Somewhere in between dreams and memory, Janie Geiser crafts intricate and enchanting—and often haunting—films with her own handmade puppets and once-loved but now forgotten objects. Geiser’s new series of experimental “Nervous” films—Ghost Algebra (2009), Kindless Villain (2010), The Floor of the World (2010) and Ricky (2011)—screens on tonight at REDCAT, and she speaks here about the first puppets she ever made, feeling electricity in her traveling nerves, and constructing meaning with and without the ability to create memories. This interview by Lainna Fader.
What was the first puppet you made like?
The first puppet—beyond experiments—was actually from college. I was taking a fabric design class, and it was getting back to how fabric was made, like the weaving and things like that—and I’m not prone to that direction. For our final project, it was kind of left open, and since we had been doing a lot of hand stitching, I decided to make a hand stitched puppet. I made it by cutting out an arm, covering it completely in wool embroidery, and then the face, and the eyes, and it ended up kind of looking like a skinny Charles Laughton which wasn’t my intention at all. I was just kind of doing it free form. It was kind of a magical character for me. I liked it. It showed a certain kind of obsessiveness I have—every single bit of it was covered with stitching—so it had a kind of satisfying quality of obsession about it. So I called him Charles Laughton because it reminded me of him.
What puppet have you made of that you’re most proud of?
There’s one that’s really falling apart. Well, there’s a couple. I did a show called ‘Night Behind the Windows’ and it was kind of inspired by—you know the writer Robert Walser?—I was reading a forward to a book of his short stories and they talked about how he died. Do you know how he died? Well, he was in and out of different sanitariums and stuff like that. He was in one of those at the time. And he always loved to walk—he has a book called The Walk—and for some reason, one night, he went out on a walk in the snow, and they found his body lying face down in the snow, and there was no clear cause of death. So I thought that was the beginning of something, and devised a story around that, but I made it a woman who just falls in the forest and dies. A man comes upon her, and he’s trying to figure out what to do, but no one recognizes her, and the guy is trying to find out who she is. And you never know. And that’s what happens—nothing. But she’s a Bunraku style puppet, and actually, the guy, too. They’re probably my favorite pair of puppets. They just move really well. They’re not stiff—a lot of my puppets are deliberately stiff—and they just are able, when they’re well performed, to tell a story with just their movement.
In a lot of your films, your puppets seem to be flailing about, dealing with all kinds of boundaries and limits. Do you think inanimate objects have emotional lives?
Oh, absolutely! Not that they have them themselves, but we project them onto them. A lot of puppeteers get into, ‘It’s alive!’ and I think we’re bringing it to life through the person performing it and the collaboration with the audience. And it’s because we just bring many powerful associations to objects, and so using that inherent power, that’s already there—it’s kind of like a Rorschach test. You see an inkblot and project into it really emotional things and memories. I think it’s the same thing with objects, and that’s why I’m really into using found objects in my films. The first couple films I made, that were more kind of full films, like the puppet film, and then I made a couple of painted, cut-out films, which I like but started to think they’d all start looking alike if I kept working that way. From the beginning, I was putting objects into them as well, and I got really excited about what they can do, and now I’m always on the lookout for new characters.
Jan Svankmajor said that having puppets when he was a kid was an amazing gift because he could use puppets to play out all life’s injustices, correcting them, taking revenge. Why do you like working with puppets? What do you get out of it?
I don’t know that I’m taking revenge, but I am for myself, trying to get closer to the meanings of things, and hopefully other people are able to find something in that. These ‘Nervous Films,’ they’re about the nervous energy and the world we live in now, how crazy everything is right now. Maybe it’s battling despair. If I’m really paying attention—which I do, unfortunately—to the politics and how things are going everywhere, I would be in despair. I have to have something to do to fight that.
What about the world today are you most nervous about?
A kind of ignorance—not stupidity—but willful ignorance, and a kind of meanness that’s out there, and a greed that’s out there. It’s exemplified in all the budget debates. People would sacrifice everyone who needs help, and they don’t need help because they’re not trying, but because everything in the system is failing them. For political game, people are trying to turn the argument to make those people—it’s the most frustrating thing. You hear people saying things like, ‘50% of Americans don’t pay taxes.’ Well, what that really means is they actually don’t make enough money to pay taxes! It’s characterized as if they’re good for nothing, lazy people—50% of the people in America—and there are new ways that the corporate people are being described as the productive class, the job creators, and all these terms that ignore the greed that’s going on. And I feel despair for the planet. I have a thirteen-year-old son, and I can’t show him that despair. We talk about these things, and I wonder, what is his world going to be like if we keep heading in that direction? But it’s a beautiful day out… ha! We need all these things: food, clothing, shelter, and meaning, and people find it in different ways. I find it through making things. It helps me stay alive and sane—even if what’s in the film is kind of agitated.
