There’s a scene in Joanna Arnow’s galvanizing 2013 documentary, “i hate myself :)”, where her ex-boyfriend, fearless poet-provocateur James Kepple, defends his use of offensive words, arguing that they exert control over anyone who fears to say them. The same could be said of sexuality, and the pervasive control it maintains over those who choose to repress, or even worse, refuse to acknowledge it. By delving into the complexities of her own fractured relationship with Kepple—exploring its emotional and sexual dynamics with an unbridled honesty unseen in most “personal” docs—Arnow’s film is a triumphant takedown of America’s puritanical, side-hug-endorsing culture intent on stigmatizing aspects of the human experience that should be normalized. It’s also funny as hell.
Arnow’s fascination with the power balance in relationships continues with her acclaimed narrative short film, “Bad at Dancing,” which won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. After delivering one of my favorite performances last year in Drew Tobia’s “See You Next Tuesday,” Eleanore Pienta once again beguiles as Isabel, a young woman whose various attempts at having sex with her boyfriend, Matt (Keith Poulson), are interrupted by her roommate, Joanna (Arnow, naturally), who routinely bursts in on the couple mid-coitus and proceeds to converse with them in an entirely disaffected manner. Viewers will initially find themselves laughing out of sheer disbelief, yet there is a wealth of provocative depth within the film’s awkward, protracted silences. I can’t wait to see what Arnow will do with a narrative feature film—which, according to the director, will indeed be her next project.
Indie Outlook spoke with Arnow about the evolution of her documentary, the surrealistic aspects of her short film and her thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, which was the focus of her 2013 documentary short, “Month One.”
What films did you enjoy watching at an early age?
I actually didn’t watch that many films growing up. We had five VHSs that were interesting to me, and one of them was the cartoon version of “Little Women.” [laughs] For “i hate myself :)”, one film that I thought of as an influence was Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” because I was interested in the way that it shows how Fosse’s love life and the art that he’s making are entangled as both of them begin to fall apart. “i hate myself :)” is not that similar to “All That Jazz,” but I feel that it shows how our lives and the narratives that we tell can grow to become like each other.
Had you documented your life prior to making this film?
Not at all. I went into “i hate myself :)” thinking that it was going to be a film more focused on James and that our relationship was more of a framing device. I hadn’t gone into it thinking that I was going to be a protagonist of the film too. I was going to be more of a character behind the camera, but that changed over the process of making it. I was excited that I finally had a subject who was interested in giving as much access to themselves as I felt was necessary for the story. It was more of a matter of convenience as a documentary filmmaker.
I was interested in the collision of different attitudes between James and his audience in Harlem and between him and me. I just felt like there was a lot of great potential in the stories and conflicts that could arise, based on what I was seeing at open mics. I filmed his first open mic for him, and I got the idea to keep filming partially because a fight we had at that open mic was accidentally recorded. James was wearing a lavalier and we went outside to have an argument. His friends kept recording their own band performance inside, and our audio was picked up along with it. When I listened back to that later, I was struck by how something that was painful at the time could become funny with some distance. That was partly why I thought our relationship dynamic could be interesting and relatable for others.
The title “i hate myself :)” is indicative of film’s overall tone. There are many moments where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
With “i hate myself :)”, I wanted to show the arc of coming to be open about parts of yourself that make you feel ashamed, and in that openness, you can accept them and also see the humor in them. Hence the smiley face. Oftentimes when people say, “I hate myself,” they don’t really mean it. It’s really an expression of love mixed with frustration. It’s sort of the way I feel about the film and having made the film and how I feel when I watch the film. When I came up with the title, I got really excited and texted it to a friend. They texted back a “:(” as their response, and I was like, “No, no, no, it’s a :)”. So I guess you’re right, it’s sort of this clarification of the tones that I was hoping to achieve with the film.
This decision to let it all hang out serves as somewhat of a rebuke to the more repressive forces in American society. Was making the film a cathartic experience for you?
