Peggy Ahwesh Interview

Scott MacDonald

Printed in MFJ No. 39/40 (Winter 2003) Hidden Currents


MacDonald: You take pride in your Pittsburgh background, in part, I assume, because it’s been important in experimental filmmaking, with Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Field of Vision, the scholar Lucy Fischer at University of Pittsburgh. Also, it’s Warhol’s hometown. But maybe on some level it’s most of all George Romero. Is it true that you worked on George Romero films?

Ahwesh: Yeah. I moved back to Pittsburgh after college. I went to Antioch from 1972 until 1978. I studied with Tony Conrad, who I still think of affectionately as a father figure, the elder statesman in the field who bequeathed upon me the esoteric knowledge of initiation that propelled forward . . . [laughter] whatever. I also studied with Janis Lipzin. And Paul Sharits was there. Cecil Taylor was artist-in-residence. Jud Yalkut had a radio show that I listened to a lot. There was a lot going on.
I particularly remember a show Janis organized: Joyce Wieland, Carolee Schneemann, and Beverly Conrad did presentations. It was a major event for me to meet these women and hear them talk about their work.
I’m from a little coal town down river—Cannonsburg (famous for Perry Como and Bobby Vinton), one of those sad industrial towns. But I loved Pittsburgh and still have a lot of nostalgia for it. I found it very freeing, artistically; I felt like it was mine; the landscape was mine, the people were mine. Everything about it was up for grabs. I liked that it was "nowhere." It was not overdetermined as an art melieu like New York
I got very involved with the punk scene there in the late Seventies and made a lot of great friends overnight. We documented the punk bands, and we were all making Super-8 sound films, and there were all these crazy characters to put in your movies.
My first job was at this place called the Mattress Factory, which was just opening in the north side in what’s called the Mexican War streets, a rough-and-tumble working class neighborhood with slight gentrification. I’m sure that neighborhood has changed. The Mattress Factory was this big art warehouse, and I ran a film series there. For my first guest I decided to call George Romero. He told me that no one in Pittsburgh had ever invited him to show his work locally. I was the first. I couldn’t believe it.
He came with his wife, and we showed The Crazies [1973] and Night of the Living Dead [1968]; one program at the Mattress Factory and another in a local high school. It was great. He was so friendly, open, vulnerable, not an egomaniac in any sense. I also knew a lot of people who worked in his movies, including several of the guys who were the red-neck bikers in Dawn of the Dead [1979]; they were George’s lighting crew and worked locally.
I worked on Creepshow [1982] as a production assistant, but I did all kinds of bizarre jobs--like I was Adrienne Barbeau’s assistant at one point, which basically meant going out and buying her specialty foods because she had very particular tastes. And for about a week I was assigned to entertain Stephen King’s son and played "Dungeons and Dragons" with him. I had a walk-through in a shot where Adrienne Barbeau gets shot in the head at a lawn party. And I worked with the camera crew in the scene where the guy finds this meteor and the green stuff gets all over his place. People had to make the green stuff and dress the set, and I helped the camera people get the right amount of out-of-focus green stuff in the foreground and in the background.
I had a very flamboyant best friend, Natalka Voslakov. She’s in some of my movies, and I shot some of her movies. She was one of the staples of my Pittsburgh years, an incredibly striking woman. Of course, she got a much better job with Romero than I did [laughter]—she was first assistant to the assistant director. My friend, Margie Strosser, who I’ve worked with over the years, was an assistant editor. We all got to know each other.

MacDonald: Were you a fan of the films? Dawn of the Dead is a favorite of mine. Romero was so good about gender and race—and class: he gave us the first working-class American horror monsters.

Ahwesh: Oh yeah. I’d seen all the films: Martin [1978], and The Crazies [1973], and Season of the Witch [1972]. Night of the Living Dead [1968] is amazing.
At one point when I was working at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, George had given us a bunch of old film to re-use for slug--a whole collection of public service announcements he had done for local television, TV commercials about toilet cleansers, ads for candidates running for office, an anti-rape PSA, and a film about professional wrestling. I remember looking at this stuff to get the inside the enterprise that was George Romero. For me, he’s an important model for how to make independent personal films. I liked George’s style, and he was such a warm, human person. George’s groove was, "Have fun; make a movie; make friends; and mess around." I liked that he was a genre filmmaker and able to penetrate the popular psyche in a really profound way. I like that he’s a populist. There was as little hierarchy as there could be on a feature film. Working with him was really fun.
Ed Harris was very open to hanging out with us local kids. He went out dancing with me, Natalka, and a couple of grips, at one of the local watering holes, and I remember having such a good time. By that time Natalka had been demoted to Production Assistant, just like me! [laughter]

MacDonald: Pittsburgh Filmmakers is going by this time, right?

Ahwesh: Yes. I worked as a programmer there for two years, during the time when Robert Haller was on his way out. I was the next generation. As a programmer I was free to do what I wanted, and I applied for grants and I brought in a lot of interesting people and did collaborations with local clubs and the University—a lot of things that couldn’t have happened under Haller.

MacDonald: At what point in this history do you start making films?

Ahwesh: I made Super-8 movies before Pittsburgh, at Antioch and elsewhere, but when I landed in Pittsburgh, everything sort of came together. I was very involved; my boyfriend was a filmmaker--all my friends were filmmakers, musicians, photographers. The punk scene was us and various hangers-on. We would document the bands, and the bands would play at the clubs where we showed movies—we were our own on-going entertainment.
In 1980 at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, I did a big group show of local filmmakers. I was hot on the idea of group shows because they got everybody involved.
I did some shows where I’d put people’s names in the calendar and make up titles for films they hadn’t made yet. For one particular show I announced "Wrapped in American Flags" by one person; "Dreams Congo" by another. But often people did make films to go along with these titles. That wasn’t a thing you could sustain, but it was fun as a programming concept. We had a good time with it. It was a kind of cinematic match-making that went hand in hand with the parties and general flirtations among us.

MacDonald: Tell me about your Pittsburgh TrilogyVerite Opera, Paranormal Intelligence, Nostalgia for Paradise [all 1983].

