SENSI. We’ll be in touch to find out your choices.
Thanks to all who participated.
SENSI. We’ll be in touch to find out your choices.
Thanks to all who participated.
(Please note: the draw has been extended until Monday morning, December 8. Winner will be announced then)
The other night, a friend texted me from a party. She couldn’t remember the name of a fragrance she was wearing, and everyone there kept asking about it, drunk on the scent. It was Carillon Pour Un Ange, I reminded her. I get this a lot, because I introduce Tauer perfumes to many people just as they’re first dipping their noses into the cosmos of scent. And the reaction to a Tauer is always very strong and favorable. They’re scents you remember, even if you can’t remember that tricky name. This woman had a bottle because a friend we share had been introduced to the scent through me, then bought his mother some, then some for himself, then our friend. Another friend I’d introduced to the scent showed up at a summer get together last year radiating a good foot ahead of herself. Already she was worried, thinking ahead, about running out. It made her very nervous. She couldn’t imagine not smelling that way, or receiving that many compliments as a matter of routine. The scent altered her social landscape in a way she’d become dependent on.
One night, the writer Barbara Herman was in town and I had some friends over to sniff perfume. They were essentially newbies. They’d smelled department store scents. I trotted out at least fifty fragrances, probably more. We smelled for I guess about four or five hours. Again, probably more. The Tauer scents I have are in a special cabinet and I hadn’t pulled them out and at some point I realized my guests hadn’t smelled any of those, so I carried in five or so. Everything kicked up a notch. They went from one to the next and back again; each was even better, the definitive favorite, until they smelled another. Barbara and I are so jaded. We exchanged knowing looks, because, you know, we’ve seen this a million times. We’ll never have that shock of the new back.
When another friend contributed to the kickstarter campaign for my film Only Child, she was given a purse spray of Loretta. This made her curious about Andy’s scents, so she went to Luckyscent and ordered samples. A month later she was a sophisticate with her own bottle of L’Air du Desert Morocain.
I could tell you more. It happens all the time for me. But when the Tauer Advent calendar starts every year I try to remember as many of those friends as I can, so I can encourage them to try their luck.
Tauer scents are, you probably know, special. And the advent calendar is a month long celebration and communion revolving around them.
This year, the draw here on Evelyn Avenue is for a Tauer Explorer set, three 15ml bottles of your choice from the Tauer line.
I’m keeping it pretty simple. To qualify, list a few of your highlights from 2014: cinema, art, perfume, your choice.
Please note: The draw is worldwide. Some exceptions are Spain, Croatia, Russia, and Greece. Tauer cannot ship to those places. The prizes will be shipped for free from Switzerland by Fedex. Local taxes, VAT and import fees may apply and are not covered by Tauer. The winner is responsible for making sure he/she is allowed to import the prize. The winner’s address remains confidential and is only used by Tauer to deliver the prize.
I will conduct the draw the morning of Monday, December 8. At that time I’ll email the winner and announce the conclusion.
Best of luck.
Above is an image from a documentary called Best of Enemies, which premieres at the next Sundance festival. The movie looks at the the infamous series of debates conducted between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. in the 60s, during which the two exchanged now legendary barbs. The film hasn’t been shown yet, but it’s my favorite, because…I can.
I first met Bruno Fazzolari at the end of an until then interminable cross country trip. My boyfriend at the time was a friend of his boyfriend at the time, which is a long story and another form of interminable I’d rather not get into. This at-the-time boyfriend and I stayed in Bruno’s guest bedroom, a nice cozy space within which to parse some of the resentments we’d built up during the course of the thirty days on the road. Or so we thought. Let me tell you: thirty days on the road with almost anyone is about twenty-five too many. When things refused to parse, I figured that was the end of Bruno – but I never forgot the bright white room in the middle of his house, a sort of (conceptually) hermetically sealed area he used as a studio. Years later we resumed contact and discovered we’d both activated our interest in perfume in decisive ways. I’d started working it into films, both thematically and through collaborative work with perfumer Andy Tauer. Bruno had started purchasing ingredients online, experimenting. He’d introduced scent into his art, and eventually started creating a group of scents he now sells outside the gallery. Recently, Bruno released a different interpretation of my favorite, Au Delà, which smelled so good when I sprayed it on that I carried the vial around in my pocket until just a little was left.
Brian: Where do you work on scents? Can you describe the place? Ideal? Not so ideal?
Bruno: My studio occupies several rooms in a residential Victorian building that’s over 100 years old. One room is for painting, one for drawing and one is for fragrance. Most Victorians have a “fainting room,” a tiny, street-side room on the second floor where (so the story goes) women would pause to rest after climbing the stairs in tight corsets. That’s where I work. My perfumer’s organ is very DIY, I made it with the pink foam I’ve used for my sculpture. It may not be mahogany, but it’s pretty close to ideal.
This version of the scent is pretty different to my nose, though I still haven’t done a side-by comparison. I like the idea of a flanker, although to most who love perfume it’s a bad word. I like how it creates an opportunity for the wearer to exist in some in-between space, where wearing the one scent recalls or conjures the related one. What was your objective here?
