Suitcase of Love and Shame

Filmmaker Jane Gillooly

LEF Grantee Jane Gillooly will be premiering her newest film SUITCASE OF LOVE AND SHAME at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on Saturday March 23rd. The film reconstructs a mesmerizing narrative from 60 hours of reel-to-reel audiotape discovered in a suitcase purchased on eBay. Recorded in the 1960’s, the tapes chronicle an adulterous love affair between a Mid-western woman and her lover. Tender, erotic, and pathetic, this forbidden love story plays out in a decade that would soon spawn the sexual revolution

LEF Program Director Sara Archambault spoke to Jane recently about her inspirations, her process, and how to create a feature film from a box of audiotape.

SA: Tell me about when you found the suitcase.

JG: The suitcase came to me because I was looking for collections. I had been researching a film about time with an artist friend S.A. Bachman. One thought was to work with a collection of objects that had been assembled over a period of time. The concept being, to both trace the sources and significance of the objects and interpret their embedded meanings in a contemporary context. This was partially inspired by coming across a collection of my own of all the birth control I’ve used in my life. Not unsurprisingly there is a vast amount of information that can be extracted from the contents of that box — medical, personal, political, societal and sexual. It conjures so much.

My friend Albert Steg knew that I was looking for collections when he discovered this suitcase on eBay in December of 2009. He shared the discovery with me and asked me if I wanted him to place a bid on it. I did, and no one bid against me.

I already knew from the initial eBay ad that this was a chronicle of an affair. The audiotapes arrived in a hard bodied suitcase, not a Samonsite, but similar. The very first impression I had was the smell. It smelled like mildew. I was immediately struck by various memories that this smell evoked for me. I was also struck by how well organized it was. The audiotapes were neatly arranged in rows. The other momentos were grouped in envelopes – very orderly. It occurred to me this may have been organized by the person who posted it on eBay although each of the reel-to-reel boxes were labeled, often dated, and in some cases notated clearly by the original owners.

After listening to a few tapes, I felt I could trust that the dates on the boxes were truthful. But rather than listening to them in chronological order, I started listening to the tapes in a random order and began formulating an interpretation of what had transpired. With every tape I listened to I either imagined it in a scenario or rejected it for the time being. By disregarding the chronology, I had the freedom to re-present the material. I decided early on I would reconstruct a story according to what I imagined could have happened – writing the narrative as I listened and eventually listening for content that supported the narrative I was imagining.

Suitcase of Love and Shame trailer from jane gillooly on Vimeo.

SA: In some ways, discovering reel-to-reel tapes and from them, choosing to create a feature-length feature documentary is an unusual choice. How did you know you had a film hidden in these materials?

JG: It wasn’t difficult for me to know I had a film. What I didn’t know was if I wanted to make a film with images, particularly because the audio recordings are so visual. I knew I wanted to privilege the audiotapes, so the challenge became to figure out how to integrate images without distracting or competing with the audio.

My first “time-based” work was audio driven and cut on reel-to-reel ¼” audiotape. That work, No Applause, was also a narrative collage. It was sourced from audio and visual media that I did not record myself. Most of the work that I have created since has encompassed a strong audio component, often combining voice over, interview, and sound design. The process of listening to hours of audio before I start to structure a film is not foreign to me, in fact, I am more comfortable working that way. I am just as likely to cut a scene based upon audio as I am to cut it based on picture.

I was confronted with an archive that I had the pleasure to distill and I was inspired by how texturally rich these tapes are. The background sounds on them often implied a location so it wasn’t necessary to visually illustrate a setting. I had the option to create a sense of place through sound editing and soundscapes. The sound also provides a level of authenticity that I knew I didn’t want to illustrate in a literal manner. The sighs, the coughs, and giggles, mic noise, the mic cable, machine hum etc. provided a level of intimacy that the slides and photographs in the suitcase couldn’t compete with. I could free-associate any images I wanted, or have nothing on the screen at all. Certain imagery was suggested by the story as I was discovering it – an animal hospital for instance. While other footage was an interpretation of events, presented metaphorically, or completely of my own invention — a result of the process of reimagining.

The audiotapes are not only reminiscent of the mid-1960’s they are truly a document of that period in time. Working almost exclusively with the 60 hours in the suitcase, I give the audience a chronology of events that provide a beginning middle and end — although I took liberties by creating juxtapositions and scenarios that never took place. This is not all that different than the process that takes place in all my work except that in this case I was never allowed the opportunity to ask a question directly to a subject and the subject was never allowed the opportunity to shape an answer specifically for me. I did not feel obliged to present a comprehensive view of the story or the subjects, and as always, I had an impassioned point of view and presented my interpretation of events.

