Author: Oliver Kupper
pasunautre.com, September 2015
An Interview with Sue de Beer on Shooting Noir in the Middle East and the Excitement of Unpredictability
Sue de Beer paints a lonely, haunting portrait with moving imagery. She is a filmmaker, but she is ultimately an artist in the sense that her short films exist in a sculptural environment that typically inhabits a physical space - usually a gallery - replete with film stills, three dimensional objects and more. Her films are often inspired or influenced by literary works and deal with identity, memory, and paranormal activity. In her film The Ghosts, an occult hypnotist recovers lost lengths of time from peoples' memories and returns them as if they are new memories. In another film, The Quickening, sexuality and desire is explored in an oppressive environment of Puritanical New England in the 18th century. The installations in which De Beer presents her films creates an almost dreamlike environment that leaves the viewer wondering if the time spent within the installation was a dream itself. Premiering tonight at Marianne Boesky Gallery, De Beer will be presenting The Blue Lenses, which is set in Abu Dhabi and tells the tale of a woman given surgery to restore her vision: upon the bandages being removed from her eyes, she sees people with animal heads instead of human heads. It is inspired by British author Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name. Indeed, it is the first time the artist has filmed in the Middle East and the entire exhibition has flourishes of an Islamic theme, but with a film noir slant - even the windows of the gallery have been tinted a jewel-toned blue to hint at the power and beauty of Islam. In the following interview, De Beer talks about The Blue Lenses, rescuing Proust from an apartment fire, and trying to explain American puritanism to German electro-clash musicians.
OLIVER KUPPER: I want to talk about your first video piece, Making Out With Myself, because it's a powerful first foray into your future oeuvre, where did the idea to make out with yourself come from?
SUE DE BEER: I made that piece in 1997 - that's 18 years ago now. Wow. I don't quite remember why that image came up - possibly I thought it was funny that one could do that as a moving image. Funny and lonely. And intimate. It's still showing, that film. Maybe people relate to the awkwardness of it.
OK: Did you grow up watching a lot of films - was there one particular film that made you want to explore cinema as a medium?
SD: I watched a lot of films in my 20s. The filmmakers I continue to think about are ones that use real people and small budgets - like Paul Morrissey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Abel Ferrara, and Argento. They are all sculptors to me - I think because the budgets are small I can always imagine walking around in the rooms they are shooting in. They have a physical presence. I also like the tension between what's real and what's clearly fake in those films. The bad acting sometimes lends some authenticity to the moment, which is something I think about when I am working.
OK: Literature has also had a profound affect on your work as an artist - anyone from Proust to Maurier to Dennis Cooper - can you remember the first book you ever read and how it made you feel?
SD: I don't remember the first book I ever read. I first read Proust when a friend of mine had a fire in his apartment, and came to live with me. I went back with him to his flat the morning after it burned - everything was black. We took what few things were left - I remember the selection included a copy of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a bottle of cologne, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a camera. He stayed with me for 3 months, then left the book with me after he moved out. I read it cover to cover.
I met Dennis Cooper when I was quite young - I want to say 20. My boyfriend at the time was friends with him, and we would go out to LA and stay with him. So I met him before reading his books which is quite a privilege to be able to say. I found them to be frightening and romantic at the same time. The quiet parts are - theres nothing else quite like them.
OK: You lived in Berlin for a spell, and created three films there, do you think that had an influence on your work or do you think it sent your aesthetic in a new or different direction?
SD: Yes. I miss Berlin. It radically changed the color in my work. I was able to build huge sets there, and was able to assemble skeleton crews easily. It was also nice having some distance on American culture, and making work with that removal. I never could have shot The Quickening in the US for example. Trying to explain Puritans to Gina D'Orio and Annika Trost (the two German electro-clash musicians who played Puritans in my film) made me understand Puritans in a new way. They didn't like the hats, for example. Gina made me explain Thanksgiving to her.
OK: You are not only creating the films and showing them in theaters - you present them as installations with photographs or film stills, sculptures and more. Do you feel like you are doing more justice to these films by presenting them in this way?
OK: Your film, The Blue Lenses, which premiers at Marianne Boesky tomorrow night, was your first film shot in the Middle East. What was it like shooting there?
OK: The installation is also centered around the beauty of Islamic culture. Are you subconsciously or consciously trying to paint this world in a different light - a lot of people think of Islam, the Middle East, as a hot bed of terrorism and violence?
SD: I had very little experience with the Middle East before I shot there. I had no idea what to expect, and I purposefully left the shoot open to change - to be changed by the place. I mostly knew images from the news, from Hollywood movies which did not seem accurate, or a little bit of Iranian new wave cinema. I did not want my film to be political or topical. So I shot using this Noir format, which is a western narrative format. A western genre. And I found the images and places when I got there.
So my film has new images in it - I hope. Ones you wouldn't normally get to see of that place. But it isn't accurate which I like. Its a fictional world. I like the idea of the audience picking it apart. But also of an audience just getting lost in this world, and not worrying terribly much what is fictional and what is real.
OK: What is the ultimate overarching theme of The Blue Lenses and why it is important in the context of our current zeitgeist?
SD: That's a difficult question. Maybe the 'theme' and why it would be relevant now are two different things. The film tries to describe a man who doesn't want to be describable. I think the older I get the more impossible it seems to me to fully articulate a person or a place. I am starting to enjoy people most when they reveal very little about themselves. I like sitting silently with people and just watching them do things. How they do things. Daniel I thought would change the way he does things on purpose for a time. To be confusing.
Why the Blue Lenses would be important to make now is not the story, which is not a new kind of story, or not the 'theme', but maybe its marrying this kind of story to that particular place. Maybe it changes your expectations of the story, and changes your expectations of the place.
OK: Is there anything that you are really excited about right now that's driving your next project?
SD: The unpredictability of the shoot and how I never knew what to expect is still electrifying to me. I would like my next project to have more of that.
Sue de Beer: 'The Blue Lenses' opens tonight and runs until October 25, 2015 at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Necessary reading: Sue De Beer's comprehensive 2003 monograph 'Hans and Grete' is a rare out-of-print document of de Beer's 2002 short film about school shooters. Companion reading: 'The Complete Box Set of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past'. Food for thought: 'The Blue Lenses and Other Stories' by Daphne du Maurier. Must Watch: 'The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant' by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @autremagazine