Ahwesh: It was the summer of 1983, a very hot summer, when I was hanging out with this odd trilogy of people. There was my friend Roger, this very eccentric older guy who lived with his mother, didn’t have a phone. I’d write him a postcard and say, "I’d like to come film with you on Sunday," and he would call me back from a pay phone.
His chess partner was a Black transvestite, Claudelle, whose boyfriend was in prison. Roger and Claudelle were a dynamic duo. I had gone over to film them playing chess at Claudelle’s house, so the scene of Verite Opera opens with Claudelle in her trashy apartment, cleaning up to get ready for me to be there. Then she puts on her costume, a blue evening gown and a turban, to play chess with Roger, this disheveled-looking, chubby, middle-aged guy. Roger was a member of MENSA, and always involved with these lonely hearts’ clubs, looking for an ideal mate with an IQ that corresponded to his. He would write to the women but never meet them. I shot a lot of footage of Roger’s attempts to find his high-IQ mate, but never made it into a film
And finally, there was Margie Strosser, a soul-searching, articulate, concerned, naggie, feminist, aggravated-in-the-world person. Spikey red hair and tons of energy. I spent a summer with these three, and we shot a lot of film together. Basically I made three portrait films.

MacDonald: You titled it, I assume, after the Brakhage Pittsburgh Trilogy [The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, Eyes, Deus Ex (all 1971)].

Ahwesh: No. [laughter] No! Are his Pittsburgh films actually called The Pittsburgh Trilogy?

MacDonald: They are.

Ahwesh: I’d forgotten that. Hmmm, I might have known that back then.

MacDonald: If you were rebelling against the Masters, it might be a logical choice. Your trilogy is about personal friends; the focus of Brakhage’s trilogy is social institutions.

Ahwesh: Yeah. Whatever. I might have known that and wanted my own Pittsburgh Trilogy. I had seen those films of course, so I probably did know that at the time.
I love those Brakhage films, but I think it was just that I had three films and they were about Pittsburgh.
That was a great summer for me. The films—what are they about? I don’t know—they’re not diary films, and they’re not documentaries, and they’re not narratives. "Portraits" seems inadequate, actually, though that’s the word I usually use.
It’s more like me doing conceptual exercises so that I can figure out what kind of relationship I have with the person, and what kind of relationship the camera has with the person, and how do you shoot positive and negative space and what is it about people that makes them interesting? To me these three people were amazing examples of humanity, and I really liked them all.
Maybe every maker has a film in which they’re trying to work out what they want to convey through filmmaking. In any case, the lessons I learned that summer shooting those films I’ve carried with me ever since.
When I shot The Deadman [1990] in 16mm, people said, "Oh, she knows how to shoot! She knows how to use a camera!" But I felt that I was doing the same thing with The Deadman that I had done in all the Super-8 films, except that people just couldn’t recognize it as style in Super-8. In The Deadman I was just applying all the things I had learned in Super-8 to a different camera. To me, my emotional connection to the action and the sense of three-dimensional space were exactly the same.

MacDonald: Were you a movie-goer as a child or an adolescent?

Ahwesh: I was not a movie-goer. I was horrified by most movies. I thought they had bad gender politics, bad cultural politics, and were a waste of time. I was a hard-core idealist as a youth. My relationship to music was much more profound and organic, which is still the case. Basically, movies came second to music, but I did abhor popular films.

MacDonald: Even early in your life?

Ahwesh: Yes. I only started to be able to watch film in college and only unconventional films. I remember going into Kelly Hall at Antioch to see my first experimental film, Bruce Conner’s Cosmic Ray [1961], and the week after that, Masculine Feminine [1966, Jean-Luc Godard], but these films I did not understand. I was tortured by them, and found them completely infuriating--but they stuck in my craw. I couldn’t figure them out, but couldn’t forget about them either.
Of course, allowing myself to be turned onto them was a large area of growth for me. I come from a working class background. My parents are small-town, fairly conservative, church-going people who never cared about art.

MacDonald: We’re very similar in this. I sat all sullen in a theater in Greencastle, Indiana, making loud comments about how the audience (for Fellini’s 8 1/2) was a bunch of phonies for pretending that this gibberish made sense. But that stuck too.

Ahwesh: [laughter] Yeah, you decide at some point that you just have to face it. I entered college as a pre-med student interested in genetics, but when I started seeing these films, everything just flipped over for me.
I remember so distinctly meeting William Wegman, and the first time I met Tony Conrad, the first time I heard a radio program by Jud Yalkut, the first time I heard Cecil Taylor play the piano live, the first time I heard Charles Ives music. These things, plus a few drug experiences, have really stayed with me as the peak moments of my teen years. I don’t know how it works for other people.

MacDonald: Did you have to struggle with all the art experiences?

Ahwesh: No. I had a particularly hard time with the movies. Hearing Ives was a totally familiar, joyful experience. I was seventeen and had never been exposed to anything experimental, but it was almost like I was waiting for this change. My last years in high school were miserable. I spent all my time by myself or with the other discontents, taking acid—we were all miserable people. We’d go to the football games to sit in the corner and yell at our classmates, "You’re a bunch of jerks!" We’d go because there was nothing else to do.
The summer I was seventeen, I was in the Antioch College library and I listened to Ives’ The Unanswered Question. It changed my life. I understood pastiche from Ives, homage and dissonance, three elements I value in my own work.
But my adjustment to the movies came later.
Those years, from sixteen to nineteen, having to figure out how language functions, symbolism, how to be a philosophical person, how to make meaning and communicate it—those things all came together for me with art-making.

MacDonald: When did you go to New York?

Ahwesh: I left Pittsburgh to go to New York in 1982. I had been there the year before, for a one-person show at the Collective for Living Cinema, and I remember thinking, "Oh, I should just move here!" So I went back to Pittsburgh, worked for Romero a little while, then just took off.

MacDonald: No matter how much film I see, every once in awhile, I run flat into a wall again. I think I’ve seen what there is to see, that I know what I like, that I understand what I need to understand; and all of a sudden, along comes stuff I just don’t get. It makes me furious, because all of a sudden I’m stupid again, and at least for awhile, don’t know what to do about it.
Martina’s Playhouse [1989] and The Deadman [1990] are the first two of your films I remember seeing; I saw both long after they came out. Martina made me feel I was on the other side of a generation gap. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing with this film, what sort of pleasure I was supposed to take from it.

Ahwesh: That’s sort of cool.

MacDonald: I also feel that my feelings aren’t all that unusual, that lots of people feel the same--even if there are also lots of people, including many I respect, who do get it. I’m still struggling with Martina’s Playhouse. Of course, sometimes things come along and there’s nothing there, so you wait for awhile until it goes away. But this isn’t going away, so I figure it isn’t going away for a reason.
So who should I be to get what you mean to give?

