A Diary of A Film-Shoot
It's the morning after the day the world never ended, and everything feels fine. With the much vaunted Rapture of 18.00 hours Greenwich Meantime on Sunday May 21st 2011 having passed without incident and apparently revised for October 21st later this year, it's a windy and rainy Sunday morning in Edinburgh, but nothing 30,000 marathon runners can't handle. The Collective Gallery, too, is a hive of activity equally of its own making. In the gallery space itself, the regular Sunday marketplace is in motion, while by the door, something called the Feral Trade Cafe is taking place. More significant, however, are the two sets of placards leant against the wall while a woman in tracksuit bottoms and an orange hoodie polishes down several large silver coloured triangles so swishly you can see your face in them. Which, as it turns out, is the point.
Slowly but steadily a stream of women arrive at the gallery, all dressed down in utilitarian shades of grey. As the women collect up the placards, some of which have some kind of slogans written on in marker pen, while others are painted grey and emblazoned with an image of a nail-varnished female hand wrapped around a male penis, one can't help but think of the all-female protests at Greenham Common and Faslane nuclear bases in the 1980s. As it is, while the urgency of a real-life protest in waiting charges the air, the day out that is to follow offers a very different proposition.
A mini-bus driven by Collective director Kate Gray pulls up outside the gallery, and a van has its back doors open further down the street, as all those present, who include artist Tessa Lynch and Collective Programme Manager Jenny Richards, busy themselves loading it up with assorted placards, shiny silver triangles, film equipment and, crucially, a box full of red megaphones. The woman in the tracksuit bottoms and orange hoodie turns out to be Jesse Jones, the Dublin-based artist and film-maker who for the last ten months has been researching Against the Realm of the Absolute, a new film-based project for the Collective. Today will bring the most labour intensive part of it to a close via a very special day-trip to film the final and most crucial three scenes for the ten-minute post-apocalyptic feminist science-fiction film set to be screened at Collective throughout June and July 2011.
Inspired by The Female Man, a novel by separatist feminist science-fiction writer Joanna Russ written in 1970 and first published in 1975, Against The Realm Of The Absolute sets itself in what Jones calls 'the superfuture' of 2031 when men have been wiped out and capitalism has ended. By setting up a series of 'future historical re-enactments', Jones attempts to merge feminist theory with sci-fi, a genre normally the preserve of geeky boys and sexless sociopathic men. Russ, however, was an iconoclastic and radical figure, whose death in April 2011 suggests that Jones might just have picked up the torch for a new generation.
Against The Realm Of the Absolute draws inspiration too from a series of weekly screenings at Edinburgh's Filmguild Cinema of seminal but little-known feature films made by women . With post-screening discussions led by Jones, the series kicked off with another rad-fem sci-fi flick, Born In Flames, made by Lizzie Borden in 1983. This was followed by Maeve, Pat Murphy and John Davies' 1981 view of the Irish Troubles from a female perspective, and other works by Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman, Jane Arden and Maya Deren.
With the bulk of the cast of Jones' film being drawn from those who attended the screenings, notions of anti-psychiatry, psychedelia and the 1960s counter-culture also inform Jones' work. At various points which become clearer as the day moves on, Jones also references Brecht, Meyerhold and Busby Berkeley, as well as Jerzy Skolimowski's 1978 film, The Shout. Adapted from a Robert Graves short story, The Shout tells of a strange drifter played by Alan Bates who claims to have been taught an unholy guttural cry by an Aboriginal shaman possessed with the power to kill. To the experimental composer played by John Hurt, this proves a fascinating proposition.
By a strange quirk of serendipity that also marks the demise of Joanna Russ, The Shout, alongside Skolimowski's earlier film, Deep End, will show during the run of Against the Realm of the Absolute on June 26th at Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of a mini retrospective of Skolimowski works. Against the Realm of the Absolute will be screened alongside a performance by what is already known as the Megaphone Choir at Teviot Row House as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival the day before. Coincidence? Or is something bigger happening here?