A good deal of this film is reliant on the audience’s willingness to invent/imagine a visual inspired by what they hear. Layered in the film is an intentional attempt to engage the listener/audience and to play with the location of the listener, both inside and outside the film. And who is the listener? Who is eavesdropping? Is it one of the subjects in the film? Is it the audience? I want the audience to see with their ears. I hope that the restrained use of imagery provides an opportunity for multiple visions and interpretations. To give you a specific example, there is a scene where there is a shot of a door that is cracked slightly open with light seeping around the edges and you can hear a radio program on in the background as you’re listening to Tom. I am inviting the viewer to wonder who is sitting behind the door? Is Tom behind the door recording a tape? Or is it Jeannie behind the door listening to a tape Tom made for her? Or is Tom making a tape and his wife is on the other side of the door listening to him while he is recording it?

SA: I particularly enjoyed a sequence in the film where one conversation between the lovers is set against a montage of the seemingly innocuous trappings of life in a suburban neighborhood: a dog sitting on a lawn, a modest split ranch home, etc. However the conversation between them is quite charged, recalling memories of a time when they were taking risqué photographs together. It reminded me of the opening sequence to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet: you’re never quite sure what lies beneath the facade! Can you talk about your visual strategy for the film? With such evocative, rich audio material; how did the role of the visuals evolve in the making of the film?

JG: I felt Suitcase of Love and Shame needed variety and so there are numerous visual devices employed throughout the film, including times when the picture is overt and contrived. In the sequence you describe, Tom is reciting what Jeannie looks like in a series of nude photos that he took of her. There is nothing unique in this — similar indiscretions could have taken place between people in any of the homes the audience seeing. In that sequence I began with a detail of the actual home Jeannie lived in and then transitioned to a street of homes built at that same time in the part of the country where they lived. While it may appear straightforward, that scene was one of the hardest to construct.

I wanted to avoid simply illustrating the audio or providing picture that would compete with the audio. So in some places, I imposed a certain amount of emptiness by using no image, very long static shots, out of focus shots, and seemingly still shots. For example, there is a shot looking out a window at a street corner, the image seems still, but eventually the stoplight changes – you realize this when the color on the pavement shifts from red to green. It’s a minor change, but one that reawakens you.

I built some scenes by combining glimpses of slides that were in the suitcase. The slides were used as a way to include the spectator. Rather than scan the slides, I projected the slides in my studio and digitally recorded them in live action. I composed the shot to crop out what I did not want the audience to see. Some of the machine hum you hear is connected to the slide projector in that room and I hope this adds a sense of presence. I was cutting between the projected slides in a room and film sets that were based on what was pictured in the slides or what I know could have been in Tom or Jeannie’s home. For me it was an attempt to move between the present and the past.

Tom and Jeannie are represented by different tape recorders. I had acquired many of the actual models that they used over the years. While shooting, the recorders were isolated on a deep black stage using elaborate studio lighting and different filter sets on each tape recorder to add personality to specific to the character – glimmer filters for her, black mist filters for him.

Using the black stage to index the contents of the suitcase was another visual motif. I wanted them to appear as if they were floating in space. The tapes, tape boxes and envelops, matchbooks, notes with Tom’s handwriting, Jeannie’s handwriting, etc. Once I decided that Jeannie’s location would frequently be inside looking out a window, with many of her scenes at night or dusk, I thought of shooting some of the windows similarly floating in black so there were visual correspondences.

Finally, I didn’t want anything explicit on the screen for the sex scenes. In fact the absence of explicit imagery is probably more sexual than anything I could have come up with. I imagined the audio content of those scenes evoking something unique to each listener.

SA: The story in the film features sex, lies, secrets, obligations –all the great ingredients to a classic soap opera. But instead of focusing on the drama, I feel you often chose to focus on the in-between moments. And despite the main themes of exhibitionism, privacy and voyeurism so much of the experience of this film is about two things: longing and waiting.

JG: You are correct that longing and waiting are one aspect of what Tom and Jeannie are experiencing on the tapes. The audience is witnessing/listening to Tom and Jeannie’s anticipation and anguish over their separation. Simultaneous to this the audience is having their own experience and questioning their own participation – the audience is compelled to listen, yet feels complicit and at moments, uncomfortable with the knowledge and access they have been given. I hope make the audience feel a certain level of discomfort – I want them to ask themselves if they should they be eavesdropping on these lives? This experience is voyeuristic — there is no doubt about that. Voyeurism was one of my strongest impressions while I was transcribing the tapes. I would argue that I was able to convey this level of discomfort because I share it as well.

SA: You have a rich and diverse portfolio of work. It seems that you push yourself in new directions with each project. Can you talk a bit about your creative process?

