Gariné Torossian: Girl From Moush (an interview) (1997)
Young, glamorous and prodigiously talented, Gariné Torossian has introduced the world of knitting to the fringe. The plastic strips of which dreams are made are transformed in her hands, scissored into small lengths and scotch-taped back onto new turns of emulsion. These home-made quilts show a world of pictures in delirious collision. This personal archive is also an image of home, because Torrosian insists that our histories of looking, canonized in museums and picture books, have offered us a landscape where we have learned to recognize ourselves. And nowhere is this felt more directly than on the body, whose gestures of opening and closing re-play the ideals of dead poets and painters. Torossian stitches these still lives back into the light of the present where they might offer, in their new combinations, the possibilities of a new body, a new way of looking. Her imaginary historyscapes suggest a place where the body might escape its disciplines of understanding, and appear again to its beholders, infinite.
MH: Where are you from?
GT: I was born in Beirut, and came to Canada in 1979. I’d visited three years earlier, when I was six, and didn’t like it. The landscape, the weather, the people — everything was cold. In Beirut there’s no mask, everyone says what they feel and we all missed that. I was used to being outside where there’s something happening everywhere, at every minute, and you’re at the centre of it all. In Toronto I felt isolated, especially when we lived in the suburbs.
MH: Why did you leave Beirut?
GT: In 1978 civil war broke out for eight days. There was a lot of bombing. We couldn’t sleep in our rooms because it was too dangerous, so everyone went to the centre of the building and camped in the hallways. From the kitchen you’d see fires in the hills. I’m very used to sounds of gunshots and bombs, they’re both comforting and scary because as a child you’re worried a bomb’s going to fall in your bed. Our area wasn’t so bad; the Palestinian section had the most fighting, and we were in the Christian part. During the eighties it got worse on both sides.
MH: Were there soldiers in your neighborhood?
GT: Yes, we were stopped going to the airport. It was only half an hour away but we took the six-hour route because the other road was too dangerous. We lied to the soldiers and then flew to Cypress. For two months we camped in a tent at the Armenian Community Centre in a field with a lot of other families, those who couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel. We enjoyed it as kids, but I don’t think my mother liked it much. We’d sold our apartment and my father’s business, the auto body shop. We couldn’t go back because Beirut was getting worse. When we arrived in Canada we didn’t speak any English, and everything was very grey and ugly. Even the war seemed more interesting. I enrolled in grade two and learned English there; until then I had known only a few words, like “cat” and “dog.” We learned pretty quickly.
MH: Did you feel estranged from your new classmates?
GT: Even in Beirut I was a kid who was always on her own and mixing with everything. So it was a continuation. But over there I had my cousins, and I was the leader of the pack. We experimented with things — burning insects, stealing. [laughs] In Canada we lived in the suburbs around Toronto, in Downsview for six years, Scarborough for nine, Richmond Hill for two, and then to Aurora. When I was twelve I had a girlfriend who was into the arts scene so we’d go into Toronto. In a few years I was downtown every day, already part of the city. I wasn’t part of the suburban scene because there was nothing there. It was very sad.
MH: Did you already know you’d make art?
GT: I admired the artists in Beirut. There weren’t any galleries but there were painters. I used to play with dolls and deform them. My grandmother and all my aunts were knitters, and when I was making my experimental films it reminded me of that meticulous kind of work. By grade ten I’d started making photographs; there was a darkroom in school where I experimented. I didn’t know how to use a camera properly — I still haven’t learned about f-stops — so the film would never turn out perfectly. But I liked to play, splashing chemicals on the paper. That’s where my experimentation really began, out of lack of knowledge. When I was seventeen I met Atom Egoyan at the Armenian Community Centre. Atom was giving a lecture on his films and I showed him my sketches and photographs and he bought three of them. He was the first person in the film community who really encouraged me. A year later I made my first film, Body and Soul (12 min 1989). I videotaped myself in various costumes, holding fruits, or standing in water with plastic over me. I was living in Aurora, and spent a lot of time driving down empty highways. There were interesting churches where I would stop, set up, then step into the frame and walk toward the camera. When you’re living in a place like that there’s nothing to do, so you end up creating, whereas in the city there are so many distractions. It was all shot on video, then re-photographed off TV using a super-8 camera. It was an incredible experience, seeing what you could do with film. The original video used a tripod but now I could go back to it and make changes — shifting the frame by zooming in, changing the speed and colour. It was very exciting, and I edited everything in-camera. I showed it at Pleasure Dome (a Toronto film and video exhibition collective), which was hosting a show at the Purple Institute. I had my film in the trunk of the car and asked if I could run it. They said okay. Atom really loved it. He’s loved everything I’ve ever done. My very first screening.
MH: At the time of the show you were still in high school. Was it made for a course?
GT: No, it was just something I did.
MH: Did you feel this was the beginning of something?
GT: I was very curious to see how people would react. I wanted to show it around. I did submit to one festival but when they rejected it I hated myself. [laughs] Then I decided to study English and philosophy at York University, and took a course in cinema. That’s where I made Visions (4 min 1992). The teachers weren’t supportive at all — they said it’s impossible, it won’t go through a projector, it’s not a film. I projected it several times until it got caught in the machine and started burning. Nobody told me I could optically print it and have a negative made. I finally figured that out, struck a print and got into the Toronto International Film Festival. Then I quit school. [laughs]
MH: How did Visions start?