Loaded up, a cast and crew of fifteen are spread out across a very un-macho convey of a van, mini-bus and car. With Kate at the wheel of the mini-bus, as well as Jones and Richards on board, there is too the Megaphone Choir, consisting of Tessa Lynch, Tess Mitchell, Jasmine Triance, Giovanna Dark, Fiona Watt and Geraldine Heaney, the latter of whom also works at the Collective and is Production Assistant on the film. Later a hung-over Ash Reid will arrive with Jill Brown, also of the Collective, with Bec Sharp making her own way after work. In the van are Director of Photography (DOP) Kate McCullagh and camera assistant Eanna Debuis, who Jones works with regularly in Ireland, while sound man Angus McPake follows in his car.
En route, Jones talks through her ideas for her film as we head towards our mystery location, the first of two used on the day that will eventually see in twilight's last gleaming among a striking landscape of ash lagoons. Even as you're being driven past pylons and towers, it looks and feels like something that happened after, and possibly caused, the end of the world. Which, in the real world, remember, never happened.
Angus says later that the slate-grey dunes resemble a Dr Who set circa 1974, when all the outdoor action seemed to take place in oddly earthbound quarries. And he's not wrong. It's easy to imagine a Sea Devil or a Cyberman marching over the hill as Jon Pertwee ushered a screaming Katy Grant into the T.A.R.D.I.S. Except, in the real world, the mountains of ash produced have reclaimed some two hundred hectares of land from the sea by pulverising the ash to create a rich landscape for wildlife, birds and insects to thrive in. Which in itself is a form of ecologically-minded science-fiction come true in much the same way the new Eden contained in Douglas Trumball's 1971 hippified sci-fi flick, Silent Running, reclaimed the earth.
For Jones' purposes, however, the ash dunes must become a bleak and barren desert of future-shocked dystopia where political and artistic theory can be transformed into equally provocative action.
Jones used to be a full time activist, she says, as we drive out of Edinburgh, and became frustrated by the lack of imagination involved in protest, so applied it to more creative forms, performance-based film in particular. In On The Waterfront (2005), a boy's brass band performed the score of Elia Kazan's 1954 film of the same name about corruption in trade unions between two housing blocks in Dublin. 12 Angry Films (2006) similarly referenced Hollywood, both by the project title, and by its reconstitution of the concept of the drive-in movie in Dublin's Docklands by commissioning a series of three-minute films to be made and screened by trade union and community groups. This effectively enabled a form of detournment that attempted to radicalise collective activity and reclaim a social space.
The Spectre and the Sphere (2008) was a history of Marxism involving a spectral performance of Socialist hymn The Internationale played on the theremin by Russian musician Lydia Kavina, grand-nice of Leon Theremin, the inventor of the instrument who would later go on to invent bugging devices for the KGB. Jones' most recent film, The Predicament of Man (2010), was based on Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, and was filmed in Cobber Pedy, in the same desert in Australia where Mad Max was filmed. Jones sees Mad Max's use of science-fiction iconography as very Brechtian, and cites Yugosalvian writer Darko Suvin's analysis of 1970s sci-fi as a form of 'cognitive estrangement' on a par with Brecht's alienation effect.
The 'story' of Against the Realm of the Absolute, then, involves the aftermath of a war between 'us' and 'them,' the death of capitalism, the previously mentioned Megaphone Choir, fractured images of the bodies of assorted 'Mirroresses, ' a futuristic society of women who utilise the shiny triangular structures Jones was polishing earlier, and a form of endless, endless dystopia where apocalypse just can't happen. The film's soundtrack, Jones says, will be a narrative spoken through a vocoder. Another alienation device.
Jones' Mirroresses sound not unlike the female Eternals in Zardoz, John Boorman's 1974 trip into a post-apocalyptic dreamscape, where a pony-tailed and nappied-up Sean Connery lands among a community run by women led by Charlotte Rampling and Sara Kestleman, and in which the men have become impotent. In keeping with the times, the film also features some wigged-out prism action in which multiple faces are reflected at off-kilter angles in what may or may not be a psychedelic homage to Kenneth Anger.
I like psychedelia, says Jones.
The three final set-ups being filmed today, Jones says, are one with all the women holding aloft the placards with the penis and the hand, a stylised group shot of the women throwing stones in formation a la Meyerhold, and, finally, the long-awaited Megaphone Choir, in which the women will be filmed from above while striking a Busby Berkeley style collective pose and declaiming in unison the text that appears on the other placards on board.
