: A Babette Mangolte Retrospective opens at 7 Ludlow on September 3.

Many moons ago, in 1983, Delphine Seyrig and Babette Mangolte ventured together to Montana to shoot the research for Seyrig’s next directorial work, a dream project she’d long had in mind about the infamous American “outlaw” Calamity Jane, and her supposed daughter. The project would not be finished. Mangolte’s filmic realization, Calamity Jane & Delphine Seyrig, A Story (2020)—which will have its overdue NYC premiere this weekend at Metrograph—makes a mountain out of the desires of Seyrig, weaving into Mangolte’s working print of her original (blindingly beautiful) 16mm footage of the trip the written and voiced fragments found in Delphine’s private papers. 

If we’re looking at Calamity Jane in range of Mangolte’s entire oeuvre, this newest film seems to act, formally, as index for her long-held interests: artistry, the feminist archive, voice, authorship. In her undervalued 1980 feature, The Cold Eye (My Darling, Be Careful), a playful film where conversations about relationships, writing, art-making, and the NY scene are the fore, the protagonist Cathy (Kim Ginsberg) is a never-seen voice behind the camera. This is a crucial conceit for Mangolte’s  “subjective camera,” a concept she also explores in What Maisie Knew (1975); the short (NOW) or Maintenant Entre Parenthèses (1976); and The  Camera: Je or La Camera: I (1977). Cathy throws away this comment about how artists are using “process as content”—a funny line, as she is painting from the very start of the film; and thanks to the disembodied gaze, we as viewers are able to immerse ourselves in the act as if it’s our own. We’re “placed in a position where desynchronization between eye and intellect is needed to cope,” as Mangolte has written about the intention of The Cold Eye.

Mangolte is known today—or should be—for filmmaking that considers both the inside and the outside, the dancer and her spatial composition, if you will. She is also known, through her celebrated collaborations as cinematographer for Chantal Akerman, Sally Potter, and Yvonne Rainer, for using film to give women’s lives import, politicizing the quotidian. On the recent rise of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles to the top of a heap Akerman was herself dubious about, Mangolte pointed me partly to “personal matters [having] increased in importance since 1975 as a main subject.”

Whatever we are looking at in a Mangolte film just seems to be more in the foreground, more visible, more vivid, more main? It is the color, painterly; the framing, studied; the movement, in full, slow swing—but it is also because the viewer has been set down in a past, present, and future where identification and interiority are optional.

You might not believe it, given the length of this interview, but Babette and I have left some things out—I was inquiring on one side, from San Francisco, Babette responding on the other, Paris. We circled, remembered, and talked over each other. At one point, she rolled her chair away from the computer to reveal a piece of furniture against the far wall behind her, an armoire made in 1830 by an ancestor, “a great menuisier.” We’d been considering the depth of an image. I kept thinking about how her camera is sentient, about how—through her “subjective camera cycle”; her “landscape films” (1979’s There? Where?, 1982’s The Sky on Location, 1991’s Visible Cities), her films about other artists’ methodologies (2003’s The Models of Pickpocket, 2007’s Seven Easy Pieces), and her films in collaboration with other artists (amongst them, her most recent, the small fortune that is Calamity Jane and Delphine Seyrig, A Story)—how she does it, maintains a liveness, a reactive camera-eye. Then I’d remember! She was right in front of me.—Corina Copp



CORINA COPP: You’ve been celebrated as a cinematographer for a long time, but I have to say, it’s really a blissful thing any time we can pay attention to your work as a director, as a whole.

BABETTE MANGOLTE: Actually I had a full retrospective in 2000, in Berlin [at Arsenal], and in Munich [at the Munich Film Archives], and Helke Sander, a filmmaker I greatly admire, was teaching a shorter version of it in Hamburg. I did not go to Hamburg but I was present at all the screenings in Berlin and Munich.

CC: I love Helke Sander’s work. But what I meant was: it’s exciting that New York, at least, can see all of these films together. Anthology Film Archives hosted a retrospective almost 20 years ago.

BM: Yes, I’m really happy about that, and that they can show Calamity Jane and Delphine Seyrig, A Story, because it is not known, it has not been shown—it has been available on streaming in Canada, but not in the US.

CC: Well, you screened it in LA!

BM: It was shown by you, yeah! You had the American premiere.