GT: It emerged out of my photography which I continued with Michael Semak at York. He loved my experimenting, even though I didn’t have the patience to make 25 prints of the same negative like the others. I wanted to thank him for his support. He was a photographer who made pictures of violent, beautiful nudes. Women with bags over their heads, their bodies opened, shooting themselves with guns. They’re very tense and angry. It showed how women feel about rape, how the body goes rigid. I saw a dancer at York and the way she moved reminded me of his pictures, so I videotaped her. I also shot Michael’s photos onto video, then re-shot it all off the TV onto super-8. I wanted to make a 16mm film but they wouldn’t give me a camera. So I found all this 16mm magnetic film in the garbage and pasted the super-8 onto it. For the soundtrack I used the opening of a piece by R. Murray Schafer with a singer screaming “Woman.” The hand-scratched intertitles were from Michael Semak, taken from a book of his writings and pictures. I’m not good with words, so I used his.
MH: It’s a very angry work.
GT: Its style gives that effect. And his images are like that, very hard and disturbing. I don’t work by planning, I follow a feeling — the film only means something if you feel something, and this has to do with the experience you’re able to bring to the images. As a woman I can understand those poses, how you come to that state. Your body is frozen because you’ve been struck by something. That’s why there’s anger. There are also repeated images of the cross which appear over a vagina. Recently, I’ve realized how much religion has affected me, so that image seems to fit.
MH: Because the woman’s giving birth?
GT: No, the cross shows how sex and religion are connected through the Virgin. I went to church every day in Beirut; even my school was part of the Orthodox church. Its leader lived in the rear of the school and my teacher was also a priest who carried a gun.
MH: For discipline?
GT: Safety. I haven’t been a religious person since coming to Canada. Going to church is not part of life here, though it’s part of life there, where you’re surrounded by Christianity. In Beirut, women are virgins until they marry — that’s what you learn as a kid, that women should be the Madonna. I never believed those things, but somehow they’re inside, they’re a part of me. So showing the cross in front of the vagina makes sense.
MH: Because only the cross belongs there.
GT: Yes. When I made the film I wasn’t aware of why I loved that picture, though I repeated it several times. It relates to the many church images in my next film, Girl From Moush, especially the transparent picture of my face overlaid on the church. Gariné the saint. [laughs]
MH: You showed Visions at the Toronto International Festival.
GT: It was incredible, it felt great. I became part of the film community, met people, the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre asked if they could distribute my film. It was exciting. I showed it in a lot of festivals.
MH: Tell me about Girl From Moush (6 min 1993).
GT: It started with Atom Egoyan’s film Calendar which greatly affected me. We always talked about what it would be like going to Armenia, and while I knew a lot of Armenians, he was the only one I felt a strong connection with. I imagined it would be very beautiful, but his experience wasn’t like that, because reality is not romantic. In the film he plays a photographer commissioned to make twelve photographs of churches for a calendar. Because he’s always behind the camera, pointing at images, he never becomes part of Armenia. Atom asked me to design the poster for his film and gave me his church photographs to work with. I used all of them for my film. The only filmmaker who represents the Armenia I long to see is Paradganov. In Colour of Pomegranates he photographed the real Armenia, the Armenia in my mind. So I used images of Paradganov as an homage to him. And images of myself looking, pursuing the dream of this country. On the soundtrack I’m making a call to Armenia. I wanted to reach someone the way Paradganov had reached me. Obviously I didn’t find anyone.
MH: Are all the images in the film photographs?
GT: All but one. The churches came from Calendar, they’re very conventional shots you could buy anywhere. There are also images of landscapes, paintings and dancers, all photographs from books. I shot them onto 16mm and video, then shot the video back onto film. Instead of using whole strips of super-8 film, like I did in Visions, I cut little holes in the 16mm and, frame-by-frame, inserted the super-8. I had shot images on the 16mm and put the super-8 on top of them. Some parts have black backgrounds, some have images, and some have 16mm on top of 16mm. Sometimes I cut a 16mm image in half with scissors and taped it together with another image I’d cut in half. It was like knitting and took a long time. The only real moving image in the film shows me walking across the street. There’s also an image of my face, which was a transparency laid over a church, and because the wind blows the image moves. You can see the church behind it.
MH: How does your image function in the film?
GT: I’m shown thinking of Armenia, wanting to be part of it. After making the film I realized this is just a dream, a fantasy about a country I could never visit. No one could. You make it because you’re blind to something. Afterwards you see what’s there. I needed to make the film to grow up, to become wiser. On the soundtrack I say, “I feel connected to every Armenian I meet.” But afterwards I met a group of Armenians in Paris for an Armenian Film retrospective. I was so excited, thinking we’d all bond and love each other, become family. But it wasn’t like that at all. I was just another stranger. They couldn’t accept me without knowing who I was first, all these old Armenian filmmakers.
MH: How did you decide on the film’s length?
GT: I used everything I had. Atom gave me his Bolex and two rolls of film and I made it with that. I paid for everything myself. It cost about a thousand dollars.
MH: Tell me about the title.
GT: It’s from a song. I found a record store where an Armenian woman worked and asked if she could find something with songs from home. She gave me a disc, pointing out a song called Girl From Moush. It’s about a young woman looking at beautiful pictures, and she’s being sung to by an older woman. I related to that. Part of my dream of Armenia is meeting a wise woman who’s lived there all her life, working her land by a church. [laughs] The soundtrack is all Armenian music. There’s a mountain song with a man singing over images of churches and hills. There’s more melancholy music by a dudek, a flute-like instrument, and upbeat dance music accompanying the dance images. Each provides a different emotion; it’s like going through a picture book of the interior. I always cry when I listen to Armenian music. Everything has a depressing, tragic sound to it. It’s about connecting to something that doesn’t judge you. It’s land and sky, not a person, so it’s unconditional.
MH: That film showed around the world.
GT: It was surprising. I felt very emotional about it and I can feel people responding to it the same way. I never sense any coldness, only warmth; somehow I’m touching people. It’s still playing everywhere, still wanted.
MH: How did Drowning in Flames (25 min 1994) start?