This text, referring to a 'straw man' is taken from The End of Capitalism (As we Knew It), the 1996 tome published under the name of J.K Gibson-Graham, the collectively (that word again) constructed pen-name of feminist economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson. The use of the megaphones for such a united action relates to The Shout, Jones says, and is a form of re-enactment as an absurdist gesture.
Born in Flames was a big influence, Jones says, as were all the films she screened at the Filmguild. She wanted to show them, she says, to try and find out the sort of film she wanted to make. But she also wanted to show them collectively in order to initiate some kind of social encounter and begin a conversation that might lead to, well, something. Something like driving out on a wet and windy Sunday lunch-time to an ash lagoon in the middle of nowhere, perhaps.
With such an emphasis on the social, the collective and the participatory, Jones' work is a form of protest by stealth. Or, as Jones herself puts it, protest is a way of reigniting a belief system.
Clutching a clip-board outlining the day's schedule, Jones takes a pen and, turning the page to the small pencil drawings that act as a story-board for yesterday's shooting, scores a big blue line across each one in turn. She's doing something cathartic, she says. Which is also a kind of ritual.
The wind is up beneath the pylons where we're parked, so everyone huddles into the mini-buses to watch the rushes of yesterday's filming on Kate's laptop while devouring an indoor picnic of sandwiches and doughnuts.
Watching the rushes, everything Jones has said becomes clear, including the use of grey costumes on the grey landscape. The footage is silent, and the ratio of the screen isn't right, so the Mirroresses are distorted even more as their bodies bleed into abstract shapes on the big silver triangle shapes. Especially as they shimmer ever so slightly in the wind.
The dimensions look wrong, says Tess. It makes me look nice and skinny.
Does it look like it felt?, asks Kate.
Noooo!, comes the collective reply.
There's a close-up of the Mirroresses feet as they march through the ash.
That looks like the end of the world, says Tess.
By the time lunch has finished and everybody's signed in, Ash has arrived with Jill. Ash realises she's wearing different glasses than she was the day before, and there are worries over continuity. At the end of the day, though, one more Brechtian device can't do any harm.
Still in the car-park, Fiona leads everyone through a physical and vocal warm-up before the Megaphone Choir, aka the Mirroresses, line-up in a row with their megaphones to run through the day's far-off final sequence. Kate and Jenny stand side by side opposite the Choir holding the placards now revealed as cue-cards with J.K. Gibson-Graham's text felt-tipped on.
A cherry-picker that will be used to film the scene from above drives into the car-park, and, while the Choir run through their speech several times, Jones goes over to talk to the driver. After a few false starts, the rehearsal becomes increasingly and impressively tight as the Choir tap into each other's rhythm. After a quick head-count, everyone piles into the mini-bus and heads for the first location.
During the drive past pylons and unmarked buildings, talk between Fiona and Gio turns to the following week's Reclaim the Night March, the annual Edinburgh-based late-night show of strength by women on Edinburgh's city centre streets. This year, it seems, an absurd situation has opened up as the city fathers (and possibly mothers as well) initially informed organisers, who include Fiona, that as it's a Rugby weekend, the Grassmarket should be a no-go zone and the march re-routed lest late-night, largely male groups of outdoor drinkers become antagonised.
As it currently stands, says Fiona, the march has been given another time-slot, which is a not entirely happy compromise. Putting male sports fans interest first, it seems, isn't a new thing. One time Fiona and others were forced to close down a community festival on the advice of the authorities because the football match taking place over a mile away at Easter Road was letting out.
It's been quite a week for old-time misogyny such as this, particularly among men in high places. Tory MP Kenneth Clarke's semantic gaffe concerning his apparent definitions of rape is one thing, but the detainment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now former head of the International Monetary Fund, following the alleged sexual assault of a hotel chambermaid, is far more serious.
The two vans arrive at the first location, which is the one with dunes of ash that Angus likens to a 1974 Dr Who set. The central bank of ash at the centre of one of the ridges isn't as dark as the others either side of it. But nothing's been done to it, as it turns out. It's just finer ash, is all.
