Maggie Lee’s 2015 film Mommy explores the sudden death of the artist’s mother in 2012. Returning to the suburban New Jersey home where she grew up, Lee addresses the trauma of this loss and her own coming of age using layers of photographs, drawings, cellphone footage and animation.
This special screening was followed by a conversation between Maggie Lee and the novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison, author of The New York Times bestseller The Empathy Exams (2014) and Assistant Professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts. This program is held in connection with the exhibition Mirror Cells.
LJ: Memory isn’t something we possess easily or passively. It’s something we have to excavate and build and rebuild all over again. We are always coaxing the past back and casting spells to bring it close again. Even though we’ll never hold it, we’ll never fully have it, and grief sharpens this project of invocation into something unbearably intense. When I first saw Maggie Lee’s incredible film, Mommy, I was so aware of how much it summons to invoke the past. Home videos, old photographs, old IM conversations, old magazine covers, old magic shows, old concert programs, old outfits, old Doc Martens, old animations, old phrases, and brand names, and documents, as if it’s making an intricate potion – the potion necessary for a certain kind of fever dream. It summons the past and simultaneously acknowledges the pain of never being able to fully grasp it. Mommy is a film about Maggie Lee’s mother, an homage to her mother’s life and the family she built, and it’s also a film about losing her mother, and some fraction of what that loss entailed. It’s about reckoning with the contents of a home, with the contents of memory, with the contents of grief. In this film, grief is not a simple feeling but a multi-chambered thing, as if grief were a room, not one room but a maze of rooms, the eighteen rooms of this film’s eighteen chapters. We see a mother who turned a grapefruit peel into a crown for her daughter, who filled a bath with milk for her daughter, who called her daughter to say, “Are you doing OK?” Who called her daughter to say, “Why don’t you move home?” Who called her to daughter to say, again, “Why don’t you move home?” We see glimpses of a woman who we know was so much more than we can see. We see glimpses of a daughter trying to see her more fully. When my own mother’s mother died, my mother said that the hardest thing was feeling the loss fade away for others while it stayed so present, so forceful and palpable for her. This film communicates its own vision and version of that force. When I saw this film, I did not simply see it. I felt its emotional fugue as something tactile and physical. I was not looking at Maggie and what she was feeling; the perspective often took me into her states of feeling instead. I was in them with her, enveloped by physicality. I felt the buzzing of a phone as texts arrived. I heard the chime and tinny voice of a friend’s consolation piped through an answering machine. I saw the rise and fall of a comforter as the body underneath it kept breathing, kept breathing in pain and ongoingness, the body of a grieving woman. I want to read part of a Jack Gilbert poem called Married, which he wrote as one of many elegies for his wife Michiko. I love its title, Married, which insists that a relationship isn’t something that ends when life ends, it continues afterward. Maggie’s film is about that endurance, how a relationship continues after death, how that mattering continues after death, how emotional bonds don’t disappear but deepen. Here’s the beginning of the poem:
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
The film is searching for hairs tangled in the dirt, boxes tucked away in the attic, ghosts lodged in the past. It is humid with feeling. I work in a creative world, the world of literature and writing where sentimentality is often considered the worst sin you can commit, the worst thing you can be accused of. The taboo can prove contagious; an emotionate self can take on a vaguely shameful cast. Writers live in fear of writing too much feeling, or live in fear of feeling that comes across too crudely. I myself spent years writing stories that ran away from what I most wanted to explore and evoke, emotion itself. It took me years to find my way back to what it feels like Maggie Lee has never once given up on – the unapologetic and compelling evocation of emotional life, in sorrow and wonder. We are lucky to be here watching her film today.
JP: Leslie, thank you for such a lovely introduction. And this was an idea to invite Leslie here to have a conversation about this film that came from my various smart colleagues in the Education Department, and I think after hearing your intro, after reading The Empathy Exams, there are so many kind of interesting shared things about kind of getting it, understanding of pain, that things you kind of talk about doing in the book that Maggie manages to do visually, and through other means. So I’m excited to have us talk a little bit, and then we will definitely keep time for questions at the end, so I encourage you to think of questions. One thing I just wanted to start with, Maggie, since it’s such a kind of unorthodox film in the best ways possible, so imaginative and really kind of pushing in my mind the boundaries of what a film can be. Will you talk a little bit about making it, and will you even just kind of walk us through. When did you start making it?