GT: I met the Starn twins in Toronto when they gave a lecture on their work. They’re photographers from New York. They make collages of other people’s work, multiplying and manipulating original material. After their lecture I asked whether they would mind if someone appropriated their images the way they’ve done with the paintings of Picasso and Rembrandt. They said fine. Because all of their work is collage I felt we were doing similar things, but instead of working on 16mm, like I do, they use large layers of clear ortho film. For example, they might start with an image of a face on ortho, then add a second layer showing just half the face, along with bits and pieces of other pictures to provide depth and colour. The Starns are twins, an important factor in their work. They’ve given voice to a dualism inherent in myself and others. Their work is not intended to be resolved, but serves as a source of reflection. For me, the purity of their voice is overwhelming. I gave them a copy of Visions. They wrote back saying they really loved it and would like to see what I might do with their images. I had their book, and began shooting stills from it onto video. In the spring of 1994 I went down to their studio in New York and shot them making new work while they were getting ready for a show. The main image they used was Portrait of a Young Lady by a Dutch painter, which I show throughout my film. She looks like the Virgin, her face very clean and pure. It was accompanied by a lot of hand images which I shot from a dancer friend. I knew intuitively that the position of the Virgin’s hands is very important in her depiction — this was verified just last week when I spoke to an artist doing work around the Virgin and her hands — and put these two images together: the Dutch image of the Virgin and the hands of my friend. In the Starns’s work this portrait was accompanied by a text from Dante and pictures of fire and I used those too. I shot both film and video. Then I put the video back onto film by shooting it off the TV, and from there did collages. When I shot the Starns’s work it looked flat, so I added layers of film, pasting one image overtop another to make it look more like what they do. It took a long time because I had so many beautiful images. I was at my desk with a viewer and splicer, the floor covered with mounds of film. I worked with two strips of film at a time. I would put one strip on the splicer. Then I would take the second and cut off both sides of it — the sprockets and the part where the sound is supposed to be, and tape the two together. There are up to four layers of film, all pasted together. I added colour by using food dyes. My film introduces a temporal element into the art of the Starns, which deconstructs it in the same way they’ve reshaped the work of others. The Starns say that “Art cannot be excused from time.” They allow their pictures to deteriorate and metamorphose into living entities that change like anything else. This film is an homage to their practice, like Visions was to Michael Semak and Girl From Moush was to Paradganov. I felt we were seeing things in a similar way, and wanted to thank them. One of the highlights in life is to meet people like that and feel connected. When you feel alienated it’s a nice feeling. Not that I do feel alienated. Not anymore.
MH: Where’s the title from?
GT: The images of the young woman with very hot, orange colours overlaid suggest drowning. It comes from a Charles Bukowski poem: “Burning in water, drowning in flames.”
MH: What does the juxtaposition suggest? The end of innocence or the impossibility of preserving these ideals?
GT: I don’t know. It’s been difficult to think of the film because I was so disappointed at the reaction. A lot of people didn’t respond. I couldn’t sit in the theatre; I had to leave because I felt a great pressure from the audience. I felt them wondering, why is this so long? It was awful. Drowning isn’t something that should be shown in a theatre where people have to sit. I’d rather see it in a gallery where people could just appreciate it as a visual experience. But it’s never shown like that.
MH: There’s a stark contrast between the woman pictured in the film and the repeated scream on the soundtrack.
GT: The portrait of the woman has been painted by a man with a very religious background. It’s perfect.
MH: What do you mean by perfect?
GT: She embodies a religious view of women — she’s pure, untouched and framed. She’ll never age. I used Tilda Swinton’s voice from The Last of England. It’s a very dark scene, lit by orange candlelight, and with her hair pulled back Swinton resembles the portrait. But the woman in the painting doesn’t have the energy or the guts to scream. Someone would have to do it for her.
MH: Like you?
GT: Yes. [laughs] This painted portrait appears throughout the film, wearing a tight necklace and dress, her hair drawn back by a headpiece. Everything is pulled back and exposed. Because she’s stuck. She has to behave the way she does because she can’t think of anything else. That’s the way the painter sees her. As a man, he can’t find what’s inside. She’s a body without organs, a doll.
MH: You appear in the film.
GT: Just once. I made a colour photocopy of the painting and wore it as a mask which I take off. And there are images of roses which have been ripped apart, collaged to pieces. And pictures of saints and the Starn twins looking angelic. After Drowning I made a decision to stop doing collage because I needed to tell stories. I never wanted it to be just an experimental, visual film. It needed to be more than that, but in the end it wasn’t.
MH: Can you tell me about the feature you started?
GT: It’s called My Own Obsession and was entirely improvised over a week with friends and a two person crew. I play a woman who wants to go to Armenia. Her girlfriend and the men in her life never get to know her because she’s unable to express her emotions, she only has relationships to get something from them. She meets an Armenian singer but she’s only interested in the singing, somehow it brings her closer to home. Finally she marries an Armenian who’s come to North America to forget the suffering he’s left behind. So he can’t give her what she wants. Like all the relationships in the film, this one doesn’t work. At the same time she pursues her obsession, photographing herself in different costumes and personas. I’m thinking about going back and making something short out of it. It was originally intended as a feature.
MH: Are you obsessed with your own image?
GT: I’ve changed so much, I don’t know whether I am anymore. Now I’m adapting a book about a character who is very obsessed with himself, art, and his isolation. I think this character is very close to the one in My Own Obsession.
MH: Do you think art is isolating?
GT: I think you have to be alone to a certain degree. When I’m with people too long I lose my identity. I can’t even be around my good friends too long before I start feeling guilty because I’m not working.
MH: How did Passion Crucified (22 min 1997) begin?
