The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue
Film In Conversation


Photo credit: Montana Maurice.
Photo credit: Montana Maurice.

Vanessa Renwick is pretty much as punk rock as they come. She’s been self-producing films and videos in her own inimitable style since the early 1980s, and now boasts a wildly eclectic DIY filmography. She can be fast and aggressive, or slow and contemplative. Sometimes she uses archival footage, but not always. The work is sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly. Without fail, however, the work is intense, hard to pin down, and even harder to forget. There is the transfixing Portrait series, filmed on glorious 16mm and 35mm film around the Pacific Northwest and scored by area musicians. Portrait #2: Trojan (2006) is an atmospheric series of nearly still shots of a nuclear power plant, with an ending too shocking to give away. In The Ugly Movie (1999), Renwick uses a crummy video camera to observe the writer William T. Vollmann as he interacts with a strung-out prostitute. It’s a truly awful experience to watch. Comparatively sunny and enlivened by beautiful cinematography, Richart (2001) is a lighthearted portrait of a mentally ill outsider artist. Red Stallion’s Revenge (2007), an odd remix of a 1943 Western featuring a grudge match between a horse and a bear, manages to be both completely hilarious and terribly sad. One of her most recent works, Hope and Prey (2010) is a three-channel video of animals hunting and being hunted, a slow build toward oblivion that summons the awesome grandeur and the cold horror of the wild.

I joined the Portland-based artist for a video chat about her influences, why she’s dedicated to making low-budget films and videos, and why staying in one place for a long time can be a really good idea.

Penny Lane (Rail): When did you become an artist?

Vanessa Renwick: It all started in high school in Chicago. I was a shy, solitary person who started writing obsessively. I would cut school, go to a café, and write for hours and hours and hours. I was writing in this cut-up style that I later found out had a name, which is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. At the time, of course I had no idea that other people wrote like me. [Laughs.] Then, after high school, I got a job selling tickets at a teeny little art-house movie theater in Chicago and fell madly in love with Fassbinder’s films. I was really influenced by his imagery. Maybe it’s because my mother is German or something, but I really like that super heavy, dark stuff. I hatched this plan where first I’d go to school and learn some technical film stuff, and then I’d go to Germany, somehow find Fassbinder, tap him on the shoulder, and say, “Hi, I’m here to work for you.” [Laughs.] Some guy I knew said he could get me on a freighter. So that was the plan and I was serious about it. But then during my first semester at Columbia College, Fassbinder overdosed and died, so I was like, “Well, there goes my big plan.” It is funny though that I was so influenced by Fassbinder, because even though I aspire to his intensity and his ability to just connect—I would sit in the theater and sob during his films—probably the only kind of movie I’ve never made and have no desire to make is a feature narrative.

Rail: You’ve worked in almost every other style, though. And you’ve worked in just about every moving image medium I can think of. Were you working in both film and video from the start, or did you start with one?

Renwick: I started out as a film purist. I remember going to an experimental film screening in Chicago in the early 1980s and they were showing some video crap, something with Ronald Reagan and chimpanzees. I was drunk and I stood up and made this huge fuss. I stormed out of the place screaming, “What is this shit? I thought this was an experimental film screening!” [Laughs.] But then when I moved to Portland in 1989, I was so broke. There was no way I could afford to keep up with making just film. I went to the cable access center and learned how to use video, and I had access to their cameras and I made a lot of work that way. If I had an endless amount of funds I would probably shoot everything on film and finish it on film. Oh my God, that would be amazing! But there’s no way that I can even think about that. Although, of course, some subjects do lend themselves to video. Like Richart. We had two cameras, and we shot I don’t even remember how many hours of footage. A whole lot of footage. Also, Richart was so manic. He talked nonstop and just moved really fast. There was no stalling him. He would not stop for us to set up a shot or anything like that. We just had to keep rolling. If we’d been using film, we’d have to stop and reload and we would have missed way too much good stuff.

Rail: How do you pay for your work and support yourself?

Renwick: I’m lucky that I bought a house in Portland, super cheap, about 25 years ago. I was a single mom and totally broke, but I got some government grants and I bought this house for $25,000. The mortgage was 260 dollars a month for a long time, and now it’s paid off. So that’s really big. But also, I’m not too into buying stuff, and I ride my bike when I can. So my expenses are low. Sometimes I end up more down and out and end up on food stamps. Sometimes I paint houses, which I really like, as long as I’m not doing it all the time. I’ve done a few promotional videos for nonprofits, but I don’t normally do things like that. I’m very selective. I just never wanted to go into advertising, ever. This ad agency called me up and offered me $10,000 to make some kind of short commercial and I said, “Please don’t ever call this number again,” and just hung up. [Laughs.] I’d much rather paint houses. But really, most importantly, these amazingly talented people work with me for free a lot of the time. I make these “Oregon Department of Kickass” hoodies, right? And the only people who can get a hoodie are people who help me on my films, and I’ll order one in any color they want with any color ink. They’re pretty coveted, believe it or not. Someone like Eric Edwards, who shot Trojan and House of Sound: he makes a ton of money shooting Hollywood films and commercials. He’ll get short ends of 35mm film for me, or get Kodak to throw us a couple rolls of film and I just have to pay for processing. And he’s so much fun to work with. Or my friend Tim Scotten, who works at a commercial editing house and for 10 years has been online editing my videos for free. Every time I have a screening, I see his name run across the screen and I think, “Where did this man come from?” If I get money, like a grant, it’s great to be able to pay them. And of course I help them out too on their projects. I hope that I’m as generous in giving back.

Still image from “Hope and Prey” (2010).
Still image from “Hope and Prey” (2010).

