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This teen girl movie is an ode to tough times growing up

Jennifer Reeder’s tender new film Crystal Lake continues her work telling stories about female adolescence – she explains to us how riot grrrl influenced her journey into becoming a director

If its title evokes the iconic stomping ground of Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees, Jennifer Reeder’s new short, Crystal Lake, quickly dispels genre expectations and makes its true focus explicitly clear - the only slashing going on in the Chicago-based director’s work is of the patriarchy.

From White Trash Girl (1995), the “inbred toxic disaster” of her SOV trilogy, to A Million Miles Away (2014), whose teen choir transform a Judas Priest single into a gorgeous female empowerment ballad, Reeder’s work has continued to investigate the private quarters – both physical and psychological – of suburban women and girls. Her increasing focus on teenagers has resulted in a series of dreamy, loosely-connected shorts which use formal techniques – double exposure, cross dissolves, overlapped diegetic sound – to suggest a subliminal tissue connecting girls of differing age, class, race and personality, all united by a desperate need to find agency in a world that seems determined not to accommodate their voices, dreams and desires. In the words of Crystal Lake’s Ladan (Marcela Okeke), which could be the mantra for any Reeder protagonist: “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, but self-preservation.”

After moving to a new city with her second cousin Samiyah (Shea Glover), Ladan struggles to fit in and overcome the death of her mother. With her father lying in hospital, she recounts a sad story of not being able to skateboard before dark, as the boys ruled the park and marked it as their territory. In an attempt to cure her misery, the headstrong Samiyah instigates a takeover of the local park so that Ladan can skate in peace. Crystal Lake is Reeder’s most tender, narrative-based film to date – a gorgeous ode to girlhood and female solidarity. Before it plays in the London Film Festival’s “Teenage Creeps” programme, I sat down with Reeder for a chat about VHS, feminism, collaboration, and why short films are important.

Let’s start in the ‘90s with White Trash Girl, your feminist superhero series. These films are like if Troma made Saturday morning TV, but all directed by Riot grrrls. They’re rawer and scuzzier than the films you make now, but there is a direct through-line – in both theme and politics - to your new work, Crystal Lake. Can you talk about who you were at this stage in your life, and how you created the character?

Jennifer Reeder: Sure. I was in graduate school in Chicago, and I was really coming out of third wave Riot grrrl feminism, so in terms of music and literature, that’s where my head was. And I was this scrappy grad student, y'know? I wanted to start difficult conversations about feminism, gender, race, and class, and under my own terms, not using alienating scholarly language. I was getting a master of Fine Arts degree; I wasn't getting an Art History degree, or a degree in criticism and theory. But, being this kind of scrappy kid who happened to get into a really good MFA program, I felt a bit like a misfit. So I thought, instead of dropping out, or feeling sorry for myself, how can I make something that actually makes me feel empowered as a person, but is also a kind of fireball, that still has all of the Riot grrrl energy that I want? Something that feels a little bit anti-intellectual, but can still engage the intellectuals in a conversation about race and class and feminism?

I decided to start with a superhero, but a superhero whose powers could be used against her at some point. For example, someone says, "you're disgusting," and then that's your power, like, "I am disgusting!" I think that there’s so much language, and it's still the case, that is used to harm people who seem to be at an intellectual or socio-economic disadvantage, and I just thought, what if you were able to turn that into something quite powerful? So White Trash Girl was born, and it really backfired, because my MFA advisors quite liked it, and that wasn't supposed to happen! Everyone was supposed to walk out, and they were like, "this is a very provocative way to begin a very serious conversation." So that became my thesis film, and you're correct to note that there is a through-line. I kinda feel like I keep making the same film about an unruly female protagonist who's just trying to find agency in her world. I just have a better camera now.

I love the video aesthetic completely unironically, especially VHS. It has a specific texture that’s well suited to genre cinema, with dirt and denim and body fluids; it’s very visceral. And I’m obsessed with the SOV boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s, particularly Blonde Death, Possibly In Michigan, and Twisted Issues. Did these films inspire you at all?

Jennifer Reeder: Well, the funny thing is that I now teach at a University (the University of Illinois), and so many of my students are scouring thrift stores for VHS cameras or Super-8 cameras, and they really love the aesthetic. Or they're shooting stuff with digital cameras but they're cropping the image to 4:3, so it looks like tape.

But I was very influenced by all of that work, and as a student I was fed a constant diet of the Kuchar brothers, and Jack Smith. I mean, Jack Smith was shooting a lot of stuff on film, but still, the graininess was super attractive. I didn't want to use film. I wanted to use something that was a faster medium, that I could shoot myself with no crew around. It could be just me and my camera, and me in front of the camera, and I could edit the whole thing myself. But I made an effort to re-scan a lot of that footage and use appropriated footage that exploited the pixel, that was all on purpose.

