“The skin, the aging, the imperfection, the colour, the beauty”

By Sophie Mayer

jennifer-reeves.jpgJennifer Reeves

Jennifer Reeves’ When It Was Blue

It’s par for the course to have a standing ovation at a film festival, especially when the filmmaker’s in the house. But the wave of applause that flowed after the final, glowing frames of When It Was Blue felt different: not only had the packed theatre turned out to see, not a blockbuster, but the final 2008 screening of Wavelengths, the Toronto International Film Festival’s experimental film and video programme, but the filmmaker – a visibly pregnant and ecstatic Jennifer Reeves – was accompanied by Skúli Sverrison, the acclaimed Icelandic musician, who had flown through a hurricane to perform his live score for the film.

Reeves and Sverrison were deservedly fêted; the film’s cascading, luminous montage belies the incredible four years of effort that went into creating a feature-length 16mm dual projection. Reeves put her footage through intensive processing: much of it was laboriously hand-painted, sometimes over photographic imagery (she joked that for future projects she had thought “about teaching my kid to paint on film rather than finger-paint – they’d be the youngest co-director ever!”); followed by-packing with an optical printer, re-photographing two strands of film. Editing became incredibly complex, said Reeves when I spoke with her the day after the screening (and a late-night celebration). “I did think of it in terms of writing music on paper before you can hear it,” not least because she edited concurrently to Sverrison’s composition work, the two artists exchanging drafts and ideas in conversation. “I just had a light table and two strands, and had to imagine how it would come together.”

when-it-was-blue-jennifer-reeves.jpgWhen it Was Blue, 2008

Reeves, who lives in New York, shot about three-quarters of the footage when she took her Bolex around the US East Coast to the Berkshires, Massachusetts, and upstate NY, and on trips to Vancouver, Iceland, New Zealand, and even Costa Rica on her honeymoon. “I worked during it,” she said with a laugh, “that’s my style. I was trying to create a composite of the world through hitting different corners.” At one point, a bird from the Galapagos flies through upstate New York, after clouds from Nebraska. As for the eruptive sequence at the heart of the film, underscored by Sverrison’s spookiest sounds: “The volcanoes are found footage, but I shot the black and white aspects of that section in Iceland. That was some of the earliest footage, shot in 2003 before I even knew I was making the film.”

The resulting work feels like a dream emerging slowly from an artist’s unconscious, with its constant forward motion produced by the co-incidences and mismatches of the dual projection, and the rhyming colours of blueberries, blue trees, blue skies, and blue footed boobies, picked up in Sverrison’s Nordic take on the blues. His gently plucked guitar music softens the rapid editing of sections of warped and damaged film; later, blots on the film register as (an illusion of?) water, scored by naturalistic storm sounds that blend Sverisson’s playing and recorded natural sounds. For Reeves, sound was integral to her conception of the project. “I started collecting sounds in different places, including the jungle in Costa Rica and Yakushima Island in Japan, which was also Miyazaki’s inspiration. I have done lots of sound work before; usually my sound work is more radical, but here it was about natural sound being interesting, mismatched and mixed as counterpoint.” There’s a glorious, radical simplicity to the complexity on show, in the harmonic composition of natural sounds that achieves the density of natural space, and in the organic growth over four years in between other projects – which seems appropriate for a film not so much about the natural world, as sprung from it.

when-it-was-blue-jennifer-reeves-2.jpgWhen it Was Blue, 2008

Ideas and images have been seeded, mulched, dug under, and grown root systems that spread across the celluloid as hand-painted lines and upside-down images of trees, as animated symbols and diagrams that are almost decomposed back into the natural world they attempt to explain. It’s this rooting in the earth that moves the film beyond the oneiric properties of a catalogue film like Decasia. It’s a cinematic version of the Svalbard International Seed Vault: a massed record of the world through colours and seasons, its echoing but never matching patterns. Its scale and diversity, its colours and intensities, tread the boundary between celebration and mourning. “There are things in the film that don’t exist anymore,” said Reeves of her use of found footage from the 1930s to 60s. “It was a conscious eco-impulse’ People are out of touch with the natural world, they can’t go to it, so the Green movement has become abstracted to statistics. I just wanted to bring the nature back. So the film goes backwards, away from civilisation towards a garden.” Nature’s miniature dramas and narratives are presented kaleidoscopically, asking why a snake’s or tapir’s journey should be of less interest than a human’s, or why we don’t see buddleia as being as insurgent and explosive as a volcano.

