Leslie Thornton on location, Kenadsa, Algeria, 1991 (photo: S. Slyomovics)

Surrounded by dense foliage in her rooftop garden in New York City, with fire engine sirens and gusts of java and chocolate from the coffee roasting shop down the street punctuating our conversation, Leslie and I talked the afternoon before she and her partner, Tom Zummer, were leaving for Bellagio for a month. As we began, Leslie, who knows about such things, carefully constructed a wall of flowerpots around the microphone to shield it from the wind.

– IB

* * *

Irene Borger: I’ll begin with a quote from you, Leslie. “My own interest is in the outer edge of narrative where we are at the beginning of something else.” What led you, at this time as an art maker, to de-stabilize the narrative?

Leslie Thornton: That grew out of a kind of dislocation for me. The way language works has been a life-long preoccupation, starting in childhood when I was painfully shy and had trouble speaking. The kind of extreme self-focus of shyness, the kind of analysis and appraisal that is nearly constant, and in a way objectifies language, even for a child. Language is something outside. Speech was like an object, an enemy, a barrier. It was externalized. Language was overwhelming, inadequate to describe or convey many things – I had a basic sense of this in childhood. Much later, when I began to study linguistics and also semiotics, I found an intellectualization of something I had already been struggling with – the point being that I didn’t get there through a predominantly intellectual process. Then came more complicated questions about culture and language, how culture is embedded in language. Which led – it’s not a linear process exactly – to concerns about the dynamic nature of any one culture and cultural proximities and crossing-over, change. I think my own estrangement from speech has very much shaped all of my work, and may account for some of its qualities, because it’s deeply rooted emotionally for me.

IB: I’m stuck on this phrase: “to de-stabilize the narrative”. To even question form in the way that you’re interested in is unnerving because it questions a core of the way we learn to think. The reason that [divergence] is so threatening to people is because it doesn’t operate according to the conventional structures or habits of the mind.

LT: Yes, culture as narrative. The mind as narrative. Narrative reflects specific cultural presumptions. Recognizing that, one can’t help but think: then there must be other possibilities for narrative – reflecting other times and places and agendas, past, present, and future. I’m not capable of an involvement in the dominant forms of narrative in cinema, for instance. To study, it feels oppressive and limiting. I choose to be engaged on another, perhaps more critical and intuitive side. But on this other side, there’s a potential for ecstasy that I don’t think you find in conventional forms.

IB: Why is it that ecstasy becomes possible?

LT: It is probably the case that thought is largely structured like language. But, there is a kind of thinking outside of language that can surface sometimes, especially in art-making, probably in a lot of other arenas as well. Intangible, erotic, intuitive, pre-verbal, but precise. Those moments are extremely pleasurable, frightening, or stimulating.

I’ve been reading and thinking about mysticism lately, because of the film I’m working on, The Great Invisible (2002) [about a 19th century woman, Isabelle Eberhardt, who passes herself off as a man and becomes an exalted Sufi in North Africa]. Every form of mystical practice involves techniques for reaching an ecstatic state. However, couched in religious or philosophical terminology, the process is usually body-related and could involve exhaustion, a lot of repetition, a lot of movement, and music or rhythms. One’s physical and psychic environment becomes de-familiarized. I think I use a related strategy in film to produce a heightened experience. I will work with a familiar trope like suspense, or anticipation, and then just keep pushing that button, without the expected next step or resolution. There is a familiar residue of narrative form. The exciting part is then bringing in other elements that aren’t familiar at all but that are saturating to the viewer.

IB: Like what?

LT: Illogical things, mispronunciations, peculiar combinations of sound and image that are somehow startling, excessive beauty. Working with duration that seems inappropriate. The viewer has to deal with it; it stimulates the mind to cope with boredom, for instance. Generally, in culture these discomforts, stimulations, are blocked out; they are not speakable, packageable, or they are disruptive. The closest to transcendence that we get in pop culture might be violence, the lust for violence.

IB: There are many roots into trance-making but there are two poles, even in meditation practice. One is a saturation, the other is the ascetic. In our culture, you seem to be saying, we just use the mode of over-stimulation.