GT: I wanted to talk with characters or figures, rather than pictures. Most of my work is made up of photographs, and each was inspired by a still. That changed when I met Cornelius Fischer-Credo, a dancer who was workshopping a new piece at the National Ballet. He saw my films and liked them, and we applied to the Banff Centre for the Arts to shoot his new performance. Because it was incomplete, a work-in-progress, I added a prelude which shows a man living in an aquarium environment. He watches a television interview with an intellectual talking about the archetypes of Adam, Eve, Christ, Joan of Arc, and Salomé. And dreams of becoming them. These hallucinations become a series of performative dances. He appears as both man and woman, learning how to live inside these bodies which appear like schools, schools of thought. There were problems because he’s a dancer, not an actor, so I had to lose the framing device. And it was my first time dealing with a crew of technicians who weren’t there to create with me, only to follow orders. I built the sets using transparencies, slides and video projections. I became seduced by the set and the visual aspect of the film, not really judging the dance at all. When I went into the editing room I used the computer to enhance the look of the film, changing the colour, mirroring the images. I stopped judging the life of the work and followed the image, which is what I’ve always done in the past. And because it lacked structure to begin with, it was difficult to cut. That was the problem in the end. The relation of sexual identity to a Christian history of the body fascinated me, but I know what my weakness is. I don’t tell stories. I don’t work with a plan.
MH: What do you think of experimental film?
GT: I don’t think of films in genres. I think of work that has a vision, where I can see something honest and individual. It’s like any other art form. Or a person.
MH: Do you see yourself making films your whole life?
GT: I don’t know, I can’t say what I’ll do. I’ve never really said I love film. I do love it, but it seems primitive. It’s so old. I’d like to explore other mediums.
MH: Do you worry about how to support yourself?
GT: Yes. Right now I have no money at all. My only industry work was with Paul Cox, the Australian director. He was making an Imax film, and I made some storyboards for the film within the film. I did it for a month and it was great, but I have to do my thing. Why should I work with another director? And be the last one on the credits? I’m very selfish that way. It has to be my creation.
MH: Do you feel pressure to make feature films?
GT: Yes, because of the success of the American independents. It has to do with some insecurity, wanting to be accepted. But I don’t think I’ll ever do it. I don’t seem to go in that direction, although I’d love to be part of that scene. A cool filmmaker. I have an integrity that I can’t control. There is a force more powerful than my little mind that makes me do other things.
Gariné Torossian Filmography
Body and Soul 12 min 1989
Visions 4 min 1992
Girl From Moush 6 min 1993
Drowning in Flames 25 min 1994
Passion Crucified 22 min 1997
Originally published in: Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, ed. Mike Hoolboom, 2nd edition; Coach House Press, 2001.
The Importance of Being Gariné
I met her at the Toronto International Festival, in a program reserved for difficult movies, and when we made our way to the front of the theatre I was filled with relief. Unlike the other specialists she was way young, and I was beginning to wonder whether that was possible anymore, that anyone with a functional set of chops would ever decide to chase the slim margins of fringe movies. I kept hoping for a new generation of makers that would find a groove all their own, and kick our collective asses all the way out of the museum afterthoughts, the micro-fests and backroom members-only screenings. I woke up every day longing for it, this brave new emulsion, only to find the same old keeners. Small tribe. Small dreams. And now there was Gariné, who was not a movement but a new kind of hope, soaked in the materials of film but not a slave to it, not yet, there were stories that had to be told first.
This is how it always starts in the fringe. You say no. You learn to say no in your own way. There may be celebration, indulgence, drenching transcendence, oh sure bring it on. But lurking behind all that is no. To the movies. Parents, old friends, new friends, heterosexuals, monogamists, whites, the neighborhood. Brando still set the tone somehow, slouching into his Harley while the young bystander, the one who never be beautiful because he couldn’t bear the cost, asked him, “What are you rebelling against?” Marlon’s size ten mouth filled with distraction, restless. “What have you got?”
When she showed her movie at York University they said, “This isn’t a film.” She had threaded it up with a mountain of nerves, and when she heard what the instructors, the ones who are paid to know, had to say about it, she knew it was time to go. This is the story she told over and over again that week. “This isn’t a film.” Followed by the sweet revenge of a fest invite. Even a level plain looks like high country when you’ve been cut down far enough. And the Toronto fest, at least in those days, was a whole lot more than sea level.
As usual I was waiting to hear the end of her story, always impatient, skimming over the moments. What about the next movie, I wondered? The voice of the superego, something relentless dressed up as conscience. Never mind about this film, tell me about the next one. And the one after that. Serious. Was she serious? And of course she was.
She was a refusenik, someone who had learned to say no in her own way. And while she wasn’t exactly a chat machine, she didn’t seem like one of the social cripples that appeared in fringe scrums, the lonely ones, the ones who had a knack for saying the wrong thing, the ones who couldn’t stop blinking when they hit sunlight. No, she looked like she’d settle right in between the ravers and the suits, some bit of old world elegance hanging off her, a curtsy wouldn’t seem out of place. There was style in her movies and in the way she carried her dress, even then. It was as if she was always looking at herself, and we along with her. Like an image.
I finally met Barr on a late night Queen Street crawl with Carolynne, he was the one on the other end of the phone with Dennis while we edited Ford and In My Car and In the Future, and then with Robert while we edited Secret. During the day there was work, and at night the consolation of Barr. The happiest man I’ve ever met. He has taken on joy as a sort of duty, and you want to stand up close just to get a little bit of that on you. A year later I met him again at an impossibly hip baby shower he helped swing (all over the floor there were small stick’um signs reading ‘baby’, in case we forgot, all pink and blue of course. In a rare moment of restraint, the handsome, very pregnant couple refused the ultrasound, they’d find out boy or girl soon enough). When Gariné arrived we were outside smoking cigarettes, never mind the minus twenty, Barr’s out in his elegant Hawaiian ensemble, when you’ve got that much dee-lite squeezed up inside you there’s no place for cold to attach itself. When he sees Gariné he swings his martini glass wide and kisses her once twice and asks her through the smile that never stops, “How is the most beautiful woman in Toronto?” Or was it: Canada. North America. Barr’s joy allows him to pronounce like that, making everyone around him feel as good as possible without ever sounding low rent, in fact, as soon as the words are out of his mouth, you wish you’d said it, because as she stands there, refusing a nip of his martini, she does look like the most beautiful woman in the world. Here is one of the infinite varieties of happiness: to be told what you already know.
