Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month we bring you an advanced copy of Jesseca Simmons’ Emerald Ice.
Note: Emerald Ice is no longer live, but please stick around and read our interview with Jesseca Simmons.
What makes a biography? Is it a list of facts strung together by narrative that summarize a whole lifetime or does that just scratch the surface? The advanced copy of Jesseca Simmons’ biographical docufantasy, Emerald Ice, makes a strong statement arguing for the latter.
Emerald Ice (advanced copy) is based on the life and works of American poet Diane Wakoski. Instead of presenting a biography filled with trivia and talking heads recalling semi-relevant anecdotes, Simmons takes us on a metaphorical journey through Wakoski’s psyche by using her poetry as a road map. The end result is something that feels more personal and widely relatable.
In the interview below, we speak with filmmaker Jesseca Simmons about Emerald Ice (advanced copy).
Emerald Ice is partially an enactment, partially an ode, and partially a documentation of Diane Wakoski’s poetry and life. How did you become interested and later involved with Wakoski, and what was the working relationship like, for example, picking which excerpts to work with?
I remember the first time I ever read a Diane Wakoski poem. On a shelf at a friend’s house was a book with thick, red letters called Greed with a tempting snake on the cover. I impulsively picked it up, fell in and had to keep reading. A few years later I went to Northwestern to attend graduate school, I knew I wanted to make a film about Diane Wakoski. Rather than filming a poetry reading or interviewing literature experts, I spent a month writing and workshopping a letter to Diane (delivered snail mail). I stressed so much on each word because, in a way, I was responding to someone that I had already been receiving messages from for a long time. At one time or another, every poem I read felt like it had been written specifically for me to read. In the letter, I outlined my plans for a film that would be fragmented and use her poetry to explore the place where her fantasy life and biography met, but never fully settling in just one space. I was so thrilled when she wrote me back and agreed to talk about the project. I focused on building trust with Diane by sharing my thoughts and intentions throughout the process and she was very excited to see where it would lead.
One of the hardest parts of starting the film was choosing which excerpts of poetry to include (there are many poems in the film that bleed into each other that span all throughout Diane’s decades long career). I chose and edited the poems in a way to make it seem like the audience is hearing one continuous poem. I was so nervous to show Diane my initial script because I took some liberties with her work (like splicing poems together from different decades), but she loved that I had turned her poems into something new but was still able to keep their integrity. I always knew which characters from Diane’s poetry I wanted to include: David, the Diamond Dog, the Motorcycle Betrayer and Beethoven, then it was a matter of constantly reading. I spent so much time reading (out loud) to find the right words for the film. Diane has published over 20 volumes of poetry and I chose poems that personally resonated with me in some way. I think that all films are at some level personal films because every decision can reveal something about the filmmaker, no matter how objective they may attempt to be. What attracts me to Diane’s work so much is that I love the idea of discovering our mythic personas and grappling with and re-imagining the reoccurring images from our lives.
The cinematography, editing, and approach to narrative remind us of some films that came out of the experimental film movement of the 1960s – particularly, Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, and Marie Menken, all of whom were directly influenced by poetry. We’re wondering what influenced Emerald Ice, from the film world or otherwise?
From the film world, I was really inspired by the recent film Notes on Blindness, which is a hybrid documentary made entirely of reenactments and poetic voice over. The melancholic imagery and intense sound design attempt to emulate the subject matter of the film: a man coming to terms with losing his vision. It is important for documentaries to push the film’s style to be an extension of its content. I wanted the different chapters of Emerald Ice to be ethereal, imagistic and stray between fiction and nonfiction because her poems do this.
The film is made up of some really striking images: the opening landscapes, the motorcycle tableau, and, maybe the most striking of all, the burning piano (some of which are rendered beautifully in Jason Gardinier’s poster designs). But what seems to hold everything together is the sound design – a seamless blend of Wakoski reciting her poems, diegetic sound, and a score – including music composed by you. Do you have a particular approach or philosophy behind sound design, or does it change form project to project?
From very early on in the process, I knew that sound would have to work extra hard to be the connective tissue of the disjointed lives. The diegetic sounds had to be very purposeful in order to add punctuation to the poetry (almost all the diegetic sound effects were recoded and added after the initial shooting). The score and some ambient noises are made from manipulated sounds from other scenes. There is no sonic fidelity in Emerald Ice. I was hoping for people to be called to another place a part from what they were seeing; when we’re in the orange groves we are hearing the altered sound of the Motorcycle Betrayer’s bike revving. I wanted the viewer to at times be in two places at once. To emulate my experience reading Diane’s poetry, I wanted the film in its entirety to teeter in between the corporeal and the ether. The sound design of a film must listen and respond to the needs of the subject matter.
This is gunna be a long-winded one: Emerald Ice embodies the term “docufantasy” – a cinema practice that exists in the overlap between fiction and nonfiction. This is similar to how Diane Wakoski’s lived experiences are filtered through poetry, or how all art can be seen as a (re)presentation of what it documents, filtered and essentially removed from its “origin.” While we definitely think this approach is necessary for exploring emotional, spiritual, and other experiences that illuminate and destabilize what we see as “objective,” there is an odd, if not unsettling connection to the rise of “post-truth” – Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. How, if at all, do you think challenging nonfiction-as-unarguable-fact can be used in a positive way?
Many filmmakers, including myself, will say that one of the most important aspects of filmmaking is how it can be used as a tool to gain access to another’s point of view and to promote or conjure empathy, but it can do this and so much more. To engage with a perspective other than your own and to challenge what you know to be true is to enter into a sort of fantasy, where reality and imagination meet. In my opinion, one must imagine a different world in order to start to change the present one. Most documentaries gain their legitimacy from facts, however power has an unbreakable tie to knowledge that can have dangerous consequences if left unchecked. For me, a truly cinematic experience never puts all of the audience’s faith in facts alone and what we can only see.
In regards specifically to Emerald Ice, I have always found it presumptuous to assume one can fully know or understand another person, even if they have all the facts of their life. This is why I was so taken with her bio stating to look to her fictive poetry for all of the important details of her life. With this in mind, I left out some clarifying biographical details and let her poetry speak for itself—no interviews, no reflections, no timeline—to let the viewer have a different, perhaps more intimate, experience with Diane and hopefully themselves.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.