LT: Probably there are similar things going cognitively at either extreme. I’m interested in boredom. My interest comes out of the experience of the most hardcore structuralist films from the ’60s and ’70s. I think these films often produced profound boredom, which forced you somewhere else. None of the artists or critics would ever say that [laughter] but in a way, watching three hours of the camera whirling around in a barren landscape, as in Snow’s La Règion centrale (1971) (1), you have a profound response, if you commit to stay. You feel you’ve had a life-changing experience. A voluntary experience of boredom. The mind becomes very active. All kinds of images and scenarios begin to play. I think of John Cage too.

IB: I was just thinking of him.

LT: There’s a kind of mystical aspect to this.

IB: Are you saying that in your way of making films you’re very conscious of the experiential aspect for the spectator?

LT: I think that’s my main focus. And, as the stand-in spectator, I have to judge by the intensity of my own responses. It’s a thinking and feeling moment, where the thinking and the feeling – we don’t have a word for it – when they can’t be separated. That’s the moment I’m always looking for. It’s not something that comes back to rational formations or very focused arguments or ideas. It’s about a spreading out, spreading and coagulations, chemical reactions in the work that can produce surprising moments and thoughts for the viewer. It’s also important for me that the work not just be addressed to an “enlightened” or experienced audience. I’m trying to make things that are stimulating to watch at the same time that a critical voice is operating.

IB: If people are not used to looking at structures that differ from the beginning/middle/end of the classical Aristotelian scheme, how could they learn to enter your work?

LT: Seeing things more than once helps. Seeing that there is a kind of pattern or structure across several works. Talking about it. Relaxing. Often the people who are having the most difficulty are my colleagues, and not, let’s say, an audience off the street.

IB: Why?

LT: Conflicting agendas or aesthetics. The crowd that bothers me is the visual artists, the art people who don’t get into this kind of work and say they watch films for entertainment only. And the fine arts system that supports one-liner video installations, but can’t deal with anything more complex. Avant-garde film and video take up similar issues to those in the art world, yet there’s very little acknowledgement of this. The film or video work can be more sophisticated, more developed conceptually, yet media remains the most marginalized of the art forms. It’s an orphan. Because media is associated with entertainment and information systems, it’s not perceived as a formal artistic medium. The apparatus per se is limited by the conventions for its use. Photography went through this stage in the 19th century. Experimental media belongs within the history of art. Photographers fought for recognition. I think media artists haven’t done enough to try to change the system, but they are up against something huge. And now the preoccupation with “new” technologies – that has really become the bandwagon. It will take a long time to sort out what’s of value here.

IB: When you were describing that experience in your films as coagulation and expansion, I wondered whether you could talk about your working process in a similar way. That is, not starting out with a master narrative but allowing things to unfold as you work.

LT: I think about making films as if I were writing, but with imagery and sounds and time, and change. What does it mean to say you make films as if you were writing? You’re using a very technically demanding, and also a ridiculously expensive apparatus, so you have to deal with this and become adept and resourceful. You have to be intelligent about your limits, and work them into your process, turn them into part of your aesthetic practice, your vocabulary. For me, little money means more sound, for example. It’s cheaper, and tremendously powerful. Filmmaking is not just big crews, big equipment, locked-down scripts. The medium itself can be completely fluid and open-ended. A lot of the shooting I do is like taking notes in the field. [Laughs] Research. Digging through things, surprises, making interesting mistakes, getting things in place. Doing a delicate construction in the editing stage.

IB: That’s what Bill Horrigan called in your work, “the given,” and “the made.” (2)

LT: Oh, that’s interesting. Wait until you see the new piece, Old Worldly (1996). It’s the essence of the given and the made. It’s all archival material dealing with dance and also trance. An unlikely string of performances frame each other; there’s a whole non-verbal commentary going on about dance and culture that happens because of unlikely and outrageous juxtapositions.

IB: Let’s go back a couple of steps. You’re talking about “note-taking” in the field. Shooting as a way of collection and writing.

LT: And research.

IB: I’m a little confused about something. Is There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving (1988) a short story to the novel of The Great Invisible?