CC: Let’s go back in time a bit. Not only will this retrospective do a lot for furthering recognition of your oeuvre, it’s also useful in nurturing a broader understanding of the American avant-garde: you documented the work of and/or worked with many dancers, choreographers, filmmakers, visual artists, and theater artists, including Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Robert Whitman, and Richard Foreman, among artists who are perhaps less reified now. Your first film, What Maisie Knew, is a collaboration with quite a few of the latter, including Rainer, and is such a beautiful and important example of the lineage of performance in the early avant-garde, particularly the feminist avant-garde.

BM: It is, because I used people I knew who were performers. Everybody was doing their own work but also working for other artists—you know, that was the rule. They had to make a living a certain way, and Yvonne was paying a little, what she could. It was from John Erdman—a wonderful performer who I met [shooting] Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers (1972)—that I learned that you have a job to pay your expenses, and then you have your work, and your work is what you want to be able to do, so make the time to do it.


What Maisie Knew (1975)

CC: How did you move from documenting performance, a job, to directing What Maisie Knew, your work?

BM: My mother gave me the translation of Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew when I was 16. James is one of my favorite authors; he has amazing portraits of women, and I really like his physical, philosophical short stories that describe the creative process. I use “The Beast in the Jungle” in The Cold Eye, actually, so James was really important.

But the reason I started to shoot the movie is very simple: Chantal [Akerman] left New York, and somebody had given her some overexposed, double-X 16mm film. Two rolls of 1,000 feet, so not very much, about 20 minutes of film, but I thought I could use it. I shot the fog scene, which was the first scene [of my own that] I [ever] shot. I shot at sunset with a view that later on became my view from my loft, which was on the same block.

I met my friend Linda Patton, who appears in What Maisie Knew, thanks to Joan Jonas, who was working on her piece Organic Honey, Vertical Roll in October 1972. I replaced Linda as a camera operator, and it was a thrill to shoot with a Sony Portapak continuous camera movement that could be synchronized to Joan’s movement, often showing sections of her body in close-up, and I learned to improvise. Obviously I run the camera very differently from Linda, who could not walk and shoot at the same time, but I was trained for that. I loved being a performer with Joan; when she had performances in Europe she would get me to come along, at the expense of the gallery or the museum inviting her. That was 1972, ’73, ’74.

CC: That’s interesting; it adds a physical component to your concept of the “subjective camera.” You are not only presenting a psychologically subjective position but physically involving yourself as a performer behind the camera.

BM: Yes. But in many ways the subjectivity, for me, was not to use my own sensibility. In the case of What Maisie Knew, it was to invent what a child who is anywhere between two and five years old could understand of the shenanigans in the novel, which I don’t portray. The adults in the book use the child as an alibi for their illicit rendezvous.

CC: At first I’d read it as a kind of Richard Foreman strict, symmetrical staging, especially in the scenes where you see the two rooms, Yvonne and a partner standing, swooning over each other on one side, a couple in bed, prone, on the other, precisely split… it feels like a direct address, which he was known for.

BM: Oh no that has nothing to do—

CC: That’s the child’s point of view.

BM: It’s definitely Maisie. The only person who looks at the camera is Linda, who was in the loft when I shot the fog, actually. She’s in the mirror looking at herself next to the bathtub. She hears a noise, turns around and says, “Maisie,” with a finger on her lips to imply, “Be quiet.”

CC: So beautiful.

BM: She’s playing with water, and [acting] a bit like a kid, you know, tapping the water and so on. The sound is wonderful—I did not shoot sync sound obviously, I did all the sound after the fact, and sometimes it does not work very well, which is just perfect for the sensibility of the film.

And the little mime about language that Linda does with Yvonne is so interesting—the idea is something that came up when I learned English. I mean, how do you learn English? You read the dictionary. I’m not joking! We don’t have as many adjectives as you do in English, thank God. And adjectives are a literary effect. The tradition in French literature, in a novel, is to use as few as you can.

CC: I’m thinking of 19th-century realism.

BM: Yes, that’s it. Flaubert’s theory of good writing. But it’s not so much for the realism, but because it’s pedantic, it’s preventing the reader from imagining if it’s wonderful or not. An adjective must define something; it’s better to leave that open, to allow more interpretations to be possible.

CC: In English, with all of the adjectives, it becomes like froth. Surface language to move through.

BM: Exactly. And for me, language was really an important subject of my reflection, because I was learning English when I first arrived, in October 1970. I got [the writer] Stephen Koch, who was a friend of [art critic] Annette Michelson, to give me English lessons. He would spend half an hour explaining to me the meaning of one word. [Laughs] I really learned a lot.