ML: I feel like I’ve been making this whole movie my whole life, and it wasn’t until like 2012 that I started working on it, and then in 2013 that’s when it was finally finished. But I was just like constantly documenting things and this was a way of organizing, or just putting everything together.
JP: Yeah, and that’s a great comment to my next question. Will you talk a little bit about what we’re seeing, because it looks like a lot of found material but then maybe more new footage? Will you just kind of walk us through a few different things that we’re seeing in the film? For example, something like this.
ML: So, that’s a picture of my mom when she first came to the U.S., and there are a lot of slides that I found in the garage while cleaning it, and after like finding all the slides I like immediately set up the projector in my room, and that’s when I realized that would be like the first chapter of the film.
JP: But there’s also home movie footage it looks like, and also new footage that you shot in the past couple of years.
ML: Yeah, a lot of it was just collected and compiled and then collaged. It was the best way to transmit like the idea –
JP: Definitely. And the order you made it in, you didn’t make it in the order of these chapters, I’m gathering?
ML: The chapters, well, when I was working on the film it was more like abstract and freeform, and the chapters like came when Asher, my partner, the producer of the film worked on it, we decided that chapters would be like the best way of organizing everything.
JP: It gives it a like amazing coherence. Leslie touched on it. So to my next question, Leslie, will you talk a little bit more about just kind of your initial – you said a lot of lovely things already about your kind of reaction to it – but you will you talk a little bit more about your kind of reaction to the film?
LJ: Yeah, well I mean one thing that I was thinking about, especially this time around, is how each chapter, I mean there’s a sort of content that each chapter is taking on, but each chapter also has like its own visual mode, like it feels like each chapter needed a new formal way into whatever its material was. So some of them have this like very frenetic sort of dream or nightmare like quality; some of them you feel the age of the material; some of them feel much more like happening in the moment. And so I was sort of wondering whether each chapter felt like its own, I don’t know, journey to you. Like you were like, OK, this is what this chapter is about, but then you had to kind of find a new visual language or approach for each one, like whether they felt distinct in that way?
ML: They’re all really distinct, and each chapter came with like kind of what I was finding at the time, and also which character I wanted to live through and understand once again, and to relive like all these memories, and understand like my mom or my father from like this different perspective now.
JP: I love that the chapters are sometimes kind of broad, or are more abstract, and then other times kind of this very, much more narrow way in or something. It’s varied, it’s all over the place in that way, and it’s great. But will you say, can I ask you one question about, to Leslie’s comment about kind of, they’re sort of like they have their own aesthetic. There’s often different music used in each chapter, and will you talk a little bit, which is so, such a powerful element of the film in general, but also in kind of making each chapter feel different. Will you talk a little bit about selecting the film and when, music for the film and when you made those selections?
ML: A lot of the music was like kind of techno or friend’s music and things like that. Like when I was, when I had to move out of New York to come back to New Jersey, I was kind of sad to be like away from like the music scene, so I wanted to like include that as much, and that’s what I identified with at the time, and I felt like it was important, like it was close to my heart, but I felt like so homesick and put it in there.
JP: Leslie, did you want to say something?