JG: My interests are broad and therefore the style and substance of my work changes from one project to the next. Although I am generally drawn to non-fiction and I frequently produce long form films. I spend years researching, writing and producing. It is not uncommon for me to spend a year editing a film. When I finish a project I like to take a break and open myself up to what is next. This is why certain kinds of projects find me, because I make myself available to them. With Suitcase of Love and Shame I was consciously trying to work in a different way. I wanted to go back to my art roots and blend my interest in non-fiction and collage. I wanted to find a project that allowed me the liberty to be ingenious. I am thrilled that this film provided an opportunity to collage real documentation with research and fictional recreation.

Yet projects come to me in different ways, often through friends or connections. With Leona’s Sister Gerri, it was a close friend of mine, Toni Elka who told me her aunt was the woman whose picture had been made infamous in the Reprodcutive Rights movement. Leona… was a story with personal, political and national implications and I did know instantly that it was an important subject and I wanted to make a work about it, although I wasn’t seeking that one out. Similarly with Today the Hawk Takes One Chick, a South African friend and a producer on the film Tracey Kaplan coaxed me to begin research in Southern Africa.

SA: You will soon have your world premiere for Suitcase at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, with several more fests lined up to come. I wonder if you could comment on your experience distributing a film like this. What opportunities do you see for avante-garde work in the current documentary film marketplace?

JG: As you know very little experimental work gets shown, or broadcast, in the US compared to character-driven work and social issue docs. It is uncommon to see some experimental film outside the festival circuit, particularly films made in 16mm. That being said, there are more micro-cinemas and independent screening programs popping up. One positive development is that distribution can be controlled by filmmakers as it becomes more affordable for makers to upload and post their work. Makers can stream and sell their work online immediately and keep it available. Although this is not always the most ideal way to experience a work, it has been beneficial as an artist and educator to have more access to experimental and silent cinema online. Perhaps experimental makers will form more collectives and pool resources like New Day Films (a maker owned distribution company – of which I am a member/owner) who distribute social issue documentary. I have to say they are an impressive group of makers who are constantly innovating new models to keep work available. I hope that there continue to be people willing to catalogue, review and organize new experimental work in databases so the work can be located. Many artists, myself included, do not have the time to self-distribute our work or choose not to spend our time that way. As systems change, I’m going to have to migrate my work to new formats and I’m not sure I’ll always have the time or capacity to do so in the future.

SA: Many filmmakers teach as a way to support their craft. Can you talk about what I can only call the work/work balance and how that figures into your life as an artist?

JG: Working with students is one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life. I am fortunate that I teach in an experimental art school that is a truly vibrant and an inspiring community of students and faculty. To me, collaboration is a necessity as well as an incentive in both the classroom and in my artistic practice. Quite simply, working with and responding to challenges posed by my collaborators and students has strengthened my films and my teaching.

One conundrum is the double-edged sword of technology. I find Skype sessions, and working simultaneously on google docs very productive and surprisingly social and enjoyable. Being able to occupy the same cyber workspace while editing for example is of tremendous interest to me – sharing a desktop, instantly uploading files, exchanging ideas, and getting immediate feedback. It’s great. With that said, my workload as an educator has increased substantially because of advances like this. Most artists/teachers are artists first. I don’t ascribe to the notion that a teacher must stay current with technological changes in the media arts. By extension, in this current learning environment there are more demands on students. Students must be willing to problem solve and research the technology path for their own artworks. This is a crucial component of an artists practice now. Faculty can only lead by example. And remaining devoted to our art practice is good for the students.SA: What’s next?

JG: I limited the selection of material used in this film version to audio that supported this particular narrative and I want to deviate from that structure. As far as the direction of future work – the next pieces will be designed for the gallery and/or listening environments for the theater. For instance, I am currently investigating a way to present an audio-only version of Suitcase of Love and Shame. I am still in the experimental phase, but I know that I want to expand on Tom and Jeannie’s use of technology — their enthrallment with it, especially the ways they relied on tape recorders as a witness, participant and sometimes substitute.

Regardless of how prurient some of the recordings might be to some, I believe they are historically significant and I am compelled to share them. In the current film, I may have spared or denied – depending on how you look at it – the audience the brutality of certain material. I plan to tackle the more explicit content next. Some of the more painful and cruel material – about alcoholism, revenge, and sexual manipulation, which will be salacious, painful, pathetic, and vulnerable. This is tricky and I wonder whether it is possible to avoid judging, exploiting or sentimentalizing these passages of the tapes? I don’t know. What I do know is that I will ever have the complete story.

Suitcase of Love and Shame will be premiering at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 23rd, and has its Boston Premiere at the ICA March 30th. Find details here.