Monday, September 24, 2007
Michael V. Smith and Elizabeth Bachinsky on Wolf Lake
Vancouver queer culture advocate, novelist, poet, and filmmaker Michael V. Smith has a new short film in this year’s VIFF, “Wolf Lake,” playing as part of the program Storm Surge on October 7th and 8th at the Pacific Cinematheque. The film is based on a work by BC poet Elizabeth Bachinsky – recently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for her second volume of poetry, Home of Sudden Service, in which “Wolf Lake” appears. I spoke to both Elizabeth and Michael about the film; the two are pictured above on the Staten Island ferry in New York, where the film played as part of the Scanners Video Festival (an offshoot of the NYFF) earlier this year.
The poem itself has an interesting history; it began as a response to another poem of the same name, by fellow BC-er Matt Rader, who read it at the now-defunct Sugar Refinery one night with Liz in attendance. “I wanted to write a response,” she explains. “In Matt Rader’s poem, two boys drive out to the woods, and they’re going to go hunting or fishing or swimming or something like that. And they come across this guy pulling a woman out of the trunk of his car and carrying her off into the woods. The poem ends with the image of Pete – one of the boys – reaching back for his gun,” as if he’s going to intercede. I asked Liz if she was offended by the piece, and she rather carefully avoided an affirmative answer, explaining: “Guys are always writing about women – I thought, maybe let’s hear from the woman.”
The narrator of Elizabeth’s poem is dead: “It’s a posthumous voice,” she says; “We know who the character is when we’re going into it." Her assailant is an ex-boyfriend, whom she had thought she was still friends with. "I guess I’m like all girls – you’ve got that paranoid thought in the back of your mind that the ones you trust the most are the most likely to kill you. Guys can be really weird.”
After being stabbed, her dying narrator – dazed and betrayed, but not completely surprised at the turn of events – describes a bumpy ride in the trunk of a car, and then being carried off into the woods to be dumped. “You know, you hear about the Body/ all the time: They found the Body.../ The Body was found... and then you are one.” It’s unsettling in the extreme, and one of the young poet’s most compelling works.
Liz reads the poem as a voiceover soundtrack to Michael’s images.
(photo by Dave Aharonian)
Matt and Liz “have a very different understanding” of Matt’s original poem, Michael V. Smith tells me. The filmmaker – a longtime friend of both poets – knew Matt’s piece before Liz had written hers. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that his poem is anti-female, but it’s part of a culture that is, and it certainly doesn’t help the pro-female,” Michael explains by phone, then stops himself. “Well, maybe it does, by showing women as victims of assault. But I think Liz wanted more help than just the spectacle... I really appreciated Liz’s feminist revision of that fiction. Because I understand wanting to hear your stories and wanting to give voice to even literary experiences where you feel silenced. Feminism and queer politics are very similar, and they have a similar agenda, and I am a very feminist guy. So I admired her for that, and I think she made a brilliant poem from the raw material – from Matt’s original source, or, from her perspective, from Matt’s oversight.”
Out of “morbid curiosity,” Michael wrote his own “Wolf Lake,” from the point of view of the assailant, but it has yet to be published. The idea for making the film came later, due to a proposal from Project 8 at Video In to make an 8mm film, and it was decided that the film, too, would be from the point of view of the killer. “Everything was very easy after that. We decided to get (writer and activist) Amber Dawn to play the woman, because we thought she’d look small enough to go over somebody’s shoulder.” Amber Dawn had previously appeared with Smith in his work of experimental pornography, Girl on Girl.
Some of the images of Amber Dawn were shot at Liz’s former home in Maple Ridge, where she was serving as artist in residence. Located in a fairly rural area, it would have been an ideal place for someone to spy on Elizabeth. “It’s just trees, all those trees everywhere,” she tells me. “There’s so many places for people to hide, if somebody wanted to sit and watch you through one of those great big fishbowl windows... Every once in awhile, I’d get a prank phone call, and they were creepy ones. They were like, ‘What are you doing home during the day?” That kind of thing. That one freaked me out!” The closing shot, of Amber Dawn coming towards the camera - which has been viewing her from the concealment of trees - was filmed in Elizabeth’s then-backyard; her character sees the cameraman only as an old friend, not as a potential threat, and smiles broadly. “It’s so creepy, too, because she’s like, wearing my sweater! It’s like, ewww – she’s at my house, on my rocks, wearing my sweater and my Lululemon pants!" Bachinsky laughs. "When it ends, it’s so abrupt. I think it’s brilliant – it’s just beautiful."
