A conversation between filmmaker Peter Strickland and curator Lauren Carroll Harris to mark the release of Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp).
Tell me about the influence of James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus on this work.
Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus came out of a tradition of underground filmmakers making erotic work in their apartments yet what they created because of or despite domestic limitations was highly steeped in artifice. The other films that come to mind are Wakefield Poole’s Bijou, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and several films by the Kuchar Brothers. It’s somewhat specific in terms of sexuality, aesthetics, a 60s/70s timeframe and the city of New York. Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp goes some way towards defining that world. I later learned that Bidgood made a whole series of photographs in his apartment that conjured all manner of exotic locations. A lot of the materials he used came from his day job as a window dresser for a department store, which is an anecdote I couldn’t resist copying for the commentary in Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp). Bidgood often concealed his erotic reveries within the context of adventure and exotic travel, yet his flamboyant use of colour somehow connected these two disparate forms of allure. We tried as hard as we could to emulate that with Tim Sidell’s vivid lighting, but with more of a safari setting, which I hadn’t seen done by Bidgood. The danger with the safari set-up is the whole thing might come across more like a Tight Fit video than a New York underground production.
What other direct influences or things were you thinking of when you hatched this idea for a fake DVD commentary for a home sex film?
Gay porn from the 1970s was a big influence in general. Directors such as Poole, Bidgood and Peter de Rome were all employing lyrical, heightened imagery that was poetic enough to attract any viewer that didn’t care about the erotic. In a wider sense, there was also a cross-pollination with other art forms. It was such a culturally porous time in which pornography merged with disco, ballet, art and cinema. Even indirectly, you had filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman using the box office takings she had allegedly stolen from Fred Halsted’s gay porn opus LA Plays Itself (1972) to fund one of her early films. The gay porn star Wade Nichols made the disco classic Like An Eagle (under the alias of Dennis Parker) with his boyfriend Jacques Morali who founded The Village People whose music was used in Jacques Scandelari’s infamous hardcore New York City Inferno (1978). Another Scandelari film, Brigade Mondaine (1978), had a blistering Cerrone soundtrack. Wakefield Poole came from ballet and he worked with Warhol. Bill Harrison who acted in Poole’s Bijou later founded Fox Studios with several porn films such as Muscle Up (1984) soundtracked by Patrick Cowley, so I suppose there is an extracurricular trainspotting thrill in joining the cultural dots. Saying all this, I’d be the first to admit that pornography is of a capricious nature both for its performers and viewers, and I think one has to acknowledge that there have always been victims and trauma involved. One can’t talk about the merits of pornography without also acknowledging a much darker side to that world.
Prior to the explosion of gay porn, Bob Mizer was making ‘physique’ films or photographs. To avoid prosecution, he choreographed traditionally macho scenarios such as cops and robbers and so on, which a good lawyer could argue had no homoerotic intent. Within that ‘front-of-house’ format of good guys versus bad guys, Mizer (mostly) got away with a lot of furtive eroticism that often lent towards domination and submission. He was so good at disguising his intent that he even allegedly got a young Arnold Schwarzenegger to pose for him. I managed to get hold of an AMG (Athletics Model Guild) catalogue associated with Mizer and copied their prices for Super 8 and 16mm home reels for Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp).
Let’s talk about the framing device you use – a director’s commentary on a DVD – to allow this retrospective story to unfold.
Beyond pornography, I wanted to explore the DVD commentary format. It’s already becoming antiquated, what with the dominance of streaming, but to my knowledge, it hasn’t been used as a narrative device in film. What interests me about commentaries is the confessional aspect. They’re often done many years after a film’s release hence the directors are under no pressure to sell the film or pretend they had a great time when shooting. That’s when it gets interesting. I was mostly listening to Wakefield Poole commentaries and even though he spoke with great fondness about his various sexual escapades, there was an inherent melancholy purely based on the dichotomy between his old age and the energy of youth on screen. The very nature of that set-up opens up a space for a narrative involving loss and time passing.
Without necessarily knowing it, directors become quite vulnerable when revealing their mistakes or the various slights they endured. I’ll never forget Coppola recounting a trip to the toilet when shooting The Godfather when two crew members came in and, not knowing he was in the cubicle, began to moan about what a rubbish film they were shooting and how unimpressed they were with him. That particular humiliation is something most directors suffer knowingly or unknowingly, but what made that anecdote stand out was the anguish in Coppola’s voice. He and that film have enjoyed decades of acclaim, yet he still had to bring up that bathroom slight in his DVD commentary, which I found very human. Those little cracks in the voice when recounting memories from decades long since gone was something I really wanted to utilize.
Another influence was Lou Reed’s Berlin album. I wanted to go down to those depths of sadness, but a lot of it is to do with the voice and how it’s recorded. With Tushar Manek who did the sound mix, we tried to emulate the spatial element in terms of how Reed’s voice sits in the mix along with a dose of slap reverb, but we also wanted to try other things, such as creating a mono mix, which is more confrontational.
Blank Narcissus seems to me to be very much a pandemic work – not that it directly addresses Covid-19, but it’s steeped in the sense of isolation and distance and loneliness that have characterised the time since 2020.