Yeah it was, though I can’t answer for James. As a documentary filmmaker, you go into a project with story in mind, first and foremost. It shouldn’t be about whatever you personally hope to get out of making it. Everyone is always like, “Don’t think of documentaries as having any therapeutic aspects for yourself,” so I definitely wasn’t thinking about that. At the same time, if you’re not thinking of the film from a story and narrative perspective, it’s going to feel self-indulgent. Over the process of making the film, it’s interesting to balance that approach with being open to the changes that occur within yourself, particularly if you are a character in your own story. I didn’t go into the film with the idea of using the camera as a tool to reshape my own narrative, and that probably wouldn’t have worked if I had. It was something that evolved along the way.
The inclusion of your conversations with co-editor Max Karson makes the film even more self-reflexive.
It was later into the process when I realized that I wanted the film to be more about myself. Since I was behind the camera most of the time, I didn’t really have the footage to tell my part of the story. Given the subject matter, I felt that having a voice-over or interviews with myself after the fact seemed a little bit overly self-indulgent. In the meantime, Max and I had been having some arguments and heated conversations about how to present and shape the narrative, so I liked the idea of telling my part of the story by taking a more conflict-driven approach.
When was it decided that Max would be naked in his scenes?
Before we had started filming, he had already been editing naked. So when we started filming it, I had to decide whether I wanted him to always be naked or be clothed, because I didn’t want it to be half and half. I decided that having him always be naked would be better because, for one, something interesting was going on and I wouldn’t want to stop it for the sake of the documentary. [laughs] I also liked the idea of him as a sort of surreal, sage-like figure encouraging me on my arc of becoming more uninhibited and naked, both figuratively and literally.
Since we were breaking the fourth wall of the narrative anyway, I thought it would be helpful to have this additional element of the nudity. It makes the break in the narrative less jarring, in a way. Instead of the audience wondering why the film is suddenly including footage of the editing process, they’re more off-balance while trying to understand the naked guy onscreen.
It’s also a rare instance of the female gaze. There still aren’t many American films that regard a man from a woman’s perspective.
Yeah, definitely. There’s so much female nudity in films, and I think it’s exciting that this movie helps correct the imbalance. It seems strange to me why it’s such a taboo to have male nudity in films.
Sex comes off as just another part of life in this film. It also seems to have been important for you to not portray yourself as a victim in the relationship.
It’s funny talking to you about it because you have the exact same perspective as me about my film. [laughs] I’m used to having to respond to questions that come from an angle that I don’t necessarily agree with. Over the course of the film, I came to realize that some of the problems in the relationship were also part of what attracted me to it. That fact that I’m the one who’s filming and telling the story is at odds with the notion that some people have had that I’m a victim in the relationship. I definitely don’t see myself that way at all.
I do feel that there’s a gendered way of viewing the footage. There are scenes where I’m filming James a few months after we’ve broken up, and I’m interviewing him about his feelings regarding relationships. People don’t often see this as an instance of me treating James badly, which I think it is. If the roles were reversed and it was a guy interviewing a woman about their relationship a few months after it had ended, people would have a much different reaction to it. The balance of power would have been interpreted much differently.
What was it like tackling your first scripted narrative (outside of film school) with “Bad at Dancing”?
It’s really exciting to incorporate my writing into my filmmaking. It’s a whole different art form, almost. I have more control, in some ways, over how a film will look and less control in other ways, but that’s exciting too because I love working with collaborators who bring their ideas to the process, which is not to say that I didn’t work with others in my documentaries. There’s just so much more collaboration on all the levels of the narrative.
I previously interviewed Eleanore Pienta about her work in “See You Next Tuesday.” She has a remarkable gift for deadpan humor.
