Home Arts Welcome to the valley of the dolls

Welcome to the valley of the dolls

by The Concordian October 4, 2011

There’s a tight shot on what looks like a textbook picture of a bird. Its head is cut out in a circle and moved to the side, allowing for blood to drip on the space and spill into the empty inside of a toy horse lying in a field, seen through a peep-hole-sized view. All around it, darkness. Then a shot of plants on a red background, with light shining on them to reveal pictures of teeth underneath. All this, backed by a soundtrack of what sounds like mild radio static and violins. But then – wait! A close-up shot of the horse’s blood-filled stomach is backed by horror movie-like jumpy violins, followed by the textbook bird getting its head back – upside down.

While this may sound like the kind of dream one wakes up from groggily, barely able to recall its bits and pieces, it’s actually Ghost Algebra, a 2009 film by L.A.-based experimental filmmaker Janie Geiser, who says that scene surprised her, too.
“[Ghost Algebra] has a lot of blood, which is red paint. And I don’t even know how I started down that road. It was just, I wanted something liquid,” she said. “I didn’t set out to do that. I think maybe even I just had some red paint lying around near where I was, and then it just jumped into the water.”
Finding her niche in using inanimate objects in her films and performances, Geiser’s work has been recognized internationally, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Yet it all began with a stage small enough for dolls. Starting as a visual artist, Geiser found the world of experimental puppet theatre when she was living in Atlanta. Later on, it was “an interest in the figure, and making figures move” which led her to film.
“What I really loved about it was the ability to frame things and cut out everything else,” Geiser explained. “In theatre, you have to always really think about what’s outside the frame of what you’re wanting the audience to see.”
Geiser also uses found sounds, with the school beside her house as one of her favourite spots to collect them.
“I like to go to the woods. I like mixing nature sounds with other things, and especially urban nature, where you’ll be listening to birds but then you’ll also hear a car go by. It gives a kind of realness to this really artificial world,” she said.
Geiser’s use of sound can be seen in the striking and suspenseful The Red Book, which was chosen for the National Film Registry in 2009. Drone-like chanting at the beginning gives way to industrial sounds as the film follows a two-dimensional character, whose wanderings about the city evoke some very three-dimensional emotions in the viewer.
The flawlessly quick succession in which the objects in her films move makes one wish they would go a little slower to allow for a longer look. Instead, the viewer is left both enchanted and touched, without quite knowing what exactly it was that made them feel that way.
“I generally have the terrain of the film in my mind, and the emotional narrative that I’m unearthing or going for […] Each shot, I’ll make a beginning composition for, but then I’ll let it take me where it wants to go,” she said. “There’s a combination of planning and intuition.”
Geiser is aware that her films are not going to resonate with everyone, but she explains how that is inherent in the nature of her work.
“It’s experimental film, not everyone’s going to engage with that form,” she said. She compared the experience of watching one of her films to reading poetry, because each viewer will interact with them differently and draw different emotions from them.
And it’s that connection that Geiser strives for in her films, and which makes the answer to what she would do if she wasn’t a filmmaker startling. “If I wasn’t an artist,” she said musingly, “maybe I’d be a forest ranger.” 

The Secret Lives of Inanimate Objects: The Films of Janie Geiser is showing at the Segal Centre, 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd., on Oct. 5 and 6 at 6:30 p.m. Student tickets are $8. For tickets and more information, go to www.segalcentre.org.

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