Ahwesh: That’s not a fair question to ask a maker. Most artists don’t make things for a particular audience of people who are going to be "getting it." The process is not that controlled.
But I can tell you what I did to make Martina’s Playhouse. I was working in complicity with the camera in a space somewhere between the stare of Warhol and the emotional intimacy of home-movies. It’s a terrain where most of my Super-8 movies are enacted. Formally, they’re very slippery movies.

MacDonald: Scary Movie—I think I do get. And if I get Scary Movie, I should get Martina’s Playhouse, right?

Ahwesh: Well, Martina’s Playhouse is much more complex. What you’re saying is that in Martina I’m not playing by the rules of experimental filmmaking you had come to expect. The work is not regulated by the formal devices of modernism--but what better way to address sexuality, girlhood, desire, and mothering than in a provocative home movie?
Formally my work is more like a younger generation’s work. Intellectually, I was formed by the Seventies. I come out of feminism and the anti-art sensibility of punk. I was in a Lacanian study group when I made Martina’s Playhouse. But formally, my structural models are more associative than those of other people who rely on structural modes.

MacDonald: When you told me you’re the same age as Su Friedrich, I was shocked—I think of you as a generation younger than Su.

Ahwesh: Actually, I’m a little older than Su. In Hide and Seek [1996] Su puts young girls in a narrative film where they’re playing with records and reproducing a Sixties girl party. In my movie, the vision machine [1997], I have adult women pretending to be girls, who smash the records and have a big fight and pour beer on the record player. It’s a very similar terrain, except that my imagistic and symbolic relation to experience is inverted. Su and I are friends and we think very similarly, except that my work shades one way and hers shades another.

MacDonald: Yours shades toward Jack Smith; hers, toward Frampton.

Ahwesh: Totally. I make a pastiche of many things. If I had to pick an experimental filmmaker whose philosophical method I borrow, it would be Jack Smith, although he’s one of the most irritating performers and filmmakers I’ve ever known. Just unbelievable. For years I did in Super-8 a lot of the things that he did. I would let people go on for hours and then turn the camera on, and they’d already be on the floor drunk and not able to function: "I thought we were gonna make a movie!" Or I would shoot all this stuff and just use the last roll. Or I’d rearrange the rolls in a way to make what I shot less coherent but more provocative.
Allowing something to erupt out of a nothingness--I love that. And that was already there in those first Pittsburgh films. Nothing was happening in Pittsburgh; we were just hanging around. "What can we do today?" "Let’s put on weird costumes and dance around. Let’s make a movie." And things would just erupt out of seeming chaos. And films would get shot. Of course, editing was an entirely different part of the brain. As an editor, I was always interested in the things that were happening right in front of me that I didn’t recognize, but that I was involved in on some level.
In my personal relationships; I like people in transition. I’m most comfortable, I think, with people who are going through something—they’re having an ecstatic time, or a bad time, or a lot of things are happening and they’re overflowing with changes. I’m attracted to that.

MacDonald: In the case of Martina’s Playhouse, the incident that most people talk about is Martina "nursing" her mother. Did that just occur as they were playing? How much do you instigate the "eruptions" in your films?

Ahwesh: This is a question I get a lot, because when you make something that seems sort of unauthorized, or is not authoritarian, it’s hard to figure out who’s responsible and how, as a viewer, you should take it. In most movies, the plan of the producers is there, the directorial position of the filmmaker is there. Whereas with experimental film that’s the thing people can’t figure out. But all the material I’ve shot with Martina, and most of what I’ve shot with kids over the years—I’ve never had children--I could never have suggested in a million years. I don’t know that much about the behavior of kids, and I only know about the mother-daughter relationship as the daughter. The things happening in front of the camera were unknown to me, and I filmed them not really knowing precisely what I was filming. And that "nursing" footage sat on my shelf for two years, because I had no idea what to make of it or how to incorporate it.

MacDonald: I expect it’s pretty bizarre even for someone who’s had daughters.

Ahwesh: I’ve gotten a range of responses from people who have children, from "That happens all the time" to "You have destroyed the sacred sanctity of mother-daughter relationships!"
In my Super-8 movies I don’t stage things. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I like not knowing.

MacDonald: How do you know you’re going to be shooting? Do you say you’re coming over to film?

Ahwesh: Yes, I say, "I’m coming over to film." And I usually do film, though sometimes it doesn’t come out. Also, I have relationships with certain people who turn on when I come over with the camera; or people who call me and say, "I have a story to tell, and I want you to come over with the camera." I say, "I’ll be over in twenty minutes." That used to happen a lot.
I guess those days are over for me, because I’m known as a filmmaker now; I’m not just Peggy-with-a-camera. And the people I hang out with are photo-aware. They know I’m going to make something and show it at some uptown museum and that’s a turn-off. It was different when I made a Super-8 film in Pittsburgh and showed the camera original at a party. The people who are attracted to me now are much more performative, and on the whole I’m much less interested.

MacDonald: In Martina’s Playhouse the parallel between Martina, who tries to get nude at every possible opportunity, and Jennifer Montgomery who keeps coming on to you and dropping her pants, brings back my children. The minute I would turn on my little Super-8 camera to make home movies, two of my boys would drop their pants. Did you get a lot of static about Martina’s nudity?

Ahwesh: Yeah. The film showed on television and the TV people wanted me to cut out the shot of the naked girl. It was a show that Steve Anker put together. There was an investigation by the DA after Martina’s Playhouse aired on public TV in San Francisco, but the case was dropped because there was nothing illegal in the film. I find the film explicit, but not pornographic.

MacDonald: Any parent sees that kind of nudity all the time.

Ahwesh: Since I don’t have children, I don’t have a deeply connected physical relationship with children’s bodies; and maybe I’ve seen so many movies that my world tends to be more about images than about the physical reality of people. I’d never bother to make a pornographic movie. I don’t even try to make movies that shock people. That might be Nick Zedd’s or John Waters’ goal—and a perfectly sensible goal for them. But I’m just into a deep analysis, a looking at things that are meaningful to me, areas that seem worth investigating. And the childhood sexuality of females is a huge unexplored territory.
Martina’s Playhouse is also me trying to figure out what my girlhood was about. In a way all my films are autobiographical. It’s still true that there aren’t all that many filmmakers who explore these areas.
When I came to make Martina’s Playhouse, I had all this anecdotal footage about the lives of these friends I’m very close to, and at the same time I was reading Camera Obscura—an issue about Pee Wee Herman. And there was an article about how the baby is portrayed in Three Men and a Baby [1987] (which I’ve never seen), about what the baby symbolizes in that movie in the Freudian sense of baby/penis/feces. When I finally did take the Martina footage off the shelf, I knew exactly what to do with it. "Martina’s Playhouse" references both Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Three Men and a Baby.

