By Courtney Stephens
Editor’s note: We asked Courtney Stephens, filmmaker, programmer, writer and lecturer (California, USA), about the possibility of presenting her film Ida Western Exile (2014) (a remarkable short film on a list of unique experimental and documentary works) and writing a piece on the themes dealt in her short film: fear, female risk, anxiety, and isolation. The idea developed into the following piece, which is not only a presentation of this work, but a reflection and self-analysis in times of uncertainty, plus a revisit of two seminal works by Greta Snider and Steven Matheson, which dialogue perfectly with her own. Today we present Ida Western Exile (2014), the following outstanding text and links for the other two works as well, with the desire that each one of our readers can find some solace during this isolation period. We are fearing, we are locked down, but we endure as a community, in art and life. (J.S.)
Isolation, like movies, has different genres. There is a type of isolation that is sought and generative, what is called solitude. Another takes the form of a test or experiment; backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail by oneself, or Thoreau at Walden Pond. There is the kind one might seek after a public shaming incident, and then there is the running disappearance; jumping bail, witness protection, hiding from violent people. A kind that is enforced vs. a pledged recovery. Meditation. Desolation. Each is in some sense protective, only a few are searching. The collective necessary retreat of the last couple weeks has placed us in perpetual limbo as its probable timeframe expands and contracts, and we scramble to assess future damages against the grinding and insistent present. While many forms of isolation have an emancipatory principle, is it possible, or even ethical, to seek it here?
Six years ago I joined a friend, who doesn’t take airplanes, on the first leg of a train journey from Los Angeles to the North East, where she was resettling. We stopped in New Mexico to make a side trip and do some hiking at Ghost Ranch, an open space preserve currently owned by the Presbyterian Church which offers spartan accommodations and hiking trails through rich red and yellow terrain, sheer cliffs that rotate colors through the day. This landscape served as geographic muse for Georgia O’Keeffe, who spent time and eventually owned several acres and a small house there in the 1930s through the 50s. It has also served as a backdrop for several late Westerns including Cowboys and Aliens, Silverado, and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. This range of genres – from masculine proving ground to female homestead — suggest the open mythic potential of the Western landscape, liberatory for sure. When I asked the Ghost Ranch historian to generalize the kinds of visitors who come specifically to visit O’Keeffe’s cabin she told me “mostly newly-divorced women.” Neither public nor private, open wilderness provides a third and planetary space in which to understand ones place — its perils are impartial. O’Keeffe’s paintings are not simply renderings of extraordinary scenery, they are acts of elective life. They are records of a different sort of exposure.
The geologic record tells us that the world has ended before. That biology has always been an experiment in expansive possibility set against an unstable environment. Last week, as part of an anxiety dream in which I gave birth to rabbits, I also found myself with a gigantic baby I could barely carry, that spoke in full sentences. The baby asked questions about words of value. Could “poignant” be a bad thing? I wasn’t entirely sure, but guessed so. What about “distant” ? How about a banister? We have quickly absorbed a rapid inversion of the physical world – one we had learned to navigate, to make guesses about safety and danger based on the bodies we live in. I used to be wary of empty streets, now I feel safer in them. Now I am wary of hugs. When Desistfilm asked me to write about Ida Western Exile, the film I made at Ghost Ranch, I realized that wilderness and female risk, the film’s subject, felt quite different now that the entire populated world had become a danger zone.
Growing up in Northern California, there was much teenage fun to be had in marginal locations – the unincorporated land between freeways and private property, drainage ditches, freeway underpasses. These places were un-patrolled and empty, and while they weren’t beautiful, they stood outside the social order and were anarchically romantic. They were also totally unsafe. They are the No Zones of Greta Snider’s film from 1993, a collection of short episodes in the industrial and psychic antipodes of the Bay Area and the Southwestern desert. In Snider’s film, we learn to forage weeds, ride freight trains, and hope for the best as barrels of toxic waste are quietly interred in the yard. “I know it’s harmless, or they wouldn’t have buried it here.” Millennium anxiety, and the grieving shadow of AIDS hover over the film, even as it presents us spaces of sun-drenched repose.
