No 21 — Fall/Winter 2004
Sarah Morris films can and should be understood as extensions of her paintings; city portraits surrounding notions of modernism, international architectural style and a certain disorientation from reality. As in all of her work, the films feel to be made through the eyes of someone who is objective, absent or even disengaged. Qualities eerily reminiscent of contemporary capitalism and certainly framed within its boundaries. With this absence of subjectivity, the landscape created from fragments of Las Vegas, Miami and Los Angeles bleed together into one contemplative surface. A disinterested or rather indifferent fiction of America, complete with its lost horizons, dreams of power, luxury, beauty and conquest. Through her works, formal presentation of grids and structure, Morris executes with precision and power a sophisticated masterpiece. A very real and immediate vision of a world conceived around its own spectacle, grandeur, memories and failure.
Interview by Ezra Petronio and Stephanie Moisdon
So you’ve just screened your latest film, Los Angeles?
Sarah Morris: Yes, I showed the film upstairs at White Cube in London and it was very crowded. Then the second night we actually screened it at this cinema called the Prince Charles, which is in Leicester Square. It was really nice to see it in that context as well.
So those are already two totally different contexts.
What does that do for you working in both kinds of contexts?
Well, of course, ultimately I prefer the art context. But it’s interesting to see the images of the film on that scale. You know that sort of suspension of disbelief when you’re in that entirely black space of a cinema. It’s a completely different thing from seeing it in a gallery. I’m actually submitting it to the Short Film/Documentary category of the Academy Awards.
It will be pretty odd. I like the idea conceptually of giving the film back to the industry. I also like the idea because usually you have to do a film on something on a very humanitarian level to actually win.
This is far too post-modern for them but I like the idea of bringing it back full circle.
Would that be something you’d like to push further—documentary screenings?
You see, I don’t view the films as documentary at all! A friend from the Academy, who advised me and helped me a lot, suggested that we apply under this category. He’s basically the one who got us the spot just off the red carpet at the Oscars. We had a spot that not even NBC had! There was no other press with us. We were directly above everybody and people had to walk underneath us. So we had this vantage-point of the celebrities and stars in front of the press, moving and negotiating that space. The person who helped me a lot is Sid Ganis, who is Vice President of the Academy. He’s an important producer in Hollywood and he has a very interesting history in a way that loops around to earlier films of mine, and this is not coincidental. He produced Bonnie and Clyde and he was involved and played the part of the Washington Post editor in All the President’s Men. You know, he’s someone from that generation. Well this guy is fantastic. He immediately watched all the films, looked at the paintings, called the studio and left this very enthusiastic message that I’m in good hands and he’ll do everything to see that Los Angeles will happen. Now we applied and of course were immediately rejected within a couple of hours of them receiving our FedEx package. He reversed it or was somehow able to convince them to do it. What was interesting to me was that a lot of the people in Los Angeles that were helpful and/or who were willing to do this act of exposing the system and the society that they belong to, were people from that generation. They were also involved with films from that era, whether you call them conspiracy films or not, that looked at appearances as constructed, put together, and artificial. And there is no category that is appropriate because my films aren’t documentary, nor are they fiction, but documentary is the closest thing in their minds since there is no dialogue in the films and what not. If anything, I would go more towards the context of fiction in the future. More in this film than in other films, we played up character and persona.
Most of your movies are portraits of cities and they arouse this notion of modernism, style, architecture, but also a kind of disorientation of reality. How do you define the persona that was created when filming this reality?
Well to me the films are not really about cities. The films are about a psychological space that you function in when you are in those cities. So if anything, on the one hand, the films function as a sort of excuse for me to operate in a certain way in a city. Like when Andy Warhol said that Interview was an excuse for him to be involved with people. Making paintings is not in any way as collaborative a process as making films. So the films provide a way that I can be engaged with people with a completely different area of culture. I wanted to have this psychological headspace of exploring what it means to operate in that city, to succeed in that city, what does alienation look like there, what is that sort of isolation. One thing we worked very hard on, and the result is very beautiful, is a shot going along the marble lobby of CAA up to the receptionist. It sounds extremely ordinary but in the film it’s really crucial. Anyone who has gone to CAA and had to go up to that desk and announce who they are there to see knows that feeling of submission to the system. I had sort of a complicated shot list, sort of like a wish list, which could be broken down into categories of stars and industry people, people who produce/direct and the actual heads of studios like Sherry Lansing.
So it seems as if this Sid Ganis, enabling you to ultimately do the film, has made a discreet political statement there, which I find sort of interesting.
Yes, I think it is too. And he would call me and say things to me when I was frustrated and encourage me. I had this sort of map on my wall, a list of people to call everyday, of who knows who and what the links between people are and I sort of viewed it as my map of LA.