CC: Stephen Koch also wrote a text referenced in The Cold Eye, “The Image and the Mirror.” 

BM: Yes, he wrote that for me. The text was very important. The Cold Eye (My Darling, Be Careful) was interesting to shoot because the character Cathy—the painter behind the camera whom you never see, yet everybody speaks to—could not be where the camera was. The [other actors] had to look at me, at the camera, so that she was 90 degrees. The sound was coming from a different direction. I had to train them to look at the camera, because that film had to be shot with sync sound, there was no other way.

CC: I was wondering, because they’re responding right away.

BM: Yes, absolutely, she was present. In the film, they seem to be looking at Cathy; I’m creating the illusion they’re looking at Cathy; the reverse shot of Cathy.

CC: We don’t get the reverse shot. But the viewer is watching them listen, in a way? 

BM: When you spend time in somebody’s apartment, when there’s two people there, you know their voice so you don’t have to look at them [while they’re speaking]. So she can look at other things while she is listening to him, when he’s cutting his vegetables, basically.

CC: Can you talk about George Deem, the actor who plays Allan? He’s wonderful, I thought.

BM: George was a painter, a friend of mine. I also think he’s wonderful.

CC: At first, he’s almost upsetting—this pedantic, older male figure who is giving her grand advice…

BM: He’s giving time to someone much younger than him, who he respects, in a way. The text was really written in collaboration with Jim Barth. I met Jim because he was dancing in Lives of Performers, the first film I shot for Yvonne. He had been close with Epp [Kotkas, who also appears in What Maisie Knew and The Cold Eye], and Jim and Epp have a duet in the performance that led into Yvonne’s film, Film About A Woman Who… (1974), which I really love. We all became close in ’72 and ’73.

The reason I thought of the character he plays, Franz, the painter, was because Jim wanted to move into painting, which he had not started yet… I was hearing a lot of painters discussing buying property, saying “I need a studio to paint, and oh if I own it.” It’s ridiculous, you know they’re going to spend their time paying the mortgage and not painting. 1979 was the year people were totally dominated by the fact that they had to become landlords.

CC: Right, or go into academia.

BM: Well, that’s it, they didn’t want to become academics.

CC: You conceived an outline, and Jim wrote the script? Or was it a closer collaboration?

BM: We wrote it together, but he put it in English, with no typos, and also the expressions that were in use. But obviously I would not have been able to write it without him… And I used the studio of his sister Frances, who was a painter, for the studio of the mentor, the painter, played by my friend the actress Saskia Noordhoek-Hegt, who was working with theater director André Gregory.

CC: Oh wow.

BM: In the film, I had people who had never appeared in a movie before, like George. And I had Valda [Setterfield], who plays Bea, the important figure in this world that Allan is very interested in.

CC: I was happy to spy the writer Lynne Tillman in the party scene, too.

BM: Oh, absolutely. I knew her, and everybody, Barbara Morgan is there, too. She’s a very important painter now, and an installation artist. I did not know her much at the time. But it was at the Clocktower [Gallery], and I had free wine, and I had put an ad in the Soho News saying if you can come, it’s a fake party… And Jim had arranged with Sean Scully that we’d reuse his paintings.

CC: I’m also compelled by Linda Patton, who we’ve mentioned was in What Maisie Knew. She appeared with Jim in some of Rainer’s performances, and in your short film (NOW).

BM: (NOW) was shot in the loft of Kate Manheim, Richard Foreman’s star performer and later, wife. She loaned her studio to me while she was in Paris working on a play with director Claude Régy… (NOW) was done in an hour, basically. I had tested with somebody else. I had a photograph of Andy Berler showing his hand, and what I can do with two hands, caressing each other. I thought that would be the end of the film. It would be done with those packs of cigarettes, I had stopped smoking and I had collected all of the packs I had smoked, which were called NOW. I thought that was so fantastic: there was “NOW” written on the package, and I liked the color, the burgundy and the silver, I thought it was too beautiful.

the cold eye

The Cold Eye (My Darling Be Careful) (1980)

CC: In your next film, The Camera: Je, you treat the spaces of late 1970s NYC as if they are human subjects. For instance, your voice offscreen tells buildings to relax. The camerawork when you’re outside (which you’ve called the space of “total distraction and chaos,” as relative to the photography studio) is often handheld, wobbly, especially compared to your footage of New York in Akerman’s News from Home (1977), which was shot around the same time.

