Aug 182011

For every film I end up making, there are dozens I only fantasize about, letting them steep in some hazy area of my imagination.  These unrealized films and moments are a kind of mental sketch, like a painter working out in pencil a more ambitious project intended for canvas.  I think of characters first, usually.  I picture them out in the world and what maybe happens to them, or maybe just what they wear, how they walk, what they think about.  Their moods, what makes them angry or happy; what kinds of conflicts they run into.

Sometimes, I see a location and a character comes out of that.  Like this apartment building, here in Memphis.  It’s down the street, by the grocery store.  Union Avenue.  The grocery store and this building share a parking lot.  I’ve always liked the building but it’s peripheral to my business at the store, so I usually don’t pay much attention to it.  But I read a book recently called Mrs. Ted Bliss, by Stanley Elkin, about an elderly widow who lives alone in a tower of Florida condominiums, and as I went through the book I realized that in my mind the building the woman lives in looks a lot like this one.

Mrs. Ted Bliss isn’t exactly locked inside her apartment but she spends most of her time there, and though she knows various other people in the building she’s pretty solitary.  Reading the book made me look at this building on Union in a new way, not just as an interesting, quirky example of outdated architecture but more philosophically as a sort of hive full of anonymous activity.  I started trying to picture the residents of the building and what their lives look like.

I think my unmade film will be about a single woman, like Mrs. Ted Bliss, only she was never married and has always lived alone.  She’s in her seventies.  About the most exciting thing she does is shop for groceries next door, but every day, however inactive, she dresses up as if she has something important to do.  She sprays on a perfume she’s always worn.  Something by Estee Lauder.  Maybe Private Collection, which is strong and gets her compliments or coughs in the elevator.

I’m naming this woman Constance.  Constance keeps to herself but she has a vivid fantasy life, and she spends a lot of time thinking about her fellow tenants.  She makes up stories about them.  The building is full of people her age.  They keep dying.  One day, they’re gone, and relatives appear to liquidate their belongings.  When the woman across the hall passes away, and her daughters have cleared the place out, a younger woman moves in, and Constance becomes obsessed with her.

Constance starts baking for the woman, and the woman eventually invites her over for dinner.  She serves food so inedible it makes Constance take pity on her.  Out of a box, and she still can’t get it right.  Her apartment is still in boxes.  It’s like she blew into town like a tumbleweed and really doesn’t know how to make her own nest.

During dinner, something happens.  The woman takes Constance into her confidence, maybe.  She owes some money.  She’s in some kind of trouble.  And Constance gets involved, not because she’s a good samaritan but because it’s an opportunity to take her fantasies about other people out of her head and into real life.  The woman isn’t what she seems and a lot of what she says contradicts itself.  She was a dancer she says but she’s never heard of Martha Graham.  She has kids she says but no pictures of them, no memories to relate – and anyway, where are these kids now?  Eventually Constance is sucked into a series of weird dramas most women half her age couldn’t handle, but she’s dressed for it, and she has on her perfume, and she’s watched a lot of Agatha Christie on PBS, so she’s remarkably adept at handling the drama, and everyone involved in these dramas underestimates her, but she knows from watching all those Miss Marple stories that it comes with the territory and has its advantages.

 Posted by on August 18, 2011
Aug 152011

The Woman’s Picture portrait series launches in October with its first episode, MIRIAM. Here Ann Magnuson talks about the character and some of her earlier work, which influenced the portrait’s direction.

Ann on the character she plays in Woman’s Picture:

Well, her name is Miriam Masterson, star of “The Miriam Masterson Show”, which airs on a home shopping network, and she’s a working woman, which is a staple you see a lot of in women’s pictures of the 1940s, particularly; a working woman who’s having a meltdown, in her professional, personal, and family life. Spiritual life, maybe. She’s a pretty complex person. The character of Miriam is kind of riffing not only on the forties women’s picture characters but also some of the characters that I’ve played. I’ve played quite a few professional career women. Brian [Pera, the director] and I worked on creating a story for Miriam which is somewhat autobiographical. I’ve always felt trapped in these power career women roles, because generally they’re not written with a lot of complexity, and as much as one tries to put that into some of the projects, it’s occasionally…well, not permitted, actually, because too often these women are plot points or they have to be the villain in order to make someone else look better. Not all the time. But it’s something that happens in a lot of Hollywood films: a woman with power and independence is perceived as a threat, and she usually has to have some sort of comeuppance, or something humiliates her, or she’s just the villain of the piece. What excited me about working with Brian is that he doesn’t think like that, and he was excited about taking this role and sort of shattering all those myths and stereotypes and finding a real person underneath. I hope we succeeded in doing that.