Later that evening, Exene tells me, “Well, everyone falls in love with Gariné,” like she was reading the news, and I must have double taked because E gave me one of those Don’t-make-me-s-p-e-l-l-it-out-for-you looks. “Well, I guess,” I said, thinking of that five foot powerhouse that had held the floor at some dismal high school event designed to cure those of us whom the rules had left behind. They announced her name from a podium that towered above her, she was so tiny and nobody clapped and the talking in my row was so loud no one could make out a word anyways. But then she started talking and never let up and before long she was the only left one standing. She said her name was Smith but I found out later that was her husband’s name, she was flying undercover that night, and a lot of other nights besides. Her real name was Oates, Joyce Carol Oates, the one who wrote novels between bathroom breaks, you wonder how someone so small could have that many words in her but there she was, filling the room with them, as easy talking to fifty of us or five. She told us about her friend Gene, a woman so beautiful she would stop party chatter dead when she walked through the door. Four husbands later Gene was still the most beautiful woman Joyce had ever seen, a prisoner in her own skin, everybody always wanting to talk to her for the wrong reasons, trying to see if there was anything underneath that poreless surface she wore like a mask. “Her beauty ruined everything, like Helen,” she said, and I wondered if that was a friend of Gene’s, or the daughter of the Prime Minister or who exactly.
I was seventeen going on seven, never imagined that beautiful was anything but win win, not that I thought of it all that often, after the bomb hit beauty wasn’t going to matter much, right? But when Exene said that Gariné was so perfect and lovely and altogether I couldn’t help thinking about Gene who had made a choice between beauty and happiness, and as I thought about Gariné’s films I wondered if she didn’t feel just the same some mornings, dragging around her damned beauty with her everywhere she went. Condemned to it.
Here is the image. That’s what I think when Gariné steps into the room. Some just appear beside you, or across the floor, others have entrances and exits. Here is the image she seems to proclaim. We are all pictures, some better composed than others. My movies, my face, my hands. And behind each moment of greeting, each stage appearance, each act of art making, this unspoken, insistent question: Who will love me?
Something doesn’t fit. I think that’s how it starts. Something doesn’t belong in the world they see, the artists, the ones busy making useless things. I exclude the museum honchos, avatars of the visible, the Warhols and Boltanskis, their returns are clear enough (and besides, most are already dead). But for the rest, labouring for their meager returns, say no to the car, say no to the house, say no to weekends out with friends. There is work to do, useless work.
This is what I wondered when I met her the first time. Sniffing for the mark, the sign, some indication that there was no choice, not for this one, that she would have to go on through the lonely nights. Making things. Is it damage? I think that’s what Freud would say. It’s what Jubal told me when I’m over at his lean-to of an apartment, squeezed shut with old vinyl and new ideas, “I can’t see any reason to leave here anymore,” he tells me, and then later, “Artists make work because there’s something wrong with them.” Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe nothing else matters. But Gariné is one in a steady line of artists whose parents are immigrants, old worlders whose eyes have grown used to somewhere else, bringing it on every time they look out the window. They marry the old world and the new in their children, like Gariné, who never see what they see, but never stop feeling it either. Her inheritance is a double vision. Things aren’t quite what they seem, the tragedies have not quite been left behind, so here we are, in a place that is neither there nor here. And this between state is the root of some new personality, some new world dreamer. The artist, for instance. Or the mechanic, the door-to-door salesperson, the legal secretary. But sometimes: the artist. The one who thinks, “No, something doesn’t fit.”
I was born in Beirut and came to Canada in 1979. I’d visited three years earlier, when I was six, and didn’t like it. The landscape, the weather, the people—everything was cold. In Beirut there’s no mask, everyone says what they feel and we all missed that.
She talks about the myth, the legend, the image. The storied childhood, and of course, about us. Us in Beirut.
In 1978 civil war broke out for eight days. There was a lot of bombing. We couldn’t sleep in our rooms because it was too dangerous, so everyone went to the centre of the building and camped in the hallways. From the kitchen you’d see fires in the hills. I’m very used to the sounds of gunshots and bombs…
I couldn’t make any sense of the first film I saw of hers, Visions (4 minutes, 1992). The program was, as usual, a motley collection of all-sorts, unwittingly designed to make some brief shudders of emulsion visible, while erasing others. Imagine eight poems read at high speed, one after another, each in a different style. How much would you hold onto by last call? It wasn’t until I saw it again, a few months later at a back alley soirée, that I got up to speed. I leveled out the movies around it, never mind never mind, and lit up inside when her turn came. Visions came right at me like an express, no stops here thanks, a wailing scream of a film, with pictures that were shattered, taped by hand onto emulsion, scratched over and painted, the whole threatening at every moment to fly apart but held together by a rending cry that is birth and accusation, torment and ecstacy. There is an artist being born here. The one that can’t help it. The one who is not here tonight, because they’ve got work to do.
When I was seventeen I met Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian at the Armenian Community Centre. Atom was giving a lecture on his films and I showed them my sketches and photographs and they bought three of them. He was the first person in the film community who really encouraged me. A year later I made my first film, Body and Soul (12 min 1989). I videotaped myself in various costumes, holding fruits, or standing in water with plastic over me. I was living in Aurora, and spent a lot of time driving down empty highways. There were interesting churches where I would stop, set up, then step into the frame and walk toward the camera. When you’re living in a place like that, there’s nothing to do, so you end up creating. It was all shot in video, then re-photographed off TV using a super-8 camera. It was an incredible experience, seeing what you could do with film.
