By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

Decoding Courtney Stephens' work is an apt term for the ideological (the ideological as the immanent referent of the platonic realm) transit involved in being presented with her films. Indeed, being a spectator of films like Mixed Signals or Ida Western Exile, implies being open to the multiple poetic relations between signifier and signified, a process that achieves a particular transcendence through contemplation and montage. Reconstituting from fragments (travelogue films and travel lectures, a poetry book of maritime codes, the inherent structure of music or the ruins/remains of a monument which becomes part of a new landscape, etc.), Stephens' use of language opens a space for analysis and poetic rapport as applied to "systems of knowledge", something that could easily lead to the clean emptiness of certain ethnography. In her case, however, it becomes a poetic substance which can address elements like the isolation of landscape or the impossibility of language, but in a strange paradox, takes these same foreclosures and opens the possibility of further exploration, leading to the construction of rich new meaning. 

We talked with Courtney about her formation and the influence it had for her career as a filmmaker, isolation, maritime codes, the Berlin Wall, and more.

Desistfilm: Let’s talk about your formation, because it’s something quite interesting. You studied medical anthropology, you didn’t start with film. This is the experience with many experimental filmmakers, who didn’t start in this discipline, but arrived to it later in their life. I don’t know if you can talk about your particular experience from your education.

Courtney Stephens: Yes, as you say I studied and then did some graduate work in medical anthropology, and assumed I’d go forward with it. It is a beautiful discipline which is all about systems of knowledge, everything from the changing vogues within psychiatry to the history of bone-setting, and then how these practices are experienced by individuals. I think this training probably had a big influence on my tastes and thinking.

Desistfilm: How so?

CS: I guess in terms of mapping information, mapping it onto the body, and how language intersects with physical life, how different cultures might describe pain, for example. Ultimately, it’s a discipline that’s always moving between these big deductive systems and the personal and partial. These studies also led me to go study in India for the first time, following the fieldwork of my undergraduate mentor, Lawrence Cohen, a place I then returned to several times to work on film projects.

Ida Western Exile

Desistfilm: I think your formation really spills over into your films, and there is also this element of transit and travel that is present in all you do. It’s really wonderful to see how you treat the topic of landscape in its different iterations, like landscape of the body, physical geography of the body, certain intimate aspect of language as well. You also have a background in screenwriting and wrote narrative scripts before devoting yourself to more experimental modes. How did you reach the experimental cinema world and how did your previous experiences inform it?

Courtney Stephens: I never did screenwriting professionally, but it’s what I focused on in graduate school at the American Film Institute. Looking back it was an odd choice, maybe. But it did teach me something about dramaturgy and pacing and narrative, all of which have their place in my current work but maybe a little scrambled or stretched. Before grad school I had been working at an art magazine and watching these language-heavy films, essay films and things. So I thought I would make these kinds of films at the AFI but instead was writing detective scripts and things. I remember a professor saying “film is not a good medium for ideas. It’s a medium for emotion” which in a way I’ve come to agree with.

Anyway, during graduate school I had some health problems and this led me back to return the question of medical and scientific systems, but with the intention of prodding their limits. Confronting physical limits myself, occupying that kind of subject hood, put me in a different relationship to the knowledge systems that seek to describe it. I don’t think this is limited at all to a medical diagnosis. It’s the broader vexing problem of categorical systems, their utility and violence.

Ida Western Exile

Desistfilm: That’s definitely there in Mixed Signals, which is all about diagnosis. I must confess that I haven’t really thought about it, so it’s a new layer. It’s sort of a revelation to understand your work from this intimate perspective. These themes are also there in Ida Western Exile, work which would land perfectly into a program about the apocalypse but also lockdowns and isolation. It is this exploration of the New Mexico landscape depicted in the famous paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, but it’s a work about obscurity.

Courtney Stephens: Yes! I agree it’s really about obscurity. That film was made after returning from India and struggling to edit the project I had been shooting there. I wasn’t really sure I knew how to make the work I wanted to make. I was in my early 30s and didn’t have much to show for myself. The film is this revery about self-actualization in the form of O’Keeffe’s desert exile, which doubles as a fantasy of self-annihilation. Disappearance and solitude function a bit differently in the fantasy lives of women I suspect. When I visited Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe had a cabin and painted in later years and where the film was shot, I asked the park historian who tend to make the pilgrimage to this site, she immediately responded “mostly newly divorced women.” I found that pretty tender. The journey itself is another one of O’Keeffe’s creations. And it’s not Walden Pond. Even in the fantasy is the pattern of frailty.

When the film screened for the first time at Flaherty NYC I remember the programmer mentioning that the narrator “lacking in authority” and I remember cringing, like, aren’t I supposed to render strong female characters?  But that was at a deeper level, quite true. Fear of paralysis both creative and physical, fear of making bad choices, fear of dying alone. Liberation that is also like hiding.

