Setting soundtracks to the desert, the sea, and the sky.
Laida Lertxundi makes films using landscape and sounds. The first of Laida’s films I saw was Footnotes to a House of Love (2007), a thirteen-minute 16mm film in which a few people spend time in and around a dilapidated house in a southern California desert listening to Shangri-Las cassettes along with other, less immediately recognizable sounds. Footnotes struck me visually and sonically, though at the time I don’t think I was able to fully grasp the complexity in method or the way in which she, as Genevieve Yue has phrased it, "treats feeling as material.” As I moved through her filmography, Laida’s films felt threaded together. They could locate minutes that I felt I had already seen, previously collected but unnoticed until now, almost memories-in-progress—the sun at a particular time of day, the quiet feeling of being at home with another person, simply co-existing.
I am interested in her choice of careful frames, her relation to the body and its representation, and how uniquely and interestingly she succeeds in emphasizing the aural environment so that it directly influences and cannot be pulled apart from the image. There is a mysterious quality to her films that is both natural and unpretentious. I watch her films over and over again, the same way I’ve rewound a mix-tape over and over again to a specific track that pulls me out of myself.
Born in Bilbao, Spain, Lertxundi has had solo exhibitions at Alhóndiga Bilbao (2014) and Marta Cervera Gallery in Madrid (2013), and her work has been exhibited at the 2013 LIAF Biennial, 2013 Lyon Biennial and the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Lertxundi is also a film and video programmer in the US and Spain and has published numerous articles on film, most recently in the anthology La Risa Oblicua and in Bostezo magazine. She teaches film at the University of California San Diego and resides in Los Angeles. Her last film, We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning (2014) had its New York premiere this summer at BAMcinemaFest and has already exhibited internationally.
A few weeks after a preview screening of Utskor: Either/Or (2013), Laida came to meet me in between screenings at Spectacle, a microcinema in Williamsburg. It was December, in the middle of a blizzard, and I remember the snow was twice as deep when we left a couple hours later as it had been when we’d begun. I program films at Spectacle, and Laida and I began our conversation around curation.
Katie Bradshaw I read that you curate film programs at Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. Are you still programming?
Laida Lertxundi I curated at CCCB for ten years, and now when I’m asked to show my films, I show them with other people’s work that I care about. I recently curated a screening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. I was at an artist residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts for a couple months and Steve Polta from San Francisco Cinematheque asked me to do a show. I showed The Room Called Heaven with Keep in Touch by Jean Claude Rousseau, Beatrice Gibson’s film Agatha, and a film by Harun Farocki called Ein Bild (An Image), which is about the process of making the cover photograph of Playboy.
KB Why did you want to show these films together?
LL They were works from different contexts that I threaded together in dialogue with a Giorgio Agamben essay titled "Notes on Gesture." He talks about gesture as the essence of cinema, and what makes it a social medium. He writes about the bourgeoisie losing its composure, and scientific studies that used film to record uncomposed movements and breakdowns of the body. All the films had a lot to do with body language and gesture.
KB The phrase “uncomposed movements” reminds me of the way bodies inhabit space in your films. In Footnotes to a House of Love, for example, were you constructing the environment up from nothing and then filming what happened? Did you direct particular actions within the space?
LL I’ll tell people what to do and what the parameters are within that situation, but not how to do it. It’s not about choreography, acting, or a way of doing something, but about what happens once these things are put in place—a way of being through the work. It’s interesting to look at Footnotes in relationship to Utskor: Either/Or, because they’re very similar in terms of method. I settle into a place where I have a lot of time. I either live there for a while or go there often, and different people come and coinhabit with me. In Footnotes we found this abandoned house in the desert and spent six months going there.
I wanted to enable a space where people were really comfortable and were able to be intimate, or if they were uncomfortable, be okay with showing that on camera. It’s a very specific emotional and social space, and there are a lot of things at play. Part of it is not making it feel like work, like a crew. I spend a lot of time not filming, but just looking and listening and being with people in the place.
KB Was Utskor a similar situation, did you live there for a time?
LL I was in Norway for about two and a half months total, which wasn’t very long. I like to have more time. We couldn’t afford being anywhere in the archipelago of Lofoten in the Arctic Circle, so we ended up in Utskor, which is a town way up north in Nordland. There are six houses in the village, and only one that is inhabited year round. To get one errand done you had to travel about four hours over bridges and in boats. It was the most remote place I’d ever been in.
People would visit to be in the film and just stay with us. Christina C. Nguyen came with me, and then friends from Spain and New York came. The family I was shooting with was from Norway and Germany. The house itself had this 1800s look and 1950s decoration. Without distractions, we were very awake to the feeling of time passing and of our presence there. Our only neighbors were sheep. Utskor is a character in the film, this place you could be in love with. That’s why the Utskor sign keeps coming back.
