As a self-styled performance artist, Laurie Anderson is not exactly used to making creative compromises. She does her ironic, oblique thing and the audiences mutter, applaud or stare blankly as they will.
So when the leading light of the New York avant-garde shakes her head and says she considers "Home of the Brave," her first feature film for general release (opening today; see accompanying review), "as good a compromise as I could make," you have to wonder a little.
In a recent interview, Anderson, 38, said that "the whole notion of becoming another 2-D image was rather difficult." This, even though the performer got her start--way back in the misty mid-'70s prehistory of performance art--as a film maker.
Why, then, would an artist who insists on the validity of live performances finally return to film?
"Part of the decision to make this film in the first place was egotistical," Anderson replied, "and part of it really is just 'Why am I really throwing all of this away?' But it is something of a contradiction, I suppose. I'm full of contradictions now. I certainly can't be pompous or holier-than-thou about isolating myself from the mass media, because I've made a lot of pictures of myself and handed them out."
She laughed. "But I still reckon myself an artist, and part of that is doing what I think is best at the time. So here it is, folks."
What "Home of the Brave" is, is a more-or-less direct concert film, captured over a 10-day shooting period in a New Jersey theater. Directed by and featuring Anderson, it documents much of her latest tour, seen in here in March and now touring Italy.
But the film also incorporates things Anderson has discovered during its making--such as the crucial importance of editing in a "big-time movie-movie."
"I even rewrote one song--'Talk Normal'--to reflect the weird, mind-opening things I picked up on while editing the movie," she said, sipping coffee and idly playing with a lock of her trademark spiky hair.
"What I found was that editing was kind of a Jungian experience--since I was often the lens' subject, I kind of felt plunged into a dream, watching myself do all those things and then having my reactions to that experience become another level of interaction," Anderson continued, shaking her head. "Now I know why not too many actors direct themselves--it's a very bizarre thing."
During the genesis of "Home of the Brave"--at the tail end of her "Mister Heartbreak" tour in 1984--one of Anderson's harder choices was determining the right director for the film. She said she was encouraged to do it herself and finally, because of the lack of availability of the other candidates, agreed to try.
"I'd never done it before and had not much of a clue," she said. "But I found that one of the things I liked best about directing this picture was being able to stand back and watch people come up with stuff. Because I really wanted to be that kind of director, not a taskmaster who's telling everybody they did something wrong."
The process of making a modern feature film for Anderson--who fondly remembered showing handmade, soundless 8-millimeter films at tiny SoHo "film festivals"--caused her to do a great deal more work, "both internal and external," than her experiments with the medium during her salad days.
"Back then, I'd put the film together, then show up at the film festival," Anderson recalled, smoking languidly and smiling. "Then I'd go, 'Uh, yeah, sound track.' So I'd wind up standing up there, telling stories and playing the violin. That's how I got into this thing in the first place, actually."
The now triply-hyphenated (artist-musician-film maker) performer found the roving camera's eye useful for adding "another layer of intrigue" to her already bristling live performances.
"In the transition out of (the song) 'Kokoku,' for instance, I had the camera move in a sneaky glide off axis," Anderson said. "I wanted that to be all about disorientation: constantly moving, changing, getting lost in this darkness. Then, coming out of this dizziness is just me and a story, telling it on a concert stage. This film is very much about storytelling."
But now it's "canned storytelling," as the puckish artist called it. Though she professed to be "quite happy" with the final product, Anderson cheerfully admits to babe-in-the-woods status as far as movies are concerned.
"I'm not really sure what's right with these things (films) anyway," she said, grinning and rolling her huge eyes. "Seems to me whatever kind of self-critical function is going on in major movies today involves box-office returns and dollar signs before any other consideration.
"But I have trouble with that," she continued. "Unless there's room for performers to feel their way around in a film--or a performance, or a song--it won't have life. And life, life--that's what you're trying to get anyway, right? Of course."
"And also, of course," Anderson added, "the sound track is taking care of itself these days too. I guess I'm a born schemer and just don't know it yet."