THE JENNIFER-PENNY CHRONICLES: MAKING HISSS – Chapter Three

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HOW PENNY VOZNIAK GOT INTO IT

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Penny Vozniak has detailed the misunderstandings and opposing viewpoints of Jennifer Lynch and Govind Menon as neither of these two could have, caught up as they were in a perfect storm of production dysfunction. “What Vozniak saw” through her lens was a man who had filtered his American experience through tenaciously rooted traditional Indian assumptions. From an unsympathetic and uncomprehending perspective, he appeared to reprocess Lynch’s expectations until they had no bearing for Lynch on her reality. We see in the documentary that Menon is not intentionally abusive to Lynch, but abusive he is. Despite his earlier praise of Lynch’s very personal, auteuristic film Surveillance, he treats her as an employee who has contracted to deliver a commercially viable product on a prescribed timetable. He increasingly belittles and berates her for taking too long to compose her shots in situations that are beyond her control: bad weather, crew inefficiency, and terrain hostile to filming.

Why? In fact, it may well be that because of his film education in America, Menon fell prey to magic thinking. Having come to associate efficiency with American production, he acted as if acquiring an American as director would provide the kind of mojo that would overcome all the day-to-day problems of India’s more relaxed thinking about schedules. Similarly, despite everything he should have known about Lynch, Menon seems to have come into the production with some unthought through certainty that whatever lip service American filmmakers may pay to independent productions, American filmmaking is basically a commercial venture. This may have been an unforeseen consequence of his American schooling, since this is the attitude that pervades many American university film production programs.

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Vozniak, who understood Menon’s commercial goals, may not have been aware of just how tenuous his commitment to the auteuristic approach was. We tend to assume our friends think as we do, and Vozniak is passionately devoted to personal filmmaking. In shooting Despite the Gods, she took a highly personal stance toward her documentary, not on behalf of either Lynch or Menon, but in the service of transparency. Vozniak told me about her negative reaction when her own script editor encouraged her to turn her documentary into what the script editor saw as a more promisingly commercial venture. She suggested that Vozniak alter the order of events to make it look like Lynch was rescued from the ordeal of the production by meeting the man of her dreams. This would have been possible to do, since Lynch did meet Jim Robbins, the man to whom she is now married, while she was still working on Hisss. However, the actual time line of events did not support the kind of damsel in distress scenario being proposed. Lynch met Robbins toward the end of the principal shooting, while she took some time out for a trip back to California, long after Lynch had soldiered through the worst of her struggle with confusing and frustrating professional situation. Vozniak was uncompromising in her rejection of any manipulation of her footage to create a “good” (read commercially appealing) story by applying some formulaic narrative patterns to events during the editing process.

Nothing that we see in Despite the Gods suggests that Menon understood the two women—or had the introspective ability to work through his own confusions, nor that they had any real clarity about him. His initial openness to Vozniak’s suggestion that she film the behind the cameras action of the cast and crew of Hisss, strongly indicates that he welcomed a witness to his actions; this is not the attitude of a man who is aware that he is behaving in away that was not to his credit. The fact that he did not shut Vozniak down until his relationship with Lynch worsened to the breaking point after nine months of friction also suggests both his continuing hope that he could keep faith with his promises to Lynch and Vozniak and his blindness until the bitter end of the implications of what shows up in the documentary as his own deeply rooted gendered ideas. Nor did the women seem to compute the ramifications of their experience with Menon. Despite everything they saw of his behavior, there was real surprise on their part that a time came when Menon stopped allowing footage to be shot of either him or Lynch. Vozniak was forced to use title cards to tell the story of the final part of the process, because of Menon’s withdrawal of his permission for her to shoot anything from post-production. And there was real astonishment on Lynch’s part that Menon took the film away from her. Ironically, he might have reached this point precisely because of the unfiltered gaze of Vozniak’s film, that showed him his harsh behavior toward Lynch in a dubious light that he could no longer deny challenged his justifications of his behavior.

While troubled communication between men and women in the industry is common enough, extended documentary articulation of such a dynamic is very rare, for obvious reasons. The existence of Despite the Gods as that kind of record of the production of Hisss testifies not only to how long it took for Menon to recognize the picture that was forming about his working relationship with Lynch but also to the importance of chance and dimly understood impulses in the making of documentary meaning in film. Vozniak had not arrived in Chennai India, where the work on Hisss began, with the intention of making a documentary there. She had stopped off to visit Menon on her way to Kabul, where she was scheduled to work on a documentary project for which she had been given a small grant. Menon had asked her to delay her departure so she could help him out by babysitting Lynch’s daughter Sydney, to free Lynch up for pre-production. Vozniak and Lynch evolved the idea spontaneously that it would be interesting for there to be a record of the production which was anticipated to be a very special cooperative venture. Menon gave Vozniak ten thousand dollars to do a “behind the scenes” featurette for the planned DVD.

Vozniak then postponed her trip to Kabul, showing up daily for what turned out to be nine months of production with her Panasonic HVX 200 at the ready, an unwieldy camera under any circumstances, although it works digitally, since it records what it sees by storing only 40 minutes of images on a computer card. Thus, the accidental documentary was also extraordinarily labor intensive. Much of the time Vozniak wondered what she was doing there. One of her truly daunting logistical problems was with her technology. The Panasonic cards on which the images are stored cost two thousand dollars a piece, and Menon’s budget did not permit him to pay for extra cards. Vozniak–often in the middle of a jungle—was forced to clear the card after forty minutes of action by downloading it into her laptop computer in order to be able to “film” more action. Common sense would have dictated that this was not a viable working situation, particularly since she wasn’t being paid to make Despite the Gods, and Vozniak told me she asked herself daily, “What am I doing here?”

But she was captivated, enough to make Despite the Gods with her own money, at the same time she was putting together a “Making of…,” featurette paid for by Menon’s ten thousand dollars. Under the pressure of the omnipresent physical heat of India, on the complex terrain of the Thekkady Jungle, and in the crowded mayhem of Chennai and Kerrola, another shooting location, she was capturing production life in the raw on the spot, with no predetermined ideas about what she would focus on. She pointed the Panasonic at wherever drew her attention at the moment and it was exhilarating. She told me that she developed a strange sixth sense during the course of the shooting that caused her to feel that something important was about to happen, and to be watchful for it. In her words: “So, I’d ask myself where’s the best place to be standing? And I’d find the place and say to myself, ‘All right, wait.’….And then—I’ve never asked another filmmaker if they feel this—and then I’d cautiously touch the button on my camera. I’d feel goosebumps and focus on Jen and something would happen, a dynamic would shift, some argument would occur. And that’s how I got some of those things, because of course there are no do-overs. And I couldn’t be filming 24 hours a day. That would be impossible. So I would rely on this thing to happen and when it would happen, oh my God. I’ve never done heroin, but it felt like heroin. “

NEXT INSTALLMENTS:

CHAPTER FOUR: WHAT PENNY VOZNIAK SAW

CHAPTER FIVE: A SILENT WATCHER

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS:

CHAPTER ONE: MAKING HISSS

CHAPTER TWO: WHAT JENNIFER LYNCH SAW

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