THE JENNIFER-PENNY CHRONICLES: MAKING HISSS – Chapter Four

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Jennifer Lynch dominates the beginning of the documentary; Govind Menon is not immediately visible. He, unlike Lynch, refused Vozniak permission to use some of what she shot, and this may be the reason that his entrance into the film is delayed. He appears only after we have seen Lynch vent her distress about the pre-production set-up. No one told me specifically what the excluded scenes contained, but considering the problematic nature of what we see of Lynch and Menon, we may assume that what was withheld by him was very troubling indeed, since we see not only the discord between Lynch and Menon, but also a production in shambles. Vozniak records the presence of a sizeable crew that is completely unorganized; a situation in which very little of what Lynch was promised is available; and in which Menon is unhappy both with the presence of Lynch’s daughter Sydney on set, and with the tone of Lynch’s relationship with the crew.

When Menon first appears, he and Lynch are in a moving car. She is saying to him with sad irony that it may be that she is the Nagin looking for her mate; which accounts for why she has been single so long. He banters with her. When next we see them together, they are eating and talking about death. Lynch is concerned with practical concerns, the lack of safety precautions and the safety of the crew, while Govind takes the position that death is natural; we will all have to die; and everything that they are going through is but a flash in the wide expanse of eternity. To what extent he is serious and to what extent he is simply trivializing his director’s concerns is impossible to determine.

However, the playful, brother-sister repartee soon turns sinister in subsequent scenes when Menon’s lack of concern for anything but the “final product” drives him into tyrannical mode. Menon uses Lynch’s confessional style of dealing with her co-workers against her, deriding her as a mother in front of her daughter and bullying Sydney about what he sees as her disruption of production. At its height, Menon’s complaints about Sydney erupt in his declaration to Sydney that Lynch is not her mother when she is working.

After the third month of shooting, an absurd amount of time by almost any standards, Menon accuses Lynch of working as though she had the money and time to create the look of a five
hundred million dollar production on a three million dollar budget, as if he had not been in on her original plans. He publicly tells her to quit if she can’t do more than two shots in five hours and he begins to countermand her orders on the set. She explains to him that his behavior is counterproductive. By the fifth month of shooting, Menon is calling Lynch clueless in front of the crew and asserts he can finish the production in three days, and Lynch, saying “There are too many cooks in the fuckin’ kitchen,” begins to remove herself from the fray, saying she will work with the actors and Parvez, the stunt director can direct on set.

Watching Lynch speak to the camera and to the crew about deeply personal feelings and intimate details about her body–her weight, her loneliness, her inability to urinate, the lack of sex in her life, her fears that she looks like a “fucking idiot” because of the disorganization of the production–some will conclude that Lynch lost control of the film before Menon began carping at her. At the same time, the clarity with which she explains her situation as a director who was not shown her first dailies until eleven days after principal shooting began, whose crew that cannot get organized sufficiently to produce even a daily call sheet, not at all what she had been promised, suggests that Menon is browbeating Lynch to cover his own failings as a producer. It is and continues to be laughable that Menon considers Sydney a disruption on set when there is little or no evidence of crew discipline to be disrupted. We do not see this in Despite the Gods, but Vozniak told me, that Lynch kept touching base with her father by phone, and with Vozniak for reality checks about whether she was inept or whether the situation she was being called upon to work in was “not normal.” They both assured her that it was not.

The onscreen scenes of Lynch’s extraordinarily good relationship with her Indian crew suggest that her extreme openness with them created a very good working atmosphere rather than, as many might predict, particularly in an extremely patriarchal culture, chaos and a lack of respect. The crew appreciates her humor and her willingness to discuss their needs and confusions. Lynch is effusive with praise for both cast and crew when a scene or a take goes well. And actors and crew continually listen intently when she speaks and demonstrate a desire to do what she is asking, and an affection for Sydney who often helped them with construction. Lynch’s work with the actors is brilliant. We see her envelop them in the emotional tone she needs them to achieve, and we witness her seat-of-the-pants ability to generate many suggestions for acting business in response to their reactions to her direction. They give her everything they have.

And when the crew learns that Lynch’s film Surveillance has won a festival prize, they insist over Lynch’s objections on celebrating her triumph. For her part, Lynch told me that she loved
the crew and the actors, some of whom she began to consider as friends, but that, unlike on American sets, production was hampered by the extreme hesitance of the Indian crew to let her know when they didn’t understand her directions. Lynch said that she often went over the instructions numerous times, asking often if there were questions or if what she said was clear, to be told, “Yes, madame,” when there was no clarity at all. Vozniak told me that in India directors hold themselves aloof from the physical work of production, which indicates that the normal Indian crew is fairly self-directing or that the producer takes responsibility for day to day logistics. Why they were not in this case, why they were not able to work efficiently even with Lynch’s hands on participation raises questions Despite the Gods doesn’t answer, though many watching it will be tempted to guess.

NEXT INSTALLMENT:

CHAPTER FIVE: A SILENT WATCHER

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS:

CHAPTER ONE: MAKING HISSS

CHAPTER TWO: WHAT JENNIFER LYNCH SAW

CHAPTER THREE: HOW PENNY VOZNIAK GOT INTO IT

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