Kerry Laitala and Her New "Muse"

Katherin McInnis April 25, 2007

Kerry Laitala’s films — sensual, intricate, tactile — are a magical combination of optical artistry, snippets of forgotten films, and bits of lace, tape, and glitter. Dizzying and darkly funny, they are handmade constellations of unusual images and multiple meanings. "Torchlight Tango" won the New Visions Golden Gate Award in 2005. Her latest work, "Muse of Cinema," a 35mm film made with a flashlight at her kitchen table, combines magic lantern slides from the early days of cinema with hand-painting and collaged animations. "Muse of Cinema" screens in the Golden Gate Awards competition program "Bliss and Ignorance" at SFIFF50 on Saturday April 28th at 3:30 pm and Monday April 30th at 3 pm.

SF360: Where did ‘Muse of Cinema’ begin?

Kerry Laitala: I started the ‘Muse of Cinema’ about five years ago using magic lantern slides found at the Alemany flea market as my source material. Dating from between 1905 to 1928, these magic lantern images directly address the movie audience. Some of them were used to keep the movie-goers in line — it seems that wearing hats that obstructed views, spitting on the floor, loud talking, and raucous behavior were big problems at the time! Other lantern slides would entertain the audience while the projectionist surmounted a technical disaster in the projection booth.

SF360: Are these like cell-phone warnings and advertisements in movie theaters today?

Laitala: Yeah, advertisements were definitely a part of early cinema. A lot of the lantern slides I found were ads for local businesses that no longer exist. Other slides promote movies of the time – most of them didn’t survive either. I’m making a new film, called Coming Attractions, with about 60 of these hand-painted images.

SF360: How did you make a 35mm film without a camera or lots of equipment?

Laitala: At my place of work (a dental school), I duplicate slides from instructors’ classes: images of rotten teeth, dissected jaws, and ‘black hairy tongue.’ I used the duplicator on the weekend to re-photograph the lantern slides onto 35mm motion picture film. In 2001, I managed to pick up a large box of 35mm movie film that was intended for use in an X-ray machine. This film is "orthochromatic," which means that it isn’t sensitive to red light. I use it in my apartment with my red Christmas lights on! I’ve been contact printing everything from a broken windshield found by the side of the road to the hairball from the bottom of my bathtub drain. I experimented with a variety of lights to expose the film, but most often used a flashlight.

SF360: So each image is made a few frames at a time?! Do you have a team of elves to help you?

Laitala: Most of it was done 2 feet at a time — over a thousand feet of film. I did almost all of it myself — it was very labor intensive. Then I hand-processed the film at the San Francisco Art Institute. I set up a clothesline from the ceiling to hang it up to dry — there was a maze of film running throughout the basement. The soundtrack is a collaboration with local sound/video artist Robert Fox. It’s a whimsical, anachronistic collage of everything from early 20th-century wax cylinder recordings to ‘Tin Pan Alley’ music and original sounds.

While I was working on Muse of Cinema I projected it several times on an old hand-crank ACME projector from 1921. Adolph Esposito, a local engineer, scavenged replacement parts from a coffee grinder! It was pretty crazy working with this beast, as it could jam pretty easily and destroy the film, plus it was a real workout to crank it!

I got grants from the Princess Grace Foundation and the Museum of Contemporary Cinema to finish the 35mm print.

SF360: What made you choose those materials/methods?

Laitala: The magic lantern is the grandfather of motion pictures. Lantern slides helped early makers learn how to allow the story to unfold over time. The slides were usually hand painted, and gave viewers a tantalizing single frame peek at the photoplay that would be screened in the near future.

SF360: What is different about hand-made films?

Laitala: Well, you are actually touching the film, interacting with it. It’s like you are bringing latent images out of the material itself. You don’t have to use a camera, which is kind of liberating — you aren’t dependent on a machine.

SF360: Do accidents happen?

Laitala: Well, when I optically printed ‘Muse,’ I double-exposed a section by mistake, but it came out really well