LT: No, it’s a completely different project. The first piece, Unseen Cloud, was a kind of anti-biography – working from the premise that historical reconstruction is based on pretty arbitrary, chance data, and interpretation. It was an attempt to foreground the arbitrary by not going for one coherent image of Isabelle Eberhardt. That’s mostly what it’s about. Later on I felt it wasn’t enough, staying on the surface. I felt I was getting off a lot of hooks and avoiding difficult material. Like learning something about Islam, for example. It wasn’t enough in the long run to say, well, we can’t really talk about that, because it’s not part of our world and we can’t know anything. Because we weren’t there, we aren’t them. All of the authenticity issues. I decided to keep going with Isabelle Eberhardt because I wanted to learn more about her historical context, and to experiment more with narrative structure.

I’ve gone in and out of her story for 12 years, traveling, reading, talking, shooting and editing, and it’s a continual source of amusement to me that I don’t even care for her particularly, as a person. It’s terrible. But there has to be something in that. I’m drawn by the contradictions and extremes of her story – what was her sexuality like, given that she was a woman who dressed as a man, who loved men and hated women? How “Arab” could she have become? Why was she accepted by the male Muslim community? What does her ambiguous relationship to the French colonialists say about both her and them? Did she have a sense of humor, of irony? She must have, although there’s little historical evidence. What could it mean that she was regarded by some as a Sufi saint toward the end of her life? I was impressed to learn during a trip to Algeria in 1992 that she was still respected and studied, and that hers was one of the few European names not replaced on street signs after the Algerian Revolution. And maybe the biggest question of all – what does Arab culture mean to so-called mainstream American culture, since it has been a virtually invisible part of the world to us for so long?

So there are big questions, but there’s a fractured fairytale there too. A crazy, impossible story. I focus on her Russian anarchist background, the fact that her father was a Russian Orthodox priest but was really working for the anarchists. And her mother, a member of the Russian aristocracy, was a classic 19th century neurasthenic. Her father destroyed the vegetation on an entire estate through his failed botanical experiments and then Isabelle fled to the desert where nothing could grow (it’s hilarious irony). Meanwhile, in Algeria, we have the French “conquering” the Sahara, for which there was no strategic or economic use; military commanders, ordered by their Parisian superiors not to enter a village, would simply change the name of the village so they could go ahead in. Isabelle Eberhardt becomes a way to observe how much of history is about impossible juxtapositions – how formal history is narrativized and how by not looking for a coherent narrative but looking for a more problematic or branching structure, a rhizomatic structure, there are other possibilities, including serendipity, and something more like life, and possibly empathy and insight. It’s the same with Peggy and Fred. They were very much an agency for looking at a lot of other things. And they continue to be.

IB: Somebody said that your short stories connected to Peggy and Fred were “annexes.” I thought that was wonderful. In the course of working on The Great Invisible, now you’ve made Old Worldy, and several other films. Are they annexes or …

LT: They are all inter-related and sometimes with friends I joke about whether Old Worldy is the next episode of Peggy and Fred or is it part of The Great Invisible? It actually could be both. In Old Worldy various indigenous dance forms, ethnographic films, especially Middle Eastern, are inter-cut with 1940s Western cabaret dancers, and it’s all over-layed by a ’90s techno beat. It’s sort of old worldy, yet kind of new worldy at the same time… The old infects the new, the new infects the old; the West infects the East, the East infects the West. It’s culture as we never see it…

IB: I thought back to the comment you made to Trinh Minh-ha about “stupidity and slowness.” (3)

LT: They’re still very big in my practice. [Laughs.]

IB: You are using “stupidity” in quotes, aren’t you?

LT: Yes. It’s a subversive act. I can give you a concrete model. [Laughs] It’s a silly problem that I have. I teach a filmmaking course on narrative called “Approaches to Narrative.” It’s for advanced students who have already made a few films. For me, the emphasis is on the term “Approaches.” The premise is that we’re going to try to recognize some elemental factors, structural necessities for what constitutes a “narrative event.” What must be in place for narrative to occur? What is the function of narrative? Is narrative form fixed in cinema at this point? Are there “stories” that can’t be told using conventional narrative form? Better ways of telling some stories? What about audience engagement? Narrative progression? New technologies? Can we imagine different kinds of structures? This is a production course so the students are making work and we’re trying to talk about and encourage the work in relation to these kinds of questions. I tell the students that I don’t have answers, just experience with the questions, and then I think about half of them wish they were at NYU!