I agree with you, she’s terrific. I had actually acted with her in a short film the winter before I made “Bad at Dancing.” It’s called “Google Ambien” by Sarah Salovaara. I liked her a lot as a performer and as a person. It felt like she had a lot charisma in both areas, so I actually wrote “Bad at Dancing” with her in mind for the part of my friend. One of the reasons why I wrote the script is because I’m friends with people who are more outgoing than I am, and I was interested in exploring the leader/follower dynamic and the psychology behind what both sides get out of it.
There’s so much humor in cinematographer Amy Bench’s compositions, as they juxtapose sex acts with your character’s seemingly indifferent reaction toward them.
Amy was great, and has a very classical approach. I was interested in the long take aesthetic to underline the contextual absurdity of the situation and use the sex in a way that wasn’t realistic. It’s treated as a recurring element that adds tension and humor because it is so minimally acknowledged.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you chose to film in black-and-white because of its surrealistic quality.
In a lot of ways, the film is close to reality. It’s not hitting you over the head with fantastic elements. But on other hand, in reality, you probably wouldn’t walk in on your friends having sex—repeatedly without reservation—and if you did, your friends would probably confront you about it. The absurdity and surrealism comes from the narrative elements and so I wanted to use black-and-white to immediately establish a visual separation between everyday reality and the world of film. I wanted to stay away from images that were too naturalistic or causal, while giving the film a more formal and cohesive look. We also didn’t have that much of a budget for art direction, so it was a good way to create a cohesive look without the use of many props.
When you say “come back” to your friends after placing them in a deliberately uncomfortable situation, it reminded me of the scene in “i hate myself :)” where you ask your parents to “come back” during an uncomfortable screening of your footage.
I haven’t thought about that before. [laughs] I should end all my films by saying, “Come back!” One of the things that I wanted to explore in “Bad at Dancing” was the tension between what’s unsaid and what’s explicitly stated between the characters. I wanted to leave room for people to grapple with the character motivations themselves.
The shot of your character pleasuring herself is especially bold, considering how female sexuality continues to be stigmatized.
Yeah, you’re saying all the things that I think! Even though people are talking about sexuality more, it’s still a conversation in film that is very much dominated by the male perspective. There is a lot of stigma around female characters expressing their sexuality, especially if it’s unconventional sexuality or if they are active agents in their own sexuality. A woman masturbating on camera isn’t really shown that much in American films, so I’m glad that it reduces the stigma, but it’s an added bonus. I have it in the film because it’s appropriate for the story. I see my character’s arc as a descent into pushing her friends away and eroticizing that rejection, and so masturbating in their bed was the natural end point.
What was it like screening the film in Berlin?
It was great. I had gone to Berlin for the Unknown Pleasures film festival the year before to screen “i hate myself :)” there, so it was my second time screening work in Germany. I haven’t gone anywhere else in Europe to screen a film, so it was very exciting for me. I feel like Berlin is a place where I have a connection with my work now. “i hate myself :)” was embraced more by underground festivals that were open to independent films. Another festival that screened “Bad at Dancing” was the Chicago Underground Film Festival. I liked their programming as well as their attitude and aesthetic.
You also made a terrific documentary short, “Month One,” with Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, that chronicled the first days of Occupy Wall Street.
The first time I went down there was the day that over 700 people got arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. It felt like things were always happening there and growing from day to day. Michael, Suki and I worked with sources that were contributed by other filmmakers, such as the pepper spray footage and the confrontation between the man and police. We wanted the film to be an experiential, observational look at what it was like to be on the ground during the first month of Occupy Wall Street, without weighing it down with exposition or interviews, while still having an interplay with the main events that propelled it forward.
What is your personal take on the movement?
I think activism is important in all shapes and forms because it does things like increase visibility and change the conversation. I feel like Occupy Wall Street definitely helped change the conversation, especially about questions regarding taxes. I miss it. I felt like it was a moment of hope and optimism where people inspired each other with energy and a sense of community. What I hope the film shows is this sense of momentum and possibility that, to me, it felt like it had. I guess I have my bias as a filmmaker, but we weren’t trying to glorify the movement. We just wanted the film to reflect how it felt to be there.