LJ: What I was going to say, I mean sort of thinking about what you were saying about how the scope on some of the chapters was so broad, and then other ones it was narrow. One of the things I loved about some of the chapters, and kind of about the mode of the film as a whole, was that it seems to recognize and honor the way that stuff that we might push aside as like trivial or unimportant, like food and clothing. I’m thinking about the food and clothes chapters, like how much that matters, like how much it matters in forming identity, how much it matters in remembering somebody, how much it can matter – I love the detail about your mother recognizing that it was like important for you to be able to choose the clothes that you wore, and how she wanted to make that possible. Like I felt like the film had this beautiful way of sort of linking together big feelings, and then like the kind of logistical aspects of just being alive and in the world. Like I loved that moment where we can see the word “Rent” written on your hand, I think, and that felt so true to life that, like as you’re going through this huge loss, you also have to remember to pay rent. Or like the end of the film, how it closes with this like beautiful expression of gratitude to your mother, but then we also hear like the reflection process at the end, about like is the format right and having to finish the film while we’re both like aware of the huge emotional stakes and just like the logistics of making this thing. And it’s just so honest to me of; it’s such an honest acknowledgment of like how it is that we move through the world feeling such big stuff and also having to attend to just like the daily business of living and cleaning out a house. I love how much footage there is of like cleaning out the house. It feels like it sort of honors how many facets there are to feeling and to grieving.
JP: Definitely. A word that you used, Leslie, when we were emailing a little bit about the film, and that’s come up a lot, Maggie, in reviews of the film, is this idea of collage, and you’ve talked about that, too, that it’s this amazing collage of materials, of moments, of, you know, of kind of perspectives. Can you talk a little bit about, and you even – there’s a quote I read from a while ago where you talk about that you almost felt like your were kind of DJing, you know, sampling in all these different ways, making the film. Will you talk a little bit about this idea of collage and bringing in these different aesthetic elements?
ML: So I wanted to get, I wanted to put, I wanted the viewer to like understand all these senses and these things that I was feeling while working on the film. But I felt like it was kind of like intuitive, or it was just like flowing while I was working on it. It kind of felt like I was DJing the way, editing, the process of editing was, it was just like really —
JP: Leslie, you had a great quote. You said that the film kind of imagined consciousness as like, as if there was a constant collage, which I thought was a really great idea. And I feel like, will you talk a little bit, and even from the perspective of a writer, and a writer that doesn’t seem to kind of constrict herself to writing in one mode within a single publication. Will you talk a little bit about this idea of collage?
LJ: Yeah, well I mean – and first, like, while we’re on this image, too –
JP: And I know you love this image.
LJ: I love this part of the film, and I love it because it’s kind of like announcing also what the film is in a way, that it’s like this little baby’s born, it’s like also holding up the camera, and that’s like we just got to watch for an hour. Yeah, I mean, I think that part of what I was, part of what I was thinking about when I saw this film, and part of what I was feeling is that like, I mean sometimes when people respond to my work, which I mean I would say the main things that my work collages is like personal essay writing, reporting, and criticism, so engaging other texts and other media and other art. It’s kind of like treating it as if that mode of collage is doing something, whereas to me it feels like it’s just acknowledging what already is. Like life feels like it includes a lot in any given moment. So to simply say, make a film that just, say, like watched you from the outside going through the motions of cleaning out your mother’s house. Like if that was all that it was, it wouldn’t include everything that was happening inside of you in that moment, because so often lived experienced doesn’t directly accord with just like the physicality of the room that we’re in, or the person that we’re talking to, or what we happen to be seeing. And it feels like part of what your film does is like find ways to make visually present for us like what, or some part of what might be happening inside of you, or, and I think about that, I was especially feeling that in the room today at some of the moments where the sound gets really loud or almost uncomfortable, and how effective I think that moments are. Like around there, when we hear the heartbeat so loudly, and then other moments where the sound becomes almost more painful, because it’s like insisting that there is nothing quiet about what this film is getting at, or the kind of emotional stakes of this film aren’t quiet at all. So there’s something about that collage mode that feels like it’s trying to bring in all of these multiple facets of what experience is, rather than just living on like one radio channel the whole way through, and I love it. I also feel like it’s really exciting for a watcher because, just because I’ve seen Chapter 11 doesn’t mean that I know what to expect from Chapter 12, and I really appreciated that part of, too.
