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POTUS in Focus: Penny Lane and OUR NIXON

Penny Lane, at play with primary sources and vivid soundscapes, brings Richard Nixon and staff to life.

By Susan Gerhard September 16, 2014
'Our Nixon' revisits primary sources and 'Square America.'

‘Our Nixon’ revisits primary sources and ‘Square America.’

[Editor's note: In conjunction with Penny Lane's appearance as a FIX-featured filmmaker, we republish this March, 2013 interview with the director. Lane has just launched a new Kickstarter campaign.]

Does anyone recall that “Watergate” was once simply a hotel and that Richard Nixon won a second term in office in not a squeaker but a landslide victory? From this historic juncture, the jowly mug of ousted leader Richard Nixon is a face only a mother could love. Anything labeled “—gate” is a scandal, and it’s frankly difficult to locate anyone who admits to a Nixon-voting ancestry. Was there ever the “Silent Majority” that the thirty-seventh President of the United States claimed existed? Video artist, archival researcher, experimental filmmaker and nonfiction auteur Penny Lane may never have asked any of these questions if the 204 rolls of Super 8mm Nixon staff home movies confiscated in the Watergate investigation had not been brought to her attention. They had been gathering dust in the National Archives until Lane made digital copies (now available to the public) and dove into the treasure trove of material that turned up not only creepy criminality, but demonstrated the strangely youthful exuberance and oddball optimism of the young Nixonians and what Lane calls “square America” at this particular time of national crisis. From those errant reels, Lane has created an entertaining, award-winning, crowd-pleasing piece of nonfiction insight into the people who are the political process.

Penny Lane (yes it’s her real name), whose career moves between academic education to archival research to the creation of a variety one-of-a-kind video art pieces and essayistic documentaries, spoke to me about pretty much all of this after picking up an award at Ann Arbor and a lot of love at South by Southwest. Our Nixon closes New Directors in New York on Sunday.

Susan Gerhard: I was really surprised and entertained by Our Nixon at SXSW, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to view your earlier work. One of the things you said in your press kit is that there are ‘no bad guys in home movies.’ There’s a lot of home movie and found footage and playing with the idea of found footage in many of your other pieces. The one I wanted to start with was The Voyagers, which is such a beautiful piece and a beautiful essay about our collective history that weaves a personal story. How did the Voyagers begin for you?

Penny Lane: In general, I would say the relationship between a lot of the work I’ve done and Our Nixon comes from that interest in and ongoing fascinating with working with found material. That’s always been there for me, from the very beginning of making films, ten or twelve years ago now. I felt really bad about it for a long time. There’s an idea people say all the time: ‘Film is a visual medium.’ Creating images has never been the thing I love the most about filmmaking or the thing that I’m best at doing. For a long time I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not really a filmmaker, because film is a medium about making images.’ And it doesn’t drive me. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized this was a perfectly acceptable way to make films. There are different roles for the artist in society. I feel like especially in the world we live in where there is this unbelievable accumulation of sound and data and facts and material that an artist could accept a role of curation and commentary and archeology and accept that it’s legitimate and valuable.

When I thought about it, I started making all these connections in my mind between risks and the effort to achieve something. There’s risk and it’s real; there’s the potential for disaster. That in some way is how I thought about marriage. For people in my generation, you expect that it won’t work out, and there’s this idea of ‘Why even bother?’ But it ended up not even being about the Challenger explosion. ‘The Voyagers’ came from me looking for the perfect Hopeful gesture to offset the Challenger explosion.