She began in high school with Body and Soul, upshifted to university where she made Visions, then cut herself loose to make her signature movie, the one that’s been seen more than all the rest. Call it her greatest hit, at least until the Sparklehorse duets. She named it Girl From Moush, after a song a record clerk pointed out to her. This is how she works, collecting, opening, following the trail, and when the heap is large enough, it’s time to start kneading all the material through those long fingers. These pictures need to be touched before they can be released back into the world.
Her signature movie begins, like everything important, by accident, with an invitation by friend and mentor Atom Egoyan. He’s just finished his new feature, Calendar, in which he plays a photographer hired to make twelve calendar shots of churches in Armenia. They have this between them, this Armenia, this lost country. Whenever I see Gariné she is toting around a new find, an old woman, a boy, a handsome man, and always they are from Armenia. She collects them though she’s hardly alone in this. When she meets Atom, they collect each other. When the film’s all wrapped and printed he approaches her for a poster, hands over the calendar shots, and that’s enough to light the fuse. She’s off and running on her own movie now, collecting pictures of Armenia. Of course it’s not village life, farm chores and markets, but the Armenia of her mind she’s interested in, most of all, the dream of Paradganov, dipped in paintpot colours. She lifts stills from his Colour of Pomegranates, gathers moments from tourist books, Atom’s calendar shots, and begins to knit them together. She films the photographs, the decisive moments, then begins to cut out the frames and lay them on new strips of emulsion, taping, rending, weaving. She cuts the tiny, barely visible frames in half and grants them new horizons, pastes them over other frames or strips, or over black. Like her mother, and her mother’s mother, she is a weaver of threads, choosing now to work with emulsion instead of yarn, but it’s the same somehow in the end, the long hours of patience, the discovery of patterns, and patterns within patterns, that only the hand can discover.
This kind of work, like all forms of animation, takes time, and this is really the rub: all those hours sweating under the hot lights, patiently attaching yourself to the frame after frame of it all, is a kind of meditation. At the very least, it requires the same kind of detached engagement, the singular, obsessive focus, so prized by the old religious orders. In place of the monastery, the temple and the retreat: the cinema. Her eyes making their way slowly across the abyss of a single frame, fashioning the light.
Artists and men. And her face. Again and again.
This is how she works. She attaches herself to them, their way of seeing, a body of work. Does all art begin with this act of submission, opening the door, admitting the ideas of strangers? Their taste. She would turn, in years to come, to the Starn twins, no slouch in the collage department themselves, to make Drowning In Flames, her anguished recast of art history’s beauty queens, featuring herself of course. These ancestors are still alive in her face, and so she braids them together, the once and possible futures, conjuring the hopeless isolation of the meat, trapped inside it, the way they look at her.
Then it was on to the Brothers Quay in Shadowy Encounters (what is about twins anyway?), Grimm Brothers of avant animation, their fantastical creatures busy in the shadows. Gariné attaches herself to them as well, and then she begins to rework and reframe, filming their film, finding new images in the details. New arrangements. It is an essay, kind of, told in pictures, which is the only way she knows how, a high impact collision some call romance, where the perfect woman is surrounded by suitors, though they long in the end only for themselves. Who will tell the tale of sirens, when the only writers are sailors?
In film after film she returns to her image, layered up with others, looking like a saint, the lonely one, the one who waits. What is she waiting for? In My Own Obsession she has a group of friends, actors and acquaintances speak about a mysterious woman, offering contradictory asides. The woman, who else could it be, is Gariné. Are we the sum of these impressions, these sound pictures, overlaid to create, in their addition, the beginnings of personality?
I only remember what I like. It used to be the other way around. The terrifying accusations of love were what I craved, the smell that one left when she’d swept the room with her anger. Call it getting older, but I find it all less attractive now. The habit of pleasure was a long time coming, schooled as I was in the refusals of modernism, the necessary withholdings, the mede-cine, the stern asceticism of the faithful. Today, I only remember what I like, and what I like most of all is Gariné’s Babies in the Sun. It began as a home brewed pop song, a woozy confection of midwest Dada laid over looped slow waltz fiddles and record noise and a voice so quiet and warm you had to lean in close to hear it, and it made you feel better when you did. It was Mark Linkous’s project, better known as Sparklehorse. I guess Gariné was around the house when he laid it down, so when his lottery number hit, and the Sundance Channel agreed to spring for artist-made rock vids of his entire It’s A Wonderful Life LP, he turned to Gariné first.
The sound of your voice
Rose graves of cats
The pounding of your steps
Woke caves of bats
Babies on the sun.
Your first burning breath
Was a symphony
A ship full of horses
Was going down at sea
Babies on the sun.
Shot through scrims of glass with a hazy, it’s-alwayss-summer-time feel, Gariné reaches through his desire to find her own, I mean, the small place you need to look out of when you’re busy making. It’s just not possible to make an image of everything, you need focus, a theme or idea could do it, or a colour, a feeling. This is the frame that is applied to the world. Whatever doesn’t fit is invisible, it doesn’t exist at all, while the moments that do fit might have been stepped over a thousand times already, but inside your new frame these moments are ten feet tall. They are what’s left of the world. So you pick them up. This act of choosing (or is it being chosen?) gathers momentum, all of a sudden there are uncanny coincidences, every moment a crossroads bringing you closer, leading you on. When she hears him sing the words she looks up and finds My Book of the Farm, a cartooned child’s primer of play. Welcome to a world of children and flowers, seaside idylls, horses and talking birds. No bruises in this landscape, no Jack fell down and broke his crown, or witches in gingerbread houses. While each of the pictures are still they flicker past in Gariné’s retake as if touched by the eye, melting, scratched over, rephotographed as colour fields off TV. And while the artist’s original encounters with these pictures were brisk, all jagged edges and hip hop hiccups, she’s slowed everything down, letting these fractured fairy tales take a waltz turn with Mark’s looping whispers. The lyrics are added by hand, two or three words crouched inside clouds or scribbled across horses, lending an affectless charm. Not laboured over. That’s what it looks like. One long bit of easy. Never mind the hours in between, the outtakes and mis-steps, this is love without trial or sweat. Gariné somehow manages to get her feelings all the way through the clichés and borrowed pictures, even the materials are dissolving to the touch, the song is fading, faded, gone, until there is nothing left but this feeling, heavenly feeling, exclamation point of their love.