I’m working from an assumption, and that is that we are all media literate, having experienced a great deal of media in our lives. We have learned a common vocabulary. Given a camera and told to make a story, most people would know when to have an establishing shot and how a close-up would help here, or a cut-away there. One of the problems I have in teaching the course is that I feel an obligation for the sake of my own work to maintain a certain degree of ignorance about cinema-as-given. I need to maintain a level of curiosity, mystery and even confusion – so that I can remain quizzical, move through strange territory and make little discoveries. I feel that being too literate would interfere with an ability to recognize something interesting right in front of me. So it’s a dilemma. For the most part I have read very little narrative theory and no how-to books. I’ve never read a book on scriptwriting. I can’t do it. The closest I’ve come to is reading some books by European writers, other filmmakers, and all of the early Russian theorists. The American writers are always talking about marketing. They always are talking about marketing! They don’t talk about the art form.

Being slow has more to do with a lack of money, but it also reflects the absence of pressure to produce a commodity, and it means there’s more time to think and try things out. On some level, narrative equals commodity. Stories are sold. It seems the quickest way to riches these days is to become a news story. The way we look for “stories” says something about our culture.

IB: You went to other forms – like that description of Noh drama.

LT: Yes. I read once that in Noh drama the equivalent to the Aristotelian beginning/middle/end would be something like “introduction/destruction/haste.” That is something to try to imagine. I ask my beginning students to make a short film following such a model. It has produced some really sharp and surprising films.

I am not anti-narrative. It’s just not my orientation. I would not be a good narrative filmmaker. I do something else.

IB: It sounds as if the narrative forms that we’ve inherited don’t permit you to say what’s interesting for you to investigate.

LT: That’s right. I’d like to mention something that happened recently with The Great Invisible. Under duress – I had a show coming up – I had to finish an episode – I’m doing the feature in episodes now so I can keep working and showing as resources allow. It was for the Kunstenfestival des Arts in Brussels, and I had met with the Festival director, Frie Lassen, a few months earlier to raise the money, a little bit of money. I liked her very much and we had an incredible discussion that day about what I was trying to do with the film and where I saw it going. I just happened to be on right then, maybe I had some extra coffee, but I was on and I walked out and didn’t remember any of it. Later it came back that I’d suggested that there may be an inverse relationship between politics and mysticism as ways of relating to the world, and that that was the central arc of my film, the movement from one form of fanaticism to another as a response to extreme and irreconcilable factors. Very millennial. I had been talking out of the blue; it was some kind of crazy pitch at first that quickly turned into an intensely generative discussion. It turned out that somebody was taking notes. A few months later, I received ten written pages about my work, like a film treatment based on what I said that day, including some wonderful misinterpretations. [Laughs…] It was a great gift and reminder. I took this as serendipitous, being presented with the interesting challenge of making a film under pressure, based at least in part on “plagiarizing” certain misinterpretations of things I had said. So I made The Haunted Swing (1998). I feel like I’ve found the narrative structure for The Great Invisible and it’s so simple and it’s exactly related to the way I’ve shot the film all of these years. But I couldn’t quite see it because I was always cutting versions for fund-raising purposes, which I thought had to be straight and not too scary. It’s polluting. It’s a polluting and debilitating process to deal with fund-raising in film. After that conversation, and having my ideals thrown back in my face, on paper, somebody else hearing it – it was a great jab. The structure of the project is falling into place.

IB: Do you want to say something about it?

Leslie Thornton on location, Kenadsa, Algeria, 1991 (photo: S. Slyomovics)

LT: I’m not sure I can say anything yet, but I’ll try. I’m working with blocks of material and not fussing with linear narrative connections on the surface from one scene/block of information to the next. But I’m building up stacks of associative material in a deliberate order. For instance, I wanted to talk about a political history in Algeria to the extent that as an outsider I understand something about it. I want to say that there’s even something today, like the butterfly effect – a butterfly flaps its wings in one small place and that changes the rest of the world forever. The butterfly effect of an Isabelle Eberhardt and the people she knew has some relationship to things that are going on today. It’s also important, especially for an American audience, to provide some historical background because we haven’t had a politically strategic relationship with Algeria and know very little about it. Even with the civil war going on today, it gets a fraction of the coverage of the Balkans. So, to bring in the subject matter I use a variety of genres. I’ve shot dramatic footage of Isabelle with her friends – a colonel attempting to use her to gain some information about a powerful sheikh, for instance; I have 1960s documentary material from the Canadian Broadcasting Company about the Algerian Revolution. It was made right after the conflict ended in 1963. I was in Algeria shooting film and video in 1992, during the week that the government fell apart. The president stepped down and a military coalition took over. There were big demonstrations in the street and I shot footage of this on film and tape.

