My heart gaped when I learned that Chicago-based filmmaker Daviel Shy‘s next project would be a feature-length film based on Djuna Barnes’s novel Ladies Almanack. If you, like me, are enthusiastic about lesbian communities, ex-pat literary culture, fashion, and temporal wormholes, you’ll be as impatient as I am to see it. It won’t be long: the film is currently in production, with an ETA of early next year.
Barnes’s Ladies Almanack, first published in 1928 (full title: Ladies Almanack: showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion), is a sly roman à clef chronicling Barnes’s (mostly lesbian) circle of friends and lovers, and their HQ in Natalie Clifford Barney’s long-running Parisian salon. In reinventing it as a film, Shy is creating a hybrid Chicago-Paris setting and what she calls a “triple time” zone where three distinct periods collide. The film follows characters based not only on Barney (played by Brie Roland) and other thinly veiled figures in the book, including Mina Loy (Brenna Kail) and Radclyffe Hall (Deborah Bright), anchored by narration from French feminists of a later time: Luce Irigaray (Elesa Rosasco), Monique Wittig (Eileen Myles), and Hélène Cixous (as herself). All of these characters blur into the present as they find form in the bodies of contemporary artists and writers. I spoke with Shy about the genesis of the project, her relationship to the book and the community to which it pays homage, and what it was like to work with the great Cixous.
Megan Milks: I was so thrilled to learn you’re working on a film project related to The Ladies Almanack, which is such a weird, clever, and funny book—and a book that hasn’t really gotten its due, I’d argue, either as a literary text or as a lesbian feminist cultural artifact. I know you’re working with other texts too (and I want to hear more about them, too) but I’m curious what drew you to work with this book in particular—and why in the medium of film?
Daviel Shy: Sometime in 2012 when I was in grad school, and practicing a sort of binge researching, I ordered it from another library. Once I read it I just kept on renewing it. I couldn’t put it away. I read this before Barnes’ other work. I think I was led to it because I was looking for examples of lesbian property while writing about Rosa Bonheur, and I was captivated by the house Natalie Barney built with Romaine Brooks. Looking more into these two, I found the Almanack.
Eventually I worked it into the film I was making then—a short called The Tyrant, in which the main character is a director and the film she is making is The Ladies Almanack. In this way I allowed myself to begin researching these women, and slyly working on what would become this film. Here’s a still from The Tyrant, in which we see Tess, the director, in her studio, quoting the section in L.A. called “lists and likelihoods.”
The scene in The Tyrant that is supposed to be what Tess is shooting is called “The Politics of the Living Room.” It is a tableau vivant in which the camera moves in an ellipse (I custom built a dolly and track to fit my own living room) and every time it returns the women are in new positions, never having moved on camera. This scene was a good beginning, showing how the women all had different relationships to one another, criss-crossing and shifting. I run a monthly movie night from my living room, L.M.N.O.P: Lesbian Movie Night Ongoing Project, and I am interested in how the home-space has a specific type of power. Salons are becoming a thing again. Anyway, at first I wrote nothing, I had to get it away from words. Dealing with Barnes’ text, my first step was to decode it (as much as I could), which meant learning who each of these characters was. So my research method became reading everything they had written in which any of the other characters in the Almanack play a role. I told my advisor, the incredible Cauleen Smith who was a visiting professor, about my idea to do the Almanack as my next project and she said, you’d better learn French. (I began taking classes in 2013.) See how it all just snowballed and began to consume me? By the time I graduated and had to give the library book back, I had bought my own copy. And film, to me, had to be the medium, because I needed to create a world. As far as I know there are only two ways to create a whole world: a film or a novel. But the book already exists, and it is perfect. This film also tells the story of the book, Barnes trying to publish it, hand-coloring the drawings with Mina Loy’s daughter, Joella, etc. The original Almanack cannot, in my opinion, be improved upon or recreated. This film is more like the Cliff Notes.
MM: I could have used Cliff Notes when I first read it! I totally didn’t get what Barnes was up to in adopting this weird archaic style (e.g., “almanack”; so many sly euphemisms) until I read it again more recently. The illustrations, too, harken back to woodcuts of olde—so the book itself is definitely playing with time and periodicity, coyly and uproariously. Your project is also doing interesting things with temporality, in reanimating this historically and geographically specific lesbian community and culture in today’s “post-queer” Chicago/Paris. How have you been thinking about the collision of these different temporal (and geographical, if you wanna go there) zones in the film? Or: what *kind* of world are you creating?