Until you asked, I didn’t realize this might be called a flanker! That term seems to belong to the big perfume houses where everything is a strategic, market-based decision. I think of this as a limited edition: a way of offering access to a beautiful and rare material and a different view onto the space of Au Delà. Painters and musicians often create different variations of the same piece. Something interesting happens when, say, the live version of a song changes your understanding of the studio version. As a creator, you’re always aware of how very small changes to a formula or a color can wield dramatic changes in mood or atmosphere.
The original formulation of Au Delà has a green-floral motif that I brought forward for this edition. Narcisse absolute smells a bit like violet leaf, but with a subterranean note of earth and roots that is beautifully supported by the oakmoss and labdanum in the base of Au Delà.
Why release a poster/print with the scent? Can you tell me a little about how those ideas evolved alongside each other?
I have visual responses to scent, so color is a huge part of how I understand fragrance. I’m usually developing a visual element and a perfume at the same time—it’s an integral part of how I work. One of the things I love about perfume is that many people can buy and own the original artwork, which isn’t the case with my paintings. This is a beautiful print. The handmade nature of printmaking means that each impression is unique, but the run is big enough to make it affordable so that more people can participate.
As for the image itself, I’m very inspired by the perfume community. Blogs by writers like Barbara Herman or Gaia Fisher are part of a wide appreciation for the entire world of perfume—not just the scents, but the whole culture and history of fragrance: visual, material and social. I hope this print contributes something to that dialogue. I created it to look a little like the ads of another time, but with a bit more enigma—a sort of visual-text poem.
I knew you before either of us talked much about scent. That was what – over fourteen years ago. I remember you worked in this white space in the middle of your apartment and that when I got a peek in there it felt like those white scenes from THX 1138. When did the interest in scent become a larger part of your conversation? Was it a shift or just a really gradual thing? And where does your fixation on scent come from do you think?
My studio is still in the same place, though I’ve annexed a few more rooms and the THX effect is bigger now! I’ve always had very deep responses to scent, visually and emotionally. Scents provoke color responses in my mind and sometimes I have very strong synesthesias that are actually unpleasant. So it was very natural to bring that into the studio. But access to materials and information was a problem. Around the time we first met, I remember talking with a friend about a scent project I had in mind, but the raw materials were so hard to obtain and the process was so mysterious that it seemed impossible. All that has changed now—which is why this is such an exciting time for perfumery. For the first time, perfumers can publish their work in the same way that independent film-makers, poets and musicians do.
Can you talk about some of the scents you really love? Maybe three or four? And what you love about them?
The original formulation of Diorissimo that I smelled at the Osmothèque is among the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century—bright flowers in May, but also earth and animals with a bit of Dior mid-century glamour. Knize 10 for its gender bending masculinity that merges flowers and leather. The Germaine Cellier scents—so daring. The original Kouros is a wonderful fusion of classical and modern masculine accords. I like how challenging it is: in the right weather, it’s amazing stuff, and in the wrong weather…look out!
I like this excerpt from a piece Bruno did for CaFleureBon in 2013:
“I began experimenting with making my own scents about ten years ago. At first, it was a curiosity, but by degrees, it became a sort of madness with hundreds of small bottles creating a whole new type of chaos in my studio. Three years ago, I finally had to admit that I had become a perfumer. I decided to combine my love of painting and scent. In my exhibition, Mirror 5, I showed paintings with a perfume. The paintings deploy very bright, slightly-off primary colors, painted wet-into-wet on a cold-white ground tinted with a hint of cobalt blue. They were shown in a gallery lit by bright fluorescent lights. I created a citrus scent, but one with an ozonic and mineral aura to reflect the whole installation. The gallery sold a lot more perfume than I expected…”
Visit his site for more about his work.
No Jacques Demy film after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was ever quite so colorful, so pattern on pattern or beautifully contradictory visually. The intensity of feeling in the locked tight, wallpapered chambers of that film seems simultaneously sullen and vibrant. The feelings are all over the place, and the colors speak to that spill, but the patterned stripes and foliage keep trying to lock things into a sort of pulsating stasis. Catherine Deneuve, particularly, seems to cower in the frame, traumatized by the schizoid frequencies. It’s the sixties, and Victorian decor is, briefly, possessed and reanimated by psychedelia; will be, until the possibilities exhaust themselves and political upheaval revives austerity. There’s that. But the schema works as a strange metaphor for boundless feeling bubbling up through provincial decorum, too; expressing a sense of emotion pushing at the limits of skin, the pressures of adulthood closing in on youth, reality outpacing fantasy.
The furniture and art in these rooms look to have been inherited from previous generations. The colors and patterns might merely be projection, hallucinated by Deneuve, what she wants of life superimposed onto what she can reasonably expect to be given. No one makes the right decisions in the film, but the wrong decisions are the only available resources. Deneuve marries a wealthy jeweler. Her first love and the father of her child goes off to war and, learning about Deneuve’s marriage upon his return, marries a woman who arguably loves him more than he does her. The riotous colors seem to distract and confuse everyone, and they end up conducting themselves in keeping with the inherited furniture, arranging predictably.