KB There is a scene where you layer a shot of the setting sun on the ocean over a recording of 23-F, the attempted coup d'etat in Madrid in 1981. Can you talk about this audio and the combination?
LL I used the sound of the coup d’état against the midnight sun. The midnight sun is a sun that doesn’t set. It happens that far north, and it is spectacular. The sound of 23-F marks my whole generation in Spain. My mom was pregnant with me when it happened, and I was born about two months later, so I like to imagine I heard it as well. There is a transition of red that comes just before that shot, the red having to do with that very charged time of transition from Franco to a democracy in Spain.
KB The midnight sun as symbolic in regards to Spanish politics? The sun that hasn’t set and won’t set, the unrest that isn’t over …
LL Yes, and that day, February 23, 1981, was an either/or moment. Until midnight of that day people didn’t know what was going to happen. We could have reverted to a dictatorship. My parents were packing.
KB Your use of speech and text is different in Utskor than your other films. The scene in which the child is reading Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State stands out especially because it’s so referential. I search for meaning in the inclusion of this text.
LL Are you looking for the message?
KB Well, there’s a text read about family and we’re thinking about and seeing a family. There’s a clearer relationship between people. In your other films there seems to be definitely less of a narrative thread.
LL I agree, the family has a more clear relationship.
KB Yes, but I don’t really want to say “narrative” or “message,” because I don’t get the sense that you’re pushing either, but I guess in contrast to your other films, it feels in Utskor that you were playing with or concerned with making these references more directly. One could read a meaning in the child reading Engels.
LL It's satisfying to work with these texts because I’m so familiar with them and this political climate. I grew up in a country in constant political unrest. It’s not just about the surface meaning of the text. The kids reading Engels is an autobiographical moment. For some people it might feel narrow, but for me it feels open, like an entry point.
I teach a class where I show Alexander Kluge’s Brutality in Stone, and we think about representations of suffering. The film makes a collage of Hitler’s speeches and Nazi architectural plans to illustrate a certain brutality; it’s brought to the surface, but not explained. I’m interested in this way of dealing with political matter where meaning remains latent, and not having to resolve it for an audience.
KB Not trying to represent or explain the feeling and failing.
LL And making something open that makes you want to know more about that event. Reading Engels you can feel his feminism. I was interested in this young family, what it means to reproduce, and how they were thinking about doing it on their own terms. Sarah Schipschack, the woman in the film, and Leif Magne Tangen, her partner from Vitakuben, were producing the film. Sarah’s presence in the film is very important, her strength and her ability to nurture. She’s the mother of the little one. She’s been a friend of mine through my work.
The film plays with Utskor as a palimpsest, inhabited by another place and time. The editing is very abrupt, and there’s this feeling of something about to blow up, a familiar feeling.
KB In this film I feel like we're experiencing more non-diegetic music. There are fewer tape players visible than in your earlier work, and there is no one playing an instrument on-screen. You’re almost creating an environment where the sounds we're hearing might be played, like the recording from the coup. There is also the song by the Hucksters played over a shot of the Utskor sign which is played completely off-screen. Were you experimenting with different uses of sound in this film?
LL It is all still diegetic sound. When you see the sign of Utskor and hear that Hucksters song, it’s playing in a car that is right below the sign. It’s off-screen sync sound. So the technique is the same, but the use of overt text is different. I was thinking about language as another sound material recorded within the same space.
KB I want to watch all of your films again thinking about where all the sounds are coming from, knowing that you’re sticking to the rules.
LL Yeah! Like from the kitchen we see the close-ups of the mountains and the sound cuts to Bobby Bland. He had just passed away that summer. It seems symbolically diegetic: “I hear this in this room but I’m looking at that mountain through the window.”
KB I was thinking that the sounds of people speaking and reading were so different than the music played through the films, but really it’s the same in terms of sound.
LL Yes, and what I liked about the part where the child is reading, is that she’s Norwegian and German and she’s reading in English, and her German mom is trying to help her pronounce the English words. At the same time the baby is making all these sounds. Language is also sound.
KB And the voice is part of the body. So starting to think of speech and language as another sound that derives feeling or atmosphere, as we might experience ambient sound or song.
LL Right, it’s not just about this text, it’s about these bodies trying to make this text legible. The baby’s interrupting and the girl is reading and stumbling over words like “opposition.”
KB There’s still a different quality to the reading of the text than the Bobby Bland song, for example. But one can of course read meaning into the songs, maybe more so than the speaking parts.
