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Life In Film: Margaret Salmon

From ‘Sesame Street’ to Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, the Glasgow-based artist recalls the TV and films that have influenced her

These early influences are smoke signals. Formed yet changeable, interpreted partially through memory, they are fundamentally anarchic, shifting with wind and time. One of the great freedoms of midlife, I’ve found, comes from recognizing this precarious triangulation between fact, fantasy and experience. Certainly, I am reluctant to rewatch some of these films, as their impression on me is held, delicately, within a moment lived and passed. However, fragility aside (am I being too precious?), when I drift across this material, wonderment and purpose are never in short supply and have remained constants, then and now.

Of course, there are also the useful recollections, early markers from a working woman’s life. At the risk of over-simplifying, these films are the reason, in so many ways, why I pick up a camera, be it still or moving. Filmmaking is mimicry, mostly, and watching has always been deeply inscribed with learning for me. What is a trained eye, anyway? A photography tutor of mine once said that we all exist as part of a family of makers and have our own unique lineage; works that have gone before and conversations just begun can be continued or critiqued and call to us and shape us.

A child of the 1970s and ’80s, my taste for moving image developed through television. I still admire the ‘Sesame Street’ programmes I watched in childhood – works that describe everyday phenomena to a child with a freedom of form and humanity that feels quite absent these days. ‘Peppa Pig’ and your character-and-product-driven, commercialized children’s television be gone! ‘Sesame Street’ is structurally inventive and incorporates a sophisticated use of sound. Documentary films of screeching monkeys (the image is secondary to the extraordinary call) or of material processes (a saxophone being built, accompanied by an abstracted jazz improvization) might lack deep criti­cality but are still infused with an abundance of joy. They glow with an imaginative-yet-functional realism; casting children as the participants, narrators and even authors lends the final product real warmth. I am particularly fond of William Wegman’s short sketches for ‘Sesame Street’, as well as the musical segments ‘Milk’ (1975), ‘Cow Dog Song’ (1974) and the one about the girl taking her llama to the dentist.

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Richard Pryor teaches the alphabet on 'Sesame Street', 1976. Courtesy: Jennifer Lee Pryor/ Indigo, Inc. and Sesame Workshop 

Richard Pryor teaches the alphabet on 'Sesame Street', 1976. Courtesy: Jennifer Lee Pryor/ Indigo, Inc. and Sesame Workshop 

‘Sesame Street’ also produced shorts about words and letters, which instruct as they deconstruct power dynamics performed within everyday speech. One such film (from season six in 1974–75) – which I came across whilst researching the letter ‘Mm’ and feminist critiques of language – features the comedian Richard Pryor. In this skit, Pryor introduces each letter of the English alphabet as it enters a fictional room. His irreverent characterization imbues the sounds with attitude, urban personality and irony. He is the antithesis of the conven­tional children’s television presenter; his performance acts as a rebellion against linguistic determinants, much like Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).

Besides ‘Sesame Street’ and public television, there was cable television and a mother who instilled in me her love of classic Hollywood cinema. Nights at home were tense, and I now understand the escapism and denial at the heart of our watching. Yet, there was also a tremendous sense of sharing and learning during those years. We sat most evenings in her bedroom with American Movie Classics turned on. Revelling in the prowess of 20th-century film heroines – Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck – I feasted on narratives in which women functioned as more than just desirable vessels or embodiments of patriarchal conformity. I mean, Bette Davis! These films showcased female performers with intelligence, character, autonomy, presence and desire – whether or not the script required it.

‘Pryor is the antithesis of the conventional children's TV presenter; his performance is a rebellion against linguistic determinants.’ 

Bachelor Mother (1939) is one of these films. A lighthearted comedy about a single mother (yes, it is possible), it stars Ginger Rogers as a shop assistant who comes to the aid of an infant left on the doorstep of a home for foundlings. From the moment she picks up the baby, it is assumed that she is the biological mother and countless charitable characters concoct plans in order for her to keep it. Mayhem, misunder­standings and, finally, ‘stability’ ensue. It’s a brilliant, tragicomic scenario, which highlights how women’s bodies, actions and desires were judged and controlled at the time the film was made. Of course, Bachelor Mother still resonates today but the conservative mores magnified within the storyline seem simple-minded, silly and hysterical. Rogers sees to that, with sophistication and perfect comic aplomb. I laughed as a form of protest.