The deployment of color and pattern speaks to the silly gorgeousness of love, not just first love or unrequited love but love in general, in all its shaky, spazzy permutations: the way it can clash with its environment, refusing to conform to common sense; the way it tends to take over like a virus, changing everything, distorting reality, then informing it; the way love is an environment, its own mental mise-en-scène; the way it embroiders consciousness with ever elaborate, ever more unlikely displacements, requiring and refusing adjustment.
Four years later, Deneuve appeared in Buñuel‘s Belle De Jour, a far less colorful film but equally preoccupied with confinement and the psychological strategies enlisted to escape it. Deneuve is Buñuel’s furniture in that film and resists his arrangements even as she acquiesces to the suffocation of his upholstery. It feels like a sequel that wakes from the dream of the first film and tries to revive it. All the possibilities of color have been drained out of the picture, confined somewhere in the psyche. Deneuve keeps trying to break out of this vice grip – by sexual violence even, if that’s what it takes to rupture things. She keeps locking herself in rooms that have forgotten what color looks like.
This was at a birthday party disguised as a wedding. You know how people say, “He gets it”? A lot of people didn’t. Straight woman, gay man. We registered for gifts at Macy’s and Target. We posted fake engagement photos on Facebook which seemed nakedly photo-shopped to me but confused various relatives, my high school English teacher, and a woman whose family my mother married into when I was a kid. The bride posted an explanation. I refused.
I seem to be hell-bent lately on distancing people. It’s something I’m going through. The wedding seemed ridiculous and perfect in many ways as an idea, and really all the preparations were the whole thing. The wedding and the party were beside the point, because everyone who showed up “got it”, and I was only interested in determining who didn’t, not to convert them but maybe to exile them.
Melissa (above right) gets almost everything. I’ve known her for over twenty years. At the party I was talking to her and that span of time stretched out between us in a palpable way and drew us closer into this startling moment of recognition. I knew her when she was just into her twenties, if even, had long hair and did a Cher impression back when Cher was too serious to make fun of any more, pre Autotune and enforced self deprecation.
We didn’t talk for several years. I don’t know what she was doing. I was moving around a lot, trying to get away from people knowing me too well.
She brought Maysey with her to the party, and it’s clear from this picture they’ve known each other quite a while too. Nothing could have repulsed me more than the looks on their faces even ten years ago. The idea of knowing someone that well, or capitulating to the belief that such a thing is possible, filled me with a restlessness which has now migrated into filmmaking.
Melissa tells me they met around 1990 through the overlap of mutual tribes. Like any long friendship, many stories and layers. Things that come to mind when she thinks of this friendship in particular: a long tap root, a winding river, gentleness, acceptance, wiggle room, laughter, art, studio life, books, teasing ideas out with one another, comfortable silences, inside jokes, daily, private.
You’ve probably seen the Greystone Mansion dozens of times, without realizing what exactly you were looking at. The house has been colonized by the fantasy logic of many films over the years – absorbed, remapped, and reassembled according to the narrative demands of the cinematic narratives into which it’s been inserted. Rooms of the house have appeared in everything from Dead Ringers and Death Becomes Her to The Witches of Eastwick and X-Men.
The Tudor Revival mansion on this (still) elaborately landscaped estate in Beverly Hills was built in 1928, commissioned by oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny for his son, Edward “Ned” Doheny, Jr., and his family. At the time it was the most expensive house built in California (price tag: between 3 and 5 million). Its 46,000 square feet feature 55 rooms. The grounds span 16 acres.
Four months after moving in, Ned and his personal secretary Hugh Plunket died in a guest bedroom while others were present in the house. The official story, widely reported, was that Plunkett killed Ned and himself in a fit of rage over news he would not be receiving a raise. Rumors then and now suggest a more complicated scenario, having to do with an alleged romantic relationship between Ned and Hugh. Plunkett was considered unstable and unwell and had openly refused to check himself into the Camarillo sanitarium, against the ‘advice’ of the Doheny family and associates. The deaths occurred against the ongoing backdrop of the Teapot Dome Trials, which involved bribes for oil access, among other things, and deeply implicated the Doheny family. Both Ned and Hugh had been called to testify. Hugh’s institutionalization might have prevented that. The deaths certainly did.
Plunkett arrived at the house around 9:30 that evening. The deaths occurred an hour or so later, after conversation between the victims was said to have become “heated”. Three hours passed before authorities were notified. The staff’s testimony felt scripted and rehearsed, according to detectives at the crime scene. Most of the rumors put the gun in Plunkett’s hand. In Raymond Chandler’s novel The High Window, the Doheny deaths are thinly fictionalized as the “Cassidy Case”, and Philip Marlowe theorizes that the millionaire, not his secretary, was responsible.
Ned’s widow, Lucy, continued to live in the house for years. Along with the grounds, it was eventually sold to another egregiously wealthy occupant, then saved from demolition by Beverly Hills in 1965. The property stewed with its ghosts until 1971, when the grounds became a city park. The house has been rented out for film use for decades, and for a time (1969-1982) was the headquarters of the American Film Institute, which paid the city of Beverly Hills a dollar a month for rent.