Women know that emancipation is curiously coupled with risk. The world is not safe, but to be a part of it, we bargain with our own vulnerability. If we bargain too hard, we are blamed for what befalls us; if we err in the opposite direction, we find ourselves wondering: “is it actually your life if you can’t lead it?” As 20th century women emerged from the protected, domestic sphere and into public life, along came the cinema, which breached the line between the home and the world in a different sense. Through the advent of home projectors first, and television later, remote and faraway places entered the suburban living room. It was, and remains, the safest distance to approach the world, and is the antecedent to these days of quarantine, in which we remain, in some sense, “in” the world. Cinema has always provided a “socially distant” encounter – and encounter of one kind and not another, that threatens to disfigure the actual world, or what we now call the past. Perhaps in the future, perhaps there will be more than one word for place. Open space is no longer a synonym for distance, which has become a synonym for home.
In another fantastic film about risk, Steven Matheson’s Apple Grown in Wind Tunnel (2000), a narrator repeatedly tells us “This story begins with a mistake, it begins with the presumption of ill health,” describing how an unidentified woman has, for decades, been broadcasting a lists of improbable remedies via shortwave radio. What at first sounds like a cake recipe turns to harder stuff: “…tritium soaked in brandy,” heavy metals, pesticides, petrol chemicals. Recipes progress to geographic directions, guiding the desperate into dangerous lands: fields of contaminated mud (“to be rolled into incense cones”) and the plinths beneath power lines. These are the sorts of exposures we live with all the time in industrialized America, where disease-carrying insects, food-borne bacteria, and viral fevers are comparatively rare. Americans eats the equivalent of a credit card worth of plastic every week, it’s estimated. Matheson’s film offers a rebellion, psychological if nothing else. By some homeopathic and occult logic, violation becomes a place from which to hope – that by tracing the coordinates of risk, we turns risk into a set of teachings. “Her knowledge could make a superfund site as valuable as a rainforest.”
It is no mistake that the films end up in New Mexico. In Mathesnon’s, Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces appear as names on a map of sites “aglow.” Nuclear testing taught us that our world is tiny and vulnerable, and to advocate for its (for our) interconnectedness. Ghost Ranch, which lay an hour North of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, looks out at a distant table-top mountain called Pedernal. It appears more than any other feature in O’Keeffe’s paintings of the place: “God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it” she said. Her ashes were scattered there in death. The actual West contains not only the ashes of Georgia O’Keeffe, and the beautiful sites of spring, but borax mines, petrol fields, and pesticidal seas. All sites where one could probably wait out the present pandemic without the risk of being disturbed, while hoping what is in the ground isn’t worse in the long run. The point is: the world has never been a safe place. If it were, O’Keeffe’s paintings at Ghost Ranch would not have their special quality.
Susan Howe writes: “A margin is a border, edge, brink, or verge of land. In botany a margin is the edge of a leaf. In books the margin is the edge of a page, left blank or to be filled in with notes.” In my film, a woman explores the parameters of the world through customer support calls and online wormholes. Not unlike the poignancy of watching movies during quarantine and thinking “we don’t do that anymore,” her research is a form of longing for the world. Maybe she’s working her way through her fears, maybe she’s wasting everyone’s time. And yet, forms of liberation do come from isolation. She may in fact emerge into a different life. We may in fact emerge into a different world, one that can begin to take the form of our collective introspection. We may be investing in the world by way of longing and pining for it. I am reminded of an Amy Hempel story, in which the character enrolls in a Fear of Flying class. When the instructor asks “What is your worst fear?” she answers, “That I will finish this course and still be afraid.”(1)
(1) Available online at «http://fictionaut.com/stories/amy-hempel/in-the-cemeterywhere-al-jolson-is-buried»
Copyright © 2010 Amy Hempel. All rights reserved.
Links to the mentioned films: