Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro
As part of our continuing series of interviews conducted in conjunction with the Underground USA Series at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles, we have been able to speak with some of the most original American directors who began to redefine independent cinema beginning in the late 1970s through the 1980s and today.
From this series, we sought out director Beth B not only because we have long been fascinated with her 1993 film, Two Small Bodies, which is based on Neal Bell’s stage play treatment of the tragic case of Alice Crimmins, but also due to her participation in the No Wave movement, which was founded in New York City in the late 1970s and largely inspired this interview to take place.
Beginning with her first film, G-Man in 1978 to her 1982 film, Vortex, which will be screened at Cinefamily on March 24th, to her soon to be released documentary about her artist mother, Ida Applebroog, entitled, Call Her Applebroog, Beth B remains a fiercely independent and intensely personal filmmaker.
Lily Fierro: You made the short film Belladonna with your mother, the fine artist, Ida Applebroog. What was it like for you to not only work with your mother again but also make her the intimate subject of your latest film Call Her Applebroog?
Beth B: Ida and I have always had this almost telepathic relationship where we can sense each other even if we are apart and have not spoken to each other in some time.
In 1989, she and I discovered that we were independently researching the same topics—Freud, Joel Steinberg (the NYC lawyer who murdered his daughter), and Nazi torture doctor, Joseph Mengele. The resulting film, Belladonna, was a collaboration that explored the concept of perpetrator and victim. The “talking heads” format we used was inspired by the “cut-ups” of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin and moved from absurd nonsensical phrasings to a cut up world of horror culminating in a disturbing study of man’s inhumanity to man. It ends with a devastating reading of Freud’s A Child is Being Beaten.
Another example of my unspoken connection with Ida occurred years after Belladonna. In 1997, I did a photo series called Portraits, which was shown at Deitch Projects. I photographed 26 women’s vaginas very close up. The resulting photos were very organic; the intention was to bring a sense of innocence back to a part of our body that is almost always exploited, sanitized, and sexualized. Over a decade later, in 2009, Ida called me to say that she wanted to show me something.
At the time, we lived only a couple of blocks from each other so I headed over to her loft on Broadway. She had a box filled with drawings that she had excavated from the basement—water-stained and wrinkled—and this box contained 168 drawings of her vagina that she had done when I was thirteen years old in 1968. Upon discovering these lost drawings, she then scanned and painted them and then constructed a “vagina house” and displayed them in an exhibition called Mona Lisa. It was extraordinary to realize that I had no prior knowledge of these drawings, that she had forgotten she had done them, and that at times we are psychically and artistically connected in a way that is uncanny, and I have to say, a bit frightening.
Call Her Applebroog was a film that slowly took form, and I really didn’t know I was making a film about Ida. Strange as it may seem, it kind of made itself over the course of fifteen years. I started to film her here and there, but as Ida hates to be filmed, I often abandoned this endeavor that seemed doomed. I was also afraid of how it might affect our relationship and wanted to protect her, I guess. It wasn’t until her show at dOCUMENTA in 2013 that I realized that this was what I had been waiting for. For that exhibition, she decided to show large scale blow ups of very private, personal journals that she had written from 1969-1970 when she was hospitalized after a breakdown. I had never seen the journals before, and this public showing of such intimate writings and drawings gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for—to discuss that which she had previously refused to talk about—our family secrets. It opened the door to voice the unheard, which has been an ongoing obsession and theme in my work.
|Beth B and Ida Applebroog|
Generoso: Thinking about this Underground USA Series at Cinefamily here in Los Angeles and while we’re on the subject of your collaborators that you have worked with in the past, Lydia Lunch has been in multiple works of yours, ranging from the time when you first featured her in Black Box to Vortex to the short film n. How do you see her progression as an artist in your work?
Lydia has always been a force to be reckoned with—she’s an original. She’s changed over the years, softened perhaps, and is often hysterically funny, but when I first met her, she was 17 years old, and she scared the hell out of me. She was this young, extraordinarily talented and complex but puzzling young person. I had never met a woman who was so self-possessed and seemed to know exactly what she was doing, and no one was going to tell her otherwise. Growing up in the 60s, there were very few strong female role models. Lydia’s “balls out” approach to music and performance was inspiring for a whole new generation of women. I’ve always been interested in creating powerful, unconventional roles for women, and Lydia has been the perfect choice in casting to type. For Black Box, in particular, Scott and I thought, “Who would be best in the role of a torturess? Why Lydia of course!” (laughs)
Generoso Fierro: One of the things we find really interesting about your film Vortex is the Reagan era paranoia that is a key part of the narrative, but given that the film was made in 1982 and Reagan’s announcement of Starwars/SDI was not until 1984, it’s interesting that you would include the plot of a corporation trying to sell a laser defense system. What was the inspiration for that if not the famed Reagan press conference?
Beth B: I feel that all of my films have been prescient in some way. Look at Salvation! (1987), which is basically the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker story, which I wrapped up filming just as the Televangelist sex scandal broke. I do have my ear to the ground. It’s about reading between the lines and sensing what’s really going on rather than what we are being told is going on. We’re constantly being fed fact that is really fiction. We see this time and again, especially when it comes to our government’s involvement in heinous crimes around the globe.
Black Box, Vortex, and Salvation! were particularly informed by being part of the New York underground, which allowed me to see and hear things that the masses turn a blind eye to. Especially in the late 70s and 80s, there was a phenomenal scene of artists, filmmakers, writers, actors, and musicians who were looking for answers, who felt like there was nothing to lose and sought answers in an expression of rebellion, but it was also a time when creative people were looking for truths, looking for ways to take action against a corrupt system that had abandoned New York City and left it in a shambles.
So, there was a lot of political debate going on at that time—a search for content and meaning and uncovering the lies. In formulating the film, Black Box (1979), we had done research about how the United States was manufacturing torture devices and exporting them all over the world. This inspired an Orwellian story of the abduction of an innocent youth—no crime, no reason, no release. This was such a reflection of the times back then—no future. And then, decades later when the US involvement in assassinations, war crime, etc. was revealed, people were surprised, but for me, none of this was a surprise because the paranoia is not delusional; it is born out of fact. We live in a culture that chooses to ignore what is really going on and instead chooses to live in some kind of fantasy world…I guess that’s why everyone’s so obsessed with reality TV—faux reality.
We blur the line between fact and fiction in our daily lives. In Thanatopsis (1991), I used Lydia’s voice over, which is a kind of meditation on death, and I contrast this very dark diatribe with images of Lydia walking dully through her daily routine. In a sense, I wanted to show how removed we are from the violence enveloping the world around us. We sit in our comfortable living rooms watching the war on television, and we are absolved of any involvement or guilt. It’s happening somewhere far away, and for us, it becomes fodder for entertainment.
|Lydia Lunch in Thanatopsis|
Revealing unspoken truths are consistent in my work—looking at the fear that rises to the surface when we see something that is out of the norm. But what is “normal” in this crazy world we live in? That’s was I was really trying to investigate in my 2013 documentary feature, Exposed, and what astonished me was that the thing that disturbed audiences the most was Mat Fraser, who is disabled. It’s almost like sexualizing a person with a disability is the last taboo. I found it fascinating because for me personally I find such beauty and grace in that which is unusual or uncommon. It’s like the extraordinary photographs by Diane Arbus. When I was a very young artist still in art school, I discovered her photos and felt so inspired by the way her lens captured her subjects with such respect and reverence. It’s a powerful way to be in the world—letting go of judgment and embracing a sense of acceptance—this is truly liberating.
|Rose Wood in Exposed|
Lily Fierro: With your features and short films you ruminate on the psychological impact of complex and difficult situations. Particularly, I am thinking of your film Out of Sight Out Of Mind, which draws directly from the real life story of the murder trial of Eric Smith. Could you discuss your approach to handling topics and people that could severely polarize audiences?
Beth B: For me, this is a delicate balance. The most important thing is honesty. I try to make my subjects as comfortable as possible and let them know they can stop whenever they want. It’s important to build trust. The hope is that we have a mutual investment and a desire to create something that is ultimately a collaborative effort.
While filming Call Her Applebroog, there were times when my mother said, “Turn the camera off; I will not talk about this.”
