“You fall in love with someone, and there's this moment where you just want to consume each other and not be individuals anymore. We had that so strongly that we felt we wanted to pursue that, and not just talk about it, but live it.”
So says Genesis Breyer P-Orridge — industrial music pioneer–turned–plastic surgery addict in the name of love and performance art — in The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.
Filmed on 16mm over the course of six years, Ballad chronicles the Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle founder's late career and second marriage, both defined by P-Orridge's surgically aided transformation from a man who occasionally liked to wear dresses, into a “pandrogynous being” altered to share physical characteristics (from blond bob and artificially plumped limps to breast implants) with wife Jacqueline Breyer, aka Lady Jaye. Jaye died unexpectedly in 2007, but P-Orridge carried on the performance, continuing to live as a self-described blended being and making art and music almost exclusively about the boundaries of identity as tested in their relationship.
Ballad is the feature-length film debut of Marie Losier, who met her subjects two years after they acquired identical breast implants, and two years before Jaye's sudden passing. Losier went to see Suicide in January 2005 at the Knitting Factory; P-Orridge's band, Thee Majesty, was the opening act. Before the show, says the French-born Losier, “I really didn't know anything about Genesis. I was not acquainted with her music, his music. And I was totally taken by it.”
When discussing P-Orridge, even those close to her/him can trip over pronouns. As Losier puts it, “She said 'she' when I met her. People who have known Genesis for way longer call him-slash-her 'him.' And then when Jaye passed away, [Genesis] started saying 'we,' as a way to keep Jaye alive.”
The day after the Knitting Factory show, Losier ran into P-Orridge at a gallery, which led to a meeting at the Breyer/P-Orridge home in Brooklyn. After a few minutes of conversation, Jaye told Losier, “You're the one! You're the one who we're looking for to film our lives and to be in our life. So, can you come on tour with Psychic TV in one week in Europe?”
“I said yes,” Losier recalls. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Losier's body of work reveals why she was so obviously “the one.” A film curator in New York, Losier in her off-hours makes avant-garde short films, having collaborated with the likes of Guy Maddin and George and Mike Kuchar (the latter, she says, taught her how to load a Bolex). Many of her shorts function as dreamlike portraits of her collaborators, incorporating stylistic signatures of their work (Losier's Manuelle Labor, for instance, both stars Maddin and borrows his hallucinatory, silent-esque aesthetic) but always circling back to Losier's own patented interest in the mutability of gender and sexuality.
“When you put a man in a dress and make them dance, the awkwardness of the body and the gesture is so much more interesting to me than straightforward men-dressed-as-men and women-dressed-as-women,” Losier says.
She puts her process “in the tradition of Jack Smith, or even Warhol — it's just [about] loving the people who are in the film, who are often my friends, and observing their bodies, and playing with them, and them playing constantly with me.”
The defining aesthetic of P-Orridge's work, from the paleo-industrial sound of Psychic TV to pandrogyny, is the cut-up, borrowed from William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, whose mentorship of Genesis is documented in Ballad. P-Orridge's deep romantic and creative bond with Jaye became both the site and the subject of his most elaborate, and literal, collage.
Ballad is, then, an homage to that collage, a nonlinear patchwork of Losier's intimate footage of the couple's home life (all of it captured without sync sound), threaded with archival material and art and music performances, glued together by Genesis' narration. Though Losier conducted traditional talking-head interviews, she scrapped them in the editing process in an effort to create a film that she says is “more like an impression of the moment and the friendship between the characters and myself.”
This impressionism eschews traditional biography, instead giving the viewer the feeling of being inside Genesis' head space, without necessarily providing all the information we might need to contextualize what we're seeing. The film builds to the tragedy of Lady Jaye's death, but Losier keeps the matter mysterious, never mentioning the cause (which has been reported elsewhere). Instead, the filmmaker allows Genesis' mysticism-infused recollection of Jaye's last days — and sudden adoption of the first person plural — to speak for itself. For Losier, this was the only way to honestly represent the event, given that Genesis considers Jaye's spirit to be alive inside her body.
“She's not gone,” Losier says, five years after Jaye's passing. “I didn't want to, like, symbolize the death because that's just in a way, for me, killing a person on image rather than really representing how she keeps going and living in another space. The body, of course, is not here physically, but it's there in all [of Genesis'] work.”
That Losier chose to elide the kind of basic information that would be considered a meaty reveal in a commercial rockumentary might frustrate viewers looking for a definitive behind-the-scenes portrait of P-Orridge. But Ballad was never meant to be a Behind the Music episode or a filmed Wikipedia profile. Losier is an avant-garde portraitist and Ballad, fully of a piece with her filmography, is essentially a feature-length moving painting.
THE BALLAD OF GENESIS AND LADY JAYE | April 13-19 | Nuart Theatre | balladofgenesisandladyjaye.com