This week, experimental filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery visits Los Angeles with her second feature, Troika, a film that continues her iconoclastic forays into the feature-length format. Her first was Art for Teachers of Children (1995), an autobiographical account of her life as a 14-year-old prep-school student and the affair she had with an instructor at the school. The instructor just happened to be the notorious photographer Jock Sturges. Montgomery deftly rose to the challenge of investigating her role as subject, not only in photographs of her taken by Sturges, but in the affair and in her own film. Rather than providing prep-school melodrama or hot sex scenes, she tackled complex issues of consent, copyright infringement, child pornography and artmaking itself, doing so with deadpan humor and a quirky roving camera that neatly unsettled her rather sober topics.
Art for Teachers of Children was also the filmmaker's first attempt to work with narrative. The results not only garnered Montgomery plenty of attention from mainstream critics and on the festival circuit, but also, ironically, cemented her status as a serious experimental filmmaker, which in turn helped her garner the Guggenheim money that paid for most of Troika. The grant allowed Montgomery a great deal of freedom with her new film, a freedom that, in turn, enabled her to ditch both narrative and autobiography. “I wanted to get away from my own story,” explains Montgomery, “but of course, with this film willy-nilly I found that it still became very much reflective of my own life.”
The impetus for Troika was, of all things, an interview published in Playboy with Soviet ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. “The interview became sort of an obsession – in it I saw the intermingling of sexual politics, or sexual harassment, and national politics,” she says. “By the time I got permission from the magazine to use the interview, my interests had shifted to trying to make parallels between improvisation and re-enactment, and also to crossing gender lines with issues of misogyny.” Montgomery structures the film around a re-enactment of the interview in which the protagonist, Jennifer, asks Zhirinovsky a series of questions while cruising on a large pleasure boat. She is alternately teased, harassed and insulted by Zhirinovsky, who adroitly conflates his nationalistic ideology with his own sexual proclivities.
The other half of Troika features improvised scenes of Jennifer at home with her lesbian lover; these provide parallels with the Zhirinovsky interview as the two women battle for power within the domestic space and their own relationship. “I sat in a corner and gave cues,” says Montgomery, who makes a bold comparison between realms usually considered fundamentally disparate. “At one point, Zhirinovsky says that homosexuality is the sputnik of human history. Sputnik means traveling companion, so I saw the lesbian section as this parallel companion, the thing that orbited around the interview. It isn't cross-cut, but there is this idea of the return of the repressed, of the thing that continues coming back no matter what you do.”
Having traveled the independent film circuit with Art for Teachers of Children, and now returning to the art-house/museum world with Troika, Montgomery is sometimes less than enthusiastic about the state of truly challenging filmmaking in the U.S. “There's not much of a community in the experimental-film world anymore,” she says. “If there is one, it's a retrospective one, with people getting together to look at their old Super-8 films. The indie-film circle seems really hollow and ahistorical – people come bounding up to me after screenings and ask if I've ever heard of Godard. It's really just kind of weird.” Montgomery hastens to add that the state of things isn't all bad; she's just interested in recognizing a larger filmmaking history and context, and in pushing the boundaries of experimental practice. “I think we should be considering less catholic ideas about experimental filmmaking – some of the reinventions and hybrids that people are undertaking are very exciting.”
Filmforum presents Jennifer Montgomery and Troika, Fri., Nov. 13, 8 p.m., at the Art Center, Pasadena, and Sun., Nov. 15, 2 p.m., at LACE. For more information, call (323) 526-2911.