It’s like that game you play when you’re bored and drunk. Bill Clinton, how many links away are you…
Yeah exactly, like six degrees of separation or whatever that cliché is. So for whatever shot I wanted I had to think about the names that could provide me with that level of access. There were a lot of people involved, I would say at least around 50 gatekeepers as I recall them. I remember, we were shooting this one girl, she was my production assistant, getting her teeth cleaned at this place called Brite Smile in LA and then I get a phone call from Robert Evans. I always propose to the person that they let me film them doing whatever they want. Whatever part of their day that they don’t mind I take part in and that I can document. So he said, ‘I have a great idea. Why don’t you come over at 11… I’m gonna be shaving.’ What I had control of was that he would be in the film but he sort of choreographed his own shot.
This is really interesting.
And it’s interesting to me to allow it to happen this way. This is not unlike the city itself. People are constantly giving representations of themselves and even the city gives a certain representation of itself. That’s the way you later identify those images, whether it’s a person, or a city, or a company. These are all very constructed images. So the idea of objective documentation — I don’t really believe in it at all. That’s why it’s sort of strange to enter the documentary category because there’s so much fiction in the movie! I mean, who’s to say. All of these issues of how one presents oneself and how one plays to the camera. It’s all very evident in the film.
So in your films, the notion of subjectivity is absent and you agree with this perception. So we are more within the activity of seeing. Would you say that there is still a certain objectivity in your work?
Well, I do think it’s objective but having said that I think it’s very perverse. I’m looking right now at the people we had to be in contact with and when I say we had to have contact with I mean repetitively hours and hours on the phone. To get someone like Lawrence Bender, who is Tarantino’s producer, to agree to let us have a camera behind him as he walked down the red carpet at a premier of his. He wanted all the information because he’s so used to being in control of other people. The idea that someone actually wants to capture his image! It’s funny, there’s this film critic that I like, David Thompson. He wrote a book called Biography of Film. Anyway, the guy is very funny and one thing he talks about is what the side effects are of doing so much telephone. Like, where does that bring you to, not only in your career, but in the psychology of somebody who constantly plays with possibilities on the phone. In a way that’s what doing this whole film was about. If I said that I want a starlet doing an interview, I might have an idea that I want Scarlett Johannsen or Kirsten Dunst. There’s a number of people that could qualify for that at this moment. So what I had to do to actually get the image of Scarlett is just so many phone calls to end up in a situation where I could actually get an image. At moments it was extremely interesting. One thing I wanted to do was to have a camera on the floor of a Lakers game, which was very tricky to get because the NBA views itself as a very serious commercial product! But Jack Nicholson has become sort of a monument. Warren Beatty is a bit of a monument. Faye Dunaway is definitely a monument. In a way you could argue that architecture in Los Angeles is superfluous or irrelevant and actually the only thing that is going on there is ego. We use architectural space only because of the psychology that you have therein.
How was your approach with Los Angeles different from Miami or other films you did?
Well, it’s quite similar. I always start thinking about making a film a couple of years before I make it. But I’d say that there was more producing on this film than there was on other films that I’ve made. But then again, it was quite similar in the way that I structured what I wanted. For instance, in Miami, I wanted to have a camera in the main Coca-Cola factory in America that happens to be in Miami. I wanted also to have a camera to capture the S.W.A.T. team doing so of practice exercises in Miami. The way I made the shot list, and how I thought about duration and images was exactly the same with this film. Getting those images took a lot more negotiation and time on the telephone. This sort of telephone head-fuck thing just went on for months!
You’re always choosing cities that are very fictional and that are over-represented in Hollywood productions. This idea of a kind of tourism, a mode of perceptions of places and a of a reality founded on this distant desire, not really about discovering, but more about making sure that everything is as you would think it is. It’s kind of like these places are in a collective memory. To you, is it more like a distant observation than a discovery?
Well, I guess how I would answer that is what I like to treat, and this is with the paintings, too, is a subject matter that is already heavily rendered. To try to deal with an institution like CAA or Paramount or whether it’s Jack Nicholson or Brad Pitt or something that’s incredibly ready-made, very rendered, and overly-wrought iconic images and almost to give them a shift in their meaning. First of all you’re decontextualizing them, but also the idea is to expose a secret life of these structures. The paintings do have a look of propaganda and they seem to me to be familiar and not just because it’s my own work. Somehow it’s because they use industrial psychology of form and color.
Well yes, your movies are extensions of your paintings in a way – the effects of surface, pattern, and grids. So what interests you in the particular experience of filmmaking and production as opposed to that of painting?
