Becky Johnston by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 1 Spring 1981

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


Johnston02

Still from Sleepless Nights, Marie-Paule, and John Lurie.

Sleepless Nights is a S8 Feature Film produced, written, and directed by Becky Johnston/ Voice Overs written by Gary Indiana/ Camera: Michael Oblowitz/ Starring: Marie-Paule, John Lurie, Eric Mitchell and Rene Ricard

Sleepless Nights premiered at the New Cinema in October of 1979.

Betsy Sussler What got you off on the idea of Sleepless Nights?

Becky Johnston Well, I’d been reading a lot of Bataille and so called pornographic literature. I wanted to do something with the idea of using pornographic language but never fulfilling the usual expectation by providing pornographic imagery. So I set up a situation where everyone is referring to a woman. But a woman who becomes an object (sexual) in a very explicit way—a language object. She became the subject of a rape but it was a linguistic rape.

BS Did you identify with any of the male characters?

BJ No, (laughter) I was looking at them as real extreme male types all borrowed from movie stereotypes. Eric plays Sam Spade, Rene quite consciously created his character around Truman Capote and John was the retro psychopath.

BS Why was the psychopath in cowboy clothes?

BJ I wanted to use sets and costumes that pointed to a completely artificial space in order to make them very extreme caricatures. They were all given certain outfits that either fit with the nature of the character or in John’s case, the costumes fit into the adolescent boy landscape.

BS Have you seen Maya Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon?

BJ No, I’ve heard of it.

BS Well, in Meshes, the props, objects, and the woman, assume a special kind of power by the fact that they reappear, juxtaposed with particular incidents, gestures, etc. And it’s not that these objects imply meaning in themselves as much as the insistence of their reoccurring image becomes portentous, magical …

BJ Like a fetish object?

BS Could be … actually, in your case it only applies to the woman, Marie-Paule. What was she?

BJ An obsession.

BS Is that why you shot her in slow motion, so she could be examined?

BJ I hadn’t intended to shoot it in slow motion but the footage looked so inappropriate when it came back from the lab. It didn’t have the quality of something that was very mysterious, and it didn’t displace her at all. She seemed as real as they did and I wanted her to become completely imaginary.

BS Something ethereal and erotic?

BJ Yes, and this is where she was a great actress. She was able to evoke a different relationship with each of the men without saying a word. I gave her such a limited number of things to do. There is a constant—a repertoire of actions—coming towards, moving away, embrace. With Eric it becomes very violent, he grabs her and forces her to embrace, with John it’s very childish, an innocent embrace, and with Rene, the kind of embrace you would do with a father.

BS Did you talk with her about the script? Had she read it?

BJ She didn’t read the whole thing—no. I didn’t want her to read it. I only wanted her to know what her relationship with the three men was and let her go from there.

BS Did you plan on working with her from the beginning?

BJ No, I had actually written it with someone else in mind, but then as I got to know Marie-Paule, it seemed impossible to do it without her. She knew all of the men in the film, and they were comfortable with her. I wanted her to be able to embrace all the men.

BS It seemed much more of a mystery than a detective film even though you used the TV detective show voice-over for the narration. A mystery surrounding Marie-Paule’s character, built through mood and atmosphere—her image, music and the camera movement (which is constantly moving with and around her).

BJ Yes, and the mystery really is, “Who is this woman?” What I wanted to do was set up a schism between the information you were being given about her by the men, which was very literal, very descriptive, she was such and such … and then the way the audience would respond to her and create their own image of her by exploiting their emotions and using really seductive music, making her image as seductive as possible through all the slow motion …

BS It was a seduction and not just a tease?

BJ Yeah, definitely. Not so much to involve the audience in the story but rather to set up a ploy—to create an interface between what you know about her from what the men say and how you feel about her from what you see. As you gradually get more seduced by her image the men’s descriptions of her become more violent, more pornographic.

BS So you never let her speak?