Gariné and I meet occasionally, usually at specialist conventions, the afterglow of screenings, and always she speaks to me of love. “I know what I want,” she tells me, her eyes growing wide with determination, “I understand it now.” She’s still serious. So very serious, until she breaks out in that schoolgirl giggle, untouched by the long years between hopes. There’s something disarming in the way she speaks, her confidences arriving in blunt declarations, no need to hold back anything now, not after Beirut, the Beirut of love. Not that she’s screaming it from the mountain tops, not at all, she’s still searching, and every bit of ground that’s behind her she’s had to earn. She is time sharing her body with pictures of bodies chiselled out of stone and marble, egged onto canvas or splashed against church ceilings. The beautiful, the virtuous and divine. How much time alone do you need before pictures take the place of community? Or friendship.
The movies have been pouring out of her since high school. Body and Soul (1989), Visions (1992), Platform (1993), Girl from Moush (1994), Drowning in Flames (1995), My Own Obsession (1996), Passion Crucified (1997), Pomegranate Tree (1998), Red Brick (1999), Sparklehorse (1999), Death to Everyone (2000), Dust (2000), Hokees (2000), Babies on the Sun (2001), Shadowy Encounters (2002), Garden in Khorhom (2003). And of course I wonder: don’t you have anything better to do? Is this how you want to spend your roaring twenties, your youth, bent over the emulsion, grinding out these so many movies (and remember, this isn’t like those feature honchos, sure they’re sweating over their producers, but they’ve got people to carry the heavy gear. Editing is for editors, sound for the sound designers. Gariné’s is a universe of one, if there’s a floor that needs sweeping, an errand that needs running, sorry, no maid service in the fringe.) Paul Schrader writes that film noir was a “moral vision based on style.” I think she’d give that a nod. She is condemned to her face, and the pictures her face make possible. No choice in the end but to go on. Stitching and searching.
Girl From Moush: Gariné Torossian
Gariné Torossian’s hand-made movies re-fashion a history of pictures in an ongoing dialogue between feminism, Christianity and inherited ideals of beauty. When she was just twenty-one, she burst onto the fringe scene with her first student short, Visions (4 minutes, 1992). A raucous howl of a film, its uniquely personal handling of film materials immediately established her as a force to be reckoned with. While most of the film was shot in super-8, these narrow gauge strips were cut, scratched, re-coloured and then taped onto the larger gauge 16mm. They appear as floating fragments of emulsion streaming through the projector’s gate, offering a multi-screen pictorial review which is luxuriantly reflexive.
Visions inveighs against the gaze which customarily joins men and women, allowing each to step into historically codified relations of dominant/submissive. Here the gaze of the Other returns with a vengeful fury, hurling its naked constituents into the eyes of its beholder. After the title appears, scratched by hand into the film’s emulsion, a blue-tinted man arises with his eyes scratched out, the machines of seeing made to bear scars of erasure. Cascading strips of women’s bodies follow, convulsed, tortured, masturbatory. Their passage is so fleet they leave only impressions, indeed, the entire film seems born along by forces beyond its control, as if these images had been cast into a raging current.
More scratches appear, gouged into the film’s black ground, and then a dancer turns into the mauled emulsion. An orange-hued strip glides past showing a woman holding her breasts before a quivering title announces: “I offer you a cold shower for the eyes.” Glimpses of faces interject, a woman’s, then a man’s, and a rosy-tinted flesh before the current of body parts continues, women caught in isolated gestures of pleasure and distress, invariably naked. A last title closes the film: “Men must have dreams but they should never be asleep.” Impelled by a symphonic loop which features a single word “Woman” rendered in a blood-curdling lament, Visions‘ ragged, flickering vantages project a feminist offering of alliance with a male partnership, but only on its own terms.
Two years later Torossian produced her best known and most widely traveled film to date, the semi-autobiographical Girl From Moush (6 minutes 1993). Like Visions, it consists almost entirely of still photographs, shot on film, then torn apart and re-collaged onto the surface of another film strip, lending it a careening charge. Girl appears, with its overlapping layers of churches and mountains, like an old world tapestry, knit by hand in an evocation of lost histories. Haunting mountain songs mark the passage of families who smile together, as if for the last time. Great stone churches and cathedrals flicker past, their enduring monumentality lent a translucent air, as if their watch over centuries were a millennial shudder, a passing gesture towards divine reconciliation. These receding landscapes and faces are not so much viewed as re-viewed, they appear worn with the marks of their handling. Splice bars, tape marks, scratches and re-framed images from video all insist that these pictures are not being seen for the first time by the cinema viewer. Instead, this well-turned national scrapbook conjures a place which may only be found in pictures, its once documentary evidence strained through a personal longing and nostalgia to create an impressionistic portrait of an impossible, idyllic past. If its images depict a mythic Armenia of pastoral transcendence, its soundtrack functions as counterpoint. Torossian herself speaks on the phone, at first in Armenian and then in English, trying to find a body to inhabit these landscapes, or eyes that might remember. But at last there is no one to answer this call, this summary refusal underscoring the impossibility of her desire, to go back to a country that never existed.