MacDonald: So when you took it off the shelf, knowing what you were going to do with it, what exactly was it that you knew you were going to do?

Ahwesh: I knew I had this loaded imagery of Martina, who was my main character, and that I wanted her to recite this Lacan text about the coming-into-being of sexuality for young girls. I also had all this footage of Jennifer, the adult woman play-acting the young girl, that resonated in opposition to Martina.
Martina mis-reads the Lacan text in the movie, and her misreading is fantastic! The text is about the law of the father regarding sexuality, and Lacan is writing about a boy and his mother, not a girl. Martina changes the language in a way that’s so freeing and enabling; it has so much agency. She rewrites Lacan in her own image.
I arranged the footage thematically, around the Lacan text and Martina’s sexuality. The shape of the film?—in Pee Wee’s Playhouse Pee Wee goes into his house; he’s got all his "friends" around him—the chair is a person, there’s the genie in the little box; the mailman is a female, a femailman. Then all of a sudden a word drops from the ceiling. Formally I was thinking of that show with its surround-o-vision of symbolic elements and psychological tropes.

MacDonald: That talking flower is certainly reminiscent of Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Ahwesh: The flower’s text is from Georges Bataille. There’s a particular way in which Bataille animates sexuality through the language of flowers.
I put more ingredients into a twenty-minute movie than a lot of people put in much longer works. I don’t know if that’s good; it might not be good. My work gets really dense with references to other movies, and to philosophical ideas; and there are certain things I won’t let go of, like how you give people some control when they’re on the screen. Viewers complain, "Your scenes go on too long!" but I want to let the characters finish their thoughts, and I don’t want to chop them up into little movie bits.
That makes sense, right? My Super-8 films are like little playgrounds.

MacDonald: When I talked to Ken Jacobs about the Nervous System pieces, I was saying that one of the difficulties with those pieces is that I can’t take notes: what’s happening is performative and so evanescent that you can’t really hold onto it. Now with your films I can take notes, but I stay mystified, partly because the films seem so open-- though when you talk about Martina’s Playhouse, it all seems very obvious.

Ahwesh: I think you have resistance to my work—perhaps you simply don’t like it. Is it possible that the problem is that it’s so much a female point of view--which includes that openness? There are people who don’t like the film because there’s no explicit authority telling them how to think about the images or structuring the material in a way that reduces it to formality. I refuse to do both those things. I just refuse.
I think it’s just that you don’t like my movies—not that you don’t get them.

MacDonald: Even when I don’t like your films, I still want to understand them.

Ahwesh: Also, my work has an under-achiever, self-deprecating quality and maybe that’s deceptive in some sense. You know, working in Super-8 is a devotion to the minor, to the low end of technology, to things that are more ephemeral and have less authority in the world. I am on the very edge—another Jack Smith tradition—of a whole enterprise that’s on the verge of collapsing.

MacDonald: But on some level you don’t really think it’s fragile and ephemeral, because you’re willing to devote yourself to it.

Ahwesh: It’s my own challenge to history. I remember thinking, early on, "Oh, women don’t write novels, they keep diaries." And they’re minor poets, like Isabelle Eberhart, who had a very fragile, scant production. There’s a romance about invisibility. I grew up hearing, "These are the important filmmakers and you’re not one of them." "Experimental filmmaking was really important until 1975—you came afterwards."

MacDonald: That was always a loony attitude.

Ahwesh: But that was what Fred Camper wrote in that famous Millennium piece and what J. Hoberman said in "Avant to Live" in The Voice; and that attitude held sway through the early eighties. But now with the internet "marginality" has taken on a new cache.

MacDonald: Last night I looked at Strange Weather, and I was struck by a connection with George Kuchar’s Weather Diaries. You’re inside this house with daily goings-on and outside there’s this major weather event that we hear about mostly through media. Thinking about Kuchar helped me make a distinction. In his melodramas—his fiction films, I mean, not the Weather Diaries--I get the sense that he’s trying to make "a real movie," but the gap between what he can do and what he wants to do is considerable—and where the energy is. He tries to make the best movie he can, given his limitations. His actors can’t really compete with "real" actors; but sometimes this gap makes for interesting un-Hollywood, or anti-Hollywood, work.
In your case—and this hit me with The Pittsburgh Trilogy--you’re not trying to make a melodrama that you’re failing to achieve; instead, everybody has decided to perform themselves and you’re recording these performances. In his melodramas, Kuchar is trying to do fiction, but the documentary reality that you see in that gap between what he wants to do and what he can do is the surprise, whereas you’re actually doing documentary with people who are trying to be melodramatic.

Ahwesh: They’re willing to fictionalize themselves, and I’m basically getting the documentary of that process. However, I think of it as a Warhol approach, more than anything else: that droll documentation of off-beat personalities. Steve Anker programmed Strange Weather with The Connection by Shirley Clarke, and I found that appropriate to open up the meaning of the piece as a fake documentary and/or fictionalized real life.
The other big reference for Strange Weather was reality TV and Cops episodes. Just because one makes experimental films, their sources of reference and inspiration aren’t necessarily from that world; they can be from anywhere.
I was friends with Roger Jacoby who did a lot of work with Ondine. I saw Roger’s films in San Francisco in the Seventies. When I moved back to Pittsburgh, we were buddies for a couple of years. I was really taken with his reason for making work: he was trying to unravel a set of social relations between himself and his partners or his family. He was trying to understand himself as a social being by making films with little clusters of people who comprised some kind of community. I read the Warhol films that way too: as a disfunctional, extended family, or some little utopian commune of people, who could only be this way because there was film running.

MacDonald: It was interesting for me to go from The Pittsburgh Trilogy to Strange Weather [1993]. In the Pittsburgh films your performers seem entirely conscious of you, though as filmmaker you’re a bit detached, whereas in Strange Weather, you’re doing this super-in-close camera work with your little Pixilvision camera, and yet these people seem oblivious to you.

