The eyes of Skye Thorstenson

Pub date May 25, 2010
SectionFilm Features

VIDEO Birds chirp and branches part like curtains in the opening scene of the music video for Myles Cooper’s anthem “Gonna Find Boyfriends Today.” Suddenly the pristine wilderness scene is shattered and, along with pulsating beats, a big-lipped strawberry greets us with Mickey Mouse paws. A Cyclops-peanut runs across the screen and leads us to a stack of televisions; zooming into one we catch Cooper singing, “It doesn’t matter what you wear/It doesn’t matter if you have money/We’ll find guys to buy us drinks/And tell us that we’re young and funny.”

“I think Myles’ video tells it best, because it’s this kinda caffeinated euphoria,” explains Skye Thorstenson, the mastermind behind the wild imagery of the video. “It’s unrealistic and there’s a little melancholy imbued in it, because this is sooo not the way life really is. There are no cupcakes who are going to help you find boyfriends.”

WHAT? No, wait, hold up. But I thought … So the mountain topped with lollipops looking like Candyland isn’t real? Without realizing that he’s burst my bubble, Thorstenson continues, “But I like that. I like to hide the fact that life is boring. What the world needs is some more color.”

“I never imagined myself doing music videos. For Myles, it was all about the music,” Thorstenson explains. “I wanted to do some visual thing. I told him it won’t be a music video, but it might be like a short film.” In the course of the narrative, Cooper finds puppet lovers, a chorus of gassed angels, and becomes the man-in-the-moon. In the end, a vagina dentata resembling Aunt Charlie’s Lounge — a dive-bar at Turk and Taylor streets— literally eats itself. “I feel like an Aunt Charlie’s is always going to be there, and it’s always going to eat its predecessor,” Thorstenson says. “And there are always different nights there, and sometimes they survive and sometimes they don’t. But what Myles and Alexis [Penney, who cohosts the club night High Fantasy with Cooper] created will always be there, or some essence of it.”

Throughout Thorstenson’s repertoire, he constantly plays with the notion of a fragmented past and explores how essences persist into the present. He is currently filming an experimental documentary that he named after Roland Barthes’ S/Z. It’s an extension of his earlier film, called Gunk Land, which starts at Wisconsin’s Oneida Indian reservation where Thorstenson’s mother lives. “I wanted to do a documentary on my identity: who I am and where I come from,” he explains. Highlighting the ambiguous — possibly fake — moments of documentaries, as in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which glamorizes pre-World War II Germany, or The Thin Blue Line, which reenacts a murder scene, Thorstenson utilizes reenactments with different edits and different actors playing him to construct an ambiguous reality. “With S/Z, it’s going to be more how I imagined it and colored in some ideas based on what my mom told me about my past.”

As with “Gonna Find Boyfriends Today” and Gunk Land, S/Z finds Thorstenson working with a mess of “floating fragments” left over from a childhood spent watching PBS specials and Disney movies. Pieces of puppets, stereotypes or songs — “like the plastic floating in the middle of the ocean,” as he puts it — are smashed together. In the 1970 book S/Z, Barthes explores how narrative works and how we recollect memories. Instead of linearity, Thorstenson explains, memory offers “more of a pastiche of experiences and sensations that are pulled together to bring an experience.” This, he adds, is how authors often work: the reader fills in the gaps and links the situations together.

Thorstenson’s take on S/Z turns this idea into a visual experience. It will be released online in pieces that can be navigated like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and a path through separating branches might reveal the same scene reenacted with different actors, or the same scene with alternative edits. In this way, varied connections and present-versions of Skye are constructed, based on how the past is perceived. “You’re meant to know it might’ve gone differently,” Thorstenson says, “and you can’t trust anything.”

Even the way Thorstenson speaks parallels this fragmented pattern, as he seamlessly jumps from one memory to another or from one project to the next. “The music inspired that video and we worked closely together for four months,” he explains about his work with Cooper. He also has done videos set to Xiu Xiu and Antony and the Johnsons’ songs, to local music-maker Adam Finken’s “Firebird,” and is about to undertake a movie-themed project for San Francisco electronic duo johnathan. In all of the music videos, there’s an interaction between the mood, beats, and lyrics of the music and the visual narrative. “With me, it’s more about improvisation, and something magical happens. I have no idea how it happens, but I don’t intend for people to react. I’m always surprised at how people react to something.”

In undergrad film school at the Academy of Art, Thorstenson was taught how to look at film from a business perspective — it has to look clean, polished, and intentional. Grad school at CCA, along with a filmmaking crew he befriended, dubbed Nightmare City, allowed Thorstenson to think more about process, forcing his aesthetic to evolve. “I decided I’ll show faux interpretations of my process because I was curious about what is actually real.” These are readily featured in his work and create meta-moments, which make the viewer aware. “So I’m playing with this fake façade, and the truth hidden behind all these bright colors,” he said. “It’s the same thing with Myles’ video. There’s something behind all that happiness.”