Meet Jennifer Reeder: the world needs her feminist short films right now
As Reeder’s knockout short Blood Beneath the Skin is released online, we celebrate this most unique and inventive of filmmakers
Jennifer Reeder is one of our favourite filmmakers. The Chicago-based artist has been active on the experimental film scene since the mid-90s, but in recent years her evocative narrative works exploring the tumultuous lives of teen girls – films with titles like And I Will Rise if Only to Hold You Down and A Million Miles Away – have marked her out as one of the most expressive and original filmmakers working in the short form. Her finest work in this mode so far, 2015’s Blood Beneath the Skin, has recently made its way online after a celebrated tour of the festival circuit, and its themes of female empowerment and solidarity couldn't feel more relevant.
It concerns the relationship between three teenage girls groping their way through the minefield that is adolescence. Reeder creates a heady, dreamlike atmosphere for their very relatable problems to play out; it's ostensibly a teen film world of proms, boyfriends and popularity contests, but the rose tinted lens of movie phoniness has been lifted, exposing the bruising realities of real life.
In the context of the unforgiving high-school social milieu, these young women are seen as either “bitchy sluts” or “cunty teases”, but the trio – and their similarly kickass friends – rally against such notions with punky abandon. When a particularly pathetic jock starts trash-talking his ex-girlfriend around the school lockers, a group of her friends turn in unison to blast out the chorus of The Smiths' Bigmouth Strikes Again in the jerk’s direction. It’s a fist-pumping dismissal of male aggression that feels all the more satisfying post-Weinstein.
Blood Beneath the Skin should also appeal to the current craze for all things 80s. The film's chronology is hazy: the girls have mobile phones, but the images and sounds of the decade in which Reeder herself was a teen pervade every frame. Unlike the empty nostalgia of Stranger Things, however, Reeder isn’t simply aping the atmosphere of her youth, but distilling its pop-culture to create a style all her own. Imagine John Hughes without the sexism, or David Lynch directing an episode of Saved by the Bell as told from Kelly Kapowski’s point-of-view. Joan Jett’s 1981 cover of Crimson & Clover, meanwhile, provides a loving anthem to the telepathic romance that blossoms between two of the three girls at the heart of the film.
We’re fascinated to see what Reeder does next, but right now Blood Beneath the Skin speaks directly to this troubling moment in time. Watch the film and read our interview with Reeder below:
Matt Lloyd: All your work is set in the Midwest. What draws you to Midwestern characters and stories?
Jennifer Reeder: I grew up in Ohio and I live now in Indiana, so the Midwest has always been my home – it’s who I am. Since the beginning, I have been influenced by these middle states and all that sky and flatness - even more so by the people and their kind of everyday destructiveness and determination to cope. Certain socio-economic circumstances or cultural wastelands force people to make bad decisions. They linger in the wrong job or get themselves fired from the right one. They drop out of school, they date deadbeats, they can’t catch a break… They enter into a continuous laterally moving spiral. They are stuck, with not much to lose anyway. There is no external incentive to disrupt the spiral. It’s tense and endless, like the flatness of the Midwestern landscape itself.
Your adult characters display the same traits, obsessions, fears and insecurities as the teenage characters.
I am exactly as I was when I was 14 or so, but now I have children and a mortgage payment. Coming-of-age is an ongoing process.
You’ve made upwards of 50 works over 20 years, but your recent films have drawn far more directly on conventions of narrative fiction than your earlier video work. What has prompted that shift?
My recent films are about women – adults and teenagers. I am committed to this voice and to producing unexpected narratives. I am trying to make films that I have never seen before. The unhurried pacing of the scripts and the awkward dialogue are purposeful and provide a meaningful counter to another type of story in which the pacing is predictable, the characters are blunt and the ending is satisfactory. Life is difficult and embarrassing and sad and lovely and lonely and I believe that the most effective contemporary filmmaking should reflect this striking complication.
I'm influenced by after-school specials – those made-for-television dramas for adolescents and teenagers, that would be broadcast every month or so in an after-school time slot. They were popular primarily in the 80s. They’d present a crucial life lesson – touchy subjects like sexual development and experimentation. They were painfully stiff and melodramatic and I imagine were meant to inspire meaningful conversation between parents and children.
For Blood Below the Skin I set out to make a fully functioning narrative, and that is a challenge. I went into production with what I thought was a very strong script – a clear plot, clear character arcs, a proper beginning, middle and end. This film is still very much of my voice of course. The biggest challenge for me with this tighter narrative was directing the actors through more dialogue than I have ever written – maintaining a certain emotional tension or texture through a conversation between characters.
That tone can shift depending on the take used in the final cut. We cut and re-cut and re-cut all of the dialogue-heavy scenes multiple times to get the cadence and pathos right. It’s one thing while I’m writing it, it’s another when the camera is rolling and yet another while editing. With a less experimental narrative you cannot get away with fuzzy plot points and that process of eliminating the fuzzy at every step of production will take years off your life, but I LOVE the process! It’s like working a jigsaw puzzle made of jello – so many ways it could fit but only one way it should fit.
The motif of the all girl choir singing 80s pop songs is something you’ve returned to in Blood Below the Skin...
The chorale scenes in A Million Miles Away and Blood Below the Skin are about synchronicity. Whereas many other media forms pit women and girls against each other, I present them as unified – a real force in this world. I also think of the singing scenes as transcendental. They allow the audience a lingering moment to fully contemplate the surrounding narrative.
In my opinion there are very few great films for teenage girls. Cinematically, they are grossly misrepresented. I hope my films get it right. Young women are beautifully challenging, magical and remarkable humans – my films are a celebration of this. I make the films for the grrrls and it is just a lovely extra if everyone else likes them as well. My films are certainly more ‘popular’ now than ever before and yet I feel firmly that I am making my most honest work so it’s a real win-win.
You may be making films for teenage girls, but how do teenage girls, particularly in the Midwest, get to see your films? Is cinema as you and I know it an influence for millenials?
I do believe that films are still influential – maybe not short films unfortunately. Or at least teenagers and audiences in general have limited access to short films. Popular media, whether in music, movies or books, from what I can glean from observation, is still a form of religion for teenage girls.
It’s evidenced in the popularity of the Twilight book series turned into movies, their soundtracks and so on. My films certainly aim to offer an alternative to something like the Twilight or Hunger Games franchise. But I see that girls still turn to a screen or literary hero or a voice singing on their iPod for guidance and comfort. “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my name, and it feels like home...”
Every fortnight, The Skinny, in collaboration with Glasgow Short Film Festival, points our readers in the direction of great short films streaming online
Glasgow Short Film Festival 2018 runs 14-18 Mar, with its programme announced on 31 Jan