LL In Utskor there are more words than in my previous films. In The Room Called Heaven, right before a man gets ice water poured on his head, the song says, “You set my heart on fire.” So right before the ice, there’s fire. Later the lyrics of a song say, “Images blue, yellow and green,” and you might remember seeing those colors in the film. The images and the words are in dialogue. So there’s some language in my other films. In The Room, the person pouring says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and very quietly the other says, “It’s OK, keep pouring.”
KB You’ve talked about bringing your soundtracks to the foreground. I think the sounds in your films take precedence over the images. It’s as though they move the image and carry the film.
LL Yes, sound is not an accompaniment. I never disassociate the process of editing sound from that of images. There is this Michel Chion phrase I love about the predominance of sound: “a ‘heard space’ in which the ‘seen’ bathes.”
KB Do you ever start making a film with a song in mind? Or do the songs usually come after?
LL The song becomes this piece that responds in rhythm, emotion, or content to the environment it’s in, to the landscapes, people, props, and rooms but also to its location in the film. I try out different versions first.
KB And how do you “cast” your films? Did you know you wanted Josette Chiang to be the woman on the bed in A Lax Riddle Unit?
LL I’m interested in the comfort and intimacy you can feel with someone, while so much of them is unknown to you. I asked Josette if she’d be around to help with the Lax shoot and if she’d be in the movie, and she said, “Be in the movie? No way!” That’s the common denominator, if someone doesn’t want to be in the film or has resistance. If they don’t want to be on camera and if we can make it work, it’s like working through something and it’s an interesting challenge. If they’re going to act, you can see it in their face, and that’s going to ruin everything.
KB (laughter) So you’re not looking for people who will take it as an opportunity to act?
LL If they want to act in the film, you can see it in their body. When I was shooting The Room we tried doing a shot of a friend's hand reaching into a fruit bowl. He was acting through his hand! (laughter) It’s pretty subtle … But I definitely don’t use actors, just a mixture of people I know and don’t know. I look for that line between people just being themselves and knowing they’re on camera. I usually work with people who can be pretty deadpan.
It’s a tricky thing finding a person who can take the gaze of the camera, and not change for it. That’s something I love in Peggy Ahwesh’s work, who was my teacher. People in her films seem to be themselves, while also acknowledging the camera. She gets it from Andy Warhol’s films, I think. There’s no suspension of disbelief.
KB Like acknowledging that the camera is almost a person, or some kind of presence. I like that scene in The Room Called Heaven when the train comes and Christina is standing near the tracks, and she just looks around and walks off camera. The action feels very unrehearsed, or sort of accidental, the way she just leaves.
LL Yeah, I told her to try to be as immobile as possible to enable this contrast with the motion behind her, and I think she was hypnotized by the loudness of the sound. She has to wake up and look around before she passes.
I will tell a person to do something but not the amount of time we are going to shoot for. I always tell people to keep going, if the camera is running to just keep doing what they’re doing and to not feel like they’ve made a mistake. Hopefully that is avoided, because there aren’t rehearsals and there are always a lot of versions of things. It’s not a very economical way to work! (laughter) But there are so many things that could happen which could be useful.
KB I’ve felt an intimacy in many of your films, a sense of being comfortable and at home. I really like A Lax Riddle Unit for this reason. In Genevieve Yue’s interview with you in Film Quarterly, you said that particular film was you sort of “catching your breath.”
LL Well, the film I had made before, Cry When It Happens, felt really ambitious for me. It involved more people, more landscapes, more shoots. I felt a little more like I was putting people to work or something. The process itself was more mysterious and intense. With longer films there is sometimes this feeling of things falling apart, machines breaking down, and with doing films with live sync-sound ... It can be a mess. This might be a shot, or this might be nothing.
Lax was a return to a shorter piece with fewer settings, which is centered around a few moments. There were less people involved. It was mostly shot in my own apartment at the time, so it felt like I could hold everything together. Cry is composed of static shots except for two pans that are symmetrical in their places in the film, one going right and one going left. Lax is all movement. I thought of opening the aperture as a kind of movement. I had worked with dollies before and I wanted to build something homemade with wheels that moved 360 degrees, so when I pushed it down the hallway the movement recorded feels like walking in space. You move forward but you look around. If you use a real dolly, you find this perfectly controlled forward movement. It doesn’t feel like a body. I’m glad you liked that film.
KB You often do so many interesting things with landscapes and wide spaces, so it was interesting to see what you were going to do with the space inside of an apartment. You do move outside near the end of Lax with shots of the city, but there’s this different kind of feeling. You tap into the feeling of being in a space in which you’re comfortable, a place in which you could stay forever, though it doesn’t feel closed in. It feels vast.
