AN INTERVIEW WITH ANGELINE GRAGASIN BY BRADLEY TSALYUK
BRADLEY TSALYUK: Your bio is more revealing then most and you had a unique childhood where you profess to have "spent a lot of time on the internet." Can you tell me a little about this time in your life?
ANGELINE GRAGASIN: I spent a lot of time on the Internet because I wasn't allowed to leave the house. My mother was very strict. I didn't grow up doing the kinds of things other kids got to do—go on adventures, play outside, climb trees, go to the movies. The only time I could go over to someone else's house was to study. So I watched a lot of TV and spent a lot of time talking to friends on the phone. When we got the Internet, it was like a godsend. It was liberating to be connected to the rest of the world, which I knew existed, but not from direct experience.
BT: What drew you to theater and film? Who inspired you at an early age?
AG: I went to a K-12 school with a really excellent fine and performing arts program. I was heavily involved in all of the arts, but I was especially drawn to theater in particular because I saw it was a way of escaping my mundane teenage suburban life, which I would have otherwise been destined to spend under house arrest whenever I wasn't in school. At least by participating in theater—and a bunch of other extracurriculars—I could find a way to experience things, socialize, learn to express myself in a healthy way. The funny thing is, living in Racine, Wisconsin, I never saw any theater as a kid—except for a couple touring Broadway musicals here and here, which in retrospect were totally mediocre and might as well not even count as a legitimate theatrical experience. I was very underexposed considering how dedicated I was to the craft at such a young age. Which is why, when I got to college, I became really fascinated by Shakespeare and Sophocles, Chekhov and Ibsen, and later discovered clown, mask, mime, and other forms of international dance and theater. Grotowski, Kantor, Lecoq, and Barba to name a few. I even dabbled in performance art for a hot minute. How embarrassing! But I don't regret it. All these things led me to where I am now. As far as film goes, I basically grew up watching films. I collected as many classic Hollywood and foreign films as I could VHS and would search for images of vintage movie posters online and print them out and paste them all over my folders and notebooks, and the inside of my locker at school. I was such a film nerd, even then. Although I never once considered a career as a filmmaker it because it seemed so far removed reality as I knew it then. However now it seems perfectly natural and logical that I became one. You just never know.
BT: You studied many forms of theater and dance including Butoh, Tae Kwon Do and more. How do you think this connection to the physical affects your mental and artistic process?
AG: My training as an actor has given me so many inexplicable skills as not only a filmmaker, but as a human in general. It's taught me to read and respond to body language, and studying divergent forms has broadened my understanding of how the mind and body can be connected or disconnected depending on the circumstances. I feel very well equipped to communicate with anyone under any circumstances. Learning to control your body is one of the most powerful things you can learn.
BT: You also mentioned waiting six months after buying your camera to film. What was the first thing you filmed with it?
AG: The first thing I filmed was a video for my friend Derek Erdman, who is a painter. He was moving from Chicago to Seattle and he asked me to produce his farewell exhibition. Derek has a great sense of humor and is very sweet and forgiving, and I'd known him for so long that I was comfortable taking risks and making mistakes in front of him. So I created a promo video for him as an excuse to finally learn to use the Canon 5DmkII. Before that I had only ever used a consumer video camcorder.
BT: Your filming locations range from Downtown LA to the forests of Topanga. What landscapes inspire you most?
AG: I recently relocated to the bay area and I absolutely love it here. Only six weeks in and already I'm convinced that Oakland is America's best-kept secret. LA is inspiring to me insofar as the weather is amazing and it affords me access to resources and collaborators I wouldn't otherwise have access to living somewhere else, say Albuquerque, or Chicago (two places I lived before moving to LA). The reason for this is obvious—LA is the epicenter of the American film industry. But I also left for a reason. I am most inspired by the majesty and mystery of natural landscapes. The pastoral is a fetish of mine. I am 100% certain this desire was cultivated in direct opposition to my upbringing. Climbing mountains or swimming in the ocean was something I could only read about in books, or see in the movies. I'm still catching up with the rest of history and humanity.
BT: What inspired Man v Candy Machine? What are your feelings on instant cyber gratification? How do you think the internet has evolved since you first started using it?