Desistfilm: It’s funny, because liberation – and particularly the limits of liberation – is an idea that’s describes a lot of your engagements with feminist material. Watching Labial Quintet, it’s also a film with liberatory aims. You start from this email exchange with a waxing professional about the different vulva shapes that women have, and then you start to build this narrative about cultural obsessions with body alteration. I wanted to ask you about this correspondence, and how that came to be.

Courtney Stephens: I made that film for a specific event I helped curate at a microcinema I co-ran for many years in L.A. (Veggie Cloud). The event was about 1970s feminist “cunt art” and included a screening of Anne Severson’s Near the big Chakra. I wanted to track down this aesthetician who once told me that there were five distinct models of vulvas but I never ended up reaching her. So I ended up doing my own taxonomical investigation using pornography and surgical videos, which needless to say didn’t really work. My mother was horrified when I showed her the finished film.

Mixed Signals

Desistfilm: I wanted to ask you about your relationship to poetry, particularly the inspiration of the book, Code Poems, by Hannah Weiner, which is cited in Mixed Signals. You have also collaborated with poets, like Elaine Kahn and Tiziana La Melia.

Courtney Stephens: I like the idea of adapting non-narrative forms of writing and I take more influence from writing than other films – looking at approaches to structuring language or a poem, for example, has been useful to me in terms of film editing; in terms of pacing for example, or structuring fragmented material. To me, poetry is mysterious, but not as mysterious as film. Like I can usually wrap my head around how written language is working in ways that, with film, something can be working and I really have no clue why, or something that seems interesting doesn’t work and it’s just a fact, you can’t say why. That unknown is cinema, I guess.

Mixed Signals uses phrases from old maritime glossaries which were originally used for signaling between ships, to ask about provisions or warn of pirates and so forth. The idea came from reading Code Poems in which Weiner adapts these idiomatic phrases to do things they was never meant to do; negotiate a sexual encounter, for example. The glossary was put together in anticipation of the things sailors might encounter, it’s a slanted collection of words, slanted male, also. Something that is unique thing the original mode of communication, these flag codes, is that because they communicate between ships the language is “spoken” so to speak by the ship itself. In the film, the patient’s body is doomed to take the form of this object, this broken vessel, and the voice gets trapped in the throat of it.

Desistfilm: I think what you say about these maritime codes that are manmade, and appropriating this language for different kinds of expression is really fascinating. And because there’s a lot of layering of language in Weiner’s book. I mean, each expression can also mean a lot. It’s a really rich book to read, especially in the context of your film, it comes much more alive.

Courtney Stephens: She is a really interesting poet and the book is brilliant. It’s also very funny and naughty!

Perfect Fifhts

Desistfilm: In your newest short, Perfect Fifths, there is additional thinking on this relationship between language and rhythm. You present a piano tuner who talks about his own disability with speech, his stutter. How close was this film to you in those terms in particular?

Courtney Stephens: That’s an interesting question. I feel like I rely on language quite a bit, personally. I’m chatty. But I also find it hard to stay in my own voice in certain ways, I struggle with that. Jerome talks about his stutter as, in some sense, a way of bringing presence into the act of speech. The stutter ruptures the seamless flow of language, and opens a space for compassion from listener to speaker. It interrupts the transmission of information, and calls attention to the voice rather than the words. I think I very much relate to having some kind of inherent inefficiency in ones character, that is a form of protest.

Jerome said something I loved when introducing the film recently; that he wondered what becomes possible when you are asked to experience time in the way it functions in  a musical composition, rather than the way it function inside a statement like “time is money.”

Desistfilm: What role do you think landscape plays in this film, because there are also shots of beaches, rocks and that sort of thing…

Courtney Stephens: I wanted to convey this tension between progress and human construction with the things “constructed” by the passive influence of time and weather.  I was actually thinking quite a bit about weather with the film – it’s why the piano goes out of tune, as a response to humidity and other environmental features.  And then there’s the earth itself, which is going out of tune irreparably. Who will tune it?

One thing Jerome spoke quite a bit to me about that didn’t end up in the film, was black pentecostal breath, which is the practice of inserting breath and pauses in sermons and music — a pause that is not just about acknowledging what is beyond speech, but also about acknowledging capacity. The breath is a new starting point and that starting point is physical life rather than inherited language. And the tuner is an actor in this drama, right?  The tuner sets things back to the start, so to speak, but when they walk away, the piano is going out of tune again. This thing we call a piano is a contraption made of wood. Wood is subject to air and water. Rocks are subject to salt and ocean. Nothing is ever finished.