JP: Right, there’s also a lot of text collaged into the film. You know, you’re reading things, Maggie, you use text on the screen. There’s that one period where there’s that kind of band of text running throughout, and I feel like you’re, that we kind of have a different experience of the film through that narration at different moments, and then versus this kind of blasting, blasting loud music. Leslie, will you talk a little bit more about, you seemed really intrigued by kind of the objects of the film, and that remark really resonated with me because I think deciding to put, to include this film as sculptural installation, so we can talk about that in the show, but as part of this show I think there is such a kind of heavy objectness to the film that I think for a show on sculpture, the sculptural installations aside, that felt really interesting. Will you talk a little bit more about that, your response in that way?
LJ: Yeah, well I mean I think part of it has to do with this idea that I was talking a little bit in the introduction, but this idea of memory as something active rather than passive. There’s this quote I really like actually from the poet that I read from in the introduction, Jack Gilbert. He has this question he asked once, like I don’t know why we’re not more greedy for what’s inside of us, which is a really interesting phrase to me because to be greedy for what’s inside of us suggests that we don’t already have what’s inside of us, which is interesting to me. Like it suggests that we’ve lived these lives, or have these thoughts and feelings, but somehow there’s something we have to do to get at what’s in us. And I think part of how objects functions in this film, at least for me, is they’re part of the process of almost like invoking the past or invoking the presence of somebody’s who’s gone, and there are so many ways to do that. Language is certainly one of them, but that physicality is a huge part of how you sort of bring back what these relationships were, what these eras of your own past, or your mom’s past, like that the objects are sort of part of the conjuring. And I think that’s why, I mean I write fairly intuitively as well, but when I was writing the introduction, I think that’s part of why I kept coming to that language almost of like casting a spell or the idea of a potion, that it’s somehow about summoning, and this kind of alchemical process of summoning, and the objects are part of that. And I was so interested because I saw the installations before I saw the full film – probably most people here have seen them, but maybe some haven’t – the three chapters shown with these kind of amazing arrangements of objects around them, and it’s almost like you’re sort of stepping, you get to physically be present in front of an arrangement that kind of conjures some of what’s arranged on screen in the film itself, but –
JP: So this slide is an earlier installation that Maggie had made in 2015, and then, for those of you who haven’t seen the show upstairs, the work on the right is the Mommy installation – there are four installations in the show – this is the one focused on Mommy that includes chapters from the film. So, Maggie, will you talk a little bit about – you’ve basically made a work like the one on the left, and the film, you were kind of making those really at the same time, right, you were still finishing the film then at that point?
ML: Yeah, so the picture on the left is installation at Greene Naftali, and at that point the film wasn’t really finished, so, but kind of, was just like playing the whole film that was unfinished and then kind of like decorated, like how I felt, like through how I felt. But the TV installation on the right is upstairs, and it’s basically my mom, and that’s like my mom’s installation, and it’s also her altar in a way. But my mom was like kind of always worried about me being an artist and everything, but I thought that this was like a good way for her to like know that it was OK, and like for all these like museums that are still like come visit her at her altar.
JP: Can you talk a little bit about the specific objects that we’re seeing in there? Like what’s on the top shelf, for example.
ML: Yeah, that’s, so The Story of Ping, that’s like my mom, like my mom’s like favorite book, and that’s like, she would always have her like nickname like Yellow Duck. And then, there’s like an image of her collage onto it, and then it’s held by like fruit at the bottom. And then the middle is this goddess of mercy that I used to have in my house growing up in New Jersey, and then to the right is a soy sauce container with some bells and like stars in it.
JP: So all very kind of particular things, and a lot of them like really closely related to her. It becomes this kind of, like huge memory of her, this animated memory of her. And the other installations have similar things in them, right, that would relate directly to your sister, the beanbag chairs and that kind of stuff.
LJ: And I love the idea, too, it shows up near the end of the film of also objects being this way, that she communicated the idea of this final joke she had of the Chinese lantern and flowers being in the conference room, that it’s sort of, it’s not just this one way dialogue of putting these objects there in memory of her, but that objects are also this language that she’s using and has used.
