This picture appeared on Paprika Steen‘s Instagram page 1w ago. Every once in a while, lurking and scrolling, I see a picture, like this one, and wonder what’s going on…
I talk to Cam Archer pretty regularly, and like to think I know what he’s up to (collaborating on screenplays with Amy Belk, working on shorts he describes in detail over the phone, picturing how to make a documentary as the possibilities take shape in his mind, riding his bike, swimming in the ocean, teaching, etc.), so seeing this short yesterday, a piece I had no idea he’d worked on, was a useful reminder how little you ultimately know the people you believe you do. That was an interesting place to be watching Rickie Lee Jones and Her Horse, which pays such close attention and tries to listen so openly to its subject. I was curious how he got to a place he could observe so free from the kinds of assumptions this shows me I make routinely…
– Brian Pera
When did you film this?
This was shot in 2012 just outside of Los Angeles on 16mm color reversal film. The stock has since been discontinued, so the look is already history. I thought maybe the footage would be used in a larger piece, but then I recently discovered that it worked by itself.
How did you describe to Rickie what you wanted to do?
I had just started a new project, my first documentary, which I knew was concerned with my creative process, or my relationship to images. I was having new feelings about making images and I started to wonder if they were doing me any good. I wanted to step away from my instincts, my tendency to control images, and capture something wild. I knew there was something special between her and Ella and I wanted to see if I had the ability to be patient and collect it. Rickie understood this and invited me to the ranch where Ella resides.
How long did you spend with her to collect this material?
We spent a few hours together. We shot, then I asked her some things based on what I’d seen. I left my voice in the piece because I didn’t feel like pretending that I wasn’t there, or that I didn’t have something to do with what was being captured. I had no intention of making the piece into some specific thing, so it left everything open, casual. Rickie was excited to do something she hadn’t really done before.
How long have you and Rickie known each other and what about her made you want to see her this way?
I met Rickie through David Tibet (CURRENT 93) in 2007. I approached her about playing Sissy Spacek’s neighbor in this film I was trying to get made at the time called PULL. The project never came together, but I knew after meeting Rickie for the film that I wanted to work with her regardless. She has this ability of sounding simultaneously wise and exhausted about everything. I love it. I’ve only ever felt one of those things. I’ve always admired Rickie’s music, but I didn’t want to try and make a music video because it seemed too easy. In 2010, I had Rickie narrate my film SHIT YEAR, a lot of which she improvised, brilliantly. I’d seen Rickie taking care of Ella during one of our recording sessions for the film and it was a relationship I had no idea if I would be any good at, which interested me, and years later led to this film. I wanted to understand what she got out of it, but I also wanted to give a sense of what it might be like to have a casual conversation with her about something she’s not known for, or something she hadn’t had any intention of documenting.
What went into the sound design? I know you go out and record things. What kind of ambiance were you hoping for?
Lately, I’ve been working a lot by myself, and using a lot of natural recordings. I used to create a lot of sounds, but now I just wait for them. The sounds in this piece are probably from all over California. It’s mellow, isn’t it? The wind almost sounds like it’s patiently reminding itself how to sound like wind. I like that.
The tone of the short is so nice, like you’re privy to her inner thoughts. It feels really intimate and quiet and lucid and it makes me wonder how you feel about the noise we’re living in right now. There’s such an intentional pace, and I guess that patience feels like a peaceful but emphatic resistance to me.
It is a quiet piece. I spend a lot of time alone. I walk, I bike, I swim… Even when you’re exercising, concentrating on some physical task, your mind goes to this quiet, helpful place. The piece feels a little like that. I try to keep away from the noise. It all looks the same to me anyway.
In your American Eagle T and your madras shorts. You in your meticulously frayed baseball cap, which bears the insignia of a camp you’ve never lost your virginity at, let alone been to, or heard of. You with the boxers peeking out at your waistline, a look you stole from people you wish you were. I’ve seen you at the mall, bushy-haired and slouchy, that smirk on your face. I guess you know you barely lift your feet as you saunter along the pavement. Is that the style now, that shuffling, almost somnambulistic gait? Is walking already passé?
Just this morning on my way into Sephora I saw you and your peeps, waddling ahead of me like a little row of baby ducks whose mama had already scurried off around the corner, frightening them with the sudden prospect of independence. The wind was moving in the wrong direction, but I’m going to guess what you had on under the madras and the T and the boxers and the cap. Something or other Ralph Lauren. Something Gucci, Versace, a paler shade of Light Blue. Eau de Duh. I know you were wearing cologne because I know what cologne means to you. I know how it conveys an image you want to project, or you imagine it does. I know: the guy on the boat or in the field in that ad is your imaginary mirror image—your twin, the secret you—and yet, in your mind, you’d like to cut your own path. That’s why I’m writing.