Rail: It seems like that’s a pretty good argument for staying in one place for a long time. Otherwise you maybe wouldn’t have been able to create such a support system.

Renwick: It’s true. I’m just really fortunate and grateful to have all these people who are supportive. And Portland is great, because there are all these creative people and everyone is so broke that people understand and help each other out when they can.

Rail: And on the other end of production, I associate you with a kind of fiercely DIY distribution model, like going out on tours with your work. Why do you like to go on tour?

Renwick: It’s really important to actually meet people in person and show them your work, because you know most of the time you’re in your basement or in your studio working on this stuff all by yourself. I’ve gone on tours with Matt McCormick and Bill Daniel. The way it works usually is that if you can get a paid screening gig at, say, a college or someplace with a little more money, that allows you to do another show in more of a crapshoot space, like some punk rock basement in Boise that stinks like cat pee. [Laughs.] But there are incredible people in that cat pee basement that wouldn’t necessarily go to the film center. Or maybe there isn’t even a film center in that town. You get to expose them to this different kind of filmmaking. I really do love to travel, and going on tour after sitting in Portland for long periods of time, and getting to go on a road trip and see new landscapes and make new friends. That’s all part of it, too.

Rail: Almost all of your films and videos prominently feature music, and almost always an original score that you commission from a particular musician. How do you work with musicians to create the soundtrack you want?

Renwick: The way I work is that I edit the picture silently, and I give the locked picture to the musician and I give total trust to the musicians. I just feel like I picked them for a reason and I trust them. I never micromanage. The only thing I’ve ever said to a musician when I gave them the edited footage was, as a suggestion, “It got really loud when the baby came out.” [Laughs.] Almost all of the musicians I’ve asked to score a film have never scored a film before. Red Stallion’s Revenge (2007) was originally scored by Sleater-Kinney at an event Bill Daniel and I put together called Decomposer, where we paired archival films with musicians and had them do a live score. Britton, South Dakota (2003) started at that event too.

Rail: Tell me about making one of my new favorites, Hope and Prey (2010).

Renwick: I’ve been working on a long film about the reintroduction of gray wolves into America since 1998. Hope and Prey and also an installation called Hunting Requires Optimism (2003) came out of ideas related to the wolf project. I had seen nature photographer Bob Landis’s footage at some wolf conferences I’d been going to. God, his cinematography is so beautiful. I called him up and asked him if I could use some of his footage. What I really loved about making that piece is that I got to use some of Bob’s shots that are really long, like the two ravens flying or this one elk that’s being chased for what seems like forever. Bob does a lot of shooting for National Geographic or whatever, and they would never use these incredibly long shots without cutting them up. I was really happy to be able to watch animals in this slower, longer way. When I was editing, I didn’t know how to see all three images side by side on the computer, so I edited each image separately. The first time I ever saw all three images of Hope and Prey actually playing side by side together was when we did the initial show in this kind of small space called Asphodel in San Francisco. Daniel Menche was doing live sound with it. Daniel gets really loud, and he was just cutting through our bodies. It was so intense. Honestly, it’s a really stressful technical thing to get three projectors set up for a show which is usually only for one night only. I usually end up a wreck, but when I see that shot of the ravens flying, or this other shot where Bob loses focus for a second and then pulls it back, I just feel so relaxed and awe-inspired and it’s worth it.

Rail: The experience of nature in your work is breathtaking. It seems to fit nicely with ideas of the sublime, which encompasses vastness, horror, and beauty. You also seem to be really into trees. What is your relationship with trees?

Renwick: I’ve been wearing the same necklace since I was 16. It’s a little silver circle with a tree silhouette cut out of it. I’m into the trees, always have been. I climb a tree every night to get to my bedroom. But what really connected me more than ever before was that I had a skull fracture in 1980 or maybe 1981. I was riding my bike without a helmet, and I just cracked my head open. I lost a lot of my memories for two and a half years, and I was put on downers to prevent seizures. During this time, all my senses got super heightened, super electric. I could hear air conditioners across the alley or airplanes flying overhead as if the sounds were inside my own head. I started walking barefoot. I have a very beautiful scar on my head, which you can see if I cut my hair really short. For some reason, during that time it felt really good to put pressure on that part of my head, so I would bang my head against brick walls and trees and stuff. [Laughs.] I’m sure there was a period where people would cross the street if they saw me coming. I’d be walking down the street barefoot, just touching everything, running my hand along chain link fences and brick walls and stuff. The reason I bring this up is that during those years, I could hear trees talking. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I could definitely hear a language. Once I was walking near the lakefront in Chicago and there was this crazy wind and rain storm. I experienced what I can only describe as an orgasm that started in my ear, on the same side as the skull fracture, from the sound that the trees were making. When I was working at Powell’s, a new employee came up to me and asked me my name and what I was into. I told her, “Fucking and nature.” I must not have enunciated clearly, as she responded, “‘Fucking and nature?’ or ‘Fucking in nature?’” I said, “It’s all good, either way.” [Laughs.] I just have this deep and primal relationship to nature that I am getting at with my work, and I am not the only one, either. I’ve even heard loggers talk about the feeling of seeing and then cutting down giant trees, and they are talking in terms of passion and lust. I am definitely in love with trees.

Vanessa Renwick is making a rare trip to New York City for a two-night career retrospective, including NYC premieres of lots of new work. On Sunday, April 10, at 7:30 pm, she will be at UnionDocs. On Monday, April 11, at 7:30 pm, she will be at Anthology Film Archives (part of the Flaherty NYC series).


Penny Lane

Penny Lane is an artist, programmer, writer, and educator usually found somewhere in New York State.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues