The inspirational and convention-defying film-maker and artist talks about her creative process, being David Lynch’s college buddy and cannibalism.
Cecelia Condit is a boundary-pushing artist who has been creating experimental, poetic films since the early 1980s. She creates contemporary fairy tales in video, installation and photography. She has received grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund. Her work is in many prestigious collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou Musee National d’Art Moderne. Condit always has women at the centre of her work, which focuses on the relationship between them and their lovers, mothers, families and friends. Condit’s stories, which have been called “feminist fairy tales”, put a subversive spin on the traditional mythologies of female representation and the psychologies of sexuality and violence.
River’s Edge: Your work appears to deal, more often than not, with the darker side of human nature. Could you describe your interest here?
Cecelia Condit: I have always thought of my films as exploring the eerie, dark side of human nature. It is a place I go when life seems overwhelming and difficult. It is odd that I should retreat into that dark forest of dreams, where shape-shifting and off kilter worlds obscure boundaries that are often dangerous and anything but childlike. Wallace Stevens writes that it helps to see the actual world if we visualize a fantastical one. I would agree.
RE: I remember seeing Possibly in Michigan a long time ago and thinking there was nothing else like this around. Are you aware of the singularity of your work? And is that something you are conscious of when creating?
CC: In Possibly in Michigan, I focused on the brutal world that dominated a decade of my life. I was not consciously trying to be creepy; I make the work I make because it is the only work I can make. And as strange as this video is, there is always a sweetness and humor mixed into the irony that makes this film about cannibalism tolerable.
‘Possibly in Michigan’ (1983)
RE: Tell us how you utilize genre. Is it significant to you?
CC: As a child I found fairy tales fascinating. As I grew up and grow older, I find that making fairy tales, contemporary ones, gives me tremendous artistic freedom. I like the narrative unpredictability, the shape-shifting and the slight touch of feminism. I discovered a book of drawings I had made when I was a little girl. In it, there were pages and pages of crowds of people, young and old, and everyone was a woman. Even at age ten I was trying to define what was the female identity in myself. Perhaps with a twin brother, I had difficulty defining what it means to me to be a woman.
RE: Have you ever thought about following another sort of career, something along the lines of David Lynch, and moving from fine art to mainstream cinema?
CC: Almost every time I finish a short film, I have pondered making a feature or trying my hand at mainstream cinema. I have wondered if I should break with these short experimental films that I find so compelling to make. Perhaps when I was younger, I could have, but I was distracted by my children and teaching. Now my sons are grown and I have no excuses left….
And it is funny that you mention David Lynch. In 1967-68, we were in a painting class together at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was making films and I remember him telling me I should make films, too. Oddly, I didn’t realize that he was the same David who was in my class until just a few years ago. A pleasant surprise!
RE: You are also a professor at a college of arts. How does teaching inform your work?
CC: One of the classes I teach in the Film department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is about dreams. This one class has had the greatest impact on my film-making. I have learned to not question my instincts. After all, one doesn’t doubt a dream. They just are. The dream takes you where it takes you. Recently when I start a film, I find a pre-written script confining and prefer to work from a single idea and let the story unfold more organically.
RE: How did the idea for Within a Stone’s Throw come about?
CC: Right before I made Within a Stone’s Throw in 2012, my mother had died and something opened up in me and yet something closed down.
I decided to apply for a five-week residency in the rocky, isolated landscape of the Burren in Western Ireland. I needed to be alone. The pivotal idea I had was to pick up a stone and throw it. If I could, I wanted to throw it all around the world. Every morning I would walk out among the huge boulders of the Burren and spend the day on my own shooting, and then return in the afternoon to edit what I had shot and prepare for the following morning of shooting. In Within a Stone’s Throw, things are right side up and upside down and any which way. It echoed a dream I had when I was speaking in Hong Kong when my children were young: I dreamed that everyone I loved was on the top of the world and I was sleeping on the 21st floor of a tall building upside down. I woke up terrified that the building might fall off the earth. Since that dream, I have never traveled without this sense of the weight of the planet and respect for gravity.
RE: Your most recent film Pulling Up Roots deals with the relationship between past and future. Could you tell us about how its themes developed?
CC: St. Augustine writes about time and how the past and the future are always considered though the present moment. This was one of the major
concepts I kept close to me during the three weeks it took to film Pulling Up Roots. It was shot in Western Ireland, just south of Galway in a housing construction project abandoned after the 2008 Celtic Tiger economic crash. In it, an older woman (played by myself) uproots exotic plants and flowers, as one might struggle with stories and memories one can’t understand. It is somewhat clear from the beginning of the project that the viewer will not know what is behind her actions or tears or laughter or even what she is escaping from. Memory and the future longings are only whispers. When I shot Pulling Up Roots, I had recently left my partner of many years and was adjusting to the sense of my own aloneness. And at the time, I worried that my two grown sons might find a part of their hearts where they could reject me for having left their father. In one of the songs, I call this woman in the film just a “gingerbread mother”. It seemed to me that gingerbread is hardly the staff of life. Would I even be missed?
RE: Beneath the Skin was your first film in 1981. How did it come about?
CC: Beneath the Skin is a bizarre murder story that I encountered early in my life. I wanted the viewer to enter into the experience of a news
extravaganza presented on a personal level. Is this a true story? Did I read about it in the tabloids?
It doesn’t matter. Certainly this murder preoccupied my attention. I wanted to tell the story to anyone who would listen. The grizzly details of the murder were so exploited by the media, that I wondered how anyone involved would ever make peace with it.
RE: Was it always your intention to work with the moving image?
CC: I began working as a sculptor and then a photographer and then in film and electronic media. I kept exploring until I could find a place that offered me the most possibilities for expansion. I found that I like to write poetry and lyrics, and to see the words I write put into songs. I stopped writing songs for a few years, but I missed them. I will not do that again.
RE: You say that you consider yourself a storyteller. Do you feel the main purpose of your pieces is around narrative?
CC: My work is more poem-like and experimental in nature, but I am drawn to that strong sense of narrative that gives my films structure. The story and the strength of the visual images themselves are what I am most drawn to in my films. But, I find that editing the story into a tight narrative is where I am most challenged as a filmmaker. Editing the narrative is where I need the most help in the filmmaking process.
RE: What are you working on now?
CC: I am currently working on a film that begins with an old masked woman uncovering and arranging the limbs of a pretty porcelain doll. She is surrounded by wildlife and masked creatures who haunt the hills/forests that support her story. Again I find myself not knowing where it is going or how many characters it will contain or who will appear next. It rather leaves me with wonder to see what form this piece will take. Today I film a turtle named Cosmo. Exciting!