BM: 1976, after Jeanne Dielman.

CC: That reminds me—my sole question about Jeanne Dielman: I could swear I’ve spotted Chantal stepping into the subway very swiftly, when Jeanne is out on errands. I know she liked to nudge herself into her work. Am I right?

BM: We were at the end of our shooting schedule, 7:30pm, when in the story of the second day Jeanne has to be back home before 5pm when her client is going to ring her bell. The subway track was very empty, so Chantal decided everybody in the crew had to rush to the same wagon to make sure it appears we were at rush hour, and not later in the day.

CC: Ah! Anyhow, the expression of the streets in the 1970s Akerman films is more stable.

BM: News from Home is mostly tracking shots. Sometimes you stay in a static shot looking at somebody sitting on the sidewalk—Chantal asked permission of a lady who was there—you see people when they walk and also you don’t see them really. It’s framed for the linearity of a New York map: rectangular crossings, vertical avenues, North-South crossings of East-West streets.

In The Camera: Je, the shots are mostly handheld, yeah. I was assisting myself, doing my own focus, there was no problem. I was sitting on the front of the windshield, and all the sound was dubbed afterwards. What was shot with sync sound were the scenes when we had people… downtown was not that noisy, and I wanted to show the difference: suddenly you get to Houston Street and it’s very noisy, you are around NYU, there are more cars, there are high-rises, there are far more people on the sidewalk. I did a lot of different shots, some of them with my assistant pushing a wheelchair, but everything was handheld because the camera had to move constantly.

CC: There’s such humor here too. When the tourists file through the streets, which are emptier than we’d see now, you say, “Je deteste, I hate them!”

BM: Yeah. You know the person who says hello to me is Joan La Barbara. I’m not joking! She was a great singer, who obviously was in [Robert Wilson’s opera] Einstein on the Beach, so I knew her very well, and I’d heard her in the Philip Glass Ensemble. She says hello to me, and suddenly there are those tourists coming, so I thought that was interesting to put the two together.

CC: Einstein on the Beach, which you documented, first premiered also in what, ’75?

BM: 1975 in Avignon; I had family living not far, on the other side of the Rhône, where Merce Cunningham was at that time with his company, so I have some photographs of Merce then. But I spent three weeks shooting when Bob Wilson and Philip Glass were rehearsing the opera, and I was there during the first week of the performance. That was a great work.

CC: It sounds like you were really, well, busy in the mid-1970s, outside of directing your own work, and then there’s having the time to even think about what to do.

BM: It’s not so difficult if you know how to organize yourself, it’s a question of concentration… something which came for me only when I was in film school, when I was 23. Before that… I was drinking too much, I was, you know, totally a fuck-up, basically [laughs].

CC: I can relate. How would you connect the time you spent with this circle of artists with your concept of the “subjective eye,” the “subjective camera,” which begins to show itself in The Camera: Je? Or did this idea initiate in film school?

BM: I went to film school in France, in ’64, but I applied for film school starting in ’63, and it was then that I actually developed a philosophy of what I had to learn to make sure I would pass the exams, because there were two film schools and I wanted to pass the exams for both. I said, I have to know how to process film, I have to understand film immersion, I have to know how to frame. I bought this still camera—I had shot very few photographs before, with my father’s camera. But, starting in the 1960s, I was very interested in film; I was really educated as a film buff, let’s say. I understood that what I was really interested in was the image.

Something interesting is when you ask an actor or performer who is in front of your camera to do something, then they cannot do what you have asked, so you must change the way you instruct them, or you have to modify the framing—it’s not that knowing what you want to do is the only thing which is needed, it’s also about having the skill to react, not adversely. It’s clearer in The Camera: Je than in other films where I totally fail [in this]. I thought it was really important to show that if you fail to achieve something, it should be shown, and the only thing you can do is run outside to take a walk because you will have time to think about what to do next. 

CC: I’m particularly fond of the adjustment you make with Jim Barth; you say “Okay, Happiness,” and then, “More selective,” and he adjusts his eyes.

BM: We had rehearsed that. From Jim, I could really get pretty much everything—he was a great performer.

CC: There are those more challenging moments, where we, as viewers, are thinking about identification, or the impossibility of it—experiencing this “schizo” split that you have written about. At the same time, in this series of films, there are moments—like, in The Cold Eye, the extended still shot of Beach Street Bar, which I know is not there anymore, and Cathy’s voiced indecision—where we rest, where we’re not as challenged as spectators.