That’s the general way that I think about my work, but as far as The Voyagers goes:

In general the way that work starts for me is through this research process or discovery of some amazing piece of archival. As opposed to coming up with a story in my mind or coming up with images in a camera and finding out how archival fits into it. Usually how filmmakers work with archival, they create their film and slot in archival that supports it. But for me, archival is the beginning. So, with The Voyagers it was actually spending a day on YouTube. I spent a whole day on YouTube watching news of the Challenger explosion. YouTube is so great for that kind of thing. I spent the whole day reliving that experience. That was such a foundational experience not just for me, but for our entire culture. And it really affected me emotionally. There’s something about that that I was interested in. On a separate note, to be clear, my then fiancé and I decided we wanted to make films for one another as wedding gifts. And somehow I instantly thought of the Challenger. Which is weird. And doesn’t make any sense, you know?! [Laughs.] But when I thought about it, I started making all these connections in my mind between risks and the effort to achieve something. There’s risk and it’s real; there’s the potential for disaster. That in some way is how I thought about marriage. For people in my generation, you expect that it won’t work out, and there’s this idea of ‘Why even bother?’ But it ended up not even being about the Challenger explosion. The Voyagers came from me looking for the perfect Hopeful gesture to offset the Challenger explosion. The Challenger explosion as you saw is a really tiny part of the film, but is a hugely important part of the film. I realized in screenings, it’s a part of the film where the mood in the room totally changes.  The whole rest of the film is a different experience because the Challenger explosion is in it. Not just to reference it, but to experience it. That’s what you can do with archival: It’s visceral. It brings the past into the present in a very real way as opposed to this very secondary way, where you just talk ‘about’ it. I’m very interested in history, but am specifically interested in films that present history in that primary source way. Especially in terms of how people experienced their lives then. Instead of constantly looking back at the past and casting it in the light of ‘what we now know.’

Gerhard: Dignity isn’t the right word for it, but this kind of footage casts light on the lived experience, gives us room to breathe-in the experience.  Other filmmakers working this way come to mind: Sam Green, who does the live performances with archival and great sound.

Lane: Yeah, I love Sam.

'The Voyagers' builds an essay from a marriage of space exploration and personal life.

‘The Voyagers’ builds an essay from a marriage of space exploration and personal life.

Gerhard: —and Rick Prelinger, out here in San Francisco, who puts together the big City found footage events. Do you work as an archivist? What’s been your trajectory to film?

Lane: I don’t work as an archivist, but I have worked infrequently as an archival researcher for other filmmakers. At some point in the past couple of years, I realized that understanding where to go for archival footage and working with it once you’ve found it is actually a skill that people pay people for. And I thought, ‘I can do that.’ It’s not my profession. My profession has mainly been teaching filmmaking and making films. It’s something I’ve done on the side. It’s something I love doing, because I love doing archival research. It’s really fun. You learn all this amazing stuff. Some filmmaker’s making a film about some interesting subject you didn’t know anything about, and then you become really educated on that subject. It’s like going back to college every time. You have to go back to the library and learn stuff. I’ve been making, as you know, short films that are coming out of… I’ve always been at the margins of everything. Which is now something I’m liking instead of being weird about. I’m kind of at the margin of a world of video art. I did my MFA at an art school; I didn’t go to film school. My earliest ways of thinking about images came from an art context. It’s very different from learning filmmaking at a film school where you learn continuity editing and lighting. In art school you learn whatever you want. I also fit somewhere in video art and experimental film, which have these different histories and trajectories as well. And then I love documentary. I generally speaking make work—probably because it’s about found footage and references the real world—I mostly end up making nonfiction work.  So I’m kind of a documentary filmmaker—and this is a problem when you’re applying for teaching jobs, because they want to put you in a box—I’m kind of a documentary filmmaker, kind of an experimental filmmaker and who knows, in five years I may be doing something else. That’s kind of like the best way to describe my biography. I keep skipping in and out of these different worlds.

For ‘How to Write an Autobiography,’ I was so fed up with the idea that the right thing to do with your life is to package it into these narratives that have lessons for others to learn from.

It was really fun to bring Our Nixon to a festival like South by Southwest, and also to Ann Arbor, where we just won the Best of the Festival Award. Ann Arbor is an experimental film festival. It’s actually very gratifying that finally I’ve done something that isn’t being punished for being in between those two things but is being rewarded for it. People who are into documentary film can appreciate Our Nixon because it’s a good film. People who are into experimental film can appreciate it because it’s formally very inventive. Hopefully I can keep that up.