A few years ago, artist Kerry Tribe reenacted some of these rumored theories for a piece to be exhibited inside the Greystone Mansion, shooting on location within the rooms of the house. All of the dialog in the resulting film was taken from the films shot at the house over the years and made to conform to the Doheny story’s dictates.
After seeing parts of the film, called alternately “There Will Be___” and Greystone, I talked to her, and heard a few of her own ghost stories (the house is considered haunted) as well as some of the more popular accounts circulated over the years. I was curious about the shoot, the experience, and the process of conceiving the piece, so I emailed her the following questions:
How did your piece “Greystone” come about?
I was invited to propose a site-specific artwork for a one-night black tie event to be held at Greystone Mansion called “The Ball of Artists,” which was essentially the fabulous last hoorah of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-organized mega series of exhibitions surveying the Los Angeles art scene from 1945-1980.
I don’t know what they expected me to propose, but certainly not a film of the scale I ended up making. All of the invited artists were given tours of the mansion by the City of Beverly Hills Park Rangers who run the place now. That’s when I first learned about the many tragedies that had occurred there: in the years shortly after the murders explored in my film, a child died falling out a window, two maids committed suicide, and it’s believed that a manservant died in a fight in the basement.
And then I started to hear about the hundreds of films, videos and commercials shot there, many of which I was of course familiar with. Walking through the mansion feels less like stepping back in time than stepping into another, purely cinematic dimension. There’s the bowling ally where Daniel Day Lewis’s Plainview bludgeons Paul Dano’s Eli to death in There Will Be Blood. There’s the grand staircase where Toby McGuire’s Peter Parker encounters Willem Defoe’s Norman Osborn (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) in Spiderman. For years I’ve been interested in the varied and complicated relationships between memory, film, history and time-based art and when I realized that the mansion was something most of us had actually seen and might remember from one film or another, while the terribly history that took place there seemed to have been all but forgotten, I started to get excited.
It’s interesting to me, researching the Doheny murders online, that the facts are fluid. Everything from the circumstances surrounding Plunkett’s entry into the mansion that night to where he was when the doctor arrived varies according to the source. That’s different probably in news reports from the time of the event, yet those accounts seem to have been staged or scripted as well, to protect the Doheny name from further scandal and to bury all sorts of unsavory truths. Your film reenacts the story based on five different theories. What are those theories?
The five scenarios that play out in my film are the five scenarios that I feel to be even remotely plausible. The official story – what was printed in all the papers at the time — was that Hugh Plunkett, who had worked for the Doheny family for years, had been sick with a terrible cold or flu and a bad case of insomnia when he came by the mansion on the night of February 16, 1929. Ned Doheny and the family doctor had been trying to convince Plunkett to check himself in to a sanitarium to recuperate. Plunkett was nearly delirious and argued with Doheny, who placed a call to the doctor for assistance, at which point Plunkett shot him. The doctor, having been called, arrived at the mansion shortly thereafter to discover Plunkett in a deranged state. Seeing the doctor, Plunkett shot himself in the head, at which point the doctor discovered Doheny’s body in the guest bedroom Plunkett often slept in.
There was never an inquest and the case was closed after just two days. But a lot of evidence suggests a cover-up, albeit a bizarre one, and of all the possible ways these men could have died, I’m certain it didn’t happen like this. The police were only called three hours after the second death occurred, and when they arrived, they were made to wait outside. When they finally came in, they found the gun by Plunkett’s body, warm to the touch.
Mrs. Doheney, home at the time of the shootings, acknowledged that she’d heard something when the first shot rang out, but claimed she’d thought it was furniture being turned over. There was the cigarette conspicuously burned down in the hand Plunkett would have used to hold the gun. Most significantly, the blood patterns on Doheny’s head suggested that he’d died face down and had subsequently been turned onto his back. On further questioning about this point, the doctor changed his story: Doheny was in fact still alive when he was discovered, but barely. In trying to save his life, the doctor turned Doheny onto his back, but his efforts were in vain. He continued to maintain that Plunkett was alive and brandishing his weapon after Doheny had been shot— testimony that, if believed, would prove at least that Plunkett was responsible for his own death.
This official version makes no reference to the fact that both dead man had been called to testify before the Senate in relation to charges that Doheny Sr. had sent them to deliver a black bag containing $100,000 cash to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, in exchange for the exclusive drilling rights to an oil-rich government-controlled territory known as Elk Hills. The family had been trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Plunkett to check himself in to a sanitarium. The official version also sidesteps any matters of intimacy between the two dead men who, it’s widely believed, were lovers. In light of these circumstances, and the evidence found at the scene, four other explanations seem far more plausible.