In The Haunted Swing, which is the first 16 minutes of The Great Invisible, I suddenly cut from a domestic scene with Isabelle, set at the turn of the century, to somebody in 1963 in Canada making a comment about Algeria right before the Revolution. In a later episode there’s footage of a revolutionary war hero whom I shot during a pro-democracy demonstration in Algiers. He’s hidden all his medals inside his coat but he opens the coat up to the camera and explains that he was a hero. Then he repins the medals on the outside of his coat and continues marching. I interview a Leftist Algerian journalist proclaiming that his country doesn’t make any sense; he argues that because it has been occupied for so long by so many different peoples, there is no center, there is no Algeria.

I’m not going for a thorough analysis of Algeria’s political history, but I am going to give enough information for most viewers to understand what some of the issues are. The important thing is to recognize the complexity, the ironies and contortions of histories, personal and political.

IB: It also changes one’s experience of history as the Other.

LT: It does. We can only look from the present. That’s another text in this piece, presenting several “presents.” We have Isabelle’s present, the ’60s present and the 1992 present, and maybe not the present ‘present’. It’s not the job of this film to say what’s going on there right now. The job is to say that these things are all related somehow and to suggest something about what we’re working with when we look at the past.

IB: Does that get foregrounded by juxtaposition or does it operate at another level of text?

LT: Both. The juxtapositions are suggestive, and cumulative, making an implicit argument. The absence of an explanatory text throws responsibility back on the viewer. Hopefully. You can see why it’s hard to raise money for this. I can’t say what I just said to people who fund films.

IB: Really? Why?

LT: Because there are too many elements and too much uncertainty. The possibility of using the film medium to explore ideas appears to be inconceivable to the people and agencies who fund film today. You have to have a project that is either ‘marketable’ or simplistically ‘issue oriented’. Especially in America. It’s very difficult. Recently some well known film artists have been making video art installations, for which there is art-world money, in part to raise money for their (non-commercial) films. I wonder if the powers-that-be realize how much institutional priorities determine what gets produced in the arts.

IB: But, if someone could look at, say, David Salle, then why couldn’t they make the leap?

LT: He’s one of many artists working with complexity, and vertically stacked or associative narrative. What I’m trying to do is much more like a David Salle project than a [laughs] David Lynch project. Unfortunately the absence of an object complicates matters. This will change over time, as we develop more refined distinctions for different kinds of practice in the media arts – along the general lines of fine art versus commercial art, poetry versus journalism, etc. I just saw a wonderful William Kentridge exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. It consisted of several video installations and the large drawings from which his animated videos were shot. I thought, he’s lucky he draws. It opened the museum door. His drawings are impressive, but what was amazing was the way he constructed his stories. Where can we go to see stories like this? How about nickelodeon/cyber-cafe storefront galleries that charge by the clock? What kinds of venues do we need to invent that are good for the work and reach a maximum audience, and that can sustain and nurture this kind of practice? That’s what we have to figure out. I’m certain there’s an audience.

Experimental film has a quirky history. I have a theory about it: what people don’t seem to realize is that this work actually has to be promoted. There’s a purist hangover in the field from the ’60s and ’70s that’s really still hurting us. I know from running organizations and being involved in organizations, the one thing we never had money for was an advertisement. Maybe that was what we needed the most. I’m working with some people here and in Europe who are trying to change the way this work is shown and distributed. Right now it’s still screened one night per city, ideally with the artist present. It’s crazy. That’s part of the legacy of the great personalities of the ’60s. The men, the sages who had to be there for each show to spread their wisdom and seed. We’re still working with their presentational format. It’s the only artform that has to be “explained” after each show.