Gerhard: Our Nixon felt like such a wonderful performance because of the sound. To me, sound is always the emotional cue. You can look at an image and wonder: ‘What am I supposed to feel?’ And you go to the sound and the sound tells you. I like the sound in all of your pieces and wondered if you could talk about the sound design in The Commoners and Our Nixon.

Lane: They’re actually very different. The Commoners is about the natural world. We did a 5.1 mix for that film, which I’ve never been able to exhibit, no place that I’ve shown it has had the capability. We did it. It was about creating this enveloping cinematic space where you’re surrounded by these sounds. There’s a lot of work in finding the sounds of nature and sounds of the city and finding fun ways to combine them, or contrast them or confuse them. For Our Nixon, it’s funny, because my sound designer, who’s this incredibly seasoned professional named Tom Paul—he’s been doing this for like 20 years. We sat down to do the film together. His default is 5.1 because that’s what everyone does. Within three hours of the first day, he said, ‘I don’t think your film needs a 5.1 mix, or even wants it.’  We talked it through. And it’s because we’re not trying to create the illusion that you’re in a cinematic space. It’s an essay film. It talks to you. It doesn’t try to envelop you. It doesn’t try to give you the feeling that you’re in the field with sounds that envelop you. It’s very clear that it’s on the screen. It’s fascinating that he came to that intuition right away. As much as we did work with ambient sound to bring film to life, this one’s the opposite of ‘cinematic.’ We started referring to it as this ‘essay’ film as shorthand in the sound-editing room, because it made sense that the film was about talking and not enveloping.

They looked so much younger than I would have pictured them. Not even just our main characters. Just all the guys on the White House staff. They were really young. Of course, upon research, it turned out they didn’t just look really young; they were young.

Gerhard: For Men Seeking Women, We Are the Littletons and How to Write an Autobiography. They’re all sort of video art projects, more in the art school space…

Lane: Why do you think that is? I have no way of defining it, but…why?

Gerhard: They have that combination of very personal and very inventive. They are purposefully lo-fi in certain ways….

Lane: Like, ‘Here’s my animation, it’s a really bad animation.’

Gerhard: …a lot of that stuff of yours is about having fun with ‘forged identities,’ a phrase I stole from one of your descriptions.

Lane: I use that term ‘forged identity’ in the description for the Littletons movie, but it does apply to all of them in a way. This urge to make autobiographical work, a lot of people have it, so perhaps it’s not worth wondering ‘Why.’ However, I really really don’t like. So I keep doing it, but I also don’t like it. So that idea of veils, what’s true, what’s not true, what’s an invention, what’s true for myself.  The only way I can make work about myself is to hide behind something. It’s the same impulse that I mentioned before, about found material. The Littletons movie is completely about found material, about objects in the world. I really did move into that house. I really did receive some of those correspondences from the owners warning me about the daughter. And I really did discover documents—notes, drawings—in closets. That was probably the first really good film I made and it was about finding stuff and imagining stuff around it. As opposed to again coming up with an idea and creating images to go with the idea. Some amount of the presentation is playing with what happened. Some people assume I am Eve Littleton and coming home…. Or that Penny Lane is becoming so obsessed with Eve Littleton that she is inhabiting her.

The other two were similar. Men Seeking Women really is made with ads from Craigslist, word for word. I found this cheap and easy tool that lets you enter text into a text box and create these horrible avatars. It’s supposed to be that program that lets you say ‘Welcome to our website. Below, you’ll find buttons related to your purchase….’ I just used it for this Craigslist performance. I made that film in an hour. Very easy to make. I wish I could make more things in an hour. I love that…… But it does not come easy to me at all. I’m jealous of artists who can whip things off quickly, the fail fast model.