Lucy Doheny, wife of Ned and mother of their five children, may have killed them both. The two men, finding themselves forced to choose among testifying against Doheny Sr., perjuring themselves or, in Plunkett’s case, going away to a nuthouse, may have conspired to take their own lives. Doheny Sr. clearly had a motive to dispose of them both before they could testify and may have hired someone to kill them, though I find it hard to believe he’d intentionally kill his only child. This is why I opted to have the hit man in my film shoot Doheny first in a case of mistaken identity before disposing of Plunkett. Finally, it’s possible that Ned Doheny, known for his love of both shooting and alcohol in the age of prohibition decided one night to take matters into his own hands and end it for both of them. This to me seems most likely, and it’s how I chose to end my film.
How do you approach a narrative like this, dealing with memory and representation and the way a story is recreated and put through the rock tumbler of memory and public opinion until its polished surface resembles something different, when really the story can never be known? What does the story become there?
The film presents the official version first, and then more or less discredits it as the other versions unfold, intercut with bits of the crime scene investigation where a young investigator tries to make sense of the bungled cover-up. Goofy as it is in moments, the film is actually very careful never to show anything that fundamentally could not have happened. It would have made for a much better story if there were some logic to the turning over of the body, the placing of the gun in the oven, the planting of the cigarette in the dead man’s hands. But the logic driving those actions remains a mystery to me. The premise of my project is that I had to shoot in the mansion, using only dialog that was originally said in the mansion, to tell the story of what might really have happened in the mansion, and not to show anything that is patently false. Not the easiest way to make your first narrative, but considering those parameters I think we did OK.
I’d never heard of Greystone Mansion – or the back story – before we talked. Immediately I was bummed that all this time the grounds, if not the house, have been open to the public, free of charge. It’s like a public domain haunted house, and I’ve missed it during all my trips to LA. What I love about your piece is how it uses the lore surrounding the house and the Teapot Dome scandal and brings all those assorted ghosts back into the house in a different way – a film haunted by other films and ideas inserted into the house that spawned them. Those movies re-purposed Greystone, and you re-purposed them. What appealed to you about the idea of combing through the screenplays of the films which have used Greystone as a set and recycling them into a reenactment of the Doheny deaths?
Your idea that this is a film haunted by other films is so great. It’s also about a home haunted by its own repressed history. Somewhere in the writing process I began to think of the mansion as my film’s actual protagonist. All my characters are amalgams—collages who speak exclusively in phrases written for someone else. But the mansion is somehow always just itself. Greystone has been witness to a lot of crazy shit—the drama around the Doheny family, but also the drama of the countless film productions that passed through since.
As I tracked down and transcribed all the scenes of all the feature films that used Greystone as a location (I couldn’t simply work from the screenplays because what’s on paper often differs from what makes it into the can), I was struck by how much of the existing dialog so genially inserted itself into the story I wanted to tell. It quickly became clear that Greysone Mansion is where people with budgets go if they want to demonstrate the corrosive nature of excessive wealth (Indecent Proposal, The Big Lebowski, There Will Be Blood) or show a home where the logic of normal social relations don’t apply (Flowers in the Attic, X-Men, House of the Damned). Conveniently for me, lots of movie characters have been shot at or killed in the mansion, so finding the words to make those scenes work was never much of a problem. I had this 333 page Word document with all my transcribed dialog and I’d just search for the things I needed people to say. At times it felt like the piece was writing itself.
How many days did the shoot last and what special considerations did filming inside the house involve? What interested me, hearing you mention a brief overview of the conditions imposed by the organizers, was how the efforts to protect and preserve the house seemed to mirror the efforts to protect and serve the various stories all these years.
Filming at Greystone was tough. The organization that helps with archiving and fundraising is protective of the Doheny family legacy and didn’t provide any assistance. They only gave me the green light after I promised that all names would be changed. This, of course, was easy – my leads by necessity have the names of characters from the films their lines come from.
The City of Beverly Hills Park Rangers that look after the mansion and oversee all shooting genuinely care about protecting it and I have a lot of respect for how personally they take their jobs. They are the mansion’s first line of defense. The history is so rich, and these guys are really experts in it. One of them told me you could still make out blood stains on the murder room floor when he started working there ten years ago! So I appreciate all the restrictions they place on film crews. When Greystone was leased to the American Film Institute (from 1969 – 1982) the place apparently got trashed. They did a major renovation arecently and the place is finally back to its original glory.
The rangers agreed to allow me access for five days strictly limited to 8AM-6PM. If we were late getting out, we were expected to give up the extra time the following day. We were not permitted to use a full sized generator, which seriously limited our ability to light the most magnificent (and most frequently filmed) areas of the mansion—still a huge regret to me. We were not permitted to rig anything to the walls or molding. No dollies, no jibs, strictly limited crew, no liquids or food of any kind in the mansion. They were doing me (or I suppose the Getty Museum) a huge favor by waiving the usual fees, and I am so grateful for the trust they placed in me. But I’m not trained as a filmmaker, rather as a visual artist. I use film or video when it’s the right format for an idea, and I’d never made a narrative film before. The learning curve felt incredibly steep and the restrictions made it especially challenging.
What kind of direction did you give the actors? The performances feel almost like a séance, like mediums delivering messages from the dead.
We all agreed that it would be important to strike a balance between a kind of naturalism or authenticity and an acknowledgement that these lines had had other lives in other contexts. A few statements get repeated by different characters in different situations — lines like “Dear God!” and “It sounded like a gunshot!” seem to come up again and again.