Those pixels, and the fatness and graininess of all those first VHS images... there's an urgency to it. Like, I have this idea, I have to make it, I'm going to make it on my lunch hour. In a way I miss that. Now my films take a lot longer to write, a lot longer to shoot, and I’m still an impatient person. But it's interesting that it's all come back around in glitch culture. My students are very interested in dropout, and analogue signals, analog manipulation of images. It’s a funny thing, because they come to me like, "I've discovered this thing called VHS!" But I still really love that aesthetic, and it's not so much that I'm exploiting pixels anymore, because I think I'm exploiting something else, the stickiness of HD. I hope there's still something that feels seductive about how I use the digital signal.

“So I thought, instead of dropping out, or feeling sorry for myself, how can I make something that actually makes me feel empowered as a person, but is also a kind of fireball, that still has all of the Riot grrrl energy that I want?” – Jennifer Reeder

You mentioned George Kuchar, who I’m also a huge fan of, and he actually has a cameo in White Trash Girl. How did you get to know him and ask him to be in the film?

Jennifer Reeder: When I went to grad school, I worked at the Video Data Bank, which distributes all of George Kuchar's work and so much of the early Sony Portapak black-and-white video. Anyway, I’d been a huge fan of his work for some time, so I got to know him through managing his tapes when they would come in. He came through town for the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and asked me if I would be in a film called Vermin of the Vortex, where I’m just shuffling through some pamphlets in the background. So then he came back through town when I was shooting the third White Trash Girl (Law of Desire), and I just asked him to return the favour, and he obliged. He really makes that scene if you recognize who he is. And Sadie Benning is in the first White Trash Girl, and of course she was, at that time, making all of those beautiful pixel vision videos in her room as a newly-out teenage lesbian; she’s making paintings now, she’s not making videos anymore.

Jumping forward, I’d like to talk about Seven Songs About Thunder. It’s the first part of your Forevering Trilogy, but it really begins a cycle of films you’re still making now, on a thematic and aesthetic level, but also a literal one – for example, all the girls in the marching band have the same uniform, suggesting they go to the same school, and you re-cast certain girls, but often as different characters. Were you intending to build a shared universe with your films at this point, or did that come later?

Jennifer Reeder: I've actually always loved film, literature, or even music with that idea. There's something that's familiar, and maybe you can't put your finger on it, but threads of people, themes, images, and even character names will reoccur through several songs, stories, or films. Seven Songs About Thunder came out of a rather terrible feature-length script, but some of the scenes were quite good, so I didn't want to trash the whole thing. I thought that maybe I could suture together some of the scenes that were working and make a short. So Seven Songs About Thunder was the first film to come out of that, and from those characters I pulled more scenes out of the feature, and I recast some of the same actors. So it was on the one hand practical, but it also felt good to make a series of shorts that, while they work on their own, could operate as a trilogy. And making three shorts was much faster and cheaper than throwing money into a feature length.

Seven Songs About Thunder features “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” as an emotional obstacle for your protagonist to overcome – first it’s the ringtone on the dead girl’s phone, calling her back to this terrible event, and then she owns it as her anthem. There’s a similar event with Judas Priest in A Million Miles Away. Obviously you choose music that will be emotionally resonant in a scene, but how much of that choice is about reclaiming specifically male rock music and re-contextualizing its lyrics for a female narrative?

Jennifer Reeder: Every time that I'm writing a new script I'm thinking about a ringtone, or a character that will quote a song, or even a song that will be re-arranged and sung. I always go to songs that were written and performed by men, directly as a way to reclaim or re-gender. It’s never to emasculate, but to have young girls reclaim that music is really effective. And it was partially inspired by Steina Vaskula, who’s a musician, and was also a pioneer of early video art, and she made a video in 1974 where she's lip-syncing to The Beatles' "Let It Be." It's very simple, and the moment that I saw that I had this thought that there's no better short film that will ever be made, but also, "I wish I had made that!"

But then I realised that I can! I can quote it. So in 1999 I made a video called Nevermind, where I lip-synced to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and like White Trash Girl, it was really empowering. It was empowering to become Kurt Cobain in that moment and to not feel like I was the groupie or the girlfriend, but to be the rock star, and to have all the power of the phallus, even if it was attached to a kind-of mopey guy who in 1999 was already dead. But my songs are very specific, and to what kind of guy also. So the Judas Priest song [“You’ve Got Another Thing Comin”], lyrically, is such a self-esteem ballad, and Rob Halford of course came out as gay, and so thinking about what it meant for him to be a performer at this time, singing this massively popular heavy metal anthem that was maybe also his cry to say, y'know, "I'm a person too," seemed really significant. But I don't always take on men, there's a young girl who sings the Madonna song ["Like A Prayer"] in A Million Miles Away

I also love the score used in your films, and the way it’s laced through the entire narrative – even more so in the Forevering trilogy. Can you talk about how you develop the music?