As a teacher I encounter younger people who feel very attracted to working in an alternative way, a risk-taking way, and who’ve done some highly original work, but then they don’t follow it through. They end up being paid to make websites and become bored and cynical. It’s a mess. These younger people are looking at the older people and saying, “I don’t want to live like that…I don’t want that much uncertainty.”

We have to surpass the history of experimental film and video art.

IB: Could you talk a bit about the notion of work-in-progress. It seems like part of the way you work and present yourself.

LT: What’s more important in the work is a kind of thinking or thought process and not a final product. For that reason, I feel an affinity with the Wooster Group who do something similar in presenting works which are continually evolving. A work-in-progress can be shown in a formal viewing situation; there’s a vulnerability, but that can be part of the charge for the viewer and the maker. I guess the main thing is not to see value only in finished and exchangeable objects. I like objects but I hope that any work I produce has enough life in it to change over time.

IB: How does one learn to read or reckon with “unrelieved discontinuity?” That was a phrase Linda Peckham wrote about Peggy and Fred. (4)

Fred, singing. Peggy and Fred in Hell: the Prologue (1985) (photo: L. Thornton)

LT: I like that phrase. That could be our Hell – unrelieved discontinuity. It’s a melancholy thing. You have to say, “okay, this is really a mess, and you can’t cut a narrative swath through your day, you don’t live in a coherent world,” and then you just have to let that be the case, do the best you can. In living and in your work. In the work you have to stop trying to understand everything and you have to keep thinking but you also have to feel comfortable with not holding everything to you, not owning it, not possessing all of it intellectually. Actually, I’ve often thought that some of the people who don’t like my work are feeling intimidated because they feel there is something they don’t “get.” There’s nothing there not-to-get. I want to say, “Just relax and if a few things hit you, that’s great. The main thing to get is that there’s nothing to get here.” That’s especially true of Peggy and Fred in Hell. You are not supposed to walk out and feel enlightened about culture or children or cinema. You’re just going through something. You drift and you have moments. Like Peggy and Fred. Piecing things together as much as you can, and moving on. The moments freeze or hang over you for a while. That’s great. But there’s nothing to get. That’s the most important thing to understand about my work.

During this interview I’ve been saying about my work, “It’s about this and about this and about this,” but on another level, you have to be so relaxed about the way you’re taking it in and take what you can and never feel it’s fixed or you’re outside of it or don’t know enough or that there’s a secret. Unrelieved discontinuity.

IB: I wanted to ask: how do you keep yourself from going crazy?

LT: I don’t. That’s another reason I stopped working on Peggy and Fred. From the beginning I knew that there was something so slippery in what we were doing, that I was walking a fine line. I got a charge from that. I used to have an image of myself as sane because I thought I could see madness and I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. Like a lot of people, I had a naive notion of madness as poetic, more open. My working process involved what I’d now call a ‘controlled looseness.’ I became adept at stirring up serendipitous moments. I learned how much to let things fall apart and then just catch them here and there, to save something, an image, an expression. It sounds awful to me now, but the shooting was sort of like painting with Peggy and Fred. My apartment was also the Hell set, which didn’t help. It all became too much. Relentless potential. Anything could go into or come out of this maw. There were too many possibilities and complexities. The kids were having a hard time and I was very involved with them interpersonally and it became too painful. There is also something about the lack of narrative. I had fear for them. For their futures. There was no sense of narrative there! Narrative is comforting. I’ve been thinking lately, maybe that’s one of its main functions. It’s organizational.

IB: This is not new at all but, when anthropologists started talking about the reflexive, when women began bringing up the actual experience of watching film or reading, describing what the experience is like, maybe it’s what you were saying before about boredom. The experiential was never part of the analysis.

LT: It’s essential in my work.

IB: I think that relates to something you said, “My aesthetic concerns necessitate a spontaneity and an immediacy which seem increasingly antithetical to accepted film practice.”

LT: The general focus of film criticism has been with establishing and reading the “dominant” codes. It has been less effective at dealing with anything that’s not following the codes. I’ve always thought that was ironic because criticism has been seen as a subversive act – opening up the film ‘text’ for analysis and even suggesting ways that dominant forms may be subverted. But then the people practicing this kind of technology of analysis don’t seem to be very open when a film is actually doing things differently. A critic friend once told me that that was because ‘experimental’ film is self-theorizing.

