Filmmaker and UCLA academic Kristy Guevara-Flanagan has described her 2016 short What Happened to Her as “a forensic exploration of our cultural obsession with images of dead women on screen,” one that “offers a meditative critique on the trope of the dead female body.”
The film is a 15-minute montage of female cadavers on screen, varying in age and location, mostly nude and mostly being pored over by male law enforcement. The images are cut to the words of Danyi Deats, who recounts her experience playing a teen corpse in Tim Hunter’s 1986 American drama River’s Edge.
What Happened to Her is the second part in Flanagan’s planned triptych of films on women in the media, with the upcoming final work an experimental piece exploring body doubles.
Guevara-Flanagan sat down with us ahead of the release of her latest work, an experimental diary about motherhood, to talk about her filmmaking, creative impetus, and the representations of women on screen.
To begin with an obvious question, why focus on mostly TV crime dramas and not say, blockbuster thrillers or slashers, or more overtly necro-erotic dramas like Odd Obsession, Love Me Deadly or Perfume: The Story of a Murderer ?
My beginning point was narratives that revolve around “Laura Palmers” as a plot device, to be sleuthed or deduced, but I did actually start by looking at films. I never looked at slasher films as they focused on the killings rather than the dead body, and I needed to confine myself somehow. Slashers didn’t look at death enough visually or shoot it that much. I wanted realistic-ish crime-based fictions.
I did notice you used the audio of Laura Palmer’s death from Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to break up the middle of the film. Is the “realistic-ish”nature why you didn’t include more of the slayings visually?
Yeah I didn’t really. There is a moment towards the end where I show a montage of men who did kill women who are featured in What Happened to Her, but this was after I had designated the scope of the films that I would look at. To be honest at that point I just wanted be creative with Danyi’s interview, to give it a climax as we transition to the real “dead woman”. It might be a little arbitrary and structural, but I decided on films where it’s just: a woman’s body arrives and the story goes from there. It’s very loaded in that way. She becomes a plot device.
Like say, True Detective?
Exactly. I did the interview with Danyi and used TV dramas to explore it in a slightly different way–I wanted to merge the two. It was the films that have the death as a device for a male-driven narrative and it’s not the elongation of the killing, it’s the bodies that set off the narrative. With the TV shows it focused on the patterns of death. The ones I looked at all started with a murder of some kind. That wasn’t exhaustive; I limited it to Western film and television in the end. I had to draw the line somewhere. There are a lot of other things happening in say, Asian film, but it was more of a cultural positioning I was focusing on, instead of a general approach. Those differing cultural positionings deserve their own treatment.
Why do you think mainstream crime dramas eroticise female corpses, and if there are any, what is your understanding of their real-life consequences?
I think I raise a lot of questions instead of offering definitive answers. Our visual culture is based on the objectification of women’s bodies, throughout time in our Western patriarchal culture of the arts. I don’t think it’s changed much so it’s no surprise in that sense, with the emergence of forensics as a pop-cultural phenomenon. I would affirm other things: it’s more punitive in nature and there’s something more vindictive in the backlash against women’s movements; that women are “put back in their place” by way of men murdering them. Then there’s the ideal of the passive woman, in repose, being the ideal, and this is an extension of that. It’s a combination of that legacy that has stuck around and then a newer graphic and violent forensics fascination that come together in this dark way. The third thing going on with the fetishisation of these dead women’s bodies is a morality tale; “If you go out this could happen to you,” so that element also ends up in these narratives.
Do you have any recommendations of crime dramas that subvert the genre?
Jane Campion really is one of the only ones who subverts the genre with Top of the Lake, because, among other things, the female “body” stays alive. There are interesting things going on with female detectives but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a positive thing.
They’re often portrayed as being sort of avenging angels with PTSD, or as kind of autism-spectrum characters.
Yes exactly. They’re definitely flawed and I don’t know if it’s good or bad. For me I read it as them being this device of empathy where ultimately it’s actually okay to fetishise and revisit viewing the dead body; it’s almost tokenism. They’re often victims of something themselves. They’re re-victimised as well through the murder of this woman and all that happens to her body. And women relate to that. I’ve screened this film to more genre-audiences and the response from women is overwhelming, it’s a little surprising. I think the reason we have so many female detectives now is because it’s been realised women are a large part of the audience for these shows.
Was there a large degree of collaboration from Deats with the project, in terms of having a creative role in making the film? Did you seek out other actresses?
In the beginning I was loosely casting the net for women who had played dead bodies. It’s hard to get celebrities and working actors to involved in this kind of work. I interviewed people by phone who had a limited experience, like one or two days in TV and I realised I would need a number to get enough meat for this story, so a friend put me in touch with Danyi. After talking to her I very quickly thought ‘this is all I need’. It was my hope it would only be one person I would need, who could be a wealth of story and become an everywoman; so that’s why she’s not on camera. You can have an intimacy and a quietness with audio and these intense interviews I think have a different quality to them if they’re off camera. It was intuitive. We had an interview at her house and she said so many things I wish I could keep in the film, but in the end I went for two things that fit together and it was shorter and more powerful.
Do you think as we constantly normalise sexy femme death it becomes harder to be surprised or viscerally engaged by it?