What’s one of the most anxiety-inducing dreams you’ve ever had?
I had a dream one time that I died. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re not supposed to die in your dreams.
What? I’ve had several of those dreams…
Really? Okay, good, I’m not the only one. Maybe it didn’t come quite to the end because they say if you die in your dreams then you really die. The air was going out of my body, and I was shrinking, and it was really terrible. It was kind of scary, and kind of fascinating. That’s the thing about terror in dreams—and in real life too. We’re fascinated by it. You know, fires are fascinating as well as terrifying and sad.
The press release says “Ghost Algebra” suggests one of the original meanings of the word “algebra” is the science of restoring what is missing, the reunion of broken parts. What was missing from your life when you made this film? What has since come back together?
I was actually having a strange health problem, where is sort of where the whole “Nervous” films have come from. I haven’t really ever talked about this, but it’s been a couple years now. I just suddenly started feeling all the electricity in my nerves. It was … unnerving. All those nervous words suddenly became real. It might’ve been caused by something getting pinched, because it did happen right after I had a massage, and I was having a massage because I was so tense. It could’ve been a vitamin deficiency. It could’ve been a combination of things, and they never figured it out. I went to all kinds of doctors, had an MRI, been to a neurologist, and what seemed to help the most was a combination of acupuncture and herbs. But my body was not a familiar vessel anymore.
Was that a really uncomfortable feeling?
It was horrible. But it’s invisible. I might be sitting here talking to you, and feeling all these nerves. I never knew where all my nerves are, and I certainly don’t know where they all are now, but I could actually feel it traveling through my body and I didn’t know when it would stop. It would come and go—it wasn’t constant—but it was very scary. Maybe the massage was some catalyst for some underlying condition that needed some attention—the doctors never figured it out. They were telling me it could be MS, it could be a brain tumor, it could be all these things. Then I had terrible anxiety that added to the problem. So it was kind of like, I lost my sense of calm, because my body was not calm.
Do you feel like you have it back now?
Yeah. Maybe after a year—or even nine months—I started moving towards normal, and now I’m 99% normal. I occasionally have little twinges, but nothing like traveling nerves. The odd thing was I found several other friends who had similar things going on, just not to the same extent, so I guess it’s not as uncommon. A pinched nerve could cause it, not just severe medical issues.
Would you have preferred to know what the specific problem was, or was not knowing more comfortable? Which would cause most anxiety for you?
I think the not knowing. I never had physical anxiety in my life, and as it went longer, and nobody could tell me what to do to make it better, that’s when anxiety kicked in. So I made “Ghost Algebra” at the height of not knowing. It’s not about me in that sense—though there are a lot of body parts in there—I was transmitting another kind of nervousness that we have about war. The woman is looking at this old World War I compound by the ocean where they’re hiding and she’s looking into it and seeing the history of sadness and war and killing and bodies. I’m not so interested in being completely autobiographical and confessional because I don’t think my story is that important. I’m more interested in using things that are motivating to me and looking at them in a bigger picture way, but through a very small world.
You’ve said “Red Book” started with you reading a book about a man who lost his memory after being shot in the head. How did you get from that point to a film about a woman who loses her memory?
I tried to get the rights to the book to do a puppet show, and they wouldn’t give me the rights. But I couldn’t let the idea go. It kept ruminating. I decided to use it as a jumping point and placed it in a woman, which I think gave me more freedom.
Are you worried about losing your memory?
I have a terrible memory, and it worried me a bit.
I have an odd memory. Maybe there’s some hypothalamus problem. If I watch a feature film, I remember it, but what I remember is what I feel watching it, not the moment-to-moment plot, unless I really work at it. It may just be how I do things. It may just be experiencing things, rather than remembering them. I spent a lot of time in my 20s trying to write down all my dreams. Now I don’t remember them as much because I stopped doing that, but I’d like to go back to it. I like having that source. If you do it, you may uncover things that aren’t actually scary, and maybe it would help you figure out why you’re having those dreams. I also love dream language. It’s so free in there. I do feel like with a lot of my work that phase in my life where I focused on that a lot taught me a language of almost montage, where you can put two things next to each other that don’t make sense in a plot kind of way but they resonate by being next to each other. You can make a turn that makes sense to you emotionally but isn’t logical in a plot way, or it only makes sense in dream logic. So I think it really influenced a lot of my work, even though none of these dreams are recordings of dreams. There’s just a sense of structure that dreams have that I really embrace.
Your films deal a lot with childhood, with looking back at the past, but seem to suggest that the wholeness of the past is entirely retrievable, because stories are never revealed in their entirety. What’s something experienced as a kid that will always stick with you that you think you remember in its entirety?