DS: Yes! I am always thinking about the triple time in this film. The “where” and the “when” are both hybrids, both created this way to mimic the experience of reading. Temporality is slippery in this world but it is not vague: there are three exact times within the film as “present,” and then there are flashbacks to fill in back story, and one scene of time-travel. I’ll start with the film’s “present,” which is 1928, 1972, and 2016 at once. When you sit and read The Ladies Almanack, you are yourself today, holding a book from 1972 which was written in 1928. All of these layers are equally important.
The original book was published in ’28, so events of the characters’ lives are all what was occurring around this time: Natalie’s affair with Dolly is solid, Mimi and Liane have recently run off together, Djuna has finished the Almanack. The film spans the entire year—in keeping with the almanac structure—so by the end Thelma has left Djuna and the viewer can see the seeds of what will become Nightwood taking shape.
It is also simultaneously 1972, because that is the year Harper & Row published the Almanack, for the first time available in America and to a wider public. Barnes, still alive, wrote the foreword for this second edition. The copy of the book I have been working from was printed in ’72. When I decided to write Cixous, Wittig, and Irigaray in as narrators, it is because they are the thinkers who have provided me with a framework through which to understand Barnes. It seemed fitting to allow these writers to shine through into the “present of the film” as voices of the 70s, both in style and structure. Curiously, if you look at the fashion of the late 20s and early 30s, it looks uncannily like the 70s to us. There was a major 30s revival in the 70s, from patterned knits to palazzo pants, so our palette to work from, visually, is the way these decades collide.
But there is also a third element in the film’s present, and that is today. This is more apparent in some scenes than others and in some characters than others, for instance Natalie and Romaine walk in period dress along an iconic graffiti-covered street in Paris, or the women’s tattoos, piercings, and blue hair-tips add a final layer to the 20s/70s style. Mimi Franchetti did not write, so she left very little behind to build her from. In this case we modeled her character mainly off [cast member] Fannie Sosa, who is a twerkshop instructor. Mimi becomes more Fannie in our version of the story, and one of the most “modern” characters.
Likewise, in reading, we must construct places we have not been using pieces of the cities we know: so we build from our homes. Therefore my Paris was always Chicago in a certain light. Writing the world of the film I was looking for Paris in Chicago and I found it both in architecture and in practice. Chicago was planned, after the fire, as a “Paris on the Prairie.” But beyond architecture, creative women in 1920s Paris used the home space as a place of discourse, experimentation, and creative gathering. This is very true to present-day Chicago. Artist-run and lived-in spaces such as the Nightingale, apartment galleries, home reading series, salons, and other home-venues are a definitive element of Chicago’s contemporary cultural landscape. While touching back to original sites for context and clarity, the film’s hybrid location suggests that present-day Chicago is perhaps more Paris than Paris.
In France, the center of our creative community has been a living room in Aubervilliers (an inner-ring suburb just Northwest of Paris city proper). In Chicago, the spaces that have served and fed our artistic community for many years figure prominently in the film. These rooms on both continents from which the work emerges are spaces very much like Natalie’s salon. The Ladies Almanack addresses the cultural importance of semi-private spaces as essential ground for social and professional self-determination.
MM: You’ve identified a number of interesting links between these time periods and settings. I want to ask more about the cultural links that you see, particularly between what we could call present-day American queer/lesbian/dyke culture and modernist Parisian/ex-pat lesbian culture (do those categories seem right?). I guess I’m wondering what this project wants American queer/lesbian culture to learn, or see, about the past, and this particular heritage. What’s at stake in making these transhistorical connections?
DS: Hm. This is the hard one. So first of all the categories must be a bit more slippery. In “present-day American queer/lesbian/dyke culture”: the present-day part is right on. The American part, not so. While geographically I locate this very specific phenomenon of semi-private social and artistic gathering in my American home of Chicago, the PERSONS or CULTURE we are speaking of/from (and to) are Brazilian/Argentine, French, Swedish, British, Dutch, Bulgarian… it goes on. I do not think this movement has a nation. It can’t. And when I say movement (my producer is fond of saying “it’s not a movie it’s a movement”), I mean something happening inside individuals, but shared and changed by the interactions between us. My experience with the women from the books (the historical community) is that once I got deeply into the research, I realized I was carrying these women within me all the time. The incredible result of this film journey is that I now carry these current voices within me too. As the narrator says in the intro scene, “We who tell this story are not in agreement. We are not in common, nor are we easily described as at odds.” More so, we have space for each other in each of us. I believe this to be one of the most powerful political actions one can perform in our age. This is what can counter the alienation and loneliness produced by a digital culture that REPRESENTS but withholds connectedness. And one of the things I’ve learned from The Ladies Almanack (original and all its accompanying texts) is that connectedness is not unity, sameness, or agreement.