Other lines are a force-fit: finding a gun warm to the touch is followed by “Look at this! Hot off the press!” These are some of my favorite moments, because they allow the film’s structural premise to show through without asking the actors to betray their characters. A lot of the dialog is so schlocky, it would have been easy to turn the film into a spoof of noir drama, and I didn’t want to push it too far. It’s also hard to keep an audience identified with your leads when you kill them every five or six minutes. We tried our best. I have tremendous respect for my cast. They worked very hard through many rehearsals to bring out the humor and the pathos in their often very clunky lines.
The security guard took you on a tour of the basement the night you wrapped, right? What were some of the stories he told you?
This is a hard one. If I start trying to explain these stories, I’ll sound like a fool, or worse yet, make him sound like a fool. There may be “logical explanations” for the many bizarre and disturbing things that have happened at the mansion in recent years, including things that happened during our shoot, but the cumulative effect is quite unnerving. I’ll offer a few examples, and you can make of them what you will.
A few years back, a park ranger was making her rounds at the end of an uneventful day. The house was empty. As she approached the top of the grand staircase she felt a rush of air and a sudden hard push on her back that sent her tumbling down the stairs. I don’t think she was seriously injured but she never went back to work.
A young woman, touring the house during pre-production for some shoot or other, was checking out the closet-sized meat locker on an upper floor. (Doheny Jr. had game brought onto the mansion’s grounds which he would routinely shoot from his window.) It’s a horrible space: the walls are tiled like a shower, there’s a hole in the floor where the blood could drain and it still smells faintly of mildew and death. Sadly, it’s also where a maid in the 1930s committed suicide. The metal latch on the locker door had been removed for safety reasons, but it was apparently still possible to find oneself locked inside because of how the meat locker door could get jammed closed if the hallway door was closed outside it. At the end of the tour, when the crew was ready to leave, the young woman was noticed to be missing. A search ensued and she was discovered, screaming and hysterical locked inside that dark meat locker. She had no idea how it could have happened.
On the evening we wrapped, the lead ranger kindly gave several of us a tour of the basement, which until then had been strictly off limits. The basement runs the full length of the house and is accessed by a broad staircase with a metal gate at the bottom. The gate is locked with a fat padlock, the keys to which only the rangers wear on their belts. There were two rangers still on site that evening: the guy giving us the tour, and the guy who was keeping an eye on the loading of our trucks a good hike up the hill.
Our ranger began the tour by using his key to unlock the gates, swinging them open, and leading us through. There were five of us, plus him. We spent perhaps 20 minutes down there. It was the worst-feeling place I’ve ever been, and I couldn’t get out fast enough. When we returned to the gates, they were closed again, just as they had been when we arrived, the padlock shut tight. I remember the flash of confusion that crossed the ranger’s face. He looked at us and asked when or why one of us would sneak off to do that. We were all dumbfounded and suddenly he looked truly spooked. Then he laughed it off. He had a key, after all, and he easily reached through the gates from the inside to unlock the padlock on the outside. He suggested that Plunkett or Doheny was probably messing with us, a little goodbye trick to remind us that they could have made things more difficult.
I nearly shit my pants. I rushed up to the trucks to ask my crew and the ranger who was watching them if anyone had left the group and headed towards the mansion. Nobody knew what I was talking about. Little things like this happen at Greystone all the time there.
How did this project relate to the work you’d done before, and how did it extend into different areas or directions?
In the past I’ve made works that use the literal mechanics of the medium to try to explore issues related to memory and cognition. Working with the medium metaphorically and phenomenologically, you could say. Often the film and the apparatus that allows us to experience it have been front and center in my work – a single film plays through two adjacent visible projectors in H.M. (2009) for example. Or audio tape traces the gallery walls in Milton Torres Sees a Ghost (2010). In this case, the structural and phenomenological interests have less to do with the physical material than with how the story is told, and the idea that there is this vast repository of semi-remembered cinematic history we share. In both cases, I’m interested in producing a kind of self-awareness in the viewer: a kind of balancing act between identification and critical distance.
When you screened it outside the mansion, in a theatrical environment – when the ghosts were removed from the house and installed elsewhere – what kind of response did it get?
It only showed in Greystone Mansion for one night, and that was great. I wish I could go back and see it there again. I felt like something was coming full circle; like I was finally bringing to light other ways of thinking about what happened that horrible night. I was screening it for the guests of the Ball of Artists and a few key members of my wonderful cast and crew, all decked out in their finest. But I was also screening it for the real or imagined ghosts of Hugh Plunkett and Ned Doheny whose presence, for the first time, seemed absolutely quiet to me that night. Everything had come full circle. And of course the mansion is just so incredibly gorgeous. That night there was art everywhere, and festivity and light.
On the other hand, it’s great to see Greystone getting into festivals like Rotterdam and London and Views from the Avant-Garde, because the piece tries so hard to look like a normal film, and I find myself relieved that it can pass. I also like to think about film buffs in the audience recognizing lines here and there. On the other hand, showing it in a gallery / museum context is more comfortable for me. This sort of conceptual, programmatic way of making work has a legacy people are familiar with, and I have a modest but loyal audience who I can trust will read this work in relation to other things I’ve done.