Ahwesh:Strange Weather is an anomaly in my body of work, because three out of four of those people are actors. What was interesting about that film was that I came to it with this long history of making these "documentaries" with people acting, in some kind of complicitous relation with the camera—knowing the camera is on but agreeing to play themselves. In Strange Weather, Margie—who, of course, had been involved with those Pittsburgh films--actually met with the performers for rehearsals.
When we went to Florida to shoot, they ended up abandoning most of the things they had come up with during rehearsals. That often happens. But we came up with other scenes on set and rehearsed and shot them. Toward the end the blonde gives this really long speech about the first time she used crack, at this party—it’s an eight-minute scene, and a single take. She memorized the speech and we practiced the scene a lot, and then we shot it once. It’s a cliché from Cinema Verite that the longer a shot goes on without a cut, the more believable it is as reality.
It was great working with Pixil because, even though I’d imagined the scene many times, I had to reinvent it when I shot it--so that it looked like the first time I was seeing it, like in a documentary.
Initially we wanted the actors to actually smoke crack; we wanted the film to be really raw and revealing. We thought we’d shoot it all documentary style--like a journalistic investigative report on drugs. But as we worked on the piece, the conceit of the artificial became this great metaphor, for me, for the artificial paradise described in the film and it seemed best to have the piece be a fiction.

MacDonald: Who initiated this project? I assume it had to do with Margie’s sister’s stories.

Ahwesh: Margie’s sister was a crack addict, who lived in Florida and had incredible stories. I think what happened initially was that Terry had decided to get out of that life and had come back north, and she had written up the various episodes of her life, which included living in a house that was a central office for drug sales, and shopping at a drive-in drug window. Amazing stories. She got arrested a couple of times. We couldn’t use most of her stories because they were way too complicated dramatically. We ended up working with one extended moment when she was hanging out with this cluster of people.

MacDonald: Talk about the collaboration.

Ahwesh: Margie is very political and socially oriented, and she wanted to make more of an expose about drug use, something that might have fictional elements. For a long time we talked about a piece that would have dramatic elements and documentary elements, maybe interviews--more of an empowering thing for women who had drug problems.
I had all these amazing governmental reports about the drug economy, and I shot a lot of documentary and surveillance footage—including myself scoring drugs on St. Marks Place.
As the piece evolved, it became obvious to both of us that the fictional part was coming to the foreground. I read an interview with Derrida about addiction ["The Rhetoric of Drugs," from Differences (September, 1993)] that talks about the imagination on drugs as a fictional space, an alternate reality—writing and lying, fiction and drugs, become this activated nexus.
Anyway, we had all these stories—Margie’s a storyteller, first and foremost—and the hard journalism drifted away and we started working with these actors, shaping the piece around the musings of this one girl, as a fictional space. A lot of people see the tape and think it’s a documentary, and think that the young woman who’s telling the stories is lying to herself, because her life is actually much more miserable and screwed up, as we can see from our objective vantage point. I think, "This is fantastic!"
I like it when a work involves the viewer in some kind of dilemma about how to read its meaning. I don’t do it as a punishment, but it’s a very exciting, ethical, and philosophical place for me. My work is not supposed to be comfort food.

MacDonald: I admit I do spend a certain amount of time looking for comfort food . I love Teatro Amazonis (Sharon Lockhart’s film) and I know that part of it is that it feeds into everything I already like. It’s a new way of doing something (and it’s pretty amazing in any case), but it doesn’t cause me problems. I could explain it to anybody, and defend it. I’m drawn to being surprised, but there’s also kind of reassurance I like too.
Almost every time I deal with a piece of yours, I either don’t know what to do with it, or when I think I’ve got it, as in the case of Strange Weather, which I did assume was a documentary, I’ve got it backwards.
So when did the Pixilvision come into the Strange Weather project? It’s one of the most elaborate Pixil pieces I know of.

Ahwesh: I wasn’t sure how Strange Weather was going to work out, so I went to Florida with a surveillance camera, a Super-8 camera, and a Pixil camera. The decision to use Pixil had been made in New York before we went. We had a fantasy about making the Big Feature, and I was like, That’s not going to happen with this operation; but I knew that with the Pixil camera I would be able to make overly dramatic things look underdramatic, and things that were nothing to look at, spectacular and tactile--and the drug world look grim and raw.
I remember being out on this patio and knowing I was shooting the first shot in the video, the Pixil palm trees.

MacDonald: A beautiful shot, especially with the sound.

Ahwesh: I remember thinking to myself, this has got to be the first shot of the video, because you can’t tell what the fuck it is; you don’t know what the object is, what the scale is; it has odd, unnatural movement--and then you realize it’s a palm tree and you’re in Florida in grainy black and white. I shot that shot, and thought, "Oh, I know how to make this work!" There was something about the alienation of that shot, the black and white and the semi-abstraction, that I helped me figure out how the whole video would come together.

MacDonald: How was it working with the actors? The blonde is quite good.

Ahwesh: I think she’s really good. She’s a working class girl from Philadelphia. The first time we did auditions for the part, we asked her to do one, and she turned out to be the best. She was having a love affair with Cheryl so that was sticky. Cheryl was pretty much a bitch the whole time. She hated Margie. At one point the two of them took me aside and told me to take over the project and get rid of Margie. Margie can be sort of square about things. She might tell them, "You have to go to bed now, because we have to shoot tomorrow!"—that sort of thing. They didn’t respond well to that.

MacDonald: Would Margie agree with you on this?

Ahwesh: [laughter] Probably not. Anyway, it’s hard to work with other people, and we really had a tough time on this one.

MacDonald: How real is the drug use in the film?

Ahwesh: In the drug scenes, they’re not actually smoking; it’s soap in the pipes.
Audiences often ask, "Did you smoke crack?" I never answer directly. I say, "What’s interesting is that as a viewer you feel an ethical dilemma: either the director is a crackhead and that’s why she did this piece, or she’s making a documentary about these poor people that you’re supposed to feel sorry for." That is, only if it’s a piece of investigative journalism where you’re trying to root out evil and show these people for who they really are, is it justified; if it’s fiction, you don’t have to feel responsible and you don’t approve. So I never answer the question, because it’s not about me and my drug problem—I don’t have one—and it’s not about me and my "voyeuristic" relationship to drugs—I don’t really have one of those either. But I do like that the film sets up a really ambiguous ethical space.
In reality what happened is that in Florida I found out where to get crack, how they sell it, what it looks like, where to keep it--because you can’t have it on your person—and what it’s like to smoke it. I felt I needed to know that information for the tape. My two production assistants and a local friend helped find where people deal drugs in Miami.

MacDonald: So what was it like to smoke it?

