This Wednesday, the Hurford Center will head to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute for a night with the category-bending films of Chick Strand. Chick Strand’s films Soft Fiction and Kristallnacht are the latest installment of the Strange Truth film series organized by Haverford professors Vicky Funari, Hank Glassman, and John Muse. Film theorist Irina Leimbacher will lead a post-viewing discussion, and I was lucky enough to chat with her about what to expect at the event and about her relationship with film.
Why did you pick Soft Fiction and Kristallnacht from Chick Strand’s body of work?
I was very excited about Soft Fiction because it had just been restored by Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive. I was asked to introduce a screening of a new print when it screened at the New York Film Festival last fall. Soft Fiction is a powerful film and embodies Chick Strand’s sensuous camera style and her ability to convey deeply felt experiences. Yet it is different from all of her other films in that it is structured around a series of interviews with five distinct women, and Chick used a tripod to film most of those interviews. In her other work Chick never uses a tripod and never incorporates sync sound dialogue — her shooting style is much more like the interstices that we see in Soft Fiction between the interviews.
Since the film is just over an hour in length it seemed like it could be good to show another short alongside it. Kristallnacht has no voice, no “stories” other than what we bring to it. It is one of my favorites of her short films, and I thought it would contribute to opening up the spaces in and around the verbal sections of Soft Fiction. I think the verbal Soft Fiction and the non-verbal Kristallnacht complement each other. Both films are, in their own way, about moving near to others’ embodied experiences for the duration of the film. And they both emphasize the power of fluidity rather than solidity.
You spent some time working in nonprofit arts organizations and are now a university professor. What led you to make the shift to academia?
I always loved teaching, and taught part-time for several years while working as a film programmer at an organization dedicated primarily to the exhibition of experimental films. What ultimately pushed me more solidly into academia—if that is where I am—was a need for job security and stability! I miss programming for a general public very much, and I welcome opportunities like this one to come to different places to show and speak about some of the films I love.
How has your relationship to film changed since becoming a professor or academic?
Well, I’m not the best, or even a valued, kind of academic! I love the sense of wonder and enchantment that I feel about works that move me or that shift the way I think about things. That experience, and the ability to share that experience, is more important to me than the analytical and theoretical part of academia. And as academic writing is a very fraught activity for me, curating is definitely more the arena in which I would say I thrive.
What led you to study Chick Strand?
I saw one film of hers when I was studying at San Francisco State and felt like I had to see more, it intrigued me so much. But all her films were only on 16mm with rental fees exclusively for public exhibition, in the $60 to $200 range. So I organized a curatorial internship at the Pacific Film Archive and offered to organize a full retrospective of her work. That way I got to see and reflect on all of it! And I was also able to meet Chick, who came up from Los Angeles as a guest.
Reviews tend to describe Soft Fiction as an ethnographic documentary that pushes the boundaries of the genre. Would you consider the film to be ethnography?
I personally would not call it ethnography, no. Ethnography for me, for better or for worse, has to do with cross-cultural dialogue and exploration. For me this is a film about a few women’s experiences. The nature of those experiences, while mostly connected to crucial events in their lives, is still quite diverse. Part of the pleasure of watching Soft Fiction is that there isn’t any easy label under which one could place all these experiences or ways of recounting them. One of Chick Strand’s traits that I appreciate enormously is that she could connect things, images, experiences, in ways that remain open, that surprise, that provoke thought. The film also contains a reflection on how we recount stories that are difficult to tell, how things are put together in words and in films. There is a figure in the film that does not speak, and for me she embodies someone trying to “get inside,” to understand, others’ stories, others’ experiences. Like Chick she moves between places, between people, and finds there is no way to gather it all up in one neat category. She lets these stories and experiences simply speak for themselves.