An interview with Stephen Graves, director of A Body Without Organs

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Two images of Gravess father, Bill
  • Two images of Graves's father, Bill
A Body Without Organs, my favorite thing I've seen so far at this year's Chicago Underground Film Festival, is something of a challenge to the spectator's empathy. Stephen Graves's experimental documentary about his parents introduces the subjects in discomforting ways, forcing audiences to accept them at their most vulnerable before coming to admire their strengths. Graves's father, Bill, is a former doctor who needed to have his colon and parts of his intestines removed in 1997 as the result of a rare medical condition. Since then, he's had an ostomy bag connected to his abdomen that he must frequently drain of waste. He's also been on a heavy regimen of painkillers to battle his constant physical discomfort, which has resulted, alternately, in periods of insomnia and narcolepsy. The movie presents the worst of his condition (including the strain it's had on his marriage), then gradually introduces us to the man he was before. There are numerous surprises along the way, many of them formal. Graves employs a number of interesting devices to establish intimacy with his parents—the images inspire fascination that outweighs the revulsion. The movie screens at the Logan Theatre tomorrow night at 6:30 PM; my interview with Graves follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? I don't mean this pejoratively, but it was hard to tell from watching A Body Without Organs, because the movie's so, so intimate. I couldn't tell if it reflected a larger creative ambition or it was just something you felt you had to make.

Stephen Graves: It's been my aspiration since I was a child to make feature films, to be a filmmaker—I thank my mother for exposing me to lots of different types of cinema when I was a kid. But this project expanded from something much smaller. Initially my dad and I started filming some things together with the idea of making a short piece about his ostomy and his relationship with his body. But slowly over time, that idea expanded. I had a lot of footage and I didn't know what to do with it. So I went back and wrote a script, mostly based on footage I already had, but also with the intention of going back and collecting more.

What was the writing process like, considering you had shot so much as documentary footage?

It was like [writing] a memoir, wanting to communicate different feelings. The process, in terms of thinking of how to start writing it, was figuring out a way to communicate this horrible, horrible suffering and depression and loneliness that I perceived [in my father], but also wanting it to have a lot of humor—a humor that would make the viewer want to laugh but also feel uncomfortable laughing at.

I had these different emotional arcs that I wanted to reach throughout the course of the film. I also had the idea that I wanted it to be like a narrative organized around a day in the life. Knowing that made it easier to think about what specific scenes I wanted to shoot. For example, the opening scene where my dad is waking up and his ostomy has come off during the night and it's leaking. That's something that happens not superoften, but maybe once a week or so. But on this particular day we're looking at, this is how he's waking up.

You make a pretty bold choice by introducing both of your parents in positions of suffering before getting into who they are as people. It's almost like you're challenging the viewer to keep going. What motivated that?

That's a question I revisit every time I watch the movie. In a sense, [that choice] is dangerous, because the second half of the film is easier and lighter and more playful. But I really wanted to establish a severity at the beginning, so that the movie has this progression.

Do you worry about alienating spectators?

That wasn't really something I was thinking about as I was writing and editing. As I was thinking about what the film was going to be, I wanted people to enter into it as though it had already been going on for a long time before.

Both of your parents bare so much of themselves in the film. Did you have to coerce that stuff out of them or were they open from the start?

I think they were willing from the beginning. While I felt throughout the project that it was a collaboration, at the same time I was really directing. But I think we were all communicating why I wanted to make this film, and they wanted it to be made too. Like, the scene of the two of them having sex, we all thought it would be a glaring omission for that not to be in the film.

What's it like shooting your parents having sex?

Well, I'm behind the camera. So, I'm not watching them; I'm watching the camera. That's one way I was thinking about it. But that's the scene in the movie I'm least happy with in terms of how it's shot and how it's edited. I feel my discomfort with it comes through.

And your parents? What was that like for them?

Well . . . [long pause] When I was growing up, sex wasn't something we really talked about, not in any kind of personal way. At the same time, I always was very aware that the two of them had spent many years living in this polyamorous community/cult sort of thing . . .

Was it really a cult? I couldn't get a sense of what it was exactly from your parents' descriptions in the movie.

I say cult because it was hierarchical. There was a leadership and coercion.

And how long were they involved?

My dad got involved in 1971, and my mom in 1972, and they were both in there for 12 or 13 years.

What got them out?

I think it was the hierarchical nature of it. There was this paranoia in the leadership after the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. Also the AIDS epidemic had started and my dad was just starting to work on the wards, doing his residency. The leadership was trying to push him out because he was working with people who had AIDS, and it wasn't totally clear yet how the disease was transmitted. So they were making these ultimatums—like, you'll have to be segregated from other people in the group—and it just made sense for him and my mom to leave.

It doesn't sound like a traditional cult if your father was able to pursue such a normal career outside of it.

It was really more of a commune. It was based around these different forms of psychotherapy. There were different abstract expressionist artists who were members of this group in its early stages in the 50s, like [Robert] Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock. It was started by this group of Austrian Jewish psychiatrists who were practicing and living together and having open marriages.

I was surprised to learn about this aspect of your parents' past. You know, normally when you see movies about people with terrible medical conditions, it's implied that they were model citizens beforehand.

That's one of the bigger questions left unexplored by the movie. My parents keep mentioning the group in their interviews, but I never have them go into it in detail.

What do your parents think of the film?

It's hard for them to watch. I think my father felt angry when he first saw it, but he's come to understand it as my memoir and he's a character in it. This is not who he always is.

How about your mother? You first present her with this montage of her expressing doubts, even regrets, about being in this marriage. That's a provocative way to introduce her to people.

That is one very real experience in her life and her role in that relationship. It's difficult to represent in a way that feels true, so I felt it was necessary that it should open on both of them in these terrifying ways. We see them alone before we see them together.

I don't think you show them together until halfway through the movie.

That's right. I wanted to show them apart before they come together later in the day. That's one of the arcs of the film.

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