Though Matt’s poem is located at Wolf Lake in Comox Valley, Michael and Liz shot the majority of images for the film at Pitt Lake, where Liz lived for awhile with friends when she was 18. “God, that place was crazy,” Liz remembers. "I don’t know how to write about it – wild dogs being born under the house – the dog had her babies beside this leaking sceptic tank, because it was warm. It was nasty. And the place is just so spooky – there’s a real energy to it and it’s not all good.... It was also extremely beautiful, but it’s almost a crushing beauty, you know? The mountains just close right in on you. You just think about how deep that lake is, and you know – when you’re in it, you’re gone. No one will ever find you. That is the most horrifying thought – to find yourself at the bottom of Pitt Lake.”
Oddly, in New York, “Wolf Lake” played as part of a series of predominantly non-narrative shorts focused on landscape. “Our film got in because it was very grounded in Pitt Lake – there were mountains and scenery,” Michael says. The basis for the selection "was purely aesthetic – it had only to do with landscape, and nothing more than that. They didn’t pick it for any narrative interest. It’s really interesting to me. I come from a place where it’s all about the story, it’s all about the human connection and how we connect to the story. I care how you connect to the image only as much as that image works to further your understanding of the story – which is our understanding of humanity. I’m very interested in narrative because I see our lives as broader narrative, and I’m not interested in aesthetics that are devoid of content.”
At Pitt Lake, Smith – who is very familiar with the killer’s eye POV trope of horror cinema, and conversant with Laura Mulvey’s writing on the male gaze and narrative cinema – shot what would become the “very creepy stalker footage,” of “Wolf Lake;” but when the film begins, you don’t realize that that’s what you’re watching. Amber Dawn is at a distance, among others, and we see people enjoying themselves at the Pitt Lake dock; it looks like an entirely innocent home movie, with no obvious connection to the story we’re hearing, save that it’s set at a lake. The viewer remains unaware that it’s stalker footage until the very end of the film – where Amber Dawn approaches, taking us to the beginning of the events in the poem and positioning the viewer as her eventual killer.
“I really like that device of welcoming people in,” Michael tells me. “In some ways my novel, Cumberland, did the same thing. There were some things you knew, and some things you didn’t know. And the things that you knew made you make assumptions, and eventually those assumptions get turned on their head, and you realize that you have been very complicit in some really immoral thinking. In the novel, you think that Ernest is a pedophile, because he has these disturbing dreams, and he has this weird relationship with a kid, and then you realize that his kid has died – and you think he’s done something horrible to his kid. And he hasn’t; he’s just haunted by the loss of his own child. By the end of the book, you realize that you assumed he was a pedophile because you have these stereotypes of what homosexuals are like. I like that kind of device, where you make the audience complicit in the hideousness of our culture, and you make them realize how susceptible we are, and how easily they can fall into the trap of perpetuating that problem.”
The same sort of device operates in "Wolf Lake." “You are just enjoying the filmic experience of spying on this girl, of watching this girl – and you hear this story, and its compelling, and there’s a whole voyeuristic appeal to it. At the end of the film, hopefully you realize that you’ve been in the perspective of the stalker. It’s to make you aware of exactly that thing that Liz is doing, by writing a revisionist poem about a woman being attacked, and telling it from the woman’s perspective, of taking control and power and making people realize that these are very serious issues. I hope that when you realize the stalker footage is stalker footage, by the end of the film, you feel a little disgusted with your own voyeuristic pleasure – that the pleasure of the filmic experience is all predicated upon somebody’s violent action against somebody else.”
Bachinsky was delighted by the trip, her first to New York (“I’m a girl who needs a reason to go to a place,” she explains). “We just had a great time. We walked around town, we ate some food, and we saw so much art – we went to, like, five galleries. The Met was awesome! I loved it!” It's not her first trip with Michael, though their previous tours together have stemmed from their work as writers; she's been across Canada with Smith, with whom she also shares a dayjob. She’s very happy with the project: “Michael did a beautiful job of bringing the location, the images, the narrative all together. I love Michael so much.” Expect both to be in the audience for at least one of the screenings of Storm Surge.
"Wolf Lake" is a chance to see an important collaboration by two exciting and fresh Canadian voices.