Changes in scale are bridged by the unique textuality of the medium, its tactility and artefactuality. 16mm is crucial to Reeves, who started a blog called Not Dead Yet (I love 16mm) after the two 16mm labs that she used in New York closed in 2008. “Film is magical,” posited Reeves. “In both the high contrast black and white, and the hand painted, it’s magic because you create something you might not see otherwise, that’s only possible on film. It always surprises me, there’s always discovery. You create something rather than making it look natural. Video’s not the real world; it doesn’t stand in for the human body the way film can. I think it actually has this connection to the human body – the skin, the aging, the imperfection, the colour, the beauty. It’s more surprising, organic, imperfect.” The film’s imperfect, personal vision of the world has hints of Brakhage, but more so of the whimsical precision and intimate accessibility of Margaret Tait or Marie Menken.

when-it-was-blue-jennifer-reeves-3.jpgWhen it Was Blue, 2008

Having reflected on the available models, she had to work out “how to bring people through that non-verbal experience so that it’s not just visual, but an emotional journey. I’ve made a lot of abstract films, but I’m taking what I learned about the pacing of a feature film from The Time We Killed, and also what I learned about montage.” Reeves’ first feature-length film, The Time We Killed, a sexy lesbian noir that remakes Rear Window with experimental poet Lisa Jarnot stuck looking out the window at/through the paranoia of post-9/11 New York, premiered in the Forum at Berlin and won the Fipresci award. “I had distributors and buzz, but it was a demoralising experience as the following year there was interest, but everyone said ‘No, we’re going to pass on that.’ Every festival was so full of stress.” With success, and with lesbian and gay festivals programming the film, Reeves was labelled a lesbian filmmaker. “I never claimed to be a lesbian,” she said, as we discussed the frequent erasure of bisexuality and its importance as a specific identity. “Bisexuality helps me understand more: I’m still most interested in female characters. It’s not just political, it’s what I want to see.”

She is also planning a return to “themes of lesbian romance, so I feel that I’m in touch with that part of myself through my work. It’s been tough to hone my craft and become a really articulate filmmaker, to have control over the medium and express what I want to express. I want to make one of those narrative features that hits people like it did last night.” As a dual projection with live music, When It Was Blue is an event, a moment in time only possible when Reeves and Sverrison coincide with each other and 16mm projectors. The sense of occasion informs the film’s symphonic structure; “it’s the culmination of three dual-projection films I’ve made since 2003. I put it all into this knowing it’s the end of the cycle. Although, after last night’s response, I want to make another one!” Or possibly, “become a birder or learn about plants and trees…”

Summing up the moment [in September 2008], she said that for her “there’s three wonderful things potentially happening right now: a new film, making a baby, and if Barack wins… This is a fantastic, amazing year. It was so nice to work on a film that was not depressing!” When It Was Blue commingles the avant-garde heritage of 16mm to infuse emotion, and lived experience, into its abstract essay on nature documentary. This is a response to Reeves’ feeling about films often mentioned as similar projects: “I watched Koyanisqatsi (which is really a big-budget movie), and also Decasia; those are really formal, amazing films but they’re not personal.” Love and pregnancy seem bound up with the film’s wonder at the world feels akin to a child’s-eye view; the dazzle of colour and shape would entrance young viewers. It also feels like a parent’s gift: an archive or legacy, a document of loss, and a promise of renewal. As the film moves from late summer through fall and winter to spring and summer, the final scene shot in Reeves’ childhood garden, the viewer senses the livedness of this film. “Within those seasonal sections, there’s a concept of days: you see moons, then fades to black,” and we are lulled by those rhythms, by the warm closeness of the world’s cinematic “skin, the aging, the imperfection, the colour, the beauty.”

It is hoped that When It Was Blue will be seen in the UK and elsewhere in the near future. For more information go to Jennifer Reeve's website: http://home.earthlink.net/~jennreeves/

Sophie Mayer is Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anglophone and Francophone Cinema at the University of Cambridge. Her book The Cinema of Sally Potter is out with Wallflower Press in the Spring.