What I want for the audience to know, learn, or experience is not prescribed. But there are so many things I learn daily from this particular heritage. I’ve mentioned the importance of difference within a given “we.” Another aspect is the non-existence of the closet. Not one of these women was secretly homosexual. From Colette and Missy’s on-stage kiss that got them kicked out of the Moulin Rouge, to Natalie’s very public 1901 seduction of Liane de Pougy, to her lifelong non-monogamous partnerships with Lily Gramont and Romaine Brooks, and it could go on: Not only were these women completely “out” (a very inappropriate word in this context) but looking at this sliver of time in Paris, you’ll find they were not even the only lesbian power clique in town. One mindset I am always trying to combat is the “we’ll take what we can get” scarcity attitude when it comes to Lesbian culture, then or now. Barney and friends show us you can be choosy, that there is no shortage of “us.” There have always been a myriad of ways to be a homo. Claude Cahun and Gertrude Stein, for instance, contemporaries of Barney, each chose very different ways. I choose this particular group for their unrelenting female-centricity, and the common thread of writing among almost all of them.
MM: We’ll see Cixous, Wittig, and Irigaray in the film–who else? What other authors and texts are you working with? What was it like working with Cixous?
DS: Yes, you will hear the voices of Cixous, Wittig (played by Eileen Myles), and Irigaray (Elesa Rosasco), but you will not see them since they are the film’s narrators. These writers enter the text of the film very directly. When I first described the project to Cixous, she replied, “I can see what you are trying to do but you are going to have to do it perfectly.” At that point, she agreed to narrate, but only if she spoke her own words. This was better that I anticipated, here I had the author’s permission to insert her text unchanged. But as I went through her parts, there were some places I felt I needed to keep my own words. Once we were there with her in her home, almost six months after my initial contact, she had no problem reading both my text and hers interchangeably. She did, however, ask (suggest? demand?) we change one word together. One of the “We’s” was made a “They” while the rest in the sentence remained. This created a delightfully slippery “Who” and also taught me to be braver within syntax and say to hell with pronoun agreement.
Other texts in the work are Marilyn Frye’s Politics of Reality because it is in everything I do and say, The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (a utopia that precedes Thomas More’s by 100 years), and Partial Visions by Angelika Bammer, which begins the film’s narration. A somewhat-full bibliography can be found on the film’s website.
MM: The film’s cast is comprised of a number of contemporary writers and artists, including some big names like Eileen Myles, playing these historical figures, and their personas. How are you approaching character for this project? What kind of acting/performance techniques are you adopting?
DS: I approach each character with a sliding scale percentage of historic to contemporary figure. As I mentioned, the Mimi Franchetti character became almost wholly Fannie Sosa, while Dolly Wilde is nothing like Slaveya Minkova, the woman who plays her. Each case is unique. Some of the casting had to change due to conflicts, etc., so the script itself had to change if a role was recast. When Romaine Brooks was recast a few times, I realized it was probably because the cantankerous spirit of RB was watching, criticizing my choices, and would not rest until we got her just right. In the end, she did not permit us to stray from her character at all: Nessa Norich looks just like Brooks and happens to be an incredible actress. She crafted a character who was all Romaine. The cast is mixed in terms of actors and non-actors.
I don’t really have performance techniques in place. We rehearse a scene a few times and then shoot it once. It helps me and maybe the cast too that the sound and the image are not captured at the same time. I am very hands-on when it comes to body movement and frame composition. With such a small frame (super 8) I need to let the actors know what is in the shot, and I draw detailed storyboards with footage and timing for each frame. But the vocal performance is free reign. I don’t give much direction for how to say the lines. I’ll provide backstory or context if necessary but I won’t tell them how to play it.
I have a visual art background and I’ve also posed for figure drawing for years. I think this comes into play very much in terms of which parts of the set I control. There is a French line Myles has to say, a line ripped directly from Wittig’s Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary and we decided that rather than laboring to get pronunciation right and probably falling short, she would read it cold, as an angloized obviously non-French speaking Bostonian. We thought it was proper to leave it wrong. There is a lot of that in this film.
MM: I know you’re in production now—when and how will we be able to see the finished film?
DS: The short answer is 2016. We are in discussions with *people* in *places* about the premiere, but I cannot say for sure where and when that will be. But by early 2016, we will begin to bring the film everywhere we possibly can screen it. I can say for sure we’ll be in Philly in the winter, screening at Vox Populi. And while festivals and distributors are great, and we really look forward to that aspect of finishing the film, we would also love to find ways to bring the film to your town, school, club, bookstore, sex shop, gallery, theater etc.! Don’t be shy, just ask! The nature of the film makes it ideal for study, discussion, or additional readings/talks alongside the feature.
The filmmakers are holding a number of pre-screening fundraising events, including a Summer Screening of dailies from Paris in Chicago on Sunday, June 21. See the film’s website for updated information.
Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories and the chapbook Twins.