November 26, 2012

INTERVIEW: Kier-La Janisse

by Steve Dollar


Montreal-based film critic and programmer Kier-La Janisse explores how her own life as an adopted child with disruptive behavioral issues is intricately wired to a particular strain of cinephilia in "House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films" (FAB Press; $29.99). On one level, Janisse offers a spirited, incisive, and refreshingly plain-spoken analysis of movies that range from widely discussed auteurist psychodramas (3 Women, The Devils, Audition, Antichrist) to more furtive enthusiasms of the sort once tucked away in the back corner of the kind of video stores where she once worked: The Mafu Cage, with Carol Kane as the infantile, volatile half of a Sapphic sibling relationship with Lee Grant; or The Witch Who Came from the Sea, with Millie Perkins as a sexually abused child who grows up to be a serial-killing seductress with a mermaid tattooed across her belly. But she also goes much deeper, recounting in sometimes shocking detail how her own experiences, and those of her family, were reflected in those films. Far from being an act of narcissism, the personal notes become a gripping drama of their own, a dynamic psychic undertow that tugs the reader into a richer understanding of the films that have marked Janisse's consciousness as indelibly as the tattoos on her skin.

I recently spoke with Janisse, who comes to New York this weekend to celebrate the book's release with a program at 92Y Tribeca.

The Entity

[Watch the trailer for The Entity here.]

Your book opens with a discussion of The Entity, a 1982 drama based on a popular 1970s account of demonic assaults on a single mother living in Culver City, California. Carla Moran, the character played by Barbara Hershey, is repeatedly raped and beaten by an invisible force—and everyone just thinks she's lost her mind. How was this movie so fundamental, not only to the book but to your own experience?

A lot of the movies in the book break down to—the women are not all necessarily characters where I relate to them. Sometimes it's that she reminds me of my mother or my sister. That's the House of Psychotic Women in my real life, my relationships with my mother and my sister. The Entity, before I'd ever seen it, I remember by mom talking about it when I was young. She was complaining to somebody on the phone that it was offensive and sensationalistic. This movie had really upset her. I don't know if she had seen it. As I got older, I always had this weird memory in my head of something really scary when I was a kid, but I was never sure if it was a fragment of a dream or a memory or what it was.

When I was older, an aunt told me I had been present when my mom had been sexually assaulted. Obviously, this is one of the reasons my mom was upset by that movie. But the way people in my family reacted when that happened, half of them didn't believe her. A bunch of the female members of the family said they went to great lengths to keep it out of the papers, to keep it quiet. They were worried she would be embarrassed. The men said, "Oh, she's crazy. That never happened," and the women were like: "No, it totally happened and we went to court over it." This is still going on.

That ties in with the way that Carla Moran in The Entity gets questioned. There are these two grueling scenes of her being questioned by psychologists, about what kind of wish-fulfillment was going on in her imaginings. A lot of rape victims undergo that same treatment, but with my mom it was in our own family. There was all this suspicion. But also, my dad was a psychologist—and he doesn't believe her. He still doesn't. In the movie, there are the psychologists and the parapsychologists, these two schools of people who believe her or people who don't.

That was your mother's experience?

Yeah. She later remarried and was in a relationship with her new husband that wasn't happy. But she didn't want to leave it because her family made her feel like a failure after her first marriage didn't work. My mom ended up self-medicating a lot when I was a kid. There are so many women in these movies that I talk about in this book that have the same symptoms, the same kind of problems my mom had. My memory of her as a kid is just being asleep. All the time. Just being really small and skinny and frail.

The Mafu Cage

There are a lot of memoirs that tie in the writer's personal experience with the films they love, but I've never read a book quite like this. It's pretty bold to reveal all this intimate, disturbing family history. Was that always intended, or did you arrive there over time?

It wasn't supposed to be like that. When I first started conceptualizing it, I'd already written a few essays in my fanzine, in my 20s. I was going to maybe have a book that had 10 essays in it. Then I'd go back and look at my old essays and think, "Oh, I don't like that." I started rewriting some of those. I would see more and more movies. I worked on it for 10 years and it changed all the time. I didn't like how it was going. Once I figured out how I wanted it structured, I rewrote everything from scratch within a few months. That was the hard part, trying to pin down what my point was, what story I wanted to tell. I can't just write down a bunch of random shit about these movies. The Internet is oversaturated with people's reviews.