Definitely. That’s why True Detective is so fetishistic in its portrayal of death and has its own interesting narrative I guess [sighs] about the male detectives and their backstories that… supersedes everything. Then you have a series like Hannibal. I noticed it had gone to another level in the way it relies less on objectifying women in more familiar CSI-procedural ways; it’s more graphic and gory and strange and shocking and bizarre, and it has its own trajectory. The only reason I included a scene from that was that it mirrored the True Detective intro scene with the horns. There was more of an interest in screen time for the morgue and I realised there is so much time spent in the morgue. Plot-wise, but also with me taking a feminist lens to it, there is an increasing amount of time spent in the morgue. It’s a long time with a dead woman’s corpse on screen.
What Happened to Her definitely breaks through that kind of jaded perspective. What were your first personal experiences of being shocked, provoked or challenged on a similar level as a filmgoer or critic?
The death was Laura Palmer’s, for me. I feel as though I have a relationship with Lynch’s works in that many of my works are a reaction to the misogyny I see in his films whilst taking an interest in the psychological drama and experimental aesthetics. I’ve been making this film in my mind for years, checking dead bodies off in my head since Twin Peaks and finally I saw True Detective and I thought ‘Oh my God, here we are again’ and that’s when I started looking in between and going to television. I do remember the scene in [The] Silence of the Lambs with the moth cocoon in the woman’s mouth and my own visceral reaction. This mutilation or harassment of the female body when it’s dead or vulnerable or sick is something I’ve always been struck by.
Can you remember the “real death” that started it all for you?
I made a film about murder in art school actually. I’ll have to send it to you. I’ve been thinking about this since I left film school and my first job was for the news. I was inundated with images of missing girls every day and it was so overwhelming. We would follow their story for a while then move on to the next one, I felt very disturbed by the number of them. The one that stuck out for me was Polly Klaas, I guess just geographically. I don’t think you would even know that one, there were so many.
No I know about that one! Was that the slumber party strangulation where Polly was kidnapped in front of her friends?
Yeah it was. She was taken out of her window. She lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there was mutual concern and shock but these stories were also titillating in a way, to encourage people to keep coming back to the news. I made a short film about a high school girl who had been murdered and it was in the first wave of gang violence here, so it was very shocking and titillating, and I was close to the community so I wanted to approach it in a different way. I wanted to talk to these kids who were in her class and think about the murder without sensation, in a different way. I wanted to focus on the impact of her death on the students.
Creative projects focused on death and other phobias are often, I’ve found, described by their creators as coping mechanisms for their own anxieties. Though your work spans a huge range of representations of women in the media, as you’ve revisited murder a few times I’m curious… Are you scared a man is going to murder you?
Well I mean now I have a kid, so I’m more scared, always thinking someone is going to abduct her. I’m also trying to unglue that narrative, that hysteria that is so strongly planted. There is a lot to lose in that, kids can’t have a life… it’s a lot. There’s transference. Women carry that fear with them all the time because of the news-gathering apparatus, there are realistic concerns. We carry a cinematic nightmare in the back of our minds as we walk through the world. I don’t think most strongly-masculine-identifying men feel that way. Sometimes there are such things that separate us. At some point in my editing career I worked in TV and for a while I was editing a forensics show and it was a court-TV cheesy shaky cam, low budget thing. It was about real murders. I would get the actual videos and photos and videos of the murder. It was so unsettling and awful and I remember feeling like “I don’t need to look at this.” I’m not one of those people who can look. It drives me to explore it in different ways. I watch true crime documentaries, I listen to podcasts. They do something similar. It becomes personal even if you haven’t been a victim of a violent crime.
Do you think there’s a distinction between feminist films and films made by women? If so, how would you classify the distinction?
To look at say, Campion: I would say she’s making an effort to subvert the dominant ideology and I would consider that feminist. There are things by female directors who don’t think about the cinematic apparatus yet their stories are strong and important. As an author I have to “know,” but not all audiences are aware and “know.” I do consider myself a feminist [laughs]. I appreciate the awareness and it helps me think about structure and gives me a lens to work with.
As a professor now working with undergrad students, it’s obvious they’re not aware about how they can be unequable towards women. Every semester when I taught undergrad filmmaking there would be at least two final films on dead women in a trunk. Ninety-nine percent of my grad interviews with men never mention female-made films or films with women as leads, and with female students it’s still less than half. With Hollywood and its machinations, it’s more what the audience bring to it. I get pissed off about what people bring to the film they’re watching. I get so sick of these kinds of things because they’re not trivial. It’s “good behaviour”. Where do we go to when this is our baseline? We just had interviews here at UCLA, and there isn’t even a recognition of “I should put a POC or a woman in my top 5 films”; it’s not even on the radar. It’s so sad. On that note – if a female creative doesn’t identify as feminist – don’t call her that if she doesn’t put it forward, even if you find something empowering about it. You have to investigate what went into the making of it. There is a long history of women producers in positions of power who have not been helpful to other women, so internalised sexism isn’t to be ignored either.
What are you working on now? Do you feel it will embellish your earlier work? Do you have any idea when that project will be ready?
I have an experimental diary about motherhood coming out nowish, I haven’t been able to reign it in yet, and next is part of the triptych with What Happened to Her. It’s a sort of experimental thing on body doubles and sex scenes. I might do re-enactments on that one, I need to be careful repurposing the images obviously, with sex scenes. What Happened to Her rode the line on subverting the eroticisation but was still at times “here’s a sexy dead body” so recreations take longer. I have great ideas about the interviews though. Maybe two years until that one’s done? I don’t know. I teach as well as make films. It takes me a long time.
You can read more about Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s work on her website.