BJ She couldn’t talk because she was the subject of the sentence. It was impossible.

Johnston

Still from Sleepless Nights, Eric Mitchell and Marie-Paule.

BS When did you decide to use the voice-overs?

BJ The film changed several times. As we were shooting it I began to realize that it was much more a parody of itself than I thought it would be—largely because of the sets. I got so into this fantasy of being an interior decorator that the sets took on a character of their own. You couldn’t play anything out realistically in those sets. For instance, when John Lurie is singing, “Your cunt is a trap with teeth. You want to amputate me.” That was intended to be a very violent scene, a head-on shot with a frazzled monologue. It ended up being his playing guitar with the cowboy hat on; completely ludicrous. He consistently did that with his character—brought it to the edge of total ridiculousness—and it worked. Anyway, I knew I wanted the voice-overs to be out of Dragnet but I didn’t know how they would work. In its first edited version, I was afraid the film had no story. So I recut it to lead to one. I knew it would end up with Marie-Paule and John having the same mother, that was it. Then I went to Gary Indiana and he looked at the film and we talked about how they should be written and then worked on them together.

BS Do you think the film is violent?

BJ No, I think I could be accused of mystifying violence, but I don’t think I could be accused of it being violent.

BS Well, I didn’t intend it as an accusation.

BJ But I’m saying I think one could, and for me that’s problematic about the film. I mean there is that whole last sequence, where you aren’t sure, but you assume she’s being killed because she is struggling. But it’s shot in such a way that it’s about movement and gestures of fear and struggle. That death scene uses the same choreography as was used in the dancing scenes between her and the three men throughout the entire film.

BS But that’s what I mean, it’s violent in its persistence …

BJ Yeah, I know what you mean, in that respect it’s a very violent film. It’s violent in terms of setting up a subject, a woman, and consistently abusing the subject linguistically.

BS I don’t think it was simply a linguistic violence. The most haunting thing about the film is that you become possessed by her image. The men in the film are obsessed with their stories of her but the audience becomes possessed by her.

BJ She’s meant to be an enigma, she’s always referred to in the past tense. You never know whether the men did in fact have a relationship with her or whether it was their fabulation about themselves. Then it becomes more about their fantasies of themselves and using her as a text to allow themselves to be read. They were really not delivering lines as much as fantasizing alone.

BS How much do you collaborate on your films?

BJ I have a real double bind, schizophrenic attitude about that because on the one hand I like it when people completely take control, so much so that there is nothing you can do about it … you just have to innovate, you trust them to take over. But I hate it when someone is putting their two cents in without having any emotional or intellectual or any other attachment to it. They only have a genuine interest in telling you what they think. Basically I don’t want to hear it unless they are concerned with how it will affect the outcome of the film as a whole. So I’m not really as open to suggestion as I am open to being completely taken over by someone who will just say, “It has to be done this way.” For instance Rene just knew his character like that, or someone like Michael Oblowitz—he knew what the image should be just by standing and looking at the set. He would tell me what he thought, and we would try it out and if we didn’t like it we would try something else out. Same with Gary Indiana, in fact, the only real collaborative work I’ve done has been working with him.

BS Why incest?

BJ Do you want to know the story of the film?

BS Yeah, sure.

BJ Well, nobody really knows the story of this film. It starts in 1935. Rene is wealthy, young. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman who he really loves, but she isn’t so crazy about him. They stop seeing each other and much later, run into each other at a party. He has a voice-over that describes the meeting. “I was at a party—I remember—I looked across the room and saw her again. It had been so long … the gin and tonics … noise everywhere … the next thing I knew I was waking up in bed next to her. Her hair was wet against her forehead, I kissed her eyes …”

Johnston03

Still from Sleepless Nights, Rene Ricard.