Ann on one of director Brian Pera’s inspirations for “The Miriam Masterson Show”, Ann’s earlier film called “Made For TV”, in which, as art critic Sarah Valdez described it, “a bewigged Ann Magnuson consecutively inhabits, at a rate faster than any channel surfer could keep up with, an outlandish, uproariously unfortunate range of female stereotypes”:

Tom Rubnitz was a young video artist in the East Village, in the 80s, and he had done a video with John Sex, who was a good friend of mine, part of this group of us who met and worked at a place called Club 57, which was more of an arts lab than a club. Tom came to me and he wanted to do a video, because he’d seen me do a lot of my characters and performance work in various clubs and gallery spaces downtown in New York. So we would just get together when we had time, and I’d bring a bag of wigs and a bag of clothes and we’d film. I actually worked very hard to create an outline of a sort of typical broadcast day, starting in the morning up until sign off. Back then, they’d actually stop broadcasting around midnight, when they’d play the Star Spangled Banner. I just wanted to play all these different female characters that you’d see on TV and in real life, throughout the day and night. And we basically just improvised all that. We’d go to different locations and shoot and then we made it in the editing room. It premiered on a show called Alive From Off Center, which was on PBS, I think in 1984. It’s probably still some of the best stuff I’ve ever done, because we just didn’t really have much motivation beyond wanting to explore the characters and just having fun for ourselves.

 Posted by on August 15, 2011
Aug 122011


When perfumer Andy Tauer and I first started discussing the perfume which would become MIRIAM, we engaged in a conversation about the script.  The film hadn’t been made yet, and we had only the story on the page.

Miriam is a complex character and the story focuses on a particular moment in her life.  A lot of mystery is left.  Her mother is suffering from dementia and Miriam is caring for her, but it’s unclear exactly how Miriam truly feels about her mother.  She might feel regret, resentment, affection, or duty.  She probably feels a combination of these things.

The story follows Miriam at a crisis point.  Her job at QET, the home shopping station, is at risk.  Her long term relationship has reached its logical end point, yet she clings to its routine disappointments.  Nothing is more upsetting than the situation with Rose, her mother.  Rose has checked out and is emotionally unavailable, and Miriam has fantasized an idealized version of her for so long that it’s difficult for her to reconcile these false memories with the reality of their past relationship and the present condition of her mother’s health.

After reading the script, Andy wrote me the following letters, already viewing the story through the prism of fragrance:

August 12, 2010

Dear Brian,

I hope these lines find you well!

I have read the MIRIAM script. Quite a special experience, I must admit. I had a lot of dreams about my mother who passed away September 2007. Partly this was due to the script, for sure; partly, it was just because my mind got some free time over night without anything business related during the day.

The last few pages of MIRIAM were somewhat upsetting, and I still can’t make my mind up on this woman. I am not really sure how to see her. I fight with a picture of her, fooling herself, living in a dream world, materialistic, not considering herself and her role in a dirty corporate game at the home shopping station where she works. And then there is her role as the daughter taking care of her mother, motivated by, to me, an unclear impulse. And the relationship she had with her mother.  Mothers can be so cruel.

Funny enough: When I read the script, with Miriam sniffing her mother’s old perfume, I immediately imagined it to be a rose fragrance with violet blossom, a green violet leaf line, and a gentle sandalwood base, with some (old fashioned) civet lines and aldehydes to pump it all up. Rose and violet blossom, green leaves and sandalwood, civet and aldehydes could be a starting point for the 6 axes of the perfume that Miriam might have smelled, the perfume her mother has always worn.

I will make a little post soon, talking about mothers and axes in perfumery, maybe….

I am hitting the kitchen now and will need to pack some stuff later, but will continue thinking and come up with a few lines soon again.

Best regards and fragrant hugs,


August 15, 2010

Dear Brian,

Just a little line of thought on the perfume for the MIRIAM story. Actually, it is like a contradiction. Miriam has this perfume (her mother’s) that connects one part of her with her mother, or an idea Miriam has of her mother. And, although her mother is still there, alive, touchable and in one little part of her brain even awake, Miriam says that this perfume is all that is left from her mother. It makes you wonder why Miriam says so.

I guess Miriam has a picture of her mother in a bottle. This picture has little to do with reality.

By the way: I assume that Miriam is in her 40-ies (right?) and hence her mother is approaching her eighties, hence I assume her perfume is (about) from late 50-ies, early 60-ies. Back then, Miriam’s mother was still dating and dancing and free.

I send you fragrant greetings and wish you a lovely Sunday…


[The above still by Tommy Kha is from the forthcoming short called ROSE, which will be released in October.  It depicts a memory Miriam has of being caught playing with her mother Rose’s perfume.]

 Posted by on August 12, 2011
Aug 042011

Rose Masterson is the mother of Miriam, a recurring character in the Woman’s Picture series played by Ann Magnuson.  I based Rose on some of the women I’ve seen while living in Memphis.  You walk into these women’s houses and it’s like something out of a magazine.  You can’t believe anyone lives in that kind of perfection.  In public they always seem to wear and say the right things.  They always send cards and letters when Emily Post says they should be sent, and the cards and letters always say the nicest things, incredibly personal things.  They remember names and faces and make it a point to single you out, as if you’d been an extraordinary presence the last time you saw them.  Their children are enrolled in private schools.  Their social lives are astonishingly active.  They’re on boards, committees, involved in groups and clubs.  And you think, what are these women like when no one else is around and that public mask comes off?