The idea of loneliness and the need to connect with others was perhaps exacerbated during lockdown. I don’t know how much of it was to do with the anxiety and isolation of what was then an unknown period of lockdown or if that preoccupation with loneliness is just a consequence of getting older and the fear of what lies ahead in old age.
Many critics have described your films as weird or unchained, but I always sensed a deep sense of romance coming out of or married to the kookiness of your characters and plotlines. So many of your characters are searching for love in a totally sincere way – this time, by uniting a home porno with a postmortem on a long-gone relationship. What is it about this simultaneous combination of love and kook or perversion that seems dominant in much of your body of work?
Maybe my films have a wayward aesthetic or tempo, but as you noted, once all that window dressing is stripped away, the core is often furrowing around more human concerns. I’d love to go full Douglas Sirk one day. I never get tired when it comes to anything centred on love, desire, loneliness and incompatibility. Those concerns are what really resonate with me.
Regarding perversion; as long as it’s within the parameters of consenting adults, that’s another subject that is crying out for not only representation but exploration, too. We’ve seen many examples of kink in film, but usually within the context of a ready-made sexual fantasy for the viewer rather than following a couple who incorporate roleplay or similar rituals into their lives and what that means for both of them. If I look back on the work I’ve done that explores the erotic, maybe the common thread so far is picking away at the dichotomy between one’s desires and the reality of expressing them, which is endlessly different from person to person and from couple to couple.
This was the second prospective script you sent me for a potential Prototype commission. You seem to have so many ideas. Where do you think creativity comes from for you? You draw inspiration from sources as disparate as sound art and media formats like the DVD audio-commentary and 1970s underground porn.
I honestly don’t know where it comes from. A degree of it might stem from being a bit of an introvert and not always having the confidence to express myself in real life. I usually feel I can express myself more effectively with the written word than with my spoken voice. That inhibition often leads to daydreaming and eventually wanting to write. Saying that, all these things require practice. When I moved to London in 2000 for what I thought might be my big break in the film industry, I took a day job in an examination board to pay the rent, but I was too tired to write after a day at the office and the two hours of getting to/from work. I had a great time socialising or watching films for two years, but I didn’t write anything, which was a mistake, as it took a long time to get back into it. So much of it for me is habit and practice, so I’m aware that ideas can evaporate.
In terms of the source of ideas; isn’t it just a case of anything being up for grabs when it comes to influences? A lot of the music I was listening to was also really important in terms of structure and the use of repetition along with the modulation and accumulation that goes with it.
Something big is changing in cinema culture. The collective experience of the cinema is moving toward home settings. Does it bother you that people are now watching movies — including yours — on tiny devices and laptop screens?
Unless a work is specifically made with a tiny screen in mind, it’s not an ideal way to see a film, but we can’t always enjoy the luxury of a big screen. Many people don’t have the privilege of time and/or money that grants access to an actual cinema. I personally prefer the big screen both for my work and for seeing films, but I’ve come to accept that streaming on tiny screens is the cinematic equivalent of the cheese toastie – not something you’d always want, but sometimes unavoidable and occasionally, very fulfilling. Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp) was made with both the small and big screen in mind, especially since many of the films that informed this project were often viewed in the privacy of one’s home via Super 8 cartridges, 16mm reels or (later) VHS tape as well as the big screen.
Do you think that cinema is a legacy artform now? Is it off-the-boil or past its peak artistically? How can artists still make interesting work in the ninety-minute feature film format? There’s surely no way you could present this work you’ve made for Prototype in cinemas outside of the festival circuit. How did you feel about making experimental work on the internet, and what differed about doing things different this way for the Prototype commission? I remember, for example, you asking very early on about explicit language and imagery. Is online exhibition still untapped in its potential for doing things differently in what feels like a deeply homogenised cinema landscape?
I’m fairly hopeful that cinema still has plenty of mileage left in it. The majority of it is still narratively anchored and the directors who veered away from that (Peter Greenaway being an obvious example) have been in distribution exile to some degree. Purely based on my personal experience, I see an unprecedented number of films being made during this streaming golden age, but I’ve also noticed more resistance to original material. What financiers want from me is either full-on genre or IP, as they keep calling it when it comes to adaptations or remakes. I’m often asked about adapting a book, but almost never asked for something original or non-genre. Maybe that’s just my problem and most likely because my films don’t make anyone any money.
As you rightly pointed out, it’s unlikely that I could get away with what was made for Prototype in the arena of regular cinema. Prototype is firmly on the art side and within that context, both commissioners and audiences tend to be more intrepid.There’s a resurgence of interest in Carolee Schneemann’s work and for me, she was at that intersection between art and film exploring the body and sexuality without compromise.
For me, it was very liberating to work with Prototype, as one can explore things that would face too many hurdles elsewhere. The on-screen representation of desire is usually censured and censored far more severely than violence, which baffles me. Maybe my occasional urge to confront an audience with explicit imagery is partly a means of exposing double standards when it comes to shock value. That’s a long way of saying that Prototype allowed me to go further than I could with a feature film and explore something that is private and intimate. Time was limited and the work has its flaws, but it’s always the case no matter how small or big the budget is. Ultimately, I stand by the film we made as much as anything else I’ve been responsible for. It was also great to have complete freedom. To have a commissioner offering that level of trust is a great privilege, so the experience for me was a very happy one indeed.