JP: Leslie, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but one thing that has always really resonated with me about the film, that I’ve really liked, is that it’s not kind of this straight narrative, and it even has an almost kind of surreal quality. You’re kind of falling into the story with you, Maggie, and a lot of the shots filmed kind of from the perspective of your body. And there’s a quote in The Empathy Exams, Leslie, that you said, “Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds out of wounds and cross boundaries, sadness becomes a seizure.” And I felt like, to me, there’s a real sense of that kind of in this film, that we’re kind of, there’s the pain and we’re almost reeling around within it, with that pain.
LJ: Yeah, well I mean there’s, you know, watching it this time I was also particularly struck by that one brief moment where we see the nail lifting off the bed. You know, there are these moments where the sort of pain almost becomes excruciating as a viewer to watch. I think that’s why watching it in this room where the sound became painful, and that’s why I was interested in that as well because it seems like there’s something contagious about, contagious in the best way about the emotional force of what’s happening here, that it’s actually to me at least physically uncomfortable to watch that nail lift off the bed, but that there’s something so powerful about being made uncomfortable by a film about grief. There’s something that actually feels right in that, and I think –
JP: It’s tough to watch.
LJ: — yeah, yeah, and I think, I mean and I think that’s why, I mean I mentioned in the intro as well, but I am so somehow moved by that, it’s a fairly simple shot, but the shot where we see the comforter rising up and down because we’re aware of your body breathing, a body breathing, but we’re not looking at the body. We like feel inside that body, so there’s this kind of perspectival closeness that also feels like a moment of contagiousness to me, or a feeling getting transferred, or actually being asked or invited to somehow live very close to the feelings, rather than just scrutinizing them, or examining them. But then there are these other moments in the film where we’re so aware of craft and the collage is very evident, and the film is often like quite playful. I love the text moments as we’re watching you as like a little girl dancing around, and then we’re seeing like, I love when like “Trolls” comes on the screen really big with exclamation points. And, you now, so in those we’re also very aware that we’re in the hand of an artist, and we’re in the hands of somebody’s who’s made, who’s put an incredible amount of kind of craft energy and creativity and intense imagination and insight into putting all this together. We never forget that, or I never forgot that, but I also felt just extremely close to the emotional self that was motivated to do all of that making. And I feel like it was, those two things happening at once, it was part of what was so powerful for me.
JP: You also, when we were talking about the film, Leslie, you made an interesting comment about Maggie uses kind of, you know, the culture of Instagram, Snapchat, texting, the phone You know, you use those things a lot throughout the film, and those might be things we associate as being kind of about us being kind of more closed off or in a kind of cold moment in culture, let’s say, and instead you used all of it, Maggie, to such kind of powerful, emotional ends which is pretty amazing. It doesn’t feel, it doesn’t ever feel cold or kind of closed off. Before we run out of time, can I just ask you guys both – Maggie, are you, for what you’re working on next, is Mommy kind of a point of departure, is it something that’s going to kind of influence or impact what you’re working on next?
ML: I would like to work on something completely different next. But the next thing I guess I’m working on is a show at 356 Mission in LA, and it will be like, no matter how hard I try not to do like TV things, it’s going to be another TV installation.
JP: That’s OK. And Leslie, what about you, are you post Empathy Exams, or are you kind of turning over to a new topic, or is kind of exploring pain something you’re still going to look to drill down on, for lack of a better phrase?
LJ: Drill it down, I love it. I mean, I kind of feel the same way that there are certain things that no matter how hard I try to run away from them, I’ll just like end up coming back, and pain is probably one of those things. But, yeah, I’m sort of in process with this book that I’ve been working on for about five years about addiction and recovery, and it’s interesting because it’s kind of working in the mode of one of my essays. Like it includes personal narrative and reported stories, and a lot of cultural history, and a lot of archival research. Actually, I was thinking about that with some of the archive stuff in here. But instead of doing it across the scale of an essay, it’s like doing it across the scale of like five hundred pages. So it feels exciting and daunting, but it’s very much, I mean it’s interesting because it resonates with this in certain ways. My hope for the book was very much to create a kind of echo chamber in which all these voices were speaking together and my own voice was one of them but only one of them.