I don't have an academic background and I didn't feel like I could come up with some important thesis like "The Final Girl." There has to be a reason people would care about what I'm saying, so I was going to add little anecdotes in a sidebar. I asked my dad if he would help me make actual prescriptions for the female characters. I was going to categorize the chapters according to their mental illnesses, but then I realized it wouldn't work because most of the illnesses that the characters have aren't based on real mental illnesses. Some are, but a lot are total composites that don't cleanly fit into one type.

I was telling some friends about this idea of having anecdotes and they were like, "That's what makes the way you look at the movies unique." I was really hesitant. I thought people really wouldn't care. Who the hell are you to write a memoir when you're not a famous person? But if I'm going to tell these stories and say I can relate to the character from The Piano Teacher, I have to explain that. That's going to mean telling some personal things that are going to be hard to talk about, I have to be honest. Once I started that, the writing came faster because I was writing from my own experience as opposed to from research. If you look at the bibliography, it's pathetic.


[Watch the trailer for Possession here.
For more Zulawski on GreenCine Daily, click here.]

In the end, was it therapeutic to get all this down in that kind of form? Was it troubling to dredge up?

I had talked a lot about the stuff from when I was a kid in group homes, because they make you talk about shit all the time. But I really hadn't dealt with my mother at all. I deliberately tried to push her out of my life. That was the biggest part of the book, just realizing how much of her story was entwined with my story. I hated her so much. It wasn't until I wrote the book that I had so much more empathy for her. As I was writing, I was like "God, she had a lot of tough breaks." Being able to say that I don't hate my mother, that was the biggest part for me.

The cover image for the hardback edition is the art from Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. That's a big one, and a movie that has gotten some long overdue appreciation thanks to a US theatrical run and major Zulawski retrospectives in New York and Los Angeles. Anyone's first encounter with it has to be a mindblowing experience. Tell me about yours.

I had seen the cover of the movie forever, but I never rented it. My friend Sam had a bootleg of it, a director's cut. I watched it and fell in love with the movie. I love its use of language, the ineffectualness of language, and the way people are trying so desperately to communicate with each other. All the main characters have different accents from different countries. Isabelle Adjani speaks in broken English, but according to people who've seen it, her performance is a lot different in the French version—she uses her own voice and gives a lot more confident performance. In the English version, she is actually struggling with the language. That contributes to the overall theme of communication breakdown. When she's giving these monologues about Sister Faith and Sister Chance, or miscarrying this creature in the subway, the movie is just so rich. I related to it on an emotional level. It's in this headspace. I have no idea if Zulawski would agree with anything I say about his movies. He seems to disagree with a lot of people.

I thought Possession was crazy until I saw Zulawski's Szamanka. You think you have a favorite cult director whose work is so extreme and beyond the limits of psychology or expression and then you see that. No one is even in the same ballpark.

The funny thing is, he doesn't like that people characterize his movies like that. He thinks his movies are very controlled. Maybe as a filmmaker you are very controlled, but it doesn't mean that what's going on onscreen isn't totally nuts. So I don't think he makes that distinction. We know that you know what you're doing. It's the images on the screen that are hysterical.

[Watch the trailer for Szamanka here.]

The growing appreciation for genre or "fantastic" films has made words like "crazy" the highest form of praise. Although maybe that also devalues them, because branding stuff like that can be cliché or patronizing.

That ties in with the theme of the book, too. Being labeled crazy or nuts as a person, that's considered a dismissal also. To be called crazy is to be called incompetent. I think part of doing the book was also trying to renegotiate what that word meant. Being able to say, "No, I am crazy." There are things I do that make no sense, behavior that I have trouble controlling. But I don't think I'd be able to do any of the things I've done that are good if it hadn't been for that manic sensibility.

[Kier-La Janisse will introduce The Mafu Cage and The Entity on Friday Nov. 30 at 92Y Tribeca in New York City, where she also will sign copies of "House of Psychotic Women." The program continues Saturday with The Witch Who Came from the Sea. For more info, click here.]

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Posted by ahillis at November 26, 2012 8:38 AM