The American Sector (With Pacho Vélez)

Desistfilm: After Mixed Signals, you made The American Sector, with Pacho Velez, on the rests of the Berlin Wall in America.  I would say that, while it is a little bit different from your previous work, it also shares a lot of your interests. I don’t know if you can talk a little bit about this idea of making the film. How did you become involved in the project?

Courtney Stephens: Pacho and I are old friends and he was in LA frequently while working on his film (with Sierra Pettengill) about Reagan. We started documenting these pieces together, of which there are many in Southern California. Pacho and I have different sensibilities – he has a more structural approach to conceiving of a film’s form, whereas I’m more of a gatherer, looking for disparate elements and eccentricities. The film ends up combining this – a sort of minimalist approach to landscape with a lot of chatting and learning from people, teasing out private associations and projecting them onto this unknowable monolith. The object becomes a kind of open mirror.

It was a real challenge to edit, and to make a film that wasn’t directly about people or story or characters. The wall itself was the character that had to grow, or to become more complex, to keep it from becoming repetitive. So the issue was how to weave the voices of people into a chorus that builds upon itself. 

Desistfilm: I think the parts where you talk to people really helps you to create a panorama of what this post-cold war America is like. Even the current state of affairs of the world as well, from this monolithic object that is the wall, expressed in different areas, are really completed with these testimonies, of children, of people. It’s watching America unfold in some way, watching different parts of your country, which is such a huge template of different cultures and people and ideologies…

Courtney Stephens: And concerns!

Desistfilm: Yes, and people who came from different places, veterans of war, children… it is such a rich, layered, complex documentary.

Courtney Stephens: Thank you. One of the distinctions I didn’t expect to be so significant was between people of different generations. It ended up being one of the most defining things as far as how people ascribe meaning to the Wall. I’m born in the early 80s, right in the middle of today’s living generations. You talk to college students and the Berlin Wall is something they learned about in school. It’s foreign history. You speak with older people, and wow, many feel a real, tangible attachment to it, and see America as an important part of the story that is the Wall. It was interesting to think about how events flow through human time – how it is current events, then it congeals and becomes what we call history. It’s history happening in real time.
I remember when the pandemic hit, one of my students told me she was a little bit excited because it was the first historical thing that ever happened in her lifetime. She said she was so excited “cause’ I was only two when 9/11 happened”. I remember watching the Berlin Wall come down on the evenings news and my family telling me “you’re going to remember this your whole life” and clearly they were right. One might argue that it is that moment, that spectacular television moment, that has actually become what the Wall represents to many people now, the emotions they felt around that moment, rather than the actual Wall.

Desistfilm: More recently Terra Femme premiered recently at the Museum of Modern Art. You had been collecting different amateur travelogue films and connecting them through live narration for years, exploring the performatic side of documentary in contrast to a film which you can watch in cinemas or wherever. What do you think adds to the experience for the spectator and do you still expect to perform it live now that it has been released as a feature film?

Courtney Stephens: Yes, for about five years I presented that material and research in various iterations. In part, this was a way of working out the film with other people, with audiences. It allowed it to be more modular and for me to respond to each presentation by tinkering with it. I think live forms have something riskier in them, not only because something can go wrong, but because the speaker or performer is on the line in a different way.  One can’t dissolve into a disembodied voice. So it’s a way of acknowledging ones own position to the material.  In terms of this particular project, the live presentation echoes the long tradition of live-narrated travel lectures going back to the 19th century, and even the way these types of amateur films might be presented in the early 20th century, so it also becomes a formal element. I would love to continue to read it live when the opportunity arises.

Desistfilm: The project is also a curatorial one, a form of collecting other films. Can you talk a little bit about that, that side of your work that sparks from a curatorial interest, as you have also done a fair amount of programming.

Courtney Stephens: I agree that the impulse to collect and rework archival stuff is similar to the work that goes into programming around a theme or set of inquiries.  I really like these modes, of digging and picking and searching.

Sill From “Terra Femme”

Desistfilm: It’s what makes your work a little bit eclectic and more fun to watch as well. There’s no preprogrammed concept to show, it’s more like an ethereal mix of different thoughts that come together in the form of film. There’s the richness of watching someone explore a subject in an “in-progress” kind of way. It can be much richer than tighter kinds of films.

Courtney Stephens: They are the works of a scattered mind, but thank you for saying that.

Desistfilm: This kind of cinema opens a lot of room for interpretation and dialogue as well. Because it’s not such a precise thing that you know oh, this is about this, and this is about that”, and the metaphor is this”, but it gives you a spectrum to work off.

Courtney Stephens: I hope so. My goal is to move myself, so that means getting somewhere different than where I started. Not just filling in the blanks of what I already think I know.

Desistfilm: So what works are you involved in right now?

Courtney Stephens: I’m working on a few short projects. One has to do with rocks, another has to do with fake rocks.  Actually they are both about fake rocks.