BM: Each time I pass there, I miss that bar. I had heard a car passing, with its loud music driving fast on my street at night, and I said that’s exactly what I wanted to do with that scene, so I staged all that. I went to the bar and I waited until a car was coming, I could see the car coming, and I put the sound afterwards. There were no actors there, I did it all on my own, it was 10 blocks from my loft, so I could bring the tripod and the camera and keep all my material for the shoot there.

[But] That’s very true… I take a while to give you the sense that the person behind the camera is actually taking photographs—so how a spectator reacts to the idea that they [themselves] are “taking a photograph” is what I was exploring. I had been taking photographs to make a living since December ’70, you know. The first photograph I did was for Richard Foreman, for [his play] Total Recall.

CC: A perfect photograph, somehow. So when you move from The Camera: Je into The Cold Eye, there’s more of a narrative conceit, a fictional construct of this young artist, Cathy, who has a lot to worry about. I was thinking about the advice Allan imparts near the end of the film, where he says to Cathy, “DON’T BE AFRAID OF WORKING IN VAIN!” And this is important guidance! I was like, how did Babette know this, at this point in her directing career? Where does this kind of wisdom come from?

BM: Imagine, I make a living. I had supported myself since I was 18, my father died when I was 19, when I was just starting my second year at university. My mother had two other younger kids after she was a widow, and she had to move out of the apartment that my father and she shared with their children. So I was totally able to manage… Also, ’68 was very important to me. I was very much against the Vietnam War, and I was beaten up by the French police. I said, “By God, I want to leave France.” So I went to Belgium, and I was hired by Marcel Hanoun, who I’d met a couple of years before and had worked for; he had taught me editing, which I was doing to pay my rent, and he hired me as a cameraperson. So I became trained as a filmmaker by being his cinematographer, because he was shooting his own film, and his crew was minimal. I was the only assistant camera, he had an electrician, he had somebody doing sound, and he had eventually an assistant, and him. So we were five. It was a documentary crew [but] to shoot a fiction film, with actors. All of that was in France.

When I decided to come to the US—I intended to stay just for three months, to see experimental films, and not for anything else; I had no idea I’d ever move there. But ’68 was really important because I really felt I did not want to do commercial work, and I knew I would never succeed doing commercial work. I was too unruly, I was too stubborn, too unwilling to be a “Yes Woman.” And I could not be—because no man who was dominating the industry wanted to hire a woman as an assistant cameraperson. They felt awkward, you know, they were speaking among themselves, to the other men in the crew, about going to see prostitutes at lunchtime, exactly like in the Godard movies of the period—the period when I was going to film school, in the early 1960s. And it was still happening.

CC: There were a lot of reasons for Chantal to blow up the city [laughs].

BM: Yes. There were a lot of reasons for Chantal to blow up the city [laughs].

the camera je

The Camera: Je or La Camera: I (1977)


CC: Perhaps we can talk about your landscape films; I’m curious what your initial travel was like.

BM: The landscape films came from the fact that in ’76, I took a bus trip to visit the West. I was living in New York, so I took the bus; you could buy an open ticket for two months and take any Greyhound bus for free. I stayed in a hotel only in New Orleans, where I spent my first week—it is a city with a lot of French influences and an amazing history, but no air conditioning in July. I went to observe people, what they did and listened to. And when I arrived in Santa Fe, I slept in the bus; I was going to Denver to sleep and coming back to Santa Fe the next day if I had not seen everything I could see. Which was common.

CC: Were they research trips at this point?

BM: No, I had a Super-8 camera, so I shot some Super-8 film, I had my Nikon and some lenses so I shot some photographs, and I was interested in the color. And The Sky on Location is in color. I was planning the film in ’79 and when I was invited to teach at UCSD, I did a film which was a test called There? Where? which is a very funny film. It’s about the fact that when you are in California, if you are not on the freeway, you are lost, because you have no idea how to cross a canyon which is right in front of you!

The film is about learning to drive, because I say, “Okay, I want to do a film on landscapes so I have to see the landscape,” but I had seen it four years before, and I knew the film I wanted to make, which was The Sky on Location. So There? Where? was really to test how the voices are going to work. Because [for] the landscape, you need to have the voice. Or that’s what I thought, at least. But I know James Benning does beautiful landscape films with no voice.