Ahwesh: I have to admit I liked it. I’ve only done it a couple of times—because it’s incredibly addictive. It’s low grade, oily, very oily--like an industrial substance, like a toxic waste dump. If you’re at all feeling End of the Industrial Age despair, a despair that’s gritty and like the exhaust pipe on a car, you can easily lock into crack. It’s a greasy high, almost syrupy. After I did it the first time in New York, I craved it for a week! I thought, "I can see why people get addicted to this." It’s a short, fast, up high, really high, heart palpitations, and you just get completely clouded over. It’s not an elegant drug.
I don’t do a lot of drugs. I’m too busy. I’m just not the type. But I’ve tried everything once. The other people in the movie were not interested in taking the drug, because they were actors and they wanted to fake it. Someone had to figure out how to fake it correctly! And it ended up being me. I did think they were a bit diletantish about the subject. They weren’t actors who were going to gain thirty-five pounds so they could be Jake LaMotta. So I thought, "OK, I’ll shoot with Pixil. Degraded and grainy, Pixil will give me the right texture." So that’s what we decided to do.

MacDonald: When did the storm come into it? It’s the one thing that doesn’t quite work for me. On one level, it certainly makes sense, because these people are lost in a physical/mental space and don’t notice that there’s a hurricane coming. My problem is that I went through the eye of Hurricane Bob on Cape Hatteras, a year before Hurricane Andrew, which we hear them talking about in Strange Weather. Andrew was a serious hurricane—the most financially disastrous in American history. Nobody in Miami was ignoring Hurricane Andrew. For me, the weather only works as a metaphor.

Ahwesh: We went down there a little after the storm you’re talking about, and there were still branches all over the place and along curbs of the streets there were huge masses of garbage and branches and smashed stuff.
Either the hurricane was the reason why they couldn’t go outside, or they were ignoring it because that’s how dangerously far from reality they are. But you’re right, the storm as a metaphor came into it late. With Pixil it’s hard to get big things to be dramatic. It’s better with the close-ups, so I hoped the imagery on the TV would help keep it in their miniaturized world.

MacDonald: Had you seen any of the Kuchar Weather Diaries?

Ahwesh: I’d seen Wild Night in El Reno [1977]. I love Kuchar, but I wasn’t really thinking of him. I don’t know the video Weather Diaries. It’s more like Clash by Night meets The Connection.
I would say that with Strange Weather, like everything I’ve made, I get the footage and then the real work starts. The editing is like putting a puzzle together. I never get footage in the can that edits easily. I always have an ornate, complicated pastiche relationship to my editing. I’m always reinventing the work as the process goes along.

MacDonald: I hated The Deadman when I first saw it at Lincoln Center.

Ahwesh: I know, you keep telling me! Why are you interviewing me?

MacDonald: I have various reasons for doing interviews, one of which is to help me understand what I find opaque.
Anyway, The Deadman felt like a student film—suburban kids trying to be outrageous. Later I thought that there is a student film aspect to it. It’s somewhere in between porn, horror, and student film—if that’s a genre.

Ahwesh: I Was a Teenage Biker Deadman Vampire for the FBI?

MacDonald: But the personae in B films are these big adults, whereas in The Deadman, they’re young adults, almost kids.

Ahwesh: Originally I cast the film with completely different people, who were older and gnarlier, and much more difficult people. Kurt Kren was supposed to play the Count. The other people were San Francisco Art Institute grads and had been in Kuchar movies. You might recognize them.
The Deadman was the first film I shot in 16mm. We did have a script, which is unlike my early films, and everybody read the script once, then tossed it away, and we never referred to it again. The Deadman was a hybrid of my Super-8 movies, and this well-known literary source, which to me felt very foreign.
I don’t think anyone in Dead Man was trying to be outrageous. These are people who would have done anything for fun; they are transgressive people, but if it looks as if they’re trying to be outrageous, then the film is not working: it’s supposed to read as a-day-in-the-life in some ironic sense. I was trying to use the woman and sexuality and the body to make a philosophical point.

MacDonald: Talk about the point.

Ahwesh: Yvonne [Rainer] had made The Man Who Envied Women [1985], where at the beginning of the film the woman packs up her bags and leaves the movie. I remember seeing that and thinking, "As a Lacanian response, that’s really smart." It’s a really knowledgeable, thought-through Lacanian position about women and sexuality in this culture—the woman can’t even be in the movie because she’s so misunderstood and misrepresented by language and imagery. I understood that gesture as an end point in a kind of logic about women and sexuality. First you make the woman into text and then you remove her from the movie.
Keith and I had many discussions about this, and we were interested in somehow re-inserting woman as a sexual agent into the movies. A sexed being, female, gendered, who was the agent of the film. In a nutshell, that’s what we tried to do; that was the game that we were playing. Could you have a woman be the main character and have movie sex, and confront the audience in a material way. The film was basically about that, and about what you can discover in relation to that. So in that way The Deadman was a response to The Man Who Envied Women.
And also we thought the original Bataille story was fantastic

MacDonald: When did you first come in contact with Bataille’s story?

Ahwesh: Keith read Bataille in the Seventies. The book we published is Keith’s translation of the story. We went and read it in French at the New York Public Library; they had an uncirculating copy. Bataille was part of the canon in France, but here he wasn’t known. Because of Keith I’d known about Bataille.
Bataille is a social critic and philosopher. What is considered important in an ethnographic framework—tribal culture, magic, fetish objects sharing things instead of having a money economy, "the gift"—interested Bataille, but in relationship to mass culture. His fiction is a working out of his philosophical ideas.
Bataille is hard to put your finger on, because he wrote anthropology texts, a book on the paintings of Lascaux, fiction, poetry, was into psychoanalysis; he wrote a couple of serious books on economic systems. He wrote on surrealism, on architecture, on eroticism and the history of painting; he was a Nietszche scholar. This is a complex thinker. He doesn’t form a cohesive philosophic system, like Lacan does. He’s heterogeneous. He’s not someone you can make consistent and whole, but the heterogeneity of his writings and his interests is fascinating and generative. You have this person who is in touch with all these different fields, has some philosophical relationship to many areas, who writes a fiction book that relates to his ideas about tribal culture. The Deadman relates to ritual in a tribal culture, to initiation, membership.

MacDonald: Did the original text of The Deadman have the summaries of the action at the bottom of the pages?

Ahwesh: Yes, the lay-out of our book mimics the original French and started us thinking about using intertitles in the film.

MacDonald: Was the original illustrated?