The How to Write an Autobiography was interesting, too. It came right after The Voyagers. I had made The Voyagers for my wedding. I was totally fed up with it. I just got tired of standing on the stage for a Q&A getting asked very personal questions. Why would anyone do this to themselves? You’re being judged not just on your art but on yourself.  But it was for my wedding, so I tricked myself into it. I didn’t think of it as anything but as a gift for Brian. Also for the wedding, my family had scanned all those old family photos of myself. It’s one of these things you do at a wedding: the photo album. I had all these photos, and I loved them. I hadn’t seen a lot of photos from my childhood and I was entranced by them. But I was really annoyed by the idea of making another autobiographical work. So that movie is a weird fuck you to the autobiographical format in the first place. I was so fed up with the idea that the right thing to do with your life is to package it into these narratives that have lessons for others to learn from. Again the text from that piece comes straight… it’s kind of a mishmash of how-to manuals that I found on how to write an autobiography. It’s kind of an instructional, ‘Here’s how you do this thing,’ but if you pay attention it’s kind of disgusting thing to do. It’s not truthful that you can create one narrative out of your life. That there’s one way to interpret all these events. Here’s the story and here’s the turning point. Why isn’t this the turning point? Why isn’t that the turning point? The psychoanalytic model of self help demands that you look at your life that way. I reject it on some level.

'The Commoners' looks at the strange history of the starling.

‘The Commoners’ looks at the strange history of the starling.

Gerhard: Now to Nixon. It’s not a one-hour film! You referenced at SXSW the process of getting to know the material. I was curious what were the first preconceived notions about Nixon and his colleagues to drop in the process?

Lane: They looked so much younger than I would have pictured them. Not even just our main characters. Just all the guys on the White House staff. They were really young. Of course, upon research, it turned out they didn’t just look really young; they were young. That was the first thing that surprised me. I guess I would have that that anyone working at the White House would be ‘old’ and ‘seasoned.’ But probably the White House today is staffed by people in their twenties and thirties. Not people in the Cabinet. These are the White House staff ; the people who make the trains run on time. The second thing: I’m thirty five. I was not around during that era. I think that people in my generation, he kids of the Boomer generation, we’ve been sold this bill of goods: ‘Everybody hated Nixon.’ You can’t find anyone today that says ‘I voted for Nixon.’ It’s definitely not true that everybody hated Nixon. If the footage proved anything about anything, it’s that everybody did not hate Nixon. Many people really really loved Nixon. They were really excited to shake his hand at the airport and go to the rally and chant and hold signs and wear Nixon hats. I had never thought about those People. Square America in the sixties and seventies has been erased from pop culture except as this abstract kind of caricature of these people with their picket fences that ‘We’ were against.  But very few people were, like, ‘Yay, Abby Hoffman.’ By now, the ‘heroic’ figures from that era are from the Left, the counterculture, across every spectrum—music, literature, politics—it’s so like ‘That’s who won.’ That’s not all contained in the home movies, but it’s very evident. It made me start thinking about Square America. Watergate was a huge trauma. But I had thought of it as a trauma for the left. Why did I ever think that? It was the greatest thing that ever happened to the left. If it was traumatic to them in any way, it would have been traumatic because it took so long for him to get booted out of office? But he did get booted out. The trauma of Watergate was felt most by the people who supported him, worked for him, defended him to their hippie kid at dinner.

Square America in the sixties and seventies has been erased from pop culture except as this abstract kind of caricature of these people with their picket fences that ‘We’ were against. But very few people were, like, ‘Yay, Abby Hoffman.’

Gerhard: One cultural narrative, Kennedy v. Nixon, is young v. old., and another is that the left, the counterculture, was about appearances more than values. You mentioned at SXSW about Tricia’s wedding, that one comment Nixon made that didn’t make it into the film was that he couldn’t believe how ‘good looking’ the protestor who intervened at the wedding was.

Lane: Totally.

Gerhard: You draw this out a little in the press kit: the characters. How would you describe them if you were talking about them as fictional characters?