CC: In The Sky on Location, you’re pushing past voiceover as a tool that is traditionally informative, narrative, or emotionally coercive—you’re employing multiple texts, with different experiences governing them, and casting voices to enunciate these texts, which change and shift. And first, there is your voice.

BM: Which has an accent, so I’m the one coming from outside.

CC: In that film, you mention that, like most Europeans, you saw your first images of the American West in John Ford movies. Could you talk a bit about this historical interest in the desert, in the mountains, for Western Europeans, especially now in the 21st-century, when artists know that the “Far West,” as you called it, is not actually an “endless present”? How did you avoid romanticizing that landscape?

BM: There is a dramaturgy of examining the perspective of people seeing that land, which has in certain places not changed at all for the last 200 years, and in other places has totally changed. Because that was studied for the photographs which publicized the West to immigrants in the 1840s,’ ’50, ’60, ’70s. One hundred years later, I went back there to see if some of the sites were the same, and some were, which was really a surprise.

I had gone to the Olympic Peninsula, I had gone to Glacier Park (which now has no glaciers, or a lot less). I had to discover the kind of landscape I wasn’t sure I had seen, and it was very difficult to show the scale of a landscape without man-made structures or people. I knew the importance of putting a sunroof and a piece of plywood on top of my Jeep Cherokee, and sandbags to be steady if it was windy. I could be a little bit above, so I equipped my Cherokee before leaving New York.

CC: You say, in voiceover, “The silence is there for days on end, if I need it. And I wonder if later I will be able to experience that same silence, looking at the image of this moment.” How do you experience watching The Sky on Location, now, four decades on? Can you experience that moment’s silence, or has too much changed?

BM: No, I love the film, I have great pleasure in looking at it. It was frustrating to shoot. There’s much more interest when you have contact with people in a shoot; you become friends with people and sometimes they become friends for life. But there, you have nothing except the tiredness of having to drive for six hours to arrive before sunrise to shoot a sunrise, to arrive late at night and set up your tent, cook your dinner, and [use] camping gas or whatever. Fatigue is an issue. You have so many hours to drive in-between. You don’t stay a full day in one place to do three shots, you try to do shots in different places, there’s many things you cannot shoot midday… But when I’m watching it, I totally forget, I just remember how much I like the shots [laughs]. But also, all the texts were written after the shoot. I spent a huge amount of time writing, at the editing table…

CC: Yes you were saying, you’re writing all of the texts or finding memoirs you want to incorporate…

BM: Everywhere I went, when we were going to buy food and so on, I would buy a local newspaper and I would take notes on the temperature, or things I could write about. So I had a reference I could use later on. I bought books of Western lore that I could quote later, like the story of the Donner Party trying to cross the Sierra [Nevada mountain range] before heavy snowfall blocked their passage, and they were marooned in a harsh winter with no food.

CC: Did you end up with a script?

BM: Later it was recorded, with the actors I had chosen. For the second woman, I changed actors three times. The first time, her voice did not work [in harmony] with the pitch of my voice, and the pitch of the voice of the man, Bruce Boston, who I think was great and who was not at all an actor, who at least was a poet, so he understood language. Finally I used an actress from [the theater company] Mabou Mines, Honora Fergusson.

CC: Mabou Mines and experimental documentaries, the best intersection. So when you’re testing out actors for voice, you’re thinking musically.

BM: Yes, absolutely. That was something I learned from Marguerite Duras. I knew her very well, because she was doing experimental work, so we were often at the same festivals in the late ’70s and early ’80s. She told me [that in] her films, she would cast actors whose voices are harmonically compatible, and I thought that was really a great idea, to think in film-terms that language is like music, that it has to be coherent in the pitch of voices next to each other.

CC: There’s another striking relationship in the film between documentation and recording, and then destruction and loss. In voiceover, we hear you say, “We accumulate photographs and records to compensate for that sense of irremediable loss for the passing traveler.” There’s this anticipatory sense that you’re not going to see something in the world again, or that Mount St. Helens is going to erupt, again.

BM: Yes, exactly, which it did! I mean, I saw it after the event.

CC: What is your camera’s relationship with loss now?