It goes to my father. I was not sick very much as a kid, and I come from a big family of six kids, and I was the second child. Looking back as an adult, I feel like part of what I’ve always have longed for is the kind of attention that you get from your parents—I mean they loved us all equally, somehow—but that attention that you get when you’re really little just kept going to the next kid. So I even helped my parents a lot with the next kid as part of that system of love. But when I was about four or five, I got some kind of bad fever. It was like 104. So my parents too me to the hospital, because they had actually lost their first child to some kind of virus. She got a fever and was dead in two days. So they were really sensitive to fever. I was there for a couple of days, and my dad picked me up. He wrapped me in a blanket and lifted me and carried me and I hadn’t been carried in a long time because there were always littler kids to carry and I remember it was an amazing feeling. I still carry my son, probably for that reason. He’s getting too old though.
Nancy Andrews told me that she thinks life and death are always arbitrary—“We think we control such things, or someone controls such things, but it might all me dumb luck or no luck.” What do you think?
I think that’s pretty true. You can stop smoking maybe, but you might just get hit by a car too. There’s murder, there’s war, and those are not random, but maybe it’s random who survives and who doesn’t once you’re in it. I remember my dad my dad telling me about this scar he had. It was at the end of World War II, and a bullet just grazed him. That’s pretty random. That’s luck. Some kid gets shot in a drive-by—that’s terrible luck. Often they have nothing to do with it. They just were there at the wrong time. Drunk drivers. There’s some control with personal behaviors you have, but it’s usually the other person’s personal behavior that unduly effects you. We’re all going to die—it’s nothing profound to say that—but we push it. I found this book at the Last Bookstore downtown, and I haven’t read it yet, but it’s The Denial of Death. I do think we just live because we don’t want to think about the other option. That was the thing with the nerve problem. I just thought, ‘I really don’t want to die right now. At least til my son is twenty to die.’ I don’t want him to be one of those kids whose mother dies when they’re thirteen.
It’s strange to think about when the appropriate time to die is.
Yeah—no good time. My mom’s still hanging in there, and she’s still healthy but she’s getting old.
You’ve said that in the end of “Red Book,” she’d completely lost her base and it’s very hard to live and define yourself at that point. How do you cope with situations like that? How do you define yourself—and why is it important to define yourself?
I define myself differently all the time. When I’m teaching, that’s who I am. I’m an artist. I’m a mom. It’s more about understanding all these roles that we play, and trying to inhabit those aspects that I’m in right now. The thing about memory—that book when I read it was really horrifying to me. It goes very clearly what it’s like to have aphasia. You do something, and after you’ve one it, you forget what you’ve just done. He was alive—all his senses were there—but he couldn’t construct meaning for himself. He wrote his story sentence by sentence. He’d write a sentence, get his mom to read it back to him, so that he could quick have his thought for the next sentence to write it down, but then he wouldn’t be able to remember what he had just written. She had to do it sentence by sentence with him and it took him twenty-five years to write his life story, which was not that long. So what it means to be alive, and how we construct meaning, and how important it is to our sense of being alive—here was a guy who was alive, who wasn’t saying he wanted to die, though maybe he did at one point. But he was so tenaciously trying to find meaning in his life through writing this thing that it was just so amazing and so frightening. There’s a very famous theater director, Joseph Chakin, and he had a stroke and got aphasia, and it was so moving, the way he started to create work out of that, that it was so inspiring but so horrifying that his amazing mind was stuck. Whatever was still there from him, was still fighting, and trying to make art of this lack of construction that was part of him. That’s the flip side. There’s some fight in that. And it’s something a lot of people have to deal with, with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and all those fun things. Do you have any of that in your family?
I don’t know… but my grandmother isn’t doing so well—can’t remember things, seems disoriented—and she lives on the other side of the country.
We all wonder what that would be like if it happens to us. It seems like a merciful loss of … not being able to remember who they are. The “Red Book” touches on that—a fear we have about loss of meaning. My dad was cognizant up until the end—he had a lung disease—and it didn’t seem to be painful, except that he had trouble breathing. At the end, he had trouble moving, and I never understood this but if you’re not getting oxygen to your body, it can’t really move. I’d never really thought about it. So he couldn’t really move much, but he could talk. I was amazed at how much of him was still there. He could reason, he could joke. He was very present. So I think about what that means. How superfluous are our bodies?
JANIE GEISER’S “NERVOUS FILMS” SCREEN TONIGHT, OCT. 17 AT REDCAT, 631 WEST 2ND ST. 8PM / $12 / ALL AGES. REDCAT.ORG. JANIEGEISER.COM.