As Miriam says about Rose at one point, “She’s very particular.”  I think maybe in her private life Rose tried to reconcile the public and private selves, and that it was always a conflict.  She was probably very hard on Miriam.  In a novelette I wrote about Miriam’s childhood, Rose appears often, a sort of fearsome role model for Miriam and also a warning sign; however unintentionally, she makes Miriam feel small and insignificant, and though on the the surface she seems the ideal housewife, underneath the veneer she strikes Miriam as possibly deeply unhappy.  Miriam is the one who sees the face under the mask, and she grows up trying to reconcile these two very different mothers herself – the one everyone else knows and the one she sees every day.

In the novelette, which includes a series of Miriam’s childhood memories, Miriam, age nine, says: “At dinner, mother tells me to sit up straight, paying serious attention to the way I chew my food, the way I look, the way I speak.  She seems to know what I’m thinking, verbalizing my insecurities.”  Miriam is an only child and all of Rose’s disappointments and frustrations are directed at her.

In the Woman’s Picture series, Rose has Alzheimers, and that part is based on my paternal grandmother.  It’s another mask, that illness.  You try to see through it to the person underneath, because Alzheimers really distorts things.  It traps people in their memories, in some kind of fantasy world.

It also means that all of your unresolved issues with that person underneath will remain unresolved.  The problems Miriam has with her mother will never have any closure, because Rose isn’t really “Rose” anymore.  That allows Miriam to live in a fantasy world too, because she can choose to ignore the problems she had with her mother, and in that way they share a set of delusions.  Rose becomes the child, suddenly, and Miriam the parent.  You don’t really know who Rose is because you understand that the person you’re seeing in Woman’s Picture isn’t who she used to be.  You only have Miriam to go by, and because Miriam is kind of living a lie in some ways, aspiring to be that perfect woman her mother seemed to be, the best indication you have for who Rose used to be is the character Miriam has created on TV, the home shopping hostess on the QET network.  To me, “Miriam Masterson” is a role Miriam plays, based on childhood memories of her mother’s public mask.

(Rose Masterson is portrayed by Glenda Mace.  The above still, from the forthcoming short ROSE, was taken by Tommy Kha.  ROSE’s release date is October 7th, here on Evelyn Avenue.)

 Posted by on August 4, 2011
Aug 012011

For months, perfumer Andy Tauer and I have been working on the design for the packaging of the Tableau de Parfums line of fragrances connected to the film series Woman’s Picture.  Andy is in Switzerland. I’m in Memphis, Tennessee.  We’ve shared images, sketches, thoughts, and mock-ups, online and through the mail, often talking over the phone.  Our objective was to create something memorable, functional, and enduring.  I love perfume but am often slightly disappointed with the packaging, which often feels like an afterthought.  Investing in a perfume should reap rewards, not just through the quality and emotional resonance of the fragrance but in terms of the thoughtfulness that went into conceiving it as an overall experience.  I typically throw the boxes away.

The women in my family often kept them, even after they’d used the perfume.  In the top drawer of her bureau my mother stored wonderful flat perfume boxes she’d converted into containers for jewelry, scarves, and other personal mementos.  They were time capsules of important moments in her life – things given to her, things she wished to remember by separating them from everything else.  The boxes were a way of prioritizing her memories and relationships.  I don’t remember what the fragrances were but the boxes recalled them and extended their significance in a unique way.  These fragrances had a life beyond the bottle because the boxes, and the things she stored in them, reinforced their magic.

Like the box for Miriam, the first Tableau de Parfums fragrance, my mother’s perfume boxes often had textured lids, sometimes with a grosgrain feel.  Andy and I exchanged images of vintage boxes we liked while thinking about what we wanted to do, and came up with a look and touch for the lid that served as an interesting sensory introduction to the fragrance inside.  We want a Tableau fragrance to be a complex experience the moment it arrives in the hands of its wearer, full of unexpected engagements.  We developed content which might serve as built in keepsakes, complicating the experience of the perfume with interactive material.  Perfume is an interaction and we wanted everything about Miriam to embody that.  The box is full of what I think of as secret compartments, each compartment hiding an additional surprise.  Once the fragrance is removed, the box can be used to store the recipient’s own memories, building on the sense of fragrance as a complex vessel of thought and feeling.

Everything about Miriam, from the bottle to the box and the fragrance itself, was about engagement to us, communication with likeminded people who find infinite meaning in the experience of perfume.  We related the design strongly to the established graphic elements of the Woman’s Picture series, making the connection emphatic not just through the scent itself but via the world it sits in.


 Posted by on August 1, 2011