It’s the same in the end as the paintings; that feeling of empowerment or being overwhelmed in the presence of something iconic. Maybe it’s actually dark or degrading. There’s a range there that is in all of the films. I don’t view it this way but people have said that this is the darkest film that I’ve made. I actually think that there are really fantastic moments of humor.
How do you feel personally about publishing your work as stills in Self Service? A lot of people will not have seen the film yet and in terms of perception, one will probably read your work differently as two dimensional photographs in a magazine as opposed to watching the film.
Sarah: Well, I suppose that’s why I think, as you suggested, it’s important to do an interview so that you somehow contextualize what these images mean. We’re not looking at People magazine here.
Exactly. Out of the context it could be misunderstood.
Yeah, you might read it as something else. But I like that play because you can look at a shot of Uma Thurman, Brad Pitt, or Jack Nicholson and you might think that this is appropriated material. You might think you’ve even seen these images before. What doesn’t look like stock images is when you actually see the continuity in the film and you have this sort of panoramic perspective. You’re seeing a moment of a city leading up to its most narcissistic moment and you’re a part of it.
So this film is without narration or commentary. There’s only a soundtrack, a sound abstraction, which was done by Liam?
Yes. He’s done all of the soundtracks.
So your work methodology, how do you two work together? What kind of prelacy strategy or process is laid out?
Well we do it sort of silently in a way and I know that sounds strange. He knows me, how I’m working, and whom I’m talking to. So by osmosis he gets my perspective and he knows the reference points of the other films. I’ll sort of discuss some of that with him and then we’ll talk about creating sort of atmospheric spaces within the film. Basically, Liam will come up with a number of different sound elements and then I’ll take them and bring them into the edit suit. So he’s not part of actually laying it down to image. The music is fantastic for Los Angeles because at moments it’s extremely saccharin and melody – very much of what you think of as film music. But then it’s extremely dark and menacing and… conspiratorial.
What is the function of color in your films and in your painting? How do you decide on the dominating colors?
I’d already been working on the Los Angeles paintings before I went out there. I’d been thinking about color in terms of the red carpet. A lot of the colors that are in the paintings are also based on the Writer’s Guild of America. They have these color codes for drafts, and it’s a color for the first draft, second draft, etc, and the final draft is this really amazing salmon color that I used a lot in the paintings. So color is definitely something that’s considered but not necessarily on a conscious level. The Writer’s Guild of America thing is probably the most conscious decision because I really love those stacks of paper at all the Xerox machines in Los Angeles.
To get back to the political dimension of your work, it’s critical on the representation of power and beauty. Do you personally see this critical dimension as active and identifiable today in the art world? Do you feel that the art world is playing its role?
I do at times and other times I’m disturbed by the lack of discussion, criticality, and… historical perspective.
The lack of anything progressive.
We are clearly in a very conservative moment and that goes without saying. In relation to that I think it can be sort of difficult how one practices in these moments.
But you think it’s an artist’s role to comment on societal evolution or is that a cliché?
I think absolutely. I think you definitely want to be part of the moment, to be involved with it. I don’t think it’s without contradiction, though, I think to be part of a moment an in dialogue with other parts of society, there is no inside and outside. There never has been a completely autonomous position for anyone involved with culture, whether it’s a writer, a painter or a musician. You’re involved in the society you live in. You entail the same contradictions that everyone else entails. I think you’re in a more fluid position to sort of negotiate moving between different social positions.
You think that art today or culture in general is going through a fertile or fallow period? How do you situate culture today? Do you think times are unstable?
I don’t know. There’s always enough around that interests me, so I’d never be pessimistic. What I think is problematic is more on a political level. But things that are going on in terms of film, literature, and art I think are definitely interesting and there’s a lot of discussion around those forms.
We published some of your work about seven or eight years ago. How has your view of the art world and what you do changed? Have your beliefs evolved?
I hope so. I’m not sure what it was I might have said.
I’m just talking about going back to what you did earlier in your career. You’ve matured and evolved and you’re older. Is it hard for you? Has evolution met your expectations? or did you have hopes about the art world or of how you would evolve?
It’s exceeded my expectations. That’s one thing that the paintings and the films show. I mean, part of it might seem like a provocation to set oneself up like… ok, I’m an artist and I’m going to position myself in the White House cabinet room, or I’m going to hang out in Warren Beatty’s library, or I’m going to be on the floor of a Lakers game. All these positions, discussions, and conversations that can become somehow involved in your work, all these things are open for you to navigate. I think it’s definitely a paradigm that art would want to somehow embrace. Trying to be in positions of power where you’re not making something finite. It’s a continuing moment, a discussion about these things. These structures should be open and not only open but also very accessible. I’m not very interested in this idea of the artist as a martyr character. It’s a political myth and it’s totally interesting to keep an artist in their studio. Shout sounds like a prison sentence to me.