I won’t tell anyone I sent this to you, but I do want to discuss your purchasing patterns. As I walked behind you, I smelled my wrist, imagining I was you imagining you were that other guy. Would my friends really scramble at the scent of Creation, by Ted Lapidus? Now that every girl in high school isn’t spritzing it in her pink calico canopy bed, dreaming about a boy like you in a mist of fruity chypre, who would recognize it and mark it as sissy? It once smelled the way guys imagined Christie Brinkley must—as if its wearer had been slathered in some dangerously soapy elixir which added to rather than subtracted from her natural musk.
It made a girl smell like she’d spilled something on her parents’ leather sofa, downstairs, in the rec room, only she didn’t want her mother to find out, so she’d scrubbed the seat to within an inch of its life, and still she seemed so…fidgety, her face still flushed from the exertion. She might have wanted sex but you couldn’t be sure, because you didn’t know what she’d spilled either, and though you had a few wild guesses, it could have simply been your active imagination. It could have just been, like, Jean Nate. Wind Song or whatever. If her smell did that kind of magic for her, imagine what it could do for you.
Creation smelled like a very specific complex of associations back in the day (1984), but that day has passed. Now it smells weirdly virile. It always did, but with all the cosmetic subterfuge, no one ever noticed before. Now that all the girls you know want to smell like laundry detergent, Creation smells practically hairy-chested. I tell you this because I know a very easy way to distinguish yourself, and all it would require is imagination on your part. Step out of your flip flops; feel the ground under your feet. Lift your feet, and feel the pull of gravity. I’m not asking you to walk. I’m just asking you to think.
I’m willing to let you borrow my Creation. But there are many fragrances you might try. Now that no one sees Christie Brinkley in them, they’re dirt cheap. I know you’re on a budget; mommy and daddy’s pockets only run so deep. I’d be happy to make some suggestions. I might even loan you something else, if you promise to turn down that music when you stop by to pick it up. Scents once intended for the opposite sex make the most electric statement on a guy’s skin, totally transforming him and the way people experience his presence. They introduce an active element of contradiction. If you think it will put panties on you, consider this: your slouch and this whole passive vibe you’ve got going on at the moment doesn’t exactly register as butch. Meet the term Pillow Queen.
I’m saying that if you have the balls to smell like people used to think a woman should, there’s no telling how deeply you might penetrate into other people’s perceptions and desires. Krazy by Krizia, for instance, which smells of vanilla rubbed on wood, is a good start. That’s putting your toe in without straying too far off the path. Black Cashmere, Balmain de Balmain, Caleche. The limits are mental; the possibilities, endless. It’s true, such a bold stroke might make your friends scramble – but I bet you’d find, if you turned around, that they were just rearranging themselves, and would eventually all end up in a line behind you, following your lead. They could also just get confused, which isn’t uninteresting.
Tammy Parker has been making fragrances for several years now under the working name Poetry Bath. You go over to her studio and there are walls of ambery essences and tinctures and absolutes and a lovely clean woody smell permeating the air. Lots of sweet orange and bergamot. Balsams. Big aluminum containers which get decanted into tall bottles with spouts line metal shelves. Smaller bottles are stacked in plastic tubs.
Tammy was the first person I met, outside the bubble of Facebook perfume fanaticism, who wore Annick Goutal’s Eau d’Hadrien. Maybe the first person I met in real life who’d ever heard of it. Until recently she had two fragrances, Verses 1 and 2. Poetry Bath maybe basically tries to get to the bottom of her love for the bath, that kind of sacred space you can get in with the door locked and the steam veiling things and your thoughts drifting in an amorphous in-between. Candles, scrubs, bath oil, bath salts. You come out, when you decide to come out, a little more clear headed.
Recently she’s been working on a third fragrance, a Verse 3. So I asked her about the process.
How long has it taken you so far to compose Verse 3?
Composing a blend of fragrances is like writing a poem or designing a room or cooking a meal (if I ever really cooked!). The concept for Verse 3 came years ago. I wanted to layer the notes to reflect “Contemplation”. By the time I physically poured the oils together drop by drop, I took one day for one version. I walked away from it for two weeks. The second version was the result of sorting out the base note by simplifying it. When I began to blend, it took an hour.
What kinds of things have you thought about while working on it – when your mind wanders from the task at hand?
When my mind wanders from being in the moment while I am blending, sniffing and stepping back from the intensity, I actually begin to think too much! The power is within the movement between an intoxicating floral to a deep resin and finding the balance.