Jennifer Reeder: I'm somebody who walks through the world, as many people do, with my headphones on, creating my own little day-to-day montage sequences, and in Seven Songs About Thunder and I Will Rise, If Only To Hold You Down, both of those scores were done by this guy called Casey Cooper. I've been accused of relying on the music too much to direct the emotional temperature of a scene, but I guess I don't care if the relationship between the music and the image is drawing an audience in. Often when we're developing the score, and the music drops out, I'll say to Casey, "can you bring it back just a tiny bit in the background," and he realizes that he's eventually made a twenty-minute piece of music for a twenty-minute film.

Crystal Lake marks a slight change from your last few films. It’s still within the same world and style, but this time there’s no school, no teachers or parents, and the narrative foregrounds female empowerment as a part of the plot, not just the theme. It comes back to the music too. This time male rock music is gone, and your characters already have a female anthem as their uniting song [“Girls Just Want To Have Fun”].

Jennifer Reeder: It’s just for this project. I wanted to make a film that was G-rated, so it didn’t have the same provocative language or sexual suggestions that the others have, and I wanted to make a film with no adults that was a little more modest, so that a twelve-year-old Hijabi girl could watch it with her family. And I wanted to make something that was a little more accessible in terms of story, make it pretty straightforward but not dumbed down. Crystal Lake world premiered in Generation at the Berlinale, and I love that it continues to be screened in the youth sections of many film festivals, which has been really important to me. Because it still seems to get taken very seriously, and young people will get to see the film. So it's done exactly what I wanted it to do.

“Your typical American teen often just about a boy-crazy girl who's trying to lose her virginity or irritate her parents. Their storylines are so uninteresting to me” – Jennifer Reeder

I love the art direction in your films, particularly the use of props. They’re always so specific to character, like in the opening of Crystal Lake where Ladan is packing up the vinyl and VHS, the magazines and Pocahontas pillow. I feel like I would never see this scene in a mainstream teen film. Do you have a regular production designer, or is it you, or the girls themselves?

Jennifer Reeder: It's me! My basement is my prop closet, and I'm constantly scouring thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales for coffee mugs, posters, books, VHS and records that could eventually turn up in a film. So, for example, in A Million Miles Away, that E.T. figurine that she's talking to is something I've had for many years, and I had no idea how or when I would use him, but I knew that E.T. would eventually be cast! And there are props that show up a few different times in different films, like in A Million Miles Away again, she's drinking from that mug with the little sign language bear, and that reappears in Blood Below The Skin, in the scene of making the punk rock posters. So my props migrate through different projects, and that's a fun thing to do.

I think that so many films rely on dialogue in a very awkward way to explain what's happening to a character internally, and I've always tried to use dialogue only when it's very, very necessary, and to colour in some of that emotional tone with the props and the art direction. What someone's reading or wearing, or what they're listening to, the snacks they're eating, their chewed up fingernails. This past summer was the first time that I've worked with an actual production designer, and she was great! She had to wrangle bugs and blood and all sorts of things, but I still got to approve everything so it didn't feel like it was out of my control.

Outside of your own films, do you think teenage girls are well represented in the films that are actually about them?

Jennifer Reeder: I love Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold's film. That's such a masterpiece. The main character in Morvern Callar is not a teenager, it's unclear exactly how old she is, but in terms of a representation of an unruly female protagonist, that film is another masterpiece. I'm a long-time fan of Heavenly Creatures. But definitely those films that are made by Stateside mainstream filmmakers get it horribly wrong. I haven't even seen any of the Twilight films, but they seem unbearable to me. I mean, I like watching a film like Mean Girls, which has some funny moments, but at the same time my films really try to dispel the myth of the 'mean girl', and try to rub up against stereotypes, and there are so many American teen films which never work themselves out of that.

I think that the John Hughes films from the '80s are still very watchable, Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club. A Million Miles Away, the title of that film comes from a Plimsouls song which is used in Valley Girl, a film by Martha Coolidge that stars Nicholas Cage before he got his teeth done. I love that film. I also loved Carol Morley's The Falling, oh, and Mustang I think was a really great film. And those films were well recognized, but they're obviously a lot harder to get made than your typical American teen film, which is often just about a boy-crazy girl who's trying to lose her virginity or irritate her parents. Their storylines are so uninteresting to me, and so often about white girls, so that was one reason why I wanted to make Crystal Lake with these two young girls of colour.