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Into The West

...and Into American Self-Perception as Two Local Filmmakers Unveil Their Feature Debut

Michael Northrup
KNOT OF THIS WORLD: Chiara Giovando (left) and Jenny Sheppard fuse their creative visions into Proud Flesh.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/9/2008

A mere 22 miles west of Murdo--a town of less than 1,000 people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, in central South Dakota--is the 1880 Town, which features more than 30 authentic buildings outfitted in period detail, such as a pioneer home, saloon, and blacksmith. It also includes a few sets and props from Kevin Costner's 1990 Oscar-winner Dances With Wolves, including one of the horses from the production. And in July 2006, local artists Chiara Giovando and Jenny Graf Sheppard--along with their mothers and small cast and crew, many of whom donned period costume--spent an entire day there shooting scenes for their movie debut, Proud Flesh, screening this week.

"It was a really surreal experience about being in 1880s town," Giovando says. "People, tourists, go for an hour, tops. They're in and out of there. We were there for over eight hours, and the entire time they're blasting through megaphones the Dances With Wolves theme song on a loop. It's really bizarre. So by the end of it, it was psychological warfare--in a good way."

Giovando lounges in a local bar's chair like a large cat a on tree limb, one leg occasionally swinging back and forth. Across the table sits the spry and witty Sheppard--the women trade lines with the familiarity of filmmakers who have spent two years to achieve a final cut. They're both fiercely smart and casually fabulous, wearing idiosyncratic dresses that would look ludicrous on anyone but them. And they both smile at the memory of the movie's intense and brief production. For a little over one week in the summer of 2006, Sheppard, Giovando, both of their mothers, Nautical Almanac's James Twig Harper, Jorge Martins, local artist Sarah Milinsky, and local improviser/Ehse Records label honcho Stewart Mostofsky--and his family--traveled to South Dakota's badlands to shoot most of Proud Flesh, a hypnotic, abstract, and allegorical western.

Everybody stayed at the Circle View Ranch and everybody acted or in some other way assisted the production. It's not just another example of Baltimore's creative hive of human power coming together to realize a project--the movie's lone non-South Dakota scene was shot at the West Baltimore hub the Bank and included a small army of local experimental musicians--but a testament to the two women who created this arresting 36-minute movie. For, while both Sheppard, 38, and Giovando, 31, are accomplished musicians and visual artists, they're the first to admit that making a movie is an entirely different beast.

"I think neither of us know how to make movies," Giovando says, laughing.

"We don't," Sheppard agrees. "So that was a really interesting part of our process, because we had to learn everything."

If so, let Proud Flesh be the first example cited in defense of cinematic learning on the job. The project grew out of Giovando and Sheppard's music collaboration as Harrius on the 2005 Ehse release Enter the Cotton Ring; they felt it had a real western vibe to it. So they decided to make a movie for it, which eventually involved the women having to come up with their own ways of doing normal filmmaking practices--from script writing to acting exercises to learning film editing wholesale--all while making a non-narrative movie that both embraces and refutes the conventions of the western genre.

Proud Flesh follows a wounded woman as she struggles across a forbidding landscape, eventually making it to a small town and encountering a woman who could be her mirror. It's a focused, richly layered visual and audio experience--occasional folk songs serve as voice-over narration, leitmotifs emerge in the movie's cinematic universe--that begins to zero in on these two women, portrayed by the filmmakers' mothers, both acting for the first time: Elaine Giovando, a school counselor from New Mexico, and Inge-Lise Sheppard, a hospital worker in Bethesda. That Proud Flesh is less a narrative tale that easily conforms to verbal synopsis doesn't capture its transfixing experience. Consider it Persona by way of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Sergio Corbucci, scored to hybridized folk music that bleeds into disorienting drones.

It's a movie whose visual language and symbolic force is rooted in westerns but, like Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, explores a different headspace and historical angle than the myth-making of John Ford and Howard Hawks. "I love westerns--but the western as a genre and a story has changed throughout time," Giovando says. "And it's changed paralleling America's consciousness about itself, its own mythology. So I think that's something really interesting for both of us where we have John Ford westerns that are telling a very specific story about this country and the development of this country. And then you move into the '70s and it becomes darker and blacker and all these other things emerge, and they emerge from the consciousness in general. So what is our version? What are the things that we see in our story as American women and how do we want to tell it? That's a big part of making a western, becoming involved of that dialogue."

"I just feel like the biggest thing [the movie explores] is just having a woman be in this situation," Sheppard says. "I've always been interested in picturing women in that condition, and an older woman in that position--picturing older women in the traditionally young, male role. And it's really hard, because a lot of times it seems like just being a woman [in such a role] is funny."

It's an understandable concern. Decades of lowest-common-denominator broad comedies have turned the idea of narrative gender reversals into punch lines. She needn't worry in the case of Proud Flesh, though: It's a keenly intelligent dissection of westerns and their myths of rugged individualism and manifest destiny, myths that are older and more ingrained that the film genre itself. And these two first-time filmmakers pulled it off for less than $10,000.

"There's a clear violent moment" in the movie, Giovando says. "And then there's retribution. And then what? Right? That's kind of what we're left with right now. Violence, retribution, and now what do we do now? And I think that's in a way what we're saying: Why do we need to keep continuing this violence-retribution-violence-retribution circle? Why can't we end up in a different place where everything falls apart and comes together and something else happens?"

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