The wind is pretty unrelenting and surgical style masks and goggles are handed out lest ash blow into peoples eyes, nose and throat. If you wear a hat and a hood as well while sporting such accoutrements, your reflection in the mini-bus mirror vaguely resembles some early 1990s novelty rave act.
Nevertheless, Tessa, Tess, Jas, Gio, Fiona, Ash, Geraldine and Jill keep their masks and goggles on as they rehearse the stone-throwing in what is essentially a piece of slow-motion classicist choreography overseen by Jones, who gives the group vocal signals for each move as a quarterback would on an American football team.
Jones directs from the bottom of the ridge using one of the megaphones to speak over the wind, tweaking each performer into positions that give the whole image dimension and depth. The wind is blowing in earnest now, and during one of the rehearsals Tess is nearly blown from the top of the ridge as a gust of wind catches her raised placard and almost brings her back down to earth. Everyone works out a way of spinning the placards around that will avoid this. Once Tess is moved to what is the front of a carefully aligned three rows, however, it doesn't stop ash blowing into her eyes, causing another hold-up before Ash almost takes a tumble.
Up until now the group have been going through their motions with coats, masks and goggles on. In a moment, though, the light will be just so, and once they take off their layers so there's only grey on grey, everything changes. With the cameras rolling, each performer turns their placard, with Gio and Tess at the front raising them high. Suddenly they look united, like some out of time arrangement of Ann Lee's Shakers or dressed-down Suffragettes holding a silent vigil.
There's something here too of the Black Power sequences in One Plus One, Jean Luc Godard's 1968 collage best known for its footage of the Rolling Stones recording Sympathy For the Devil. Occupying a junkyard piled high with cars put out for scrap, this militant cell declaim Marxist and Black Power tracts to camera as they pass rifles among them.
If One Plus One was Godard at his most didactic, by 1972's Tous va Bien, starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, the was questioning the very nature of love, revolution and film itself. It is from Tous va Bien that Jones chose the image of the penis cradled by a female hand that adorns the placards in Against The Realm of the Absolute.
There's something in Jones' work too of the guerilla tactics employed by Derek Jarman in his 1987 film, The Last of England, a poetic meditation on life in Thatcher's Britain in which at one-point a big-frocked and windswept Tilda Swinton cavorts on the beach in a manner not unlike some of Jones' Mirroresses. An associate producer and contributor to the soundtrack of Jarman's film, incidentally, was Mayo Thompson, who as leader of the band The Red Krayola has been a long-term collaborator with the Marxist-inspired conceptual art troupe, Art & Language. It was The Red Krayola too who provided the title song for Born in Flames, as sung by Lora Logic backed by Thompson and a band recruited from the late 1970s stable of Rough Trade Records, including bassist Gina Birch of all-female band The Raincoats.
With the group shot in the can, Kate and Eanna film a close shot of Gio. With her dark Latin looks, holding her placard firmly against the wind, she looks powerful, defiant and invincible.
Moving back to the previous location where some flat land sits beside the dunes, Jones directs the group rehearsing the stone sequence some more, running the group through their paces as a trainer would with a decathlon team. Jones runs them through the sequence of movements again and again until, even with their coats and masks back on, they're perfectly in synch, mirroring each other's actions yet retaining their individual physical tics at the same time.
Kate and Eanna wait for the ash to rise up with the wind some more before going for a take, just to make the scene look more dramatic. While they're waiting for the light to be right some more so their shadows are cast extravagantly across the dunes, the now coatless group shield themselves from the wind. Gio clutches her hair, shielding her eyes.
I've got a mountain of coal in my shoe, she exclaims.
Once the camera is rolling, with Jones kneeling on the ash, hood up, watching the action through a monitor, again the show of strength on display both on camera and off is un-nerving.
As Kate and Eanna film assorted cutaways and close-ups, Kate Gray holds a golfing umbrella over the camera to ward off the elements, its 2.99 price tag flapping furiously in the breeze.
With most of the group taking shelter in the mini-bus before moving on to the second location, Kate and Eanna film a close-up of Tessa, who sports what looks like a grey snood on her head, and which gives her the air of Tess of the d'Urbervilles if Thomas Hardy's novel had been set down a coal-mine. As it turns out, the snood turns out to be a skirt, and Tessa was actually named after Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
With the stone throwing scene completed, the wind kicks up with a fury to set off the most dramatic ash clouds of the day thus far.