Lane: H.R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman, that’s the most important, was this ‘company man,’ a type of person that may not exist in America now. He was completely dedicated to Nixon for life. He took the job very young and was committed. He was never interested in politics so much, but latched onto the idea that Nixon was going to be good for the country and was able to give himself completely to that mission. Even to the point where, when it was time for him to take the sword, to save the office of the presidency, he did it willingly. That’s what you do. The military chain of command idea. You save the captain. I am less important than the captain. Having spent a lot of time with Haldeman, I think he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, like Asperger’s maybe. Obsessed with fact, detail, order, efficiency and factual accuracy. Nothing made him upset other than people being factually inaccurate. Or his perception of factual inaccuracy. He cannot tell a story to save his life. He thinks that stories are ‘lies.’ He’s not an artist. I think he’s extremely misunderstood by the American public. People think he’s this slick used car salesman type who was just cool under pressure because he was so calculating. I think he didn’t possess the emotional capacity to deliver what a lot of these talk show hosts wanted him to deliver, which was this tearful mea culpa.

Haldeman was obsessed with fact, detail, order, efficiency and accuracy. Nothing made him upset other than people being factually inaccurate. He cannot tell a story to save his life. He thinks that stories are ‘lies.’ He’s not an artist. I think he’s extremely misunderstood by the American public.

He was the opposite of John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman and Haldeman are spoken of together, but they had nothing in common. Ehrlichman had this emotional, expressive, artistic, liberal temperament. He loves human drama. He loves to tell stories and he’s really good at it. He is not thrilled by the idea that he is going down for Nixon at all. He feels incredibly betrayed by that. He feels he did what the President asked him to do and the President should have pardoned him. He was willing to talk about that to the media. He was willing to dish, so he went on a lot more talk shows. He didn’t have that sense of loyalty that would prevent him from dishing. He was like, I’m going to get mine because my life’s been totally ruined. I love Ehrlichman. I’m sad that I didn’t get to meet him. Because he’s my favorite.

Dwight Chapin is in a way the least drawn character in the film, because he was the least interviewed. We didn’t have as much material. He’s very young, sweet.  He’s the emotional core of our three guys.  He cries, he cheers up. He’s still alive, walking around, bearing the scars, wounds. And they’re still very upsetting to him. He’s still really upset that he and his friends are seen as these Nazis. It makes him sad and confused.

Gerhard: What do you hope this film adds, ultimately, to a) our lives, as a film and b) the public record?

Lane: In some ways the film isn’t really about Nixon. In some ways you could watch the film and have a meaningful experience with it without being particularly interested in Nixon. It’s full of catnip for Nixon obsessives, of which there are many. The film is not really about Nixon, though, it’s about two things. Even the most villainized historical figures are ultimately human beings. And they operate with the same range of nobility to savagery as the rest of us. And that they operate with limited information. They can’t see the future. They’re just bumbling about their lives. It’s not to excuse their behavior. They do bad things. But to brush them off and not deal with them is not to deal with the nature of criminality, or evil. These guys abused their power. Is it something we should think of as a universal? Or should we think of them as bad apples. What I love about art, and why I love good novels, is the idea of empathy in general for any living thing. And I think the film really tries to do that. The film asks you to develop empathy for people you don’t want to have empathy for. They want to continue to hate Bob Haldeman. They’re feeling it, they want it. I didn’t start out hating him. I had some distance. It’s interesting to ask people to deal with the humanity of people they don’t to do that with.

'Our Nixon' adds new dimensions to a storied, sullied presidency.

‘Our Nixon’ adds new dimensions to a storied, sullied presidency.

The other takeaway from the film is about history. It goes back to that thing I said before about how I’m obsessed by primary sources, and why I like to work with archival being about working with primary sources. It has to do with that almost slightly kind of educational component, where I want people to remember that by the time you read a history book, a narrative has been constructed, and only things that fit that narrative are in that history book. And anything that happened back in the day, whenever it was, yesterday, or a hundred years ago, that doesn’t fit that narrative isn’t there anymore. You get the mistaken impression that there’s agreement about the meaning of things.

The Ellsberg incident is widely considered the turning point of the Nixon presidency. They didn’t think so at the time. But now it is considered that it is…It’s not like when you’re walking around in your day-to-day life. There’s something about going back into history and living it the way it was lived that is really important if you want to think you understand something.

Gerhard: Films do that. If Lincoln is about why Barack Obama makes political compromises, then Our Nixon is…. We are trying to understand human behavior and how if affects our history.

Lane: The better we’ll do if we do things like try to learn from history.

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