A scene from Penny Lane's "The Pain of Others"

Interview: Penny Lane on Keeping Up Appearances with “The Pain of Others”

For someone that loves to pull at strings to see where they’ll lead, you can immediately see why Penny Lane became intrigued with videos uploaded onto YouTube by those suffering from Morgellons disease, a malady with symptoms that are said to include fibers bursting from their skin and chronic fatigue yet isn’t recognized by the medical community at large as being valid. One would suspect that skepticism would extend to how Lane would approach Morgellons in her latest feature “The Pain of Others,” having made features about Richard Nixon’s presidency (“Our Nixon”) from the vantage of aides tasked with curating his public profile while making their own home movies of him, and the charismatic conman John F. Brinkley, who boasted he had found a cure for male impotency from grinding up goat testicles, in “Nuts!”. However, it isn’t the legitimacy of the disease that interests the filmmaker, but rather the very real agony she saw in the video playlists for three women who claim to have Morgellons, desperate to understand what they suffer from and eager to form online communities that will sympathize with their plight, pleading for Facebook followers and new readers for their blogs.

As each of the women go to more and more absurd lengths to identify potential cures and exhibit increasingly erratic behavior, “The Pain of Others” grows out of its deceptively simple presentation of YouTube videos into a complex and sophisticated portrait of human behavior in the digital age, where the desire for attention and the need to attach meaning to even the most minute details has become a sickness in itself when exacerbated by the easy access to tools such as search engines and social media. Both provocative and mordantly funny at times, it’s the latest Molotov cocktail from one of the boldest nonfiction filmmakers working today, not to mention one of the busiest, as Lane is about to embark on a whirlwind summer tour in which she will criss-cross the country with three different films — “The Pain of Others,” and the shorts “Nellie Bly Makes the News” and “Normal Appearances” — all while she’s knee-deep into work on another.

“It’s a productive time,” Lane tells me seemingly unfazed, less than 24 hours before hitting the road for an 11-day production excursion that will lead to San Francisco where she’s set to pick up the Vanguard Award from the SF DocFest on June 2nd.

Known for spending years to create her densely layered and meticulously researched considerations of how history is made, Lane may make it look it easy, but then again she does spend plenty of time considering how much goes into how people present themselves. While “The Pain of Others” offers a shrewd variation on that theme by putting the viewer directly in the catbird seat to observe Morgellons sufferers, the shorts “Nellie Bly Makes the News” and “Normal Appearances,” which couldn’t be further apart stylistically or in subject matter, are both playful yet serious ruminations on how women comport themselves to thrive in a patriarchal society, whether it’s in the undercover stunt journalism that was popularized by the muckraker Bly to make a name for herself when most writers weren’t even getting bylines or in the small superficial adjustments made by contestants on “The Bachelor” that reveal much deeper psychological conditioning.

Still, it’s perilous to overemphasize the intellectual rigor of Lane’s work when what’s most immediately striking about it is how fun it is — only this director would have complete control over how to present Bly nearly a century after her death and still make her a contentious interview subject, reanimating her in every way imaginable in “Nellie Bly Makes the News” — and like an oasis in the desert, the trio of films’ arrival at festivals around the world in the months ahead offers a refreshing respite from everything else that’s out there. To mark the occasion, Lane graciously took the time to talk about how her latest films came to be, her growing confidence as a filmmaker, and the shape-shifting qualities her own work takes.

A scene from Penny Lane's "The Pain of Others"How did you get interested in making “The Pain of Others”?

There was an essay written by Leslie Jamison about Morgellons that I read about three years ago and she mentioned the existence of this YouTube community of people with Morgellons. It was an essay, so I didn’t see the videos. [laughs] But she describes these videos where these people were trying to prove that they had Morgellons, but it was hard to see what it was these people were trying to show her in these videos. It sounds like a pun in this conversation, but it’s like the hair on my arms stood up, like, “Woo, that sounds weird,” and the kind of thing I’d be interested in,” because I’m always trying to think about stories that let me dig into the ways that different people construct their ideas about reality. The idea that there are these videos that were trying desperately to prove something and maybe not functioning in quite the way that the people who made them thought they were functioning just sounded like right up my alley – and it was.

As soon as I could, I looked up these videos and they were so much more interesting than I had even imagined. I don’t think [my experience of watching the videos] is really all that different from the experience realizing that these videos weren’t probably going to answer the question of “Is this [disease] real?” which I came to understand isn’t that great of a question [because] if you think about what’s at stake in the question, “Is it real?” what you’re actually saying is, is it a physical illness that has a known etiology? And [you’re implying] if it’s a mental illness, then it’s not real, which is profoundly problematic. So it turned quickly from the question of “is this disease real or not” to the lived experiences of the people that have this ailment.