People do say that I am tenacious, but that’s part of my job. I am not here to make pretty pictures; that is not my work. My work is a kind of excavation that digs below the surface, which occasionally unearths some uncomfortable issues, often psychological issues, and the hope is that there is some kind of catharsis for my subject and myself and the audience. But, at the end, I am not in charge of the outcome. I put this all together and allow the story to just happen.
Generoso Fierro: As far your ability in bringing forward stories that we, as a society, choose to ignore, I now turn to your 1993 film, Two Small Bodies. By 1993, there had been a couple of narrative films based the Alice Crimmins case such as Where Are the Children and A Question of Guilt. What was it specifically about Neal Bell’s treatment of the Alice Crimmins case that made you want to make it into a feature film?
Beth B: In 1992, after failed attempts to raise money for some larger projects, I started looking for a “two hander.” I loved the idea of two characters alone in a room, and a friend of mine shared with me Neal Bell’s play Two Small Bodies. When I read it, the story moved me. I loved the power struggle that these two characters were inextricably entangled in. Thematically, it resonated with many of my other films. Oddly enough, it also had underlying threads that were very personal to me, but I didn’t understand this until I had finished the film.
My film adaptation and Neal Bell’s treatment of the Alice Crimmins story was more about that dynamic between male and female, in terms of the rebellion that was so much a part of women in the 1960s and 1970s.
When I decided to make the film, I wasn’t conscious of the relationship it had to my personal life and the struggles of my mother when I was growing up. But, when I finished the film, I showed it to my mother, and she cried, and we had a very long discussion, and then I suddenly understood why I had been so drawn to that story. It clarified why the themes of power and control have been an obsession of mine through the years.
If you go back to my film, G-Man (1978), those themes are there as well. Partially, they were inspired by my experience of working the telephones at a house of prostitution in New York City when I was twenty one years old. I worked as the “phone girl/madame,” and my job was to talk on the phone and lure the men to come to the house for a session. I tape recorded those conversations, and in 1978, I did an installation at Artists Space called House Calls.
So, I was answering phones, creating my version of the sexual female and inviting them for a visit. I would meet them at the door and introduce them to the women—at 21, and coming from sunny Southern California, this was beyond eye opening. G-Man was very much based on my experience in the houses, where a lot of the men were coming there to be dominated and to do all sorts of things that I had no idea existed in this world.
This was also my attraction to Two Small Bodies –it’s this power play between the detective and the mother. The detective looks at the woman like a “whore,” as this bad mother who abandoned her children, and she sees him as representing everything that she is rebelling against. Often the inception of an idea is very unconscious for me, and then years later I realize that the true motivation behind my passion for a story came from a deeply personal place.
Lily Fierro: I think that your casting for Two Small Bodies was excellent. Fred Ward as the misogynistic policeman is a clear choice based on his previous roles portraying a policeman in several films, including George Armitage’s Miami Blues and Robert Altman’s The Player. But, Suzy Amis to me is an interesting selection for the role of Eileen Maloney. I became a fan of hers after seeing her in a small crime film called The Big Town with Matt Dillon, and in most films she played the sweet girl next door. By casting Suzy Amis, did you want to increase the absurdity of prosecuting someone who, by physical appearance, looks innocent?
Beth B: Well, I saw her in Maggie Greenwald’s film, The Ballad Of Little Jo, and in that film, Amis played a woman living as a man in the old West. It was a role where she was playing against type, and that’s what I was looking for as well. I met Suzy, and as we talked, she told me that she had a two-year-old child. Eileen, the character she would play, was struggling with the concept of motherhood and career, which was relevant to Suzy as a new parent herself. And now, as I have a thirteen-year-old daughter, I sometimes feel that struggle of balancing a career and family and creativity while keeping your sanity.
Consequently, I think that Suzy was very much in that dialog with herself at that time, and I had to work through a lot of those things for myself, and somehow it felt like the perfect fit. Eileen Maloney was a broken character, yet she was finding her power. There is horrible grief in Two Small Bodies, but there is also this kind of rejoicing in the self, for with loss there is also gain and vice versa. I think one of the most important things is how to make peace with all the conflict in one’s own life, so you can connect with the positive aspects and feel a sense of balance and joy.
Call Her Applebroog opens in New York City at the Metrograph on June 10, 2016 and in Los Angeles in June as well.