Drowning in Flames (25 minutes 1994) is another collage film derived chiefly, like her previous two efforts, from still photographs. Here, she re-animates the multi-media montages of the Starn twins, the brothers whose painterly appropriations catapulted them to art world prominence in the early nineties. Less documentary than homage, Torossian recasts the brother’s designs in her own inimitable style, with shimmering skins of colour overlaying Renaissance portraiture, broken shards of emulsion collaged to produced a moving stained glass window. Often abstract, the screen bursts with simultaneous vantages, moments of flowers, old Dutch burghers, the Mona Lisa, hand-coloured video static, and family photographs glimpsed through cracked glass, all colliding on the film’s teeming surface.
Its first movement focuses on a Renaissance portrait of a young woman, re-framed in a torment of food colouring and split-screen geometries. Its second movement brings this study in portraiture home, obsessively returning to a family photograph taken beachside during some forgotten summer. These faces stare out of the film’s knitted skins and multiphonic overlaying, suggesting that we have learned to see each other according to received codes and traditions, that our eyes restage a history of looking, emblematized here by Torossian’s nod to a painterly lineage in the film’s introduction. This join of the intimately personal and the canonical art legacy which provides the grist for the Starn twins’ multiplying collage, recasts the act of looking as a political gesture. By including footage of herself, Torossian insists that her own visibility is reliant on a manufactured vision which has frozen and objectified the Other, the woman, in order to grant its male charge the semblance of mastery over the ocular world. Drowning re-presents this frozen stare, ripping apart these too perfect portraits, and adding a dervish howl on the soundtrack, allowing these mute sitters to speak again.
The cost of taking these pictures, of having them live inside us as a kind of interjected conscience, is redressed in Torossian’s herstories. On the soundtrack the filmmaker recites, “She almost drowned while gazing at their beauty.” This is the siren call of patriarchy, its ideals of beauty drawn from a thousand paintings, emblematized here as a history of looking. Its impress in the present day is leveled squarely at the body of the filmmaker, whose auratic fabulations work to conjure a place apart from its frozen stares, where the price of visibility is silence, the admission of beauty a stultifying stillness. Torossian continues, speaking of her encounter with the domain of picture. “She wanted them to embrace her with their light, their brilliance, and make love to her. But she was alone. Shortly they welcomed her as a guest, but from a distance.”
This voice-over marks the film’s third movement, which soon gives way to an industrial rumbling and symphonic interplay. Moments of coloured gels flutter past, turning globes of light, and re-painted faces from the Renaissance. Iconic portraiture struggles to be seen beneath a kinetic melange of dirt, scratches and multiple image overlays, their bubbling adhesive marks clearly visible on the film’s surface. A complex montage of sound accompanies — choral voices, backwards jazz and elegiac strings underscore this proliferation of overlapping vantages. In this, the last the longest of the film’s four movements, pictures appear to breed, to join and reproduce in a dizzying acceleration suggesting the vertigo of the historical subject. Unable to process the long shadow of pictures which has turned our seeing into a site for reproduction, and coded the terms of our visibility, we ourselves have become lost in this multiverse of past deeds, banished by the very light we hoped might illuminate.
Passion Crucified (22 minutes 1997) is an episodic rite of passage rendered in tableau style. Part creation myth, part medieval science fiction, it enacts a typology of the body — offering us glimpses of Adam, Eve, Christ and Joan of Arc. Together they are figured as subterranean Ideals which continue to haunt us, even as they provide the means by which we might come to understand our own bodies.
Begun as a dance performance, Torossian recasts her naked charge into a series of phantasmagoric settings, trees whose fruit show the faces of Medici children, drunken underground rooms filled with a rotting, natural detritus, medieval triptychs and coffins. Everywhere the body staggers beneath the weight of its own representation, surrounded by images which threaten to engulf or convert it, turning it into one more instance of a Christian paradigm the filmmaker insists is inevitable. Passion opens with Adam alone, crawling against a blank ground, attempting to forestall the flood of representation which will dissolve his flesh into the infinite reproductions of the image. In the film’s second section Eve appears, her every gesture doubled via electronic processing, each frame bisected with a mirrored crease which offers identical vantages left and right. Eve’s split inaugurates a cascade of pictures which each of the film’s protagonists will have to contend with, and then finally become. Eve gives way to a section entitled “The Genealogy of Christ,” its serial announcements of succession (Abraham begat Jacob begat…) appear as text superimposed over a sleeping Christ figure. This dream of naming conjures the body as historical issue, its flesh a blank receptor for Christian litanies. Rising from his slumber, Christ opens the gilded doors of his retreat and begins a strange, terrible dance. His stomach massively distended, as if he’d swallowed the line of his succession, he turns in a slow motion wind of torment before entering a world of picture galleries. Paintings of a suffering Christ frame his own gestures, and then are projected overtop of him, as he takes his place in the image world. The next two sections concern Joan of Arc, the matriarch who dressed as a man in order to do battle. In an allegorical reprise, Torossian pictures her burning in mirrored and symmetrical flames, made to endure the punishment reserved for those who cannot make their peace with Christian ideals.
Underscored with a haunting, moody collage track, Passion Crucified marked a shift for Torossian, swapping her hand-crafted weaves for a video pyrotechnic. But her new materials elaborate familiar concerns, that our bodies remain bent to the rule of the Word, that its apertures of opening and closing have admitted a history of looking which few remain cognizant of, no matter how diligently they apply its principles. In her steadfast deconstruction of old world Ideals, and her stunning reassemblage of the very images that made them possible, Torossian’s imaginary historyscapes posit a place where the body might escape its disciplines of understanding, and appear again to its beholders, infinitely.