When she bought the house eight or nine years ago she was really buying the studio out back, which at the time was more of an idea than a reality. It was barely standing up. Which reminds me: last night, after watching too much of a reality show on competing taxidermists (memorable line: “If it moves, he’ll mount it.”) I inevitably got bored and watched old House Hunters episodes. A woman from Nashville who works in medical equipment sales wanted more room than she needed and a yard which would allow her husband to build an elaborate pond for the two turtles she calls their babies.
The buyers on House Hunters walk in with pretty firm ideas and expectations like this, and brown carpet or a mustard wall is an automatic deal breaker. A kitchen counter which isn’t granite is instead something like the end of the world. Most of the artists I know look at prospective spaces in very different ways. I think maybe they’re used to looking at things in general not as what they are but what they suspect they could be. Artists have spent a lot of time strengthening these imaginative muscles. Imagine calling it a day because the canvas is blank.
You walk in to this green unit which started as an excuse for a building and it’s one big room. I saw the art hanging on the walls when I walked in but what I first thought about is how so many artists I know have crazy quilt floors in their studios. I like how the studio floor gives you permission not to worry too much about cleaning up after yourself as you go. You take that moment to clean up and the thing is gone. You can’t even remember if it was a thing. You look at the mess and it feels like the trail to an idea; it says you’re on to something. In your house it just says you’re slovenly and you’ve probably never explored your oven’s self-cleaning mechanism. In the house, it’s all about creating and enforcing an impression. In the studio there are bigger things to worry about. You walk into most people’s studios and feel they really have their priorities in order.
She has mostly paper but also some foam on the floor, if I remember. She works a lot with paper, cutting it down meticulously into parts – but also without. She shows me one small painting that she says represents what she used to do. There were complex, finely detailed backgrounds back then, tangles of foliage which often convened around a central figure. I can’t remember what she says about the shift but when it happened the figure left the paintings and the backdrop – lush vegetation, plant life as geometrical abstraction and elucidation, tensely working things out between these poles – grew over the footprints. You become the subject now, standing outside the work looking in. She spends up to a year and sometimes I think more on one of her paintings, which work in such fine tuned ways at perverting the standard, romanticized concepts of things like nature and growth and harmony and scale. In the work she does now nature is as scary as it is reassuring, restoring something disquieting to the term organic.
To the right, a few adjoined long tables where she seems to sketch and cut. A lot of her drawing implements are arranged there. Paints and solvents and brushes go elsewhere, on movable carts. The room seems to constantly shift with her ideas and practice, but the tables stay put, starting everything on solid ground. There are sketches and blueprints for sets she’s designed to be used in a piece called Moving Currents choreographed by Steven McMahon for Ballet Memphis, alongside notes about hiring a DJ, stacks of books, a box of rags, a lot of glue, jars of markers and pens.
Above the tables: an assortment of images and bits of things that seem like inspiration, though someone looking for a pond to house turtles referred to as babies would possibly characterize this as a sort of Vision Board. Remember when terms like that hadn’t yet reduced the process of inspiration to a sales pitch? You can’t look at any of this without it being framed somehow by views through several windows into the back yard. Given Erin’s work these windows seem like they’d have to be a continuing source of motivation, their compositions changing as time creeps along.
Straight ahead from the entrance on the opposite wall are works in progress, presenting some kind of calendar. She says her work has been influenced by the set design in ways she’s still in the process of figuring out. The sets are being constructed by others outside her studio, inevitably deviating from her original concept, requiring adaptation and adjustment, which is bringing her up against limits as she explores these new possibilities, introducing maybe a nice or maddening chemistry of control perverted by surrender into her practice, or more of it. McMahon said he wanted sets which moved and had parts which moved even more, that could be removed and incorporated into the dance. Designing these sets has somehow put her work itself on wheels in the studio too, so that the movement they seem to have always contained is trailing off in new directions, even less fixed than before.
In the middle a large table a little above waist height, where a middle stage of some kind between the low table sketch or inception and the display wall of execution takes place. If the display wall is the minute hand, this table ticks away the seconds. In one corner is a mound of squiggly cut outs which have been embellished with pencil or pen, edging closer to the three dimensional. In another area is a mock up of the ballet set pieces housed within a black box stage constructed of cardboard. When she sees the sets in use, real time, they won’t be isolated any more conceptually like this, and she expects that will be another light bulb.
Next to this table is a green chair. It seems to have no real purpose in the scheme of things until we sit down to talk. I think back to the studios I’ve visited and it seems like there’s always this random chair. “For reflection,” I always thought. And that must be part of it. But now I think maybe it’s in some way also a standing solicitation of outside influence in the form of a conversation, which is another way of approaching a barely there building with a thought toward how many different ways it can become more than it is.
Work outside the studio presents a constant pressure, so it’s hard to say when and how exactly she works in there. That’s always changing too.