The film follows three women – what’s it like to figure out how to structure this? Do you know the full stories for the subjects, given that their videos are just sitting there online or were they ongoing when you decided to make the film?

It was really more like I watched a large bunch of videos all at once over the course of months. I was not tracking the videos over time and I did a very intensive search and then downloaded those videos and started to edit it from there. As far as how I went about casting, the three women in my film were the most famous people, at the time, which was two-plus years ago. They had, by far, the most videos, the most views, and the most subscribers of anyone that was posting Morgellons logs, so it wasn’t really that much of a decision and it’s not like there were hundreds of people and I picked three. There were like five people and I picked the three people that had the most material to work with.

Is there any significance to the fact that they’re all women? In the material about Morgellons I’ve read, white women seem to be the most prominent group to claim affliction.

I think it’s significant, but I can’t tell you what it means. You can think of it a couple different ways. On the one hand, there’s a long history of what we now might call mainstream medicine – this kind of interlocking set of institutions and ideas – and of women’s physical ailments not being taken seriously or being ascribed to mental illness. The idea of hysteria in the 19th century was gender-bound, and there’s more recent examples as well, so you could say, “Well, what you’re seeing is an example of women who have something wrong with them and they’re being ignored and laughed away by regular doctors.” You could also say perhaps that women have been socialized or conditioned to pay a lot of attention to what they look like. Every woman you know probably grew up with a makeup mirror in their bathroom [with] 20x magnification just staring at every pore, so I wonder if some of this behavior might emerge from that. But it’s all just speculation.

Did it change things for you to work with more contemporary material? It seemed to me more intense for that reason, if nothing else.

It did. The way that it changed things for me is very specific. The women, whose videos I use in this film, are still alive. It’s not like John Brinkley, who’s been dead for almost a hundred years, or even most of the people in “Our Nixon,” and it is a very different ethical ball of wax when you’re appropriating material that belongs to living people. I did reach out to them to tell them what I was up to… and I didn’t really hear back from anyone. But that was what’s different, for me, and it was still a historical story in the sense that I was not following things that were unfolding in real time. I was dealing with an archive and the archive was fixed at that point.

The intensity of it was new to me. The naked emotion of it was very, very intense and there’s no break from it. It’s like they’re staring directly at you and they’re so vulnerable and everything that’s happening is happening so sincerely and on the surface. They’re sharing the most intimate details of their lives that you almost feel like you’re a voyeur, like you’re not supposed to be seeing this stuff and it makes you incredibly uncomfortable. It’s relentless. But to me, it feels very much of a piece with everything I ever made before, though I know that this is not a film I would’ve released ten years ago, simply because I would be too afraid that people would’ve thought I was a bad person for having made it, or that people would just hate it and hate me for making it. I wouldn’t have had the self-confidence as an artist 10 years ago to make this film, or even maybe five years ago, even though I think I would’ve found it just as interesting.

Did your experience of how you took these videos in contribute to how you’d present them?

Yeah, I think it was Richard Brody, who wrote a small review of the film, [who] used the phrase “observational editing” to describe the editing style of the film – these long takes [that are] a very specific way of editing archive. It’s not what people expect, and I like that he appropriated the word “observational” and applied it to my way of looking at archival in this film because it is like that. Like every film, it’s hyper-manipulated in every way, but the way that it’s edited is very much meant to convey the experience of watching the original videos. There might be a six-minute scene and it feels endless to you, and of course, in reality, that video was 80 minutes long. [laughs]

If you think about the different varieties of found footage filmmaking. I wasn’t making a clever collage. I wasn’t juxtaposing two clips to create new meaning or making a supercut of the things that everyone always says in Morgellons videos. None of that was happening and that was very conscious because I was treading very carefully an ethical [line of what] I thought was okay to do and it felt important to accurately represent the content of these videos, so I wanted my editing to be as unobtrusive as possible.

I wondered how you figured out how you would do scene transitions.

It’s hilarious to even call them scenes because in a way, there isn’t any scenes. This isn’t really a movie, in certain kinds of ways. In a movie, you’re supposed to forget you’re watching a movie and disappear into the world that’s being created and I just don’t think you’ll be able to do that in this film. It’s very Brechtian. The scene transitions were really a question of distillation. Yes, sometimes these videos were an hour long, but I was trying to accurately trying to distill what was in them and it was quite similar to the way that I edited “Our Nixon,” specifically with the White House tapes. As you know, those tapes were almost literally infinite. There were thousands of hours of tapes, so when we used the audio tapes in the film, our goal was to accurately distill a meaning and not to misrepresent or make someone say something they would never say.

