Interview: Moyra Davey on Horse Opera
This article appeared in the April 13, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Horse Opera (Moyra Davey, 2022)
The work of Canadian artist Moyra Davey is firmly personal, yet committed to fracturing and distressing the first-person subject as both an expression of self and a literary and visual construct. Born in Toronto in 1958, and trained at Concordia University in Montreal and the University of California, San Diego, Davey has lived in New York City for more than two decades. She is most famous for her photography, which includes family portraits and small-scale conceptual work focused on everyday objects. While at school, Davey also ventured into 16mm and Super-8 filmmaking, and made her first video, Hell Notes, in 1990, describing it as her love letter to New York City.
Across all of her work, whether literary or image-based, Davey is an obsessive quoter. Index Cards (2020), a collection of essays written over many years, engages with a wide range of thinkers and artists, from Jean Genet, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Virginia Woolf to Chantal Akerman, Louis Malle, and Jean-Luc Godard. In her films, citations and influences meld with personal, confessional reflections: her short Notes on Blue (2015) entwines musings on her own blindness—a result of her recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis—with Derek Jarman’s experience with loss of vision from AIDS, crafting a complex meditation on the nature of color, creative truth, and art. One of Davey’s consistent gambits in her films is to try and erase herself from the picture, testing how far she can go to become visually absent and yet remain suggestively present, particularly through sound.
Davey’s new film, Horse Opera, pushes her play with the first person to new extremes. The documentary combines images of the rural environs of Sullivan County in upstate New York, where Davey lived and worked for a couple of years during the pandemic, and a lo-fi voiceover narration describing more distant, music-and-daydream-suffused scenes from the life of a woman named Elle—presumably a surrogate for Davey herself. The film mostly comprises images of horses, grazing or roaming free, while Davey is occasionally seen pacing in a room, recording tales of Elle’s debauched exploits in New York City—as well as her thoughts on the life and work of Hilton Als, Charles Olson, David Mancuso, and others—into her phone. Her narration is stilted and doubly distanced from the filmmaker as speaker: slight echoes on the soundtrack make clear that Davey is reciting these stories over previous recordings of the same texts, producing a jarring dissonance. The result is a portrait with a fluid sense of identity that makes it difficult to pin down Davey, suggesting an “I” that is slippery and undefinable.
Horse Opera had its premiere at Cleveland’s FRONT Triennial in 2022, and has since played at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, and elsewhere. A few weeks before its screening at the Berlinale in February, I caught up with Davey via a video call to discuss her new film and ongoing interests.
How did you come to Horse Opera?
The idea behind Horse Opera was initially to see if I could write in a manner that was observational and descriptive, and less reliant on quoting other authors—if I could carry the load myself. I do end up quoting—Hilton Als figures quite a bit, since I was very taken with his writing for the entire period that I was working on Horse Opera—but there’s less of that than in my other works. I thought of [the process] as an experiment, because I love long descriptive writing in the manner of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls—these long, crazy passages of description. I was hoping that I could make the entire film just using narration, not even using a lapel mic.
Some of the party scenes that you narrate in the voiceover feel so quintessentially New York. Was your personal music and art scene mostly downtown?
Hell Notes, my first Super-8 film, was shot downtown, but I actually started in Williamsburg in the ’90s and then went to New Jersey. I ended up in Washington Heights by fluke, because we got evicted from Hoboken. We ended up living there for 23 years, but I’d never imagined that I’d be living in Manhattan.
Isolation and working in confinement has always interested you, but I wonder how that interest evolved during the pandemic? Is Horse Opera a pandemic film?
When the pandemic happened, my partner and I relocated to a house in the country. We were surrounded by birds, horses, all these animals. Most of the horses that you see [in the film] belong to the owner of the barn [on the property where I stayed], and to other people. My horse is the one that you see when I’m unwrapping her legs. The animals become the stand-ins for the people at the parties [that I narrate], which I thought was kind of funny. But then I started to put myself into the picture as well, because I needed some suturing of what I was seeing and what you’re seeing.
It was a very particular time. At first it was a crisis, because I started my project in one place, and then suddenly I found myself somewhere else. I was lost for two or three weeks, but then slowly started to get ideas for visuals that grew out of being confined in a new environment.
In your book, Index Cards, you quote Godard as saying that the difference between cinema and installation is cinema’s sense of time. Time—the way it’s controlled and layered— seems to be a very serious limitation that you set for yourself in Horse Opera.
[Reciting the prerecorded text] is an enabler, because I don’t have to memorize the narration, I can just listen and repeat; and also a limitation, because it made the delivery sort of staccato. It gives it a slightly strange, unnatural delivery, [which] is meant to put a little bit of distance between the speaker and the listener.
I told my editor that he had to make my film beautiful. [The image] had to carry the narrative, which contains a lot of the anxiety and the discomfort of the partygoer, or the club-goer. Sometimes [these experiences] are exhilarating, