Filmmaker Janelle VanderKelen on Horror, Hair-Brushing and "The Linger"

Still from Clara.EXPAND
Still from Clara.
Janelle VanderKelen

There’s an unforgettable scene in Like Water for Chocolate. A woman bakes a cake for the wedding of the man she loves but is not marrying. She weeps into the batter. When the wedding guests eat her cake, they vomit wildly: Her grief poisoned her cooking.

Janelle VanderKelen draws on this moment to explain what she calls “the linger,” a feeling or sense from the past that sticks around. As she sees it, people’s spheres of influence extend far beyond their close acquaintances. A person need not interact with others directly to impact their lives: Actions and emotions echo into the future, long after they have wrapped up in linear time.

Whether VanderKelen is looking at the gender politics of domestic labor, squabbling neighbors she never met, or failed attempts at relating to others, she obsesses over not just what is present or absent, but also what is no longer there but lingers — mundane hauntings that shape our experience of the world.

Her work falls squarely into the avant-garde tradition, defying traditional narrative. Instead of scripts, poems and free writing spark her creative process as a filmmaker. There is little narrative cohesion to her videos. Instead, she shoots objects and reenactments that sometimes feature people, but rarely faces.  In Clara, she depicts an old woman pickling in a claustrophobic farm house. In The Neighbors, she spins an odd story in text and sound about an alienated young woman trying to interact with her neighbors and a dead squirrel in the wall. 

Her soundtracks are exhausting to listen to, intentionally alienating at times, while her images belie her past as a painter and sculptor. She fixates more on composition than movement. She has little documentary preoccupation with giving subjects a voice or representing people in their daily lives, full personalities intact. Rather, she treats the people she shoots like objects of her gaze, her vision, her art. She embraces techniques from horror movies: extreme closeups, obscured images and suspenseful dives into the cracks and crevices of architecture. Instead of using this aesthetic to produce visceral fear, she portrays the difficulties of human relationships and how domesticity can be a prison.

In advance of the screening of her videos at Counterpath (where they'll show with two films by the late avant-grade filmmaker Chick Strand), Westword spoke with VanderKelen about “the linger” and her work.

From World BuildingEXPAND
From World Building
Janelle VanderKelen

Westword: How did you get into filmmaking?

Janelle VanderKelen: I have always been interested in art-making. I went through this trajectory where I started out in painting. Then I was gluing stuff to canvases. I realized, no, sculpture is what I should really be doing. I was making sculptures where the viewer was supposed to interact with them. The sculptures were on wheels, because I was making heavy ceramic work. I needed to move it, and I wanted the viewer to interact. I just wasn't communicating well with the viewers. I said, if you're not going to move these, I'm just going to move them myself. Then I turned to performance, and I was mediating the performance with video. I was very interested in not being present, but in having a trace of the artist's presence be there. That was how I got into video.

I was doing performances focused on reenactments of iconic women like Marie Antoinette. I would do these fictionalized hair-brushing sequences: Marie Antoinette brushing her hair or something similar, and I would film it and project the video, and leave some sort of trace in the gallery space from the performance.

Things started expressing themselves in single-channel work and in more conventional experimental film and video pieces. Conceptual themes like presence or non-presence, what I call "the linger,” this fear of relationship that we hold, how sometimes we can affect somebody years later just by saying a word to them on the street. How far your sphere of influence extends is what I've been more interested in.

Where did you encounter the idea of the linger?

The linger? That deals with research and studies I did in reenactment and history-making, and understanding of personal histories, biographies. I like it because it's more of an effective way of understanding history. Instead of just information, you're thinking about time in a personal way, how a certain smell can trigger a synesthetic experience and a memory of a person's voice — smell affecting memory of sound, those sorts of things. When I say affect, it's more of a visceral experience of the personal.

From World Building.EXPAND
From World Building.
Janelle VanderKelen

And how that relates to history or story?

Yeah...I guess in the way that relates to history, I view that as a subversion of regular history-making, rather than being told in this overarching, socially accepted narrative. The linger and the visceral response to history or to memory of time — I suppose I should stop saying history, because I'm not really interested in it — allows for a subversion of these hegemonic narratives. It allows individuals who are not normally part of history-making to come forward and share their version of events in a different way that is maybe more directly applicable to the viewer, more recognizable and understandable and easily connected.

A lot of your work has to do with your gaze, how you're looking at images. It's very painterly; it's very visceral. But from what I can tell, your work doesn't give subjects a ton of agency. The characters you represent are very much objects. What am I missing? 

The way I was thinking about it is in thinking more about feminine work or feminine labor, which has been historically left out of even Marxist views of how things are put together in the world. In particular, the piece Clara, which deals with pickling and feminine labor and cycles of history: Pickling is something that happens every year, it's in and out with the seasons, it's an intervention and stoppage in the lifespan of a vegetable, a thing that we as humans relate to and eat.