The convoy of mini-bus, van and the new addition of the cherry-picker makes its way to the second location, though not before the security guard retrieving Jan ash-covered Jones' pass tells her he's never seen such a dirty woman. In truth, though, she's not alone, as Tessa, Tess, Ash and Gio clean out the insides of their ears with toilet roll. In keeping with the science-fiction theme, the Megaphone Choir, it seems, really are the creatures from the ash lagoon.
Fiona leads the group through another warm-up that finds the Megaphone Choir humming in unison in a real life chorale that's only slightly hysterical from all the exposure to the elements over the preceding six hours. Jones thinks it would be good to record it, but there's a hold-up when the battery in Angus' recording equipment dies.
With their megaphones placed on the cracked-grey solid ash floor, to keep warm the group arrange themselves in a circle, and for a moment it looks like such an arrangement could turn into a dance of the seven megaphones, especially when the huge arch of a rainbow appears on the other side of the lagoon. With the Sun going down until the light just before dusk is caught on film, and Kate, Eanna and Jones concentrating on working the cherry-picker, all the Megaphone Choir can do now is practice, practice, practice, however demented people are getting. Then once the light is right, says Jones, there'll only be one chance, and one chance only. Unless, that is, they can push things, to two, or three or more before darkness finally falls.
Tessa's megaphone is feeding back and is glitching up the mutual rhythm of the Choir. Even so, now Angus has recorded their increasingly creepy humming sound which cause all involved to burst out laughing at the end, it's clear they've bonded just as a real choir would. As they declaim J.K. Gibson-Graham's text over and over, Kate and Jenny, still holding the cue cards, conduct them with their heads, with Kate even punching the air to stress the vigour of the words.
It's decided that Tessa should be filmed performing the text solo, and, once she's swapped her screechy megaphone, delivers it with such vibrant intensity that it sounds like the call to arms it was undoubtedly intended as when written. By the time she's finished the rain has come on again, and now two of the megaphones aren't working. Angus manages to fix Gio's but tells her not to adjust the volume knob, which of course she does immediately
I'm sorry, she says, when Angus explains again. I didn't understand the word for knob.
It's 9.12pm, the sun is almost down and everyone is jumping on the spot to stay warm. It's like a parade, laughs Jones, as she kneels astride the flat of the cherry-picker with the monitor in front of her. Sure enough, with the Megaphone Choir surrounding the truck below her, Jones might well be the May Queen holding court over her subjects while aboard some festive float. One more ritual can't hurt, anyway, and who says revolution can't be fun?
It's 10pm now, and from a distance the Choir look like they're shimmying some spontaneous routine that might have been devised not so much by Busby Berkeley as Pan's People having just landed on the Moon. Finally, Kate and Eanna are up on the deck of the elevated cherry-picker ready to roll, coats and masks are off and Jones is just about ready for the perfect take. Except the film needs to be changed now, and Kate's cue card has just blown into Angus' microphone. Angus whistles a wholly inappropriate take on King of the Road before seguing into the Dambusters theme, the light is casting gorgeous silhouettes onto camera, and suddenly it's a take, and the Megaphone Choir are off, sounding strident and unbreakable and invincible once more.
Jones is pushing it now with more cutaways and close-ups. Given the film's subject matter, there's a wonderfully unintentional irony how she refers to her all female cast as 'lads', as in, Okay, lads, one more shot, just one more shot, lads, that's great, lads, as Kate and Eanna pan slowly round the Choir in formation. Then, one final final silhouette of Geraldine in the can for the lads, the Mirroresses and the Megaphone Choir and, at 10.18pm, it's a wrap.
The light may be gone, but the struggle goes on. The world hasn't ended yet.
Commissioned by The Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, for Jesse Jones' film/ exhibition, Against The Realm of the Absolute, Summer 2011. A shorter version was published in a newspaper accompanying the show. There is a longer version which features names of people, places and incidents, including the name of the mystery location, which couldn't be used here at the request of those in charge of the location. One day, when they are no more, they will be named....