BM: You know, it’s true that in the 19th century it was a very important element for the painters of the Hudson Valley School to show what they had seen as wilderness: that the tree had been cut down to make log cabins, that a forest was cleared to have a field where they could grow potatoes, and [provide] the food they were going to eat with their families. And now, look at the craze—when I hear what I wrote in ’82, it’s even more important now. Look at everybody with their cellphones, documenting what they see, and not even looking at what they see. Are they going to remember, 40 years later, what they were looking at? At least I was really looking, but I imagined that line in the film because it would be difficult to return: it was the middle of winter, and I was weary of being lost, at some point. The line was also a reaction to a rare occurrence during our shoot, the presence of a man far away, moving in the snow.

But it’s true, you take photographs of things you think are going to change. It’s interesting… the idea of those things changing is eternal. I felt that in many ways. You always feel, because you are so conscious of time passing, what changes in you. For me, I always think I’m 20 years old, I don’t have to look at myself in the mirror so I’m perfectly fine, you understand! [laughs]

CC: So that’s the ticket…

BM: I keep my illusion. But what I see is really what fills my life. If I can make images which I can still look at 41 years later, then I’m really happy. I can be only happy. My films still interest me a long time later.

CC: That is worth living for, you know.

BM: Yes, exactly.

CC: What are your dreams like?

BM: I am interested in reality and not in dreams. I certainly dream like everybody, and I remember many of my recurrent dreams, but I am interested in the representation of reality and perception, rather than the inventions of new tales. I use narrative structure in many of my experimental films, but it is at the service of transforming and inventing a new form of spectatorship.

the sky on vacation

The Sky on Location (1982)


CC: In your most recent film, Calamity Jane & Delphine Seyrig, A Story, you give life to Seyrig’s unfinished project about Calamity Jane. But your film is also about the construction of feminist lineage, epistolary absence, the gender of freedom. What is the significance for you of the Redwood trees in Sonoma County that we see in the opening scene, before we enter the feminist bookstore, The Sitting Room? The trees seem to light you up, and recall your landscape films.

BM: I start with the Redwood trees because they are a sign of life. A sign of life which is there to stay for several millennia. But now we know they can be burned in heavy fires. I send money to “Save the Redwoods League” every year. The Redwoods [are also] such an amazing metaphor of an ecosystem that will change. And you have the women’s bookstore, and that has been an ecosystem that has changed women’s lives. Women are much better off now than they were 50 years ago. The film, for me, had to be about feminism first. For me, feminism was always about producing for women a space in which women can talk to each other. Of their own similarities, their own differences, their own lives, and to reinforce the idea that they can manage even if the world out there is totally controlled by men. Or more controlled by men than they would like it to be. The fact that women help each other is clearly something I feel is important.

For me, Calamity Jane represents someone who lived the life of a man, because she could be free being a man. And Delphine had never interpreted a man. Or in any case, she had never been on a horse, and for Delphine, being an actress meant she could interpret people she was not. I think the reason she wanted to do the Calamity Jane project was so she could play the role of a mother who has lost a child [as Calamity did], or who wanted to be the child.

CC: Instigated by the publication of Calamity Jane’s Letters to her Daughter by Shameless Hussy Press, part of the first wave of  feminist publishers, in 1976?

BM: She had read the book. I read it at the same time, when I was shooting The Sky on Location—but we did not know that.

CC: Could you talk about Etel Adnan’s participation? 

BM: Etel Adnan met Delphine in 1984 through Robert Wilson, after we had shot what you have seen, which is the basic [scaffolding] of the film Calamity Jane and Delphine Seyrig, A Story. So she met her after, though she knew Etel’s writing. They shared something very important for them both, that they were raised as children learning to read and write in French in Lebanon. So the film continued in Delphine’s mind throughout ’85, with [this idea of] Etel writing the script for her, but it never got made because Etel got sick herself, and the script was sent to FedEx and some of it was lost, and God knows what else. Delphine started to have health problems, so on and so on, so that did not succeed.

CC: Would you say Delphine found what she was looking for? Was she satisfied?

BM: I leave open the fact that [anything] could have happened. I think the real issue for Delphine, the purpose of doing that documentary, was to know about [Calamity’s] daughter. And actually the 16mm film that we shot was called Daughter of Calamity. All of that got made in ’83, and for Delphine—her interest was to understand in fact if the daughter really existed. That was her inquiry, if you like. And was the answer legitimate? We don’t know. But definitely the last person she contacted gave her a lot of documentation left to her by the daughter. She speaks of that at the end, in the motel. So I think she feels she has succeeded, in the week she spends in Billings, Montana, seeing the last place where Calamity lived before she died at the turn of the century.