First of all, the agricultural history is one that isn't spoken about or focused on — this onward technical agricultural trajectory. We're not as focused on this thing that is infrastructure that supports everything we do — food-making and generally people who did the food preparation, who were women and didn't necessarily get to voice how they felt.

You're absolutely right: In the films themselves, there is not a voice given to the characters. The focus is more on the interaction with the audience with these individuals.

The Neighbors.EXPAND
The Neighbors.
Janelle VanderKelen

The audio that you're using is obviously this very performative, emotive, experimental score. Can you talk about that in Clara? What's up with the sound in relationship to the subject, the image, and you?

And in relationship to agency, going back to a question you asked previously. The score that you're referencing is composed of vocalizations made by me, just layered one over the other. Maybe the only recognizable sound in that score is a sob or a sigh — just this rattling breath. The score is focused on vocalization, but specifically vocalization that does not carry utility. There are no words spoken. There is no inherent meaning there. That’s not to say there is no meaning made, because, as you said, there is this visceral response. There is emotion produced in response to it. But I'm interested in that as it relates to this look at a specific labor that is generally coded as female, feminine or in the realm of the feminine: canning, labor, the human body going through rote gestures that are supposed to produce something understandable and something that can be capitalized upon.

But I guess with that video, I was more interested in looking at what else was produced by these repetitive gestures, by a body treading on this same path through the kitchen over and over again, season after season. What is the weird surplus that is produced? It almost goes to hauntings. If this female body has gone through and touched this canning jar year after year after year, are her emotions imbued in that?

I was very influenced by Like Water for Chocolate. I was thinking more in that vein: What happens when you cry into the cake batter? That has been a huge formative thing in how I think about the linger.

Going back to the score, I wanted that vocalization — because I view vocalization, speech or speech-making as something we often view as utilitarian, in the same way I was viewing pickling or any sort of female labor and looking at the surpluses. I wanted to know what the surplus of speech was and specifically of a female voice overspeaking. There is an excess here. We're dealing with emotion that we're not comfortable with. I've been told many times about Clara that people are made uncomfortable to the point that they are taken out of the piece, which I really appreciate, and I think that's really profitable.

Still from Clara.EXPAND
Still from Clara.
Janelle VanderKelen

Of all of these movies, Clara is the easiest to talk about.

Because it has the most conventional form or structure; it’s easier to enter into.

Let's talk about The Neighbors. When I watched it and saw how you shot a bowl of cherries, I suspected you were a painter. Talk about who these neighbors in this film are. Are they fictional characters? Is this movie fiction? Non-fiction? The narrator says she gave someone a mixtape. Did you?

Okay. So you assume it's me, the maker, speaking in The Neighbors, right?

I don't know.

You don't know. But that's where you bring your experience in, asking, “Did you actually bring someone a mixtape?” 

So The Neighbors: I was in a living situation where I could not sleep at night. The walls were paper-thin. It was a very small space. It's like (shrieks) “OH MY GOSH!" Then I became very interested in it. The Neighbors is a conglomeration, an archival video. The visuals are a mixtape as well. I pulled from three years of shooting what I found interesting and cobbled together this thing — visually and sonically — and all the relationships in between. As far as your questions go, it is embellished non-fiction. All the things, all of the anecdotes, all of the attempts at relationships that are mentioned and are part of the text of that piece actually happened. I did end up giving somebody a mixtape.

The Neighbors.EXPAND
The Neighbors.
Janelle VanderKelen

What was the deal with the neighbors? Were they fighting? What was happening on the other side of the wall?

I have no idea. I never actually met them or saw them. I was living in a twelve-unit, super-old house with a lot of people. I was realizing that, you know, other than the two guys who had dogs  —  I had stopped them on the sidewalk and was like, "Oh, my gosh. Your dog is so cute. Can I pet him?” — I had met none of my neighbors. I had more empathy for this squirrel living inside the wall that I assumed had passed than for a couple living less than four feet away from me that were maybe having real issues. I'm speaking in hyperbole. Obviously a squirrel is not more human than a human being. But maybe it's easier to relate to in that moment. So that's what the piece is really about: the fluidity of these relationships and how we value them.

From Grey, Blue AndEXPAND
From Grey, Blue And
Janelle VanderKelen

Your videos evoke the horror genre. Can you talk about that and what your experience with horror is?

When we experience what I'm terming the linger, it's an excess we are extremely uncomfortable with. That excess, that question of we do carry things with us, or that maybe if I enter a room and if someone was extremely angry and by sitting in a chair, just by sitting in a chair, maybe there was energy.

I think there are a lot of things that we don't understand that maybe our bodies understand better than we do. That is the realm of horror. Most of horror is ultimately discomfort and maybe a little bit of rage and sadness. The excess specifically that is present in horror films is something that I engage in my work.

VanderKelen's videos will show alongside Chick Strand's films at Counterpath at 8 p.m. Tuesday, September 27, as part of OFF Cinema's "Women of a Thousand Fires, Women of a Thousand Truths: The Poetic Cinema of VanderKelen and Strand."

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