In real life, masks are terrifying. The people who wear them are up to no good. Actually, I don’t know these people, so who knows what they’re up to. But there they are, keeping something from the rest of us. They hide, but they’re not very good at hiding. Underneath, I wonder, are they laughing or crying? In my films, characters wear cheap masks to forget things, to laugh and cry, and to access a better self. It’s dreamy. It’s private. For a moment, they have everything.
There are few masks in my recent work, but I think the idea of multiple selves, or a hidden other self is almost always present.
I once heard a story about these people, they were upset – one grabbed the face of the other and said: It’s not a mask! I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I wonder how they feel about each other now, or if they even remember that it happened. It’s the kind of story where the person telling it says: Don’t put this in a movie.
Cam Archer makes films and videos in Santa Cruz, California. He’s currently developing his first feature-length documentary, 1981.
(Images by Cam Archer: second down, a still from Shit Year; third down, a still from Wild Tigers I Have Known)
I first saw this image on a postcard hanging on the wall of my friend’s office in New York about fifteen years ago.
We both laughed as we looked at it because we’d seen each other’s bodies enough to know that one of the woman’s breast in the photograph looked exactly like hers and the other looked exactly like mine.
Soon after that she sent it to me in the mail back in Memphis. There’s not a photo credit on it so I don’t know who took the picture. It’s printed on a nice card stock though and on the back the paper is a deep red.
On that red she wrote this.
Dear Melissa –
Thought you might like to have this image nearby for a while.
I am sort of lost in my relationship still, and though I’m sort of enjoying the new energy and attachment, I’m craving engagement with my work too. It’s a bit frustrating. I hate to complain, but still I hope to be honest.
It’s getting cold up here now and I’m eating and sleeping more like the good little animal I am. Friends are procreating or breaking up. Yoga is a far away dream. I have absolutely zero spending money and frequently wonder what’s going to happen when. I float a little – feeling it’ll happen when it will.
Love you, MB
We were very close friends from our late twenties to mid-thirties – that pivotal time of chucking off the remnants of adolescence and discovering who we are as adults.
Nowadays I’m only in touch with her every so often, usually through an annual email exchange. I cherish the time we had when we regularly corresponded through the post, talked on the phone a couple of times a month, and regularly walked through New York talking and figuring things out.
My paintings and drawings are about seeing and searching out what happens when I manipulate color, layers, lines, volumes, patterns, and shapes. I paint and look – I look more than I paint. And yet, along with all this watching I am listening, hearing my own insecurities, questions, and frustrations rising up.
The studio process requires a lot of listening.
As I hear my inner guide figuring things out, I think of my friend’s words…
“but still I hope to be honest”
Today this image doesn’t just represent me facing a friend, looking her in the eye, giving her the time and room to work life out as I listen deeply, and then her giving me that same gift as she listens to me.
No, today, at this very moment, this is about me looking at me and listening to me.
Melissa Dunn makes art in Memphis, TN. She’s a teaching artist at Flicker Street Studio and volunteers at several arts programs around the city. Currently she’s spending as much time outside walking, gardening, and hanging out as possible.
What would you say you’re trying to communicate when you write about perfume?
The first thing I’d say I try to communicate is what the scent smells like. And that starts off in a really kind of empirical way: it smells like these notes. Then I move to what it makes me feel; what it’s conveying, what all these things together are evoking. And I try to situate it in a history: What must this scent have meant for people during its time. Emotionally, too: how does this scent make me feel? I try to hit all of those things.
Why? Because I don’t think people take scent as seriously as they should. I think in people’s lives scent actually has a lot of meaning. And because there’s not a lot of discourse around it they just experience it without really being able to analyze it the way you can other things. It’s culturally available to talk about movies or poems or fashion even, but with perfume, this very intimate, personal historical thing, they don’t really have the language to talk about it, so I try to initiate that conversation.
Why is that important to you?
It’s important to me because I think scent is important to people. It’s part of their memory; part of their cultural history. People can say, When I smell this, I return to my fourteen year-old self or my twenty year-old self or when I fell in love with this person or the way my grandmother smelled. These are important things. And I think they’re worthy of analysis.
If you could go back to the person who was going into the mall and spraying ten different things on herself, you as a teenager, and tell her anything, what would it be?
I don’t think she needed to know anything. If anything, she could tell me things. Because she was just open. She liked what she liked, she sprayed what she liked on her, and there wasn’t a lot of censorship. She just liked what she liked, and I think that’s something we can all learn from.
Where does the censorship come in for you now? Do you struggle with that?
Well, I think when I wear something people tell me they don’t like, it hurts my feelings, and it makes me second guess whether I should like it. We’re living in a culture where people don’t like perfume, they don’t like scent, they don’t want to smell you. So I’m very self conscious about scent. That girl didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. You know? I was wearing fifteen different perfumes. I wore whatever I liked. If people were like, I have a headache, I would just be like, roll a window down. I didn’t care.
Barbara Herman is the author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume and the website Yesterday’s Perfume. The short film above, These Things That Stink, was shot during a reading at Scent Bar in Los Angeles during the fall of 2013. The interview was conducted in May of 2014.