That the footage was never fully edited and Delphine’s project was never made is irrelevant. It’s about a woman trying to change her life by being creative. Delphine is a perfect example of that. She changed her life when she started to take up a videocamera.

CC: She and the Swiss documentarian Carole Roussopoulos also founded the French feminist video collective, Les Insoumuses, and later the Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir.

BM: Yes, to be able to take a camera, and to get women to realize they’re facing things in common, was so key to Delphine in the ‘70s, and led her to want to make the film of Calamity Jane. And, for example, when she shot Be Pretty and Shut Up (1981), or her first film, Ines (1974), which is a reenactment of the abuse on the body of somebody who is in jail in Brazil, which was part of the 2019 show that was curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Giovanna Zapperi, Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 1970s and 1980s [Museo Reina Sofía]. 

CC: That exhibition is how I first came to hear about your film.

BM: Delphine’s son Duncan Youngerman and the Centre de Simone de Beauvoir had asked me to edit the material in 2010, and I said, “Okay, I will try.” Obviously I love Delphine, and I wanted to do something for her memory, so for me that was obvious, I will do it, I do not have to be paid or whatever. But it’s because of Zapperi and Petrešin-Bachelez’s project, which started in 2016, that I began. Before the filming in 1983, [Delphine and I] talked a lot about the way the camera should visualize Delphine—our decision to not see her, the reverse shots of her asking questions and seeing only her back. So the footage was not about showing Delphine as a character in a film, but as a director in her research.

CC: Delphine wanted it that way, you said in the Q&A at our Los Angeles screening.

BM: Absolutely. What was important was that I had shot it at the time thinking that that footage would be edited in ’84, and you know we have her using a payphone, for instance. That seems odd to put in a film you’re going to be seeing in 2020, but the 16mm footage was not enough. You needed to have a beginning that set up the context and gave Delphine a purpose. 

CC: Your film, with that extra context, moves beyond what I imagine Delphine’s would have done, which is to say it visualizes a deconstruction of Western myth-making, too.

BM: Yes, she would have been fine with that, because she deconstructed her own directors on many of the films she did, after making them. Deconstructing Last Year in Marienbad (1961), you know. It was not something that was unnecessarily unknown by her. She was a remarkably intelligent woman.

CC: The film also suggests that simply talking with people will, whether their accounts are reliable or not, tell you a lot about truth-seeking. It’s a furthering of Delphine’s investment in collectivity. You end up showing a network of care about a singular figure—another context.

BM: It was a context which started very early in the US, but started at the same time in France. In 1973, there was Librairie des femmes, a bookstore in Paris, which actually published books written by women, and also paid Delphine to record herself reading certain books to be put on CDs.

CC: Audiobooks?

BM: Yeah. The thing that is really important is that Delphine is not present, because she died in 1990. And her text is seen in French—I could read it in French, and you know I read her text [aloud], but I speak English, so in the English version, I can read my translation in English. I am not Delphine obviously, but in a way Delphine is there.

CC: Oddly, the film is also so, so funny.

BM: When [Calamity Jane biographer] Stella Foote is meeting Delphine for the first time, on their way to the pool, I had placed my sound person behind me but a pin mic could pick up Stella far away from my camera: “So you’re an actress!” [laughs] She had no idea who Delphine was: “You want to learn about Calamity Jane, that’s neat!”

CC: The pool scene! Stella is performing for her by that point.

BM: You know, Delphine is also a great actress. When she went to the Western saloon, we discussed how she would look at the place. Delphine talked to Ms. Foote [about it]. Delphine has the possibility to move very, very slowly, so I do the pan, and I could rehearse that to really display the site. That was really important.

CC: It seems you felt similarly with the houses you enter, too, that need for a gradual movement through space. Very Marguerite Duras, that.

BM: Yes, absolutely. I’m very happy to owe something to Duras.

CC: It’s also particular to your historical attention to Delphine and the way she inhabits a space, and looks at it.

BM: I had all those close-ups I could place, and so on. It’s a little bit like what happens in The Cold Eye. You turn around, and you see a close-up of what is on the wall. So I redid myself, it’s not so bad. It’s a different context. I know myself perfectly well.

Corina Copp is the author of the poetry collection The Green Ray, and the North American translator of Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs. She programs Rotations, a screening series focused on the detours of contemporary feminist filmmaking, in Los Angeles.

calamity jane 2

Calamity Jane and Delphine Seyrig: A Story (2020)