A casual observer might simply call Kerry Laitala a filmmaker and leave it at that. But anyone who’s seen her spooky, intricate, delightfully creative works, including 2003’s Out of the Ether, 2005’s Torchlight Tango, and 2006’s Muse of Cinema, would certainly disagree. A self-described "media artist-archaeologist" whose art hinges not just on subject matter but on the physical manipulation of film stock, Laitala makes movies for viewers who’re willing to leave their preconceived notions about cinema at the screening-room door.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in the world don’t know what [experimental film] is," she said from the living room of her San Francisco apartment. The eclectic decor includes an array of Halloween decorations that Laitala displays year-round, stacks and stacks of books, and curiosities seemingly plucked from a cabinet of dusty Victorian delights. "A lot of people don’t like [experimental film] because it doesn’t fulfill their expectations of what cinema should be. They’re not interested in engaging with something that they’re not familiar with. That’s just human nature."
Having a limited audience doesn’t bother Laitala, who’s been making films since high school. She was first inspired after seeing a 16mm archival print of the Hindenburg explosion. "I was blown away by the paradox of how beautiful it was and how tragic it was too. How horrific and simultaneously incredible it was."
In college at the Massachusetts College of Art and grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute, Laitala pursued experimental filmmaking. At MassArt, "I saw Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart when I was 18 or 19 years old. That was where I became interested in experimental film and working with a medium in a way that’s more personal."
Since the late 1980s, Laitala has completed an impressive array of short films, installations, and projector performance works (including 2007’s Hocus Pocus, ABRACADABRA, recently staged at Francis Ford Coppola’s Napa Valley winery). Her art has screened all over the United States, Europe, and Asia, and she’s about to head down under for her Australian debut. The reason for her international popularity is clear: even if only point-one percent of the population embraces experimental film, Laitala’s works are exceptional and anyone with a pair of eyeballs, even a befuddled popcorn-movie fan, can see it. Muse of Cinema, a 20-minute re-creation of the experience of going to the movies when movies were still being born, makes use of a serendipitous flea market find: antique magic lantern slides. The result is inspired, multilayered, and visually astonishing.
Five years in the making, Muse of Cinema also highlights Laitala’s technical skills. I asked her to explain hand processing, the technique she uses to create her vivid images. She told me, "After you’ve exposed your film in the camera, you have an image on the film, but you can’t see it. It’s a latent image. In order to bring the image out to the viewer’s eyes when you project it, you have to process it. You can either have a lab do that or you can do it yourself. When you process it yourself, you can manipulate the material. You’d have the pay a lab a lot more money to do that, but also [when you do it yourself] you have a lot more control. Oftentimes it has a handmade look to it because there might be certain kinds of idiosyncrasies with the way that you do the hand processing that’s different than how a lab would do it, where everything’s in a very standardized, sterile setting. With hand processing you can get a lot of interesting effects that are very hard to replicate digitally."
Muse of Cinema‘s soundtrack, created in collaboration with Robert Fox, is similarly complex, an evocative mix of sound effects and music snippets. Because they require her to gather plenty of material for her images and her soundtrack and endlessly manipulate both to achieve the effects she desires Laitala’s films are labor-intensive, which is part of the reason she enjoys making them. "I get a lot of ideas during the process of working with the material," she said. "You discover things that you would never set out to achieve if you had everything mapped out from beginning to end. I think a lot of artists work that way. People keep saying, ‘You gotta stop using the phrase experimental film, because experimental film makes it sound like you don’t know what you’re doing.’ It’s a really tricky thing. A lot of people call themselves film artists. You’re working with a medium in the same way that a painter would work with paint. You’re working directly with the stuff itself."
In a follow-up e-mail after our meeting, Laitala further explained herself: "My process is organic, utilizing elliptical forms, allowing my projects to evolve and become entities unto themselves. I am more interested in ideas that arise in a nonlinear fashion where my images can carry myriad meanings, for literal connotations are limiting." And there’s no limit to what this talented artist can achieve.