The woman gets pregnant and doesn’t want Rene to have anything to do with the child. She blackmails him for money, saying she’ll spread it all over the papers that he got her pregnant and left her stranded unless he gives her some dough. He gives her the money and she leaves. He never sees her again. And she has other plans up her sleeve, spends all the money he gave her and puts the kid in a foster home. The kid is Marie-Paule. Then the mother marries some creep and they move to the suburbs. They have a son—John Lurie—who’s a bit psychotic. He describes living with them in one of his voice-overs:

“Life in a pigsty, plastic over the furniture, germs in my brain, in my throat, in my microbes. The microbes are destroying me piece by piece. Brown liquid shoved under my nose till I vomit. Trapped. She beats me and runs off with another man every night. I saw him dancing with her. He kissed her hard on the mouth. I think I grabbed her that time …”

He’s your typical Oedipal nut … mother’s a slut, etc. Eventually he freaks out completely and kills her, remember, he says in one scene, “He killed his mother. He killed his mother. He took her by surprise one night as she was coming down the stair.” … He’s so schizophrenic he refers to himself in the third person. So, after he kills her, he gets put away … locked up. In another scene he talks about what happened immediately after the murder. “Afterwards, all I remember was the ride. It was a long ride. My clothes were too tight, but I got to live in a new house with clean walls, and there was no plastic over the furniture, and we had lots of servants.” The ride is a ride to the looney bin and the tight clothes are a straight jacket, the new house and servants are the sanatarium and attendants. But he quickly gets bored with life in the sanatarium and escapes, steals a car and just starts driving, remember the first voice-over in the film, he says, “Escape from a bad dream. I don’t care where I end up. The lights on the road dripping in the rain. They are after me with their guns. Their dogs are dripping blood on their teeth. Her face keeps coming back to me through the windshield.”

Jump back to Marie-Paule. She’s been living with a horrible foster family and decides to run away and look for her real father. All she knows is his name and that he lives in New York. She gets on the highway to hitchhike and is picked up by John Lurie. He doesn’t really have anywhere to go and drives her all the way to NY. On the way, they have an affair, going from one motel to another. He’s completely nuts about her, loves her madly, more obsession … Marie-Paule calls Rene (who is her father, remember?) while on the road and tells him she wants to meet him. He’s understandably a little paranoid, and thinks her mother put her up to it to shake some more bucks out of him. So he hires a detective, Eric Mitchell, to check her out and find out what her game is. Eric is to pretend that he is an old friend of Rene’s. When Marie-Paule arrives, she turns out to be the complete opposite of what Rene expected. He says in a voice-over, “Blood is thicker than water. I met her. She’s ethereal—She can’t be real, she just came up to me and kissed me. That was all I needed …” He invites her to move into the house with him, as a result, John Lurie, who sticks around because he’s still crazy about her, has to stay in a crummy hotel. “Exiled to a fleabag hotel. The wallpaper is the color of a urine sample. Every once in a while I try to see her, but he keeps her trapped in his castle.” Rene can’t stand John and does everything he can to get him out of the picture. He asks Eric to check upon John, find out what his story is. Meanwhile, Marie-Paule and Eric are having a secret affair. He says, “Hotels in back alleys, love on the run. Just to be alone with her I have to find some smelly hotel where the pillowcases look like they were used to wrap trout in …” He keeps the job as detective, checking up on John just to be able to be near Marie-Paule. He finds out a few things, like the car John came up in was stolen, he has a phoney name, but doesn’t connect anything up. Marie-Paule eventually falls in love with Eric but he turns out to be an egotistical sadist who can’t love anyone but himself. He constantly abuses her, treats her terribly. At the same time, John is behaving like a complete lunatic, harassing her, calling up at all hours of the night, spying on her and Eric, and Rene becomes bitter and possessive and denounces both Marie-Paule and Eric as having betrayed him and only wanting him for his money. She decides it’s all a bit too much to handle and leaves without telling anyone. The only thing she leaves behind is an old photograph of her mother for Rene. John stays around in the city for a while, and at one point comes over to Rene’s house. He sees the photograph of his mother and freaks out. Rene tells him that the photo is of Marie-Paule’s mother, a woman he loved once. John goes berserk says he has to find Marie-Paule, he knows where she would be, etc. He scares Rene shitless, and Rene and Eric both work in earnest to find out what the story on John is, the stolen car, phoney name, etc. They find out that he and Marie-Paule had the same mother, and that John killed her, but it’s too late, John has disappeared. They can’t find him and have called the police. The last time we see Marie-Paule in the film is her waking up in bed in the hotel she’s staying at. She hears a noise, sounds like someone’s breaking into her room, and runs to the door to try to close it. Then you see her struggling with someone, but you don’t know who. And then you see her lying in bed, with a voice-over of Rene’s: “I’m so alone I could die. I don’t know myself anymore. Maybe I’ll go away, meet new people. There are no new people. If I could escape from my memories, escape from a bad dream …” So maybe she dies and maybe she doesn’t. I never wanted that to be completely clear.