IB: What would the shape of criticism be, or have to be, to really be perceptive vis-à-vis your work, as a dialogue?

LT: I’ve been really fortunate in having some incredible essays written about my work. Some of these essays are primarily creative readings; sometimes they are uncanny in reading something that was so important to me but in the back of my mind and wasn’t anywhere close to language. That’s the incredible thing, to read an analysis that articulates what you couldn’t articulate and this is the reason you made the film, and this person can say it. That’s a gift. I shouldn’t complain. (Laughs.) It’s just a more general complaint that I have; I think the field suffers as a whole because of a lack of serious criticism. It is truly frustrating to be stuck with worn-out terms like “experimental film” and “non-linear narrative.” We need more of a vocabulary, and we need more creative analysis.

IB: What you said about “there not being anything to get,” reminded me of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to the script of Last Year at Marienbad. He says, if you try to work this, you’ll have the toughest time, but if you simply enter it, it will speak.

LT: It’s not about emptiness, chance or indeterminacy. It’s a very particular kind of construction; maybe it does relate to mysticism. Not having to possess, that’s the way I think of it. We’re living in a culture that is insanely focused on commodity.

IB: You’re really talking about what’s ungraspable.

LT: Yes, non-commodifiable.

IB: As in Sufi teaching stories which train non-discursive thought.

LT: I always wonder about that, in reading some of the great Sufi writers. There’s a precept for their trainees against the reading of books, experiencing knowledge as it is designated by others. It seems anti-intellectual on the surface. I don’t believe it; I think the great Sufi masters were very literate and it’s a strategy for getting people to a certain point.

IB: It’s about direct perception.

LT: Maybe it’s about helping you not get too locked down. It’s not a danger to read later on.

IB: It’s like the Zen story of the master pouring tea for the disciple who has come saying he wants to learn and has millions of questions. The teacher pours and pours and pours, flooding the table. “What are you doing?” cries the student. “How can I teach you when you are already full?”

LT: There’s another line you always hear: “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” This is very common in film studies. The students say this and the teachers at “vocational training schools” like NYU— that’s what I call it. Here’s the rap: “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” The trouble is, you can’t unlearn those rules. They are really sticky. And they are reinforced by everything you see. I don’t buy it. I think it’s fine to learn the rules, and to make things by the rules but I don’t think anybody can learn them and then unlearn them! Maybe Tarkovsky. But I don’t think he ever learned them well. (Laughs).

IB: I told you we’d stop at 3:00.

Reprinted with the permission of The Herb Alpert Foundation, California Institute of the Arts, and the Alpert Award in the Arts. Originally published in The Force of Curiosity, ed. with interviews by Irene Borger (Santa Monica: CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts, 1999).


  1. La Règion centrale consists of an apparatus especially constructed to move the camera through 360 degrees of space in a particularly ‘inhuman’ manner, dislocating time, space, and horizon in a dizzying evacuation of perspective(s).
  2. “Adolescent Junglebook overschrijdt Scenic Paradise/A Note on Peggy and Fred in Hell,” Bill Horrigan, in Mediamatic, Vol. 4 Nos. 1 and 2, Fall 1989
  3. See “If Upon Leaving What We Have To Say We Speak: A Conversation Piece,” Laleen Jayamanne, Leslie Thornton, Trinh T. Minh-ha, p. 56, in Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture, Russell Ferguson, William Olander, Marcia Tucker and Karen Fiss, eds, The New Museum for Contemporary Art/MIT Press, 1990. See also: “Which Way To Political Language: A Conversation Piece,” Laleen Jayamanne, Leslie Thornton, Trinh T. Minh-ha, in Framer Framed, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Routledge, 1992
  4. See “The Aftermath of Intelligence—Peggy and Fred in Hell,” Linda Peckham, p. 28, in Unsound, Vol. 2, 1983. See also: “Total Indiscriminate Recall,” Linda Peckham, Motion Picture, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1989

About The Author

Irene Borger is an administrator for a foundation grant Thornton received called The Alpert Award. This interview was conducted in June 1998.

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