The Wilkinson Public Library on Pacific Avenue in Telluride houses one of the 12 screening venues of the Telluride Film Festival, which recently celebrated its 44th year. The tricked-out Werner Herzog Theatre, the festival’s premier venue (and normally the town’s skating rink), seats 650, whereas the library’s cleverly named screening room, the Backlot, seats only 50. (About a dozen more can be shoehorned in with folding chairs.) It is the intimate Backlot that shows some of the most adventurous films of this always-adventurous festival.
That’s where Stacey Steers introduced her most recent work, a 19-minute film titled The Edge of Alchemy. The brief program note described the film as a “surreal entomological odyssey, the third installment in [Steers’] exquisite trilogy of collage-based animation works.” That's a bit like trying to describe Battleship Potemkin as a montage-based film essay about a ship mutiny. Not that Steers’ work has such grand visual or historical ambitions — quite the contrary. Her work is a microscopic study of animated bugs and abstracted flowers in a surrealist dreamscape. What is stunningly “exquisite” is how she incorporates close-up and medium shots of the faces of two of the greatest American actresses of silent cinema, Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor, into the piece.
If this unlikely mashup seems a bit problematic as “cinema,” consider the time it takes Steers to make each of her films: five years. Even by the uncompromising standards of the most diehard animator, this is an extraordinary commitment for a film of less than 20 minutes.
Watching Steers work at her animation stand with a 35mm Mitchell camera and a short end of Kodak 5213 film stock illuminates the dedication she has to her intimate poetic visions.
In a Creative Capital interview in April 2017, Steers talked about how she begins the research for a new film project.
I start out searching for a landscape for a film, a vague sense of a way of beginning that seems to be driven by the materials I’m attracted to working with at the time. Then I’ll make a scene or two, and the project moves in fits and starts for sometime. It’s always hard to get started; that is one of the difficulties of spending as long as I do on each film. I’m interested in very fundamental drives like desire (defined very broadly for me), how they resonate to inform experience, and our memories of the experience. I’m drawn to certain contemporary issues that for me have allegorical power. I’m struggling to find an internal metaphor I might use to illuminate a corner of the intersection of all this.
I think I’m attracted to actors who project a sense of interiority and psychological complexity. I always look for scenes where there is a kind of translucence to their emotional state that makes you feel drawn towards their experience. I think it’s quite difficult to talk about certain types of emotionality that are very central to our existence, but we can see it. We all recognize it. It’s one of the great powers of the cinema to allow us to behold those moments at a monumental scale. Of course, I’m re-contextualizing those moments and giving them a home in my world.
Here is a 2:40 excerpt from The Edge of Alchemy that reflects her sense of “interiority”:
At the 2013 Creative Capital Artist Retreat, Steers gave a presentation of a work-in-progress titled Random Forces, which eventually became The Edge of Alchemy. In the video accompanying her remarks, you can see the development of her sense of poetic metaphor using the multiple frame grabs from classic silent films.
At the end of her lecture, Steers says she is looking for a composer. She found him: Lech Jankowski, who is best known for his darkly dissonant scores for The Brothers Quay. At Telluride, Steers recalled that Jankowski insisted the film be finished before he would begin to compose the score.
This stands in sharp contrast to a different score for six instruments composed by Rob Steele for a live performance at the Sound of Silent Film Chicago 2017. After a brief look at the ensemble with the screen behind them, we see the film full frame. I admit to finding the lush though contemporary sound of this score much more engaging than Jankowski’s spiky one.
Here is The Edge of Alchemy in its entirety:
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