Ahwesh: I don’t think so.
I like how Bataille does not explain the emotions of the characters in Le Mort. You’re not given reasons why. You’re not told that this woman is insane, or has a memory problem, or whatever. Characters don’t feel in the book. It’s a set of actions, a weird outline for something that has to be a stand-in for something else--like how a woman goes through life. She wins and loses. How does a woman get agency in a male culture? In a way, the book is a blueprint for that.

MacDonald: I’ve heard you talk about The Deadman, The Color of Love, and Nocturne as a trilogy. Will there be a fourth part; will it be a quartet?

Ahwesh: No, I’m done with that. But it wasn’t even planned as a trilogy; it just happened that way, very slowly over a ten year period. I never thought of it as a trilogy until a programmer—Jonas Mekas, actually--wanted to show the three films together at Anthology and decided they were a trilogy. I thought, "OK, it is a trilogy."
I went out with Abby Child not too long ago, and she said, "All your work is about death, ew." And I thought, "I guess that’s true." The video piece I’m making now [She Puppet, 2001] has a lot of ecstatic death moments in it. But the protagonist always pops back alive. I think it’s not really about death; it’s not just the old punishment for sex. I like a horror movie where you go to have an experience of hyper-violence and uncanny death. It’s like an amusement park ride; you don’t really want to die; you want to feel some totally hyper-real, bizarre fantasy of near-death that allows you to live your normal life in a way that’s less stressful and less neurotic. I’m doing the experimental film version of that kind of death.
I love violent horror movies; I love the excessiveness of them. I don’t want to be violated literally--but I like excessiveness, completely-over-the-top-ness, of the game and all my deadman movies are horror movies. I like the Italian Seventies horror movies especially. In terms of my fantasy life, I find horror films very liberating. I’m into preserving the distance between my real life and the movies, both when I go to movies and when I make them. To me horror film is not about women having to die.

MacDonald: If you look at the history of the horror genre over the last fifty years, it’s about how women need to, and are, getting stronger.

Ahwesh: At the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the only person left is a woman. And the same is true in the Romero films and the deadman films.

MacDonald: By the time you get to the Nightmare on Elm Street films, you have the woman getting pissed off and wanting to go back in there and kick Freddy’s ass. The woman becomes a battler.
The real premonition of The Deadman is probably Un Chien Andalou [Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali,1929].

Ahwesh: You know, Un Chien Andalou is the only film that Bataille mentions in his writings. We pored over Bataille looking for references to the movies.

MacDonald: Thinking about Un Chien Andalou helps me with The Deadman. I have no problem seeing how funny the Bunuel/Dali film is. If I think about what the people in Un Chien Andalou must have looked like to people in their own moment, it was probably much the same film. Dali and Bunuel are now major figures and their film has become a classic, so the actors now look very distinguished and the film feels "important."

Ahwesh: Yes, their shabby clothes have become dignified.

MacDonald: It did do what a shocking film is supposed to do: it shocked me and pissed me off. I have to give it that.

Ahwesh: I never make movies to shock people. First of all, I don’t know how you can predict that that would happen. It seems pretentious.

MacDonald: I can see why you wouldn’t see that Martina’s Playhouse would be shocking, but The Deadman is one long transgressive moment. One of the first events is that Jennifer squatting down in the woods, in this silly raincoat, and taking a pee.
By the way, I know you’re working on a Caldwell project. Do you know that the play, Tobacco Road, the adaptation of Caldwell’s novel, opens with one of the characters walking out on stage and taking a pee?

Ahwesh: I didn’t know that, but I think of The Deadman as one long female juissance, not a transgression at all.
You also don’t see a woman spreading her legs and shoving her crotch in someone’s face in a way that’s provocative but not seductive, and saying, "Look how pretty I am!" The woman does incredibly provocative things in an aggressive way.
In most movies the women are sexualized in a way that allows them to be incorporated into male fantasy; in The Deadman I keep you outside of male fantasy. A woman taking a piss in the woods, or pissing on somebody in an unromantic, non-seductive way--there’s no category for that in the movies. For me these are feminist gestures.

MacDonald: I suppose the only time I’ve seen comparable activities is in the Muehl/Kren Materialaktionfilms.

Ahwesh: Yeah, outside of porn, Materialaktionfilm is the one place. In some ways that set of films, was an inspiration for ours. We were very involved with Kurt Kren at the time. He was a good friend, and we really wanted him in the movie. In the Certain Women project, I would say that the figure who hovers over us is Fassbinder. For The Deadman it was definitely Kurt Kren. He was our angel who gave his blessing to the project.
I was also thinking about Iggy Pop quite a bit, making The Deadman. Iggy Pop is an American original. You can’t really copy Iggy Pop; what he does is so crude and so ridiculously personal, and low end, and scatological, and anti-social—and yet, twenty years of rock music is largely based on him. I was doing Iggy Pop to Yvonne Rainer’s David Bowie.

MacDonald: Where did you find the material you use in The Color of Love?

Ahwesh: A friend of mine dropped off a so-called "donation" at Bard: six big boxes of cans and reels that had been left out in the rain. In all those boxes there was one reel of Super-8mm. I thought I might as well check it out. I looked at it on the Super-8 viewer, and realized it was pretty interesting.

MacDonald: Is the film a ready-made?

Ahwesh: Well, no. I did a lot of editing.
I’m not like Phil Solomon: I’m not an optical-printing whiz. And I’m not systematic. Basically, I did an improv on the optical printer with the footage. I treat my machines almost like dance partners. I did two sessions on the printer and messed around, eyeballing it, slowing some sections down and speeding others up a bit, repeating some things, and elongating the cunt shots. And then I re-cut that material on the flatbed.

MacDonald: And the color and texture?

Ahwesh: I filtered it a bit, made it a little more purple, but basically, the undulations, the emulsion decay and the color are what was there.
I showed The Color of Love footage a couple of times at parties, just the dailies off the printer, and I remember M. M. Serra wagging her finger at me and saying, "Don’t make it too long; you’ll ruin it!" It’s on the verge of being too long.
There are cuts in the music too. Keith helped me sync it up and be sure the sound was coming in on the right frames.

MacDonald: At Ithaca College, you talked about the assemblage process of doing Nocturne.

Ahwesh: Nocturne is a dream space, a return of the repressed in a dream-space, and about repetition compulsion. It’s not much of a story. The woman kills the guy and she drags him across the lawn, goes to sleep, and there he is, haunting her. She has restless sleep and senses something, some paranormal presence, and then she has to kill him again. That’s it. There’s a sensibility, a sense of space and time being collapsed or stopped, protracted, and a struggle between elemental male and female principles. That’s how I think of it. I finally did see the original feature film it was from.