My first encounter with the work of Chantal Akerman was in 1997 at the Jewish Museum in New York; I was quite unaware of her at the time. A large, monitor-based installation of her film D’Est (From the East, 1993) was on show. I remember Akerman’s voice, which floated throughout the exhibition: a scratched, sonorous cloud of womanly melancholy. I was intoxicated and bought a DVD of her first feature, Je Tu Il Elle (I, You, He, Her, 1974). A story shot in black and white about heartbreak, isolation and desire, it’s crafted with poise and honesty. An antidote to the masculine narratives being constructed by the French new wave directors at the time, Je Tu Il Elle is a deeply personal, female work, marrying both diarist and allegorical storytelling within its frame. Written, directed and starring Akerman, it follows a female protagonist’s self-imposed seclusion and subsequent journey, during a period of pain and exploration. There is a thrilling sense of quiet revolution within the film. It originates from the rare experience of a subjective woman’s cine-looking combined with realist representations of bodies, nudity and sex; a unique encounter to have in a cinema, even today. Je Tu Il Elle is human, grounded, confident, carnal – Akerman’s talent and assurance, both on and off screen, was, and is, inspiring.

While I was studying photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York in the 1990s, I worked part time as an usher at Film Forum in the West Village. All the city’s theatre employees were granted free entry to cinemas and my kind manager, Rick, would call and secure tickets to sometimes three films a night. The Apu Trilogy (1955–59), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Daughters of the Dust (1991), Grey Gardens (1975), I Am Cuba (1964), Killer of Sheep (1977), The Mirror (1975), The Red Balloon (1956), Shadows (1959) … I saw too many films and collected too many impressions to list them all.

Around that time, I was working as a camera assistant on a documentary directed by Peter Wintonick titled Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (1999). During filming, I met the director Barbara Kopple, who was featured in it. I asked her if she ever chose not to film something or someone at a moment of crisis. ‘No. Always keep filming,’ she answered (to paraphrase) and gave me a VHS copy of her film Winter Soldier (1972). Partially a response to the widely publicized government enquiry into the 1968 My Lai Massacre of unarmed civilians by US troops in South Vietnam, the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971 was a media event organized by US Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It created a public platform for veterans to recount atrocities they had witnessed or participated in. It’s an anti-war film that functions as an archive, a collective portrait and an overall document of the event. Interestingly, Kopple worked with a group of filmmakers, Winterfilm Collective, and they cooperatively compiled the film. My father was in the war and the conflict lives large in my personal history – as it does, of course, for anyone affected by war. We still need to watch and make films like Winter Soldier and continue to address any violence inflicted, witnessed or carried out in the name of god and country.

Kopple won an Academy Award for Best Documentary for Harlan County USA (1976); it’s a work that typifies the vibrant, non-fiction film activism that is still evolving today. Shot in 16mm colour, it focuses on a coal miner’s strike in rural Kentucky. It’s brilliant, observational, reactive, community-focused filmmaking. A production still shows Kopple standing outside a mine, holding a camera, covered in dirt. It’s perhaps the greatest image of a woman with a camera I’ve seen. Ironically, Kopple was the producer, director and sound recordist of Harlan County USA – but not the camera operator.

Main image: Director Barbara Kopple and cinematographer Hart Perry shooting Harlan Country USA, 1976. Courtesy: Barbara Kopple and Cabin Creek Films, New York

Margaret Salmon lives in Glasgow, UK. A solo exhibition of her work was held at Tramway, Glasgow, earlier this year. Cladach, a moving-image commission supported by Invisible Dust, is currently touring the UK, while a new film installation will open at Dundee Contemporary Arts, UK, in December. Salmon is shortlisted for the Jarman Award 2018. 

Issue 197

First published in Issue 197

September 2018
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