AG: Man v Candy Machine was written by Jonathon Anthony, who is a very brilliant writer. He sent the script to me when we first met in 2007, and I immediately fell in love with it and him. We spent many years developing ways of producing the script—very nearly produced it as a play—until we decided to translate it to video. I won't speak on behalf of Johnny as far as his inspiration as a writer is concerned. But as a director, as far as style goes, I was inspired by stuff like online advertising, glitch art, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and TAMALA 2010: A Punk Cat In Space. Weird stuff, psychedelic stuff, digital gunk. I think instant gratification is dangerous, both online and IRL. But that doesn't mean I don't desire or respond to it just like everyone else. The Internet has grown bigger and better since I first started using it, that's for sure.
BT: About halfway in the video Man v. Candy Machine, MAN yells "I love technology! I'm Forever Freeeee...!." The rest of the exchange between man and machine seems less optimistic. Is this how you feel about the future of the relationship between humans and technology?
AG: Not necessarily. Halfway through Plato's Republic, Plato says poets should be expelled from The Republic. However he closes his argument and the entire book with an excerpt of poetry. Does this support or refute his original claim? It's important to consider the intentions behind these kinds of contradictions. They lead to richer, more complex understandings of narratives, especially when put into historical context.
BT: Some of your documentary pieces are a series called "The Ecstasy of Decay" and deal with documenting the process of burial. Can you tell me a little about these pieces and The Order of the Good Death? What are your thoughts on death's role in our society and how to it fits in a cyber age when it is more often approached on a screen then in real life?
AG: The Order of the Good Death was founded in January of 2011 by Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and writer living in LA. The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not. I think it's important to think about death not only to be prepared for it, but so that you can better appreciate life.
BT: The Animals is a beautiful piece and both beautiful and strangely tells the story of fear and love perhaps? Tell me a little about your inspiration for this piece?
AG: The Animals was more an exercise in collaboration and an experiment with new filmmaking techniques than I had previously used on past work—less a fully developed meditation on any particular concept. Writer Caitlin Doughty, Production Designer Meredith Ries, and Producer Rachel Wolther and I all collaborated on the story, which continued to evolve throughout the production of the film. I tried be as inclusive as possible with regards to constructing the narrative, which is how and why certain themes are present. For example, Caitlin is a working mortician, and wanted to explore ideas about death and dying—that's where that stuff comes from. Meanwhile, Meredith was very interested in exploring a character's relationship to food as an expression, or extension, of that character—that's why food features so prominently in the film. I tried to honor my collaborators' own personal interests and inspiration as much as possible, as the whole purpose of the project was first and foremost to make a film PERIOD, given the usual limitations plus a little more pressure to produce something of a slightly more professional quality than my previous work.
BT: There are many open to interpretation moments in The Animals but two that spring to mind are smashing the plates while the man is eating (and the sloppy food scenes in general), as well as the twins. Can you talk about either of these elements or any others and what they mean to you in the film?
AG: A lot of the imagery in the film references some other artwork or experience—the references are too many to count, and probably too obscure to be of interest. For example, my idea for the twins was that I wanted them to serve as hyper-realistic protrusions of reality. I tried to steer clear from stereotypical cinematic twin references—eg. The Shining—opting instead to borrow qualities from other, weirder pairs of twins like Marie I and Marie II (from Vera Chytilová's 1966 film Sedmikrásky) and Humpty Dumpty. Their costuming was a direct reference to a photograph by a friend of mine, Self-Portrait in the Red Rose Dress by photographer Emma Bee Bernstein (1985 - 2008). Lots of little references here and there influenced the direction of the film and have significant meaning beyond aesthetics that only I and possibly only one or two collaborators know about.
BT: From your introduction online and your work I get a sense of your DIY attitude. What advice can you give to other artists starting out in a tough economy?
AG: Don't look down.
BT: What are you working on currently?
AG: I am currently working on two documentary webseries, and two narrative feature scripts, as well as countless other little things here and there. I have a lot of new work coming out in 2013. I'm also working on learning Spanish, getting my black belt in Kuk Sool Won, and mastering the art of cooking with anchovies. It's really a revelation when you learn to make your own Caesar salad dressing from scratch.