The Los Angeles-based filmmaker discusses cities, soundtracks and landscapes
I’m a sucker for film soundtracks. When a filmmaker wants me to feel something that can be expressed through music, I am putty in their hands. The first Laida Lertxundi film I saw – My Tears Are Dry (2009), at the 2012 Whitney Biennial – caught my attention with its use of Hoagy Lands’s heart-crushing 1961 soul ballad of the same name. As in many of Lertxundi’s films, music gives the domestic space it depicts a heavy charge that balances the pleasures of pop with a reflexive awareness of the role of sound in cinema. Glowing southern Californian light saturates her works, films that articulate the connections between domesticity and landscape, and how technology gives shape and colour to our place in them.
Dan Fox What’s your relationship to California? Films such as Footnotes to a House of Love (2007), My Tears Are Dry, and A Lax Riddle Unit (2011) depict apartments and domestic spaces, but they also feel like hymns to Los Angeles and the landscape around it.
Laida Lertxundi I treat Los Angeles and its surrounding areas as a subject in my films. To make films here is to enter into dialogue with the misrepresentations of the city that Hollywood creates: we share the same space, history and, to a certain extent, the same resources. My approach is non-spectacular; I want to present Los Angeles as a lived-in place. In a city with little public space, this becomes about the intimacy of interior spaces and the magnitude of open landscapes. I like to define the work as ‘landscape plus’: the natural environments in my films are being altered by people and objects that operate as a kind of demarcation or interference in the land, creating an image of the filmmaker in the landscape.
DF Can you talk about your use of music? Songs by Hoagy Lands, The Shangri-Las, Robert Wyatt and James Carr all appear in your films, cut together in ways that suggest more than ‘mere’ soundtracks.
LL Part of mediating the landscape is making a soundtrack within in it in real time. I insist on using diegetic music, which places its source on or off screen. Even when we can identify the source of music on screen, it has power over our emotional field but it refers to itself as a part of a whole.
I want to expose the process of making a soundtrack, never treating music as a background to images. I treat it as a material, often seen as well as heard. At times, it enters into a conflict with the image or gets desynchronized. The music recordings are made live during shooting and sound is always recorded from another source – for example, a record player, CD or monitor – with the sounds of that particular environment: traffic, street noise, or sounds that occur out in nature such as birds, or the loud hum of an aeroplane. Because there are people in my films, there is often a question of whether I am engaging in narrative or fiction. But there is none. Narrative is replaced by sound and image relationships, compositions that lean more towards music than film narrative.
DF What’s your relationship to analogue technology? Aside from the fact your films are shot on celluloid, they also feature record players, tape recorders, radios and TVs – technology of the late 20th century rather than the digital 21st.
LL There is a precariousness to working on 16mm and I like to refer to this by using analogue sound-making devices within my films. In Footnotes to a House of Love, My Tears Are Dry and particularly in Cry When it Happens / Llora Cuando Te Pase (2010), these are breaking, slowing down – instruments are missing a key or are slightly out of tune. I use all these things as a reflection of 16mm itself – obsolete or breaking down but still going. That said, all my editing and, very importantly, my sound is mixed digitally. There is also a DVD player in Cry When it Happens, so we can’t say that the work is strictly analogue or digital. It is more accurate to say that technologies from different times are made to work together. There is a relationship between these machines breaking and the themes of heartbreak and loss that often appear in the music I use, both drawing a picture of a world that is falling apart. This unsteadiness is also the point where something new can be made.
DF What filmmakers have influenced you? My Tears Are Dry is wonderfully redolent of another Californian filmmaker, Bruce Baillie, whose films such as All My Life and Castro Street (both 1966) are portraits of places and moods.
LL I’m glad you draw a connection to Baillie’s work. My Tears Are Dry is actually an homage to All My Life, one of the first experimental films that I saw and which moved me deeply. I thought about how something so apparently simple can be so transporting. My Tears Are Dry is also made as an homage to Los Angeles and its contradictions as a Utopian destination and a place with an erased history. In order to refer to All My Life (which is also song by Ella Fitzgerald), instead of having a title card that said ‘homage to …’, I worked with a graphic designer who copied the design of the titles for the Baillie film. The titles seem to refer more to the Ella Fitzgerald song he uses than the film itself, and I followed the same steps with mine.
I’m interested in filmmakers – such as James Benning, Hollis Frampton and Morgan Fisher – who engage with materiality and process. Fisher’s work is fascinating to me in the way it takes apart commercial films from the inside with a combination of exquisite humour and exactitude. In terms of using music, I am influenced by Kenneth Anger, Lewis Klahr and Peggy Ahwesh. Peggy’s work is also a great influence to me in its articulation of a feminine position and an investment in pleasure.
DF What are you currently working on?
LL I just finished a new film, The Room Called Heaven (2012), and I am in the process of transferring it to video and getting it ready to go. I am also in pre-production for a new shoot that will first involve some time spent in nearby surrounding landscapes in early December.
Laida Lertxundi is based in Los Angeles, USA. In 2012, her work was included in the Whitney Biennial, New York, USA; as well as exhibitions at Art Cinema offoff, Ghent, Belgium; Human Resources, Los Angeles; and San Francisco Cinematheque, USA. In 2012, her films were screened at the ICA, London, UK; the BFI London Film Festival; and Images Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.
First published in Issue 152