I noticed a thread between Lax and your earlier film, My Tears Are Dry. Both films are set in an intimate indoor space, and the "she" in the film is alone. Tears evokes a feeling of being alone, and it’s about longing. Hoagy Lands’ song is about being alone, maybe finding someone new, but being alone now. Lax shows us what is longed for, and the film seems to exist in a place of memory. Specifically in that scene on the bed when she turns over and faces the camera, I don’t feel like she’s alone, I feel like she’s with somebody. But the camera is both present and absent, it feels ghost-like or out-of-body.
LL I like that, the idea that Lax has more of a feeling of company. I was making the movie with three people, one of whom is doing sound off camera. The camera and I are another person in the room. What is that role of the camera? When Josette looks at the camera, it seems like she’s addressing it, me, us. That is unusual.
KB Yes, she turns her head to look at the camera. There’s another moment where a woman looks directly at the camera, in Footnotes. These moments stand out. The back of the head is actually featured more often in your films.
LL (laughter) Yes.
KB It could be a number of people really. Actually, it was a little embarrassing to realize that it wasn’t the same person appearing over and over, this mysterious person with long black hair.
LL Yes, the back of the head ... You see someone seeing, instead of being afforded the pleasure to look at them. Some people tell me they see three people in a film, some people tell me they see fifteen. I am drawn to this space in the films where certain things become blurred, in gender and relationships, in how many people there are. There’s something comforting in that.
KB The sky comes back repeatedly in your films, and it’s full of potential. But it’s this void, a very breathable void but still overwhelming.
LL In my films there’s a play between what is really open and large and what is very intimate, like medium close-ups of objects and parts. Meaning and affect will carry through those changes, and get projected onto the sky.
KB Your use of superimposition in The Room Called Heaven is a powerful device, with the doors superimposed over the sky and the waves. I really like the opening and closing of the doors. Are we pulled in or pushed out?
LL I like this state in which you are moved, but you’re also thinking about the process. In the shots you mention, the hypnotizing effect is made with a wrinkled sheet which you can see behind the sky. There’s something pretty basic about it.
KB You use bed sheets frequently: red sheets as a transition point in Utskor, sheets in the sand in Footnotes. The first film of yours I saw was Footnotes, when I was interning for the PDX Fest. I was helping to watch the film submissions.
LL You said you were confused by the film?
KB (laughter) I remember that I really liked the film, but without sort of more background about your structures and the rules you were using, I felt confused. I remember seeing this construction of a kind of dreamscape; the combination of the desert, these people, the beauty. And the soundtrack of soul music and girl groups conjured up dreamy, nostalgic feelings. I think I had a sense of resistance to the way you were dissecting bodies in your cropped shots. But basically it was problematic to me that I couldn’t figure out why I liked the film, if that makes sense.
Footnotes would have been so different if it had been close-ups of faces, with the setting and the light. Then the film would feel like it was only about love or beauty, because we create stories with the face, of course. We would read into the faces to find things we think we saw. But your emphasis is never on the face or the expression, and the body’s not really the subject. It’s not given more importance than anything else, and we’re not even necessarily looking at it.
LL The face is so interesting that it can be distracting. We want to read every expression. It’s also emotional, it has this heightened feeling but we can’t define what it is. Footnotes was partly inspired by westerns too. The abandoned house felt like a house out of a John Ford movie, and the film was playing against narrative. The length of the shots doesn’t feel coherent.
KB And your framing doesn’t either, holding this “off center” shot steadily. There’s a shot of the tape player and two people kissing almost off frame. You can’t see their faces, you can’t see them kissing, and while our attention is drawn to them, you’re so purposefully focused on the tape player. There’s this tension, maybe that’s this feeling of confusion I’m talking about. You really want to see this action happening, but you can’t.
LL It has to do with displacing where the center of something is. The viewer wants it to be about people or a character, but it’s about sound, or a space, or a building. I rearrange and take apart these formal conventions and then you have to enter a new space, and maybe there’s something freeing in that. I began playing with form or habit and the way we anticipate things happening in a film. I think it’s productive, when there’s something happening in the form that’s uncomfortable.
KB After you made Footnotes, did you think, “OK, I’m going to keep going with that”? I mean experimenting with, as you said, “displacing the center”?
LL I think I am one of those people who works on the same thing over and over, using the same tools or ideas in repetition. This might sound boring, but I think if I can stick to something very closely, I will see it change as well.
For more about Laida Lertxundi's films, exhibitions, and screenings click here.
Katie Bradshaw is a Brooklyn-based poet and film programmer at Spectacle.