MacDonald: What are you talking about? You mean the scientific footage?

Ahwesh: No, no. I made the movie, based on a review that someone on the internet had written about an Italian horror movie, a Mario Bava film originally called "The Whip and the Flesh" and released in the United States as What! Bava is one of my favorite Italian Seventies horror filmmakers: Dario Argento, Bava, Lucio Fulci. Do you know their work?

MacDonald: No.

Ahwesh: Oh my god! Go see Suspiria [1977]; it’s fantastic! Argento and Mario Bava are fantastic! Barbara Steele, who’s the star of a lot of those films is amazing.
So Steven Shavivo wrote a review of The Whip and the Flesh on the net—eight hundred words—and I never could find the film, so I based Nocturne on the review. He had already reduced the film down to the relationship between these two people, and I reduced it further.
I finally did see the original: Kathy Geritz showed Nocturne at Pacific Film Archive along with a 35mm print of The Whip and the Flesh, which she borrowed from somebody’s archive in LA. My film is black and white; Bava’s is in color. His is a whole elaborate Victorian period piece; mine is no-period, basically. His is a drama about a dysfunctional family that lives in a castle by the water, with trick fireplaces—a haunted castle movie with all kinds of gothic cult elements. Mine is a minimal piece, with a little touch of gothic austerity. I like Bava’s film, but I don’t think he’d be interested in mine.

MacDonald: Did you do any storyboarding. What kind of planning was involved in Nocturne?

Ahwesh: I had twenty-five note cards with different scene ideas written on them. We shot all twenty-five in two or three days; and then over the period of a year, I cut it and added cutaways and other kinds of associative material--doing an assemblage, not only from the visual material, but also from different literary resources that I read after the shooting was done. It’s totally an assemblage method—like an essay, with narrative elements.

MacDonald: It reminds me a bit of Damned If You Don’t [1983, Su Friedrich] in its combination of materials.

Ahwesh: Oh, that’s interesting. They are similar in that way.
You know, we mostly don’t know the meaning of what we’re doing, at any given moment, but after twenty years, you begin to figure your own gestures out.
Some people read She Puppet [2001] as a conceptual work, as an alteration of a cultural product—it’s often treated differently from most of my video or film. It’s seen as an idea movie. It’s entered the art world in a way that my work hasn’t before. Dan Graham has a kiosk on the roof of DIA where they show media; it’ll be in a program there. I think of She Puppet as another found-footage piece. I collected the material and then reworked it. It’s about this female entity, and is a riff off one videogame with this virtual superstar from the popular imagination (Lara Croft).
Over the years, I’ve usually worked with ordinary people, family members, neighbors, "nobodies." But She Puppet is a whole different thing: I worked with a superstar!

MacDonald: It’s different in that you collected the material on the basis of your having actually played the videogame—that’s a different kind of collecting.

Ahwesh: Right. It’s more interactive and it relates to my interest in improvisation.

MacDonald: Is working with Lara Croft a premonition of your working with well-known actors?

Ahwesh: [laughter]

MacDonald: I remember talking with you about Willem Dafoe, who I’d love to see in a Peggy Ahwesh film.

Ahwesh: In some ways I would like to be able to do that, and this Certain Women project has made me think that it might be possible. Willem Dafoe burns a hole in the screen, but if you can work with somebody like that so that they actually fit within the fabric of the piece--that would be fantastic.

MacDonald: Why did you choose Certain Women as the basis for your new film; it’s certainly not one of Caldwell’s more memorable novels.

Ahwesh: That’s true, but it’s easier to make a good movie from something that’s not a great work of literature. The further you get away from great literature, the less demanding the world is on your interpretation, which is liberating.
The earlier Caldwell work, which is definitely better literature, is from the 1930s; for us to work with something written in the late 1950s seemed more do-able. We did up-date several of the stories. In a way the Fifties is the original retro period (it got re-drawn in the Seventies, and then re-drawn again in the Nineties) but to go back to Caldwell before that becomes so regional, and so American populist Thirties—it’s too far back for me.
Also, the omnibus idea of having various stories that take place in the same town, but are presented in these smaller units--a sort of panoply of the ladies, various shaded aspects of femininity--was very appealing and something we felt we could work with.

MacDonald: How far have you gotten in the film?

Ahwesh: Right now, we’re shooting the fifth episode, of five, called "Nannette." It’s the saddest and most dour of all the stories; it’s so pathetic [laughter]. There’s this little mountain girl who loses her parents early on and gets a job at a truck stop and the night manager tries to seduce her, and their sex act gets interrupted by the bitchy wife of the manager, who cuts her face, and she spends the last third of the story, scarred, unable to get a job, rejected by society. A benevolent older lady introduces her to a blind man who hires her.
That’s actually the story!

MacDonald: It’s good you can blame Caldwell for this plot!

Ahwesh: [laughter] Another episode stars Martina, who’s in high school now. She plays Louellen, a busty high school senior who can’t get a boyfriend, and ends up having an affair with an out-of-towner, who dumps her, and all the boys start fighting over her. Martina wore her own clothes. Very contemporary hip-hugger jeans, sneakers, and pink tank-tops.
Each episode has been different. Basically we try to get the right person for the part, someone who looks right; everyone is a character actor. There are a couple of weak actors, but generally we got the right people.

MacDonald: This sounds like straight melodrama.

Ahwesh: It’s closer.

MacDonald: The love/sex trilogy—Dead Man, The Color of Love, Nocturne—includes narrative, but ultimately it’s like dream narrative. The viewer gives up on figuring out the story. This sounds pretty straightforward.

Ahwesh: The reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution. By the end, you’re supposed to be able to figure out why things happened the way they did. And I’ve always been more into presenting a problem and getting you into an emotional place where you understand the calamity or joy or desire within a person’s life. It’s like a texture, or a mood, a moment—not this is the story and this is how it turns out. Actually, we are doing my usual thing again, because none of the stories resolves and there is no redemption to the women’s misery. Our favorite shots are these loving close-ups of faces: the film becomes something like a landscape film of human emotions. So I’m off the hook again.

MacDonald: Color, or black and white?

Lurid color.
My sex movies were all in black and white because peoples’ bodies look better, and it’s also much easier to make things blend—if you’re using a friend’s living room for your set, you have to take it as-is. Black and white allows you more leeway.
We used real locations on the whole. We had to get real places that looked right already, because we have limited resources and an absurd number of locations to shoot in.