Profile: Penny Lane
March 19, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Filmmaker Penny Lane has taken her experimental video-making and passed it along to her students at Williams College — as with any good experimental art, she was surprised by what her students came up with.
Lane’s class, “Experimental Television Production,” gave her the chance to pass on her expertise in the area — and discover how differently those younger than she viewed television as a medium.
The students created the experimental comedy show, “The Mountains,” which aired on Willinet Community Access and can still be viewed online.
“I really think that the students were unconsciously thinking about what television is in the age of the Internet,” said Lane, “because what they really made was a lot of Internet videos, and they could show each one separately — each one stands on its own.”
“The Mountains” was the result of Lane’s efforts to teach her students traditional live television production in their Williams studio and the students’ decision to ditch the formal lessons in favor of a format that reflected their generation’s standards.
“They were good, and they learned it, and they did all the exercises, and then they pitched their show to me, and it had nothing to do with the studio, absolutely nothing,” Lane said. “I was like oh, OK, so you don’t want to do anything in the studio, and they said, ‘No, it’s kind of outdated. We want to do a reality TV show.’”
Specifically, the students wanted to do a collection of shorter comedy videos that were strung together — they later worked on a framing device for the show — rather than the more traditional cable-access type format, like a public affairs discussion show or some form of call-in show.
Lane — who viewed herself more as an advisor on an independent study than a teacher harnessing her students into a set curriculum — helped them divvy up into groups to arrange the production and usher it into reality. While the format of the show didn’t turn out quite as she expected, the spirit of the creativity did.
“You have this impression that television is slick, and you have this production value that’s required, and all these rules about what TV can and can’t be, and I really wanted them to embrace the cable-access aesthetic — the DIY, whatever you can do is what you can do, embrace your limitations and make something of them anyway kind of idea — which is not an idea that my students are used to applying to TV,” Lane said. “Maybe to video, but not to TV, so they were really excited that there was a local station where they could make work that would air it. It became very much about ‘experimental’ in terms of not being bound by what they thought TV was.”
The students did embrace the core of the lessons that Lane taught them — lessons the filmmaker herself lived by. If the genres of video weren’t quite the same between students and teacher, the ideas about filming your own vision and sticking with it were. Lane has made a career of creating video works that address memory, perception and aspects of sexuality, often with a sly humor.
Her “The Abortion Diaries” focuses on the stories of a diverse group of 12 women who have had abortions, pushing away the stereotypes and entering real narratives. Her collaboration with Annemarie Lanesey, “Sittin’ On A Million,” does its best to document Troy, N.Y., madam Mame Faye, even as her official existence has been erased from history, and the memory of her has been relegated to oral personal histories.
Lane’s most recent film, a short collaboration with Jessica Bardsley called “The Commoners,” is part biography and part visual poetry, focusing on a man named Eugene Schieffelin, whose introduction of the European Starling to the American landscape created what many consider an environmental scourge. Schieffelin’s blunder was all in service to good intentions — it was his idea to release every kind of bird mentioned in Shakespeare into Central Park in 1890. Only the starling survived the introduction — and thrived.
“Starlings are the most despised bird in America, and this is by people who like birds,” Lane said. “People who don’t care about birds despise them. Everyone despises them; they’re universally hated — they’re not pretty, they don’t make pretty songs, they’re not native, they have no redeeming qualities, but I think they’re amazing.”
Lane’s admiration of the creature as seen in the film focuses on their mesmerizing flight patterns and an uncanny ability to mimic the human voice in such a way that they literally seem to be talking to people. She also celebrates an aspect of the bird that is at the center of the bitter perception of them — their status as survivors.
“They’re like an American story,” she said. “They’re an immigrant group that came to America against their will, incidentally. They were shipped over from Europe, and then they actually, against the odds, did really well for themselves and now they’re taking — they’re literally taking over the country — moving ever westward.”
Starlings are probably best known for their inclination to be nature’s home invaders, taking over bluebird nests. Lane thinks this fact — part of a larger invasive-species argument that she finds more an aesthetic one built around an adoration of bluebirds than anything genuine — just brands nature as it is in reality.
“I’m of the attitude that nature is an ugly, violent, disgusting world, and starlings are nasty, disgusting, violent birds, so they’re just as much part of the natural landscape as any other bird,” Lane said.
Her position at Williams will end this spring. Her plan is to take a self-imposed sabbatical in order to work on a feature-length documentary, “Doctored,” which will allow her to resurrect another person forgotten by history, John Richard Brinkley.
In the 1920s, Brinkley proposed that transplanting goat testicles into a man’s scrotum would cure impotence. Thousands of men underwent this procedure, for which there is no scientific basis at all. Lane sees Brinkley’s work as alarmingly relevant to attitudes today in regard to politics and medicine.
“What I love about him is that he had this way of convincing sometimes intelligent people, not just stupid people, that big government is lying to you, that your doctor is lying to you; they’re all in cahoots,” Lane said. “Why would you trust the pharmaceutical industry? What smart person trusts them? If you can’t trust them, maybe you can trust this humble country doctor from Kansas who is a genius, and the fact that the American Medical Association is trying to shut him down is really just evidence of the fact that they’re scared of him, and they don’t want you know the truth. This was his line. At times, Sarah Palin sounds like she channels Brinkley, as does Jenny McCarthy.
“The essential thing that keeps me interested is that fact that he could tap into in some cases a kind of righteous suspicion of the powers-that-be and get you to go on his side because he appeals to your common sense or your idea that regular folks are better than experts. Why trust the experts when you know better — we know better, we’re regular folks and we know better,” Lane said.
It’s Brinkley’s place in alternative medicine that especially interests Lane, and his appeal to the so-called intelligentsia of the country — something that still happens in the 21st century with the well-educated.
“He has a lot of farmers from the Midwest, but it was also a lot of Greenwich Village bohemians, intellectual types who were predisposed to think they’re really smart and that they can recognize genius when they see it, and also that they’re too smart to believe what their doctor tells them,” Lane said.
“It’s funny, but it happens all the time. I have friends who swear by homeopathy, which is sugar pills that cost $48 each, or whatever. It doesn’t matter to them that the science is absolutely bogus and there’s never been evidence that it works. They believe it. I think it’s a very similar thing. I think people who sell homeopathy are selling to the same kind of sense.”
Lane calls the goat testicle fact “just the way in” to a wider story of populism, politics and even early rock and roll radio. She said the diversity of an unbelievable life kept her glued to the man’s story long enough to pursue it as a long form work. It also serves as a bookend for a section of the artistic path that begins with her Williams students and continues to this point in her life. Previously her films — and their investigations of memory — have embraced personal stories. Over the last several years, she’s branched out.
“There has been a shift, and I think it’s very common with artists,” she said. “I think when they’re younger, they tend to be more introspective, and they look into themselves for material.”
For Lane, investigations into people such as Eugene Schieffelin and John Richard Brinkley represent the expansion of her palette rather than the abandonment of autobiography.
“I’m still interested in doing personal stories,” she said, “but I’m more interested in doing the historical invocations of memory, and who’s remembered and for what and by who, and who’s forgotten, and for what, and by who.”