With these projects, do you know at the outset whether they’re shorts or features?

In this case, I thought it was a short initially, so I actually began the project as a short film that was a commission from Fandor and then I just realized there was nothing I could do to make this a short film. It just wasn’t working at all without some time. So I don’t always know. I start things I’m just interested in and then at some point I figure out whether it’s something that should be a short or a feature. And then if it’s a short, I figure out whether it’s four minutes or 25 minutes. I did short filmmaking for many years before I started doing features, so I’m pretty comfortable in that form as well and enjoy it a lot.

A scene from Penny Lane's "Normal Appearances"It appears so since you have two shorts on the festival circuit, “Normal Appearances,” which is about to premiere at SF Docfest, and “Nellie Bly Makes the News,” which premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival and is also playing this weekend at the SF Docfest. What’s the story with those?

[With] “Normal Appearances,” I watched reality TV for many years, [which] I’ve always thought was an especially rich visual site for thinking about people performing their lives. I’ve actually been surprised there haven’t been more people in the documentary world who are more interested in reality TV, and I think [reality TV] has a lot to do with why documentary has become so popular over the last 20 years. So I watched a lot of reality TV and I always wanted to justify my many years of obsessive watching of “The Bachelor” somehow, telling myself I was doing for intellectual research purposes when for most of the time, I’m probably just watching it like the garbage junk food that it is.

But I always thought there was some film I’d make using footage of “The Bachelor” that would make me feel like I hadn’t wasted all that time and I had this idea of examining these very specific physical gestures that women make when they’re adjusting their clothing. I was staring at these adjustments, like pulling up a bra strap or tugging down a miniskirt, and combed through “The Bachelor” footage to see if I could find women making those gestures to really hone in on them and repeat them over and over again and choreograph them into something that felt more like a commentary on what it’s like to act when you know you’re being watched. The fact that it’s about “The Bachelor” is almost incidental. It probably could’ve been any large sample of women walking around in fancy clothes.

A scene from Penny Lane's "Nellie Bly Makes the News"The Nellie Bly film is a collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting, [which] approached me to see if I had any ideas about documentary films related to the idea of investigative journalism. At first, I was like, “No, I don’t do that.” And then I [thought], “Wait, well, actually…” [because] I’ve always loved the story of Nellie Bly, this very important figure in the history of undercover reporting from the late 1800s. As a very, very young woman in her early twenties in the late Victorian age, she was this badass pioneer who helped change the game for not only women reporters, but reporters in general, by doing these crazy undercover reports.

I always really loved her because there are certain kinds of stories you cannot access unless you lie about who you are, so she would do things like pretend to be a crazy person to be admitted into a mental institution and report about the conditions or the wife of a prominent lobbyist so she could expose the way that bribes were happening in Albany. I enjoyed that basic tension of undercover reporting — the ethics of that, but also the fun of it. The disguises and everything else – it’s just something I’ve really enjoyed. Also, I think she should be more well-known than she is, and I wanted to do another animated film because I had learned so much about how to do an animated documentary when I did “Nuts!” but I learned it all the really hard and painful way, so I wanted to do it again when I knew what I was doing from the beginning.

So this is maybe the most fun film I’ve ever made. Making a film is not usually that much fun, at least for me because I’m always trying to do something that’s basically impossible that I don’t know how to do. You would look at “Nuts!” and think of course I had a lot of fun making that, but you have to imagine the hours of pain so far exceeded the hours of fun.

Still, the joy of watching your movies, at least for me, comes in part with thinking what you must be when you come across the footage that you do.

Yeah, for sure. I don’t know that this is what every filmmaker would say, but usually what I’m trying to do when I get to the point of editing a film and structuring it is trying to represent whatever fascinating intellectual discovery I myself have making it. That’s almost always how the film comes together. I’m trying to share with my viewer something [that reflects] my own joy of learning that I underwent and that I [found] endlessly interesting. That seems like that would be a good thing to make a film about.

“The Pain of Others” will premiere on Fandor in July and will screen on June 2nd in San Francisco at the SF DocFest, with “Normal Appearances,” at the Roxie Theater at 5:01 pm, at the Sheffield DocFest on June 10th at 9 am at the PBS America Showroom and 6 pm at the Exchange Dome on Tudor Square, and in New York at the BAMCinemafest on June 28th at 9:30 pm at the BAM Rose Cinemas. “Normal Appearances” will also screen as part of Rooftop Films’ Short Film Program in New York at the New Design High School on July 14th at 7:30 pm.

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