An experimental personal documentary that explores my own struggle to keep alive erotic connection with my aged husband in the face of chronic pain, throughout a harrowing unexpected journey to the brink of death and back, and in spite of the loss of tangible physicality. Weaving together hand-processed 16mm film, family archives, found footage, and contemporary narrative, La Petite Mort expands eros’ boundaries beyond youth, glamour, and (hetero)sexual expression, engaging the politics of desire via an intimate look at faltering bodies in relationship.
Who and how we love, and the space made for erotic energy in our society, are profoundly intimate and deeply political issues. By sharing my own story of the ebb and flow, suppression and celebration of desire, La Petite Mort insists that erotic connection is fundamental to the human condition. Broken, aged and painful bodies, too, are bodies of passion, and dying can be a doorway to deeper intimacy.
Still from La Petite Mort (The Little Death): Tearoom
La Petite Mort engages personal narrative to explore the politics of desire in the context of aging, illness and death. The film centers on the story of my relationship with my aged husband, 30 years my senior. I’m a 52-year-old filmmaker with chronic illness, and my husband is a miraculous seven-year survivor of a lingering leukemia. Our age difference offers a unique perspective on the internalization of, and resistance to, cultural stigma applied to aging bodies. Devoted to each other, but living always in death’s shadow, we grapple with changing and failing bodies, navigating physical challenges and the gulfs they open between us.
The film bears witness to family as a crucible that informs desire and supports the risk-taking necessary for true intimacy. My own story is developed in relation to those of two family members who have deeply shaped and informed me: my bisexual father and deceased gay uncle. Their struggles to respond with integrity to their experience as sexual beings facing illness, stigma and death inflect and shed light on my own, offering important counterpoints that highlight choice making. The intellectual, emotional, and artistic labor involved in uncovering and making sense of our interconnected stories is revealed as erotic in its own right, enacted relationally and across space and time (engaging a present father and an absent uncle).
The camera becomes the final player in the drama, illuminating and enacting inextricable links between sexual desire and the desires to know and be known; to love and be loved; to see and be seen, and alternately, to hide. In uncovering these dynamics of desire, La Petite Mort interrogates the camera as a tool for self-discovery that is also used to woo, expose, and condemn.
La Petite Mort combines archival and appropriated footage as well as new material I’m shooting. It utilizes archival material from many sources, familial to cultural. 1950s’ photographs of my uncle as a Jesuit, and recently discovered 35mm slides made by him in 1963 that suggest he used the camera as a pickup tool in Central Park, provide biographical and socio-political content. Cultural artifacts confront the impact of socio-normative strictures on individual lives. For example, grainy 16 mm footage filmed in 1962 by the Mansfield, Ohio police, records their sting operation in a public restroom where men met for anonymous sex. The footage was used to convict and imprison forty men for sodomy and was then distributed in a hateful police-training film, Camera Surveillance.
Still from La Petite Mort (The Little Death): Opera
Filmmaker William E. Jones discovered and reworked that footage for his controversial 2007 film Tearoom. I alter his appropriated imagery to draw forth its: record of state control of the body; use of the camera as an ideological weapon; revelation of intimate touch in the context of anonymous relation; and the voyeuristic pleasure of multiple constituencies: the men themselves, the hidden cameraman, police and courtroom personnel, myself as filmmaker, and viewers of La Petite Mort.
I forefront translation’s role in historical analysis by employing multiple transfers of media from one format to another, creating output generations-removed from originals. For example, I digitally transferred a 1990 videotaped interview of my uncle, shot shortly before he died. Slowing time and material to the space of one frame, I shoot frame captures with a still camera to expose the chaotic visual noise, wild color shifts, and extensive pixelation of the disintegrating media. As information transferred from one format to another degrades, the dissolution of my uncle’s body, decrepit and weak, is materially mirrored and memorialized.
La Petite Mort will be produced as a feature-length documentary, shorts, and a multi-channel gallery installation.
Still from La Petite Mort (The Little Death): Nimms Hill