Johnston04

Still from Sleepless Nights, John Lurie.

BS You fragmented the narrative, with the intention of making the mother and the daughter interchangeable?

BJ Yes, absolutely. When they refer to she, it’s very ambiguous. You always assume they are referring to Marie-Paule, but in many cases John and Rene are talking about the mother.

BS I think the film was instilled with a psychic narrative (and by psychic I mean a form of concentration that exists in the film outside of the text) which could be continuous. This and the fact that the image didn’t necessarily support the soundtrack, obfuscated what was past, present and future. A linear narrative would have been too explicit. Instead, you caught clues.

BJ But the clues are ultimately misleading. What interests me about detective stories is the structure—everything ambiguous is given meaning in a second reading. There are always two stories—the one you experience while actually reading the book, and assume things because of the placement of clues … and the story you retain after finishing, and know exactly how the clues led you to make false assumptions. The reader is either in the position of being duped or knowing too much. But in either case, he/she has to work while reading and afterward. When the final denouement occurs, arbitrary plot twists become comprehensible. You go back, re-track and re-examine what you had thought while reading. And, if the difference between the two is very great, then you know it’s a pretty good book. That was why the whole mother thing came up, because I wanted people to think that when the men spoke of she, it was always Marie-Paule, but in fact, in many cases, it was the mother they were talking about. You obviously would never know that until you had seen the film through to the end.

BS Did you use a secret subtext to inform the narrative?

BJ Yes, in many respects the she is also myself. It’s not being autobiographical, but there’s a lot of me in the woman being described. And a lot of fantasies about what I would like to be or am afraid of. Then the dates that come before each voice over: April 15, 1955 (the day John and Marie-Paule met) is my birthday. April 24 (the day John and Marie-Paule fall in love) is Eric’s birthday and so on.

BS Do you think there’s any connection between the words promiscuity and freedom?

BJ Yes, if you happen to be a man.

––NYC, April 1980

Subway Riders: Amos Poe by Sarah Charlesworth
Poe 03
Related
Women Looking at Other Women by Karyn Kay & Bette Gordon
Kay 01

In conversation, filmmakers Bette Gordon and Karyn Kay pinpoint women’s desire and experience in and out of film.

Michael McClard by Kathy Acker
Motivestill

Motive is a S8 Feature Film produced by Liza Bear and Michael McClard/ Written and directed by Michael McClard/ Starring Jimmy DeSana with Paula Greif, and Tim Collins, John Lurie, Rae Spencer-Cullen and Betsy Sussler. Motive premiered at the New Cinema in April of 1979.

Kelly Reichardt by Gus Van Sant
Reichardt 01 Body

Director Kelly Reichardt first gained widespread notice with her 2006 film Old Joy, a paean to post–9/11 political and personal miasma played out in the campfire conversations and road-trip recollections of two longtime friends in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

Originally published in

BOMB 1, Spring 1981
Read the issue