JP: And in Empathy Exams there’s definitely a lot of that, like this film, which I think is really nice. Well, we’ll look forward to all of that. One thing, I just wanted to kind of end with, that Leslie had asked me about including Maggie’s work in this exhibition that we titled Mirror Cells, that we were interested in kind of exploring ideas of empathy and as work seeming like empathetic responses, I think for us that exists in the different works in the show to varying degrees. Maggie’s work maybe kind of in the most extreme and kind of intense way. And I think, for us, as a show that did in a lot of ways feel reflective about the world, acknowledging people’s experience in a very kind of honest and almost vulnerable way, that to have your work in the show was kind of a really nice anchor and kind of particular thing. So, thank you for that. And let’s take some questions.
__: Hi, I want to say I love the film, and I’m interested in how quickly this conversation kind of ended up about pain because actually my experience watching this film, although clearly there’s some trauma in it, there actually seems to be a lot of joy and pleasure in it also. And I actually, it’s a similar thing to something I’ve thought about Leslie’s book where I feel like I get how it’s about like trauma, but in every conversation I’ve ever heard with you there’s like, it’s like primacy put on the difficult part of it. So I kind of just, but I also think that there’s like a lot of parts of that book that are about the other side of life, too. So anyway, it’s like a long premise to say, I wonder how the two of you relate to joy and pleasure and like fun in your work, and how you feel like those dichotomies are set up, and if that’s like useful for you or if it’s kind of troubling for you, or what.
ML: I feel like you have to like embrace the torture.
JL: I mean, yeah, I mean I certainly, I can say that part of what I was thinking about when I included those two words near the end of my intro – like sorrow and wonder – I chose those words because I found both of them in here, which I think speaks to what you’re saying, Heather, and also maybe connect to some of what we were talking about with the difference between chapters and like the feeling of moving from the particular mode of one chapter to another. And part of what I loved in that was the say that like certain emotional tones felt more prominent in some than others, and that there was this way that oftentimes like several feelings were existing at once. Like there’s so much kind of tenderness and lightness and humor in the scenes with your father early on, but there’s also this like tremendous kind of loss and sadness like layered over all of that tenderness, especially sort of once you know that those videos are kind of like the last remaining links. So I think that certainly that sense of like simultaneity rather than opposition as the way of thinking about like pain and joy working together, but I also, like I find joy to be extremely difficult to write about, and maybe even harder is just like happiness or closeness or intimacy. You know, like that sometimes positive feelings really defy complicated nuanced expression in a way that harder feelings can sort of offer themselves up. And I think that one of the things that’s interesting about this film, and so moving about it, is the way that it confines the language also for positive feeling in ways that don’t feel like blunted or trite or interchangeable. It feels very, very particular to like this life and this family and these relationships.
JP: Yeah, I also think, I mean two things I think. I think there’s a lot of humor in the film that Maggie like pretty systematically uses throughout which is, you know, at moments where it feels hard you kind of get a, this kind of humorous moment that I think is really nice. But I also think, you know, one reason we may have been gravitating toward the conversation of pain is I think this has been a film actually – we screened this here two weeks ago – that I think people were really profoundly hit by, and I think the kind of emotional, the thrust of it, the sense of loss, as much as there’s kind of a, it ends on maybe a more optimistic note, and there’s obviously a lot of joy in it, but I think that that narrative in it, I think, really struck people. It was interesting, people emailed me afterwards, said I’m sorry I didn’t stay to say hi to you, like I had to kind of go take a walk. So that’s been an interesting, and other people – my colleague, who I spoke with here last time, was like fighting back tears walking up on the stage. So I think it’s been interesting, you know, the range of kind of responses to it, but I think, you know, for some people I think the kind of, the meat of the story, about Maggie kind of coming of age and losing her mom so suddenly, is kind of a big powerful thing to this. So, and thank you all for coming, and I encourage you to go look at Mirror Cells so you can four of Maggie’s works in that show as well. So, thank you.