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Fire, Wolves, Vaginas: Filmmaker Vanessa Renwick Releases 30 Years of Work

Vanessa Renwick

Things are shaky and spooky in Vanessa Renwick's short films. Watching her films, I'm never really sure where I am or why I'm there or what will happen, but I'm compelled to go along for the ride. It feels like rubbernecking, craning my neck to peer into her lightly alternate universe for a while. Renwick, now 51, shot many of her tiny films on hand-held film cameras in late eighties and early nineties, drawing on her own wildly varied life experiences for subject matter.

In Olympia, Renwick films the messy homebirth of a friend, surrounded by midwives and a little out of focus; in The Yodeling Lesson, a woman bikes up a steep hill then rides down naked, completely calm and fearless; in Toxic Shock, Renwick's experience nearly dying from toxic shock syndrome leads to a punchy music-video-of-a-film where tampons are used to create Molotov cocktails.  For two years in her youth, Renwick hitchhiked the country with her dog and refused to wear shoes. These days, her life is more subdued—with a grown daughter and son and plenty of footwear—and so is her work. Her newest film Portland Meadows is a portrait of the surreal world of Portland's horseracing track.

This week, Renwick releases a DVD collection of her films called NSEW and is hosting a retrospective at the Hollywood Theater in Portland this Thursday and Friday night, April 25th and 26th.

We talked last week in her Northeast Portland home.

• • •

SARAH MIRK: You've made a lot of films about extreme things, like birth and abortion and not wearing shoes for two years. How do you feel watching them now? Do they feel young and strange? Do they feel extreme?

VANESSA RENWICK: They don't feel extreme to me, they just feel normal because that's my life, it's what makes me who I am. I think I'm much calmer now and my films are much more steady. I'm not so spastic. My mind still gets blown, but if want to relate something to you in a story, you're not going to see my mind being blown in the story. Like in Olympia, after you see the baby come out, the camera is all over the place because I'm like, "Oh my God! I can't focus! This is so intense!" I don't think that would happen now.  I feel much steadier. Although I still feel like I make ridiculous, stupid things—not like stupid, but you know, silly—but then I also make things that are way more slow and contemplative. 

One thing I like about being a reporter is I like to have a role. It changes how I experience events to be recording them and thinking how they'll become a story. How does it change your perception of experiences to have a camera in your hand?

I like to think about things for a while. My friend Michael Brophy, he's a painter, he paints every single day. People would look at the way I live my life and think I'm not working every single day because I'm not shooting with my camera or editing every day. But I feel like I'm working almost 24 hours a day with everything that's coming at me or that I'm reading, I'm doing all this research and contemplating and thinking about how things should go in work that I make. Then when I am shooting, it's easier. I like that filmmaking puts you in so many different situations that I wouldn't normally be in. Like when I was making Portland Meadows, I brought [her daughter] Montana with me, it was her birthday. I was saying to her, "Isn't filmmaking cool? You get to be in all these different places. You get to be up in the announcer's booth at a racetrack, you get to be in the women's jockey's changing room, this is amazing!"

What are you thinking while you watch your old films?

It's been almost 10 years since I went on a tour where I showed all of them, where I'd see them every night. Thinking about how it goes together one after another, it was like, whoa, I've made a lot of work. I know I'm a filmmaker, but sometimes I also forget I'm a filmmaker, because I'm on the edge, you know, I'm not making a gigantic living off this work.

Do you feel like you're critical when you watch your own films?

I'm not that self-critical. Even when I was watching Portland Meadows just now, you can see one of the guys I interviewed, you can see the cord for his microphone. It's so fucking sloppy of me not to put the cord under his shirt. But then I look around and there's all these other cords in the shot—it's kind of like Portland mentality Before I moved here, I used to wear a pillbox hat and taffeta skirts and dress up all the time and then I turned into a Portland slob! Portland's kind of lazy in a way and my filmmaking is like that in a way, sometimes. I don't know that it's  lazy or sloppy, but it's loose.  And I'm okay with that.

You used to wear a pillbox hat? I thought you didn't wear shoes.

That's right, I was always either barefoot or wore cowboy boots.

 

Photo credit: Donovan Skirvin.

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