Have there been any additions to the scent that have surprised you?
What surprises me are how the disparate notes create a fragrance I didn’t know I was looking for until it was in the beaker. I shouldn’t admit that, huh? It is the scariest part and the most elating as well. Like magic, the waft of an ashram swept across my face. I was wanting the scent of contemplation and there it was!
What fragrant material would you say you have the most of on hand? What is it about that particular scent that draws you in?
This is a hard one to answer. Bergamot takes up a lot of my shelf space. Its scent is at once mellow and dusty with a green citrus finish. It blows me away. I will stop at just one scent or we’ll be here all day.
When you’re working on a scent, what are the down periods like, when you’re waiting for what you’ve worked on to mature? How do you carry the scent around in your head during those times?
Between mixing oils at my counter and pouring them into the bottle, and walking away, I seal up all of my oils and put them away. I don’t want a hint of smell near me to clear my nosy little palette. I worry a lot about making the right choices. To allay my thoughts, I start researching botanicals and folklore about what I think may be the next dropper full. This is all such a metaphor as to how I conduct my life!
(Photos taken at Tammy’s studio)
We were in Taylor, Mississippi to see a show at Yalo Gallery involving quilts. There was a watermelon festival right down the street, so in all the windows there was what I guess you’d call unironic watermelon art.
Lauren drove. I rode shotgun. Joel sat in back dispensing Funyons and Gummi Bears. At some point, he asked Lauren what the deal was with all the splatter on the roof of her car. “Somebody must have opened a Pepsi,” she said.
It was her dad’s birthday and when he called her back she put him on speaker phone. Lauren calls you Darlin’ and Sug’ a lot and listening to her dad you start to see where that comes from. Once she sent him a roll of toilet paper for his birthday. John Wayne was printed on it. Her mom wasn’t amused.
Joel and Lauren have an interesting friendship. Kind of bitchy. Kind of right up to the limit, then past it a hair, then a boundary is laid and there’s a little backtracking.
We were in the room with one hanging quilt and a few table lamps on the floor, and I asked Lauren could I take her picture. I got one with her glasses on but she liked this one better I think, maybe because it shows Joel, who caught wind of the photo session, inching toward the limit, trying to find that hair.
Every month or so Cam and I talk on the phone. He texts me, usually after 10, to see if I’m around, and we stay on the phone for several hours.
I feel like I talk mostly. I always think, He must be recording me, because he’s letting me go on and on. If I hear a click on the line I think, He’s definitely recording me. Like he’s interested in what someone who likes the sound of his own voice that much will say if you give him enough rope. Like some specialized version of ethnography.
When I saw him in July he had a recorder with him. We were in Maine – was it Maine? – for an event that allowed zero time for anything but hustling from one building and activity to the next, so when I saw that recorder I had such a weird sweeping affection for Cam. He keeps this space for himself where he can be alone, even when there are hundreds of people swarming around, as there were that trip, busy making their aloneness go away.
On the phone, where you get a sort of highly concentrated version of him, Cam’s voice is the most amazing thing. I always think, He’s so American. He’s more American, whatever that is, than most people I know. No one I’ve ever met talks or thinks exactly like him, so I don’t know; what’s American?
I wish I could describe his sense of humor and the effect his presence, all six foot something of it, has on any social situation he gets anywhere near. People know they should be wary and some amount of social anxiety ensues. Cam has the ability to say just that one thing that clarifies a moment and everything swimming around in it.
He gave a presentation at this event, a “slide show” for lack of a better term, that stopped time a little. He got up and talked like we do on the phone. He talked about his work – as a filmmaker, writer, photographer – but it wasn’t “about his work”. It felt so generous and effortless, showing all the weird torment of confidence and insecurity trying to strangle each other into submission.
It was all over the place in a startlingly specific way. People were speechless – like, What just happened? More than a few despised him for making it seem so easy, when they’d labored over their own presentations so scrupulously, and showed it, just to make sure everyone knew they were serious.
Cam was like a big fuck you to serious, and got to a place of sincerity that showed everyone how much they miss it and wish they could let themselves be embarrassed enough to get back there. You could read people’s resentment in their comments. Sincerity, if that’s what you call it, is so easy to disparage in a way that makes you feel you’ve come out on top.
I made this sweater for Cam’s birthday. He got it months after his birthday, in July, when I next saw him, at said event. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be right, even based on the measurements he’d given me. I thought he had to have gotten it wrong. When he held it up to his body his arms really were that long. He sent me this picture months later, when he could actually start wearing it. I wanted to make something for him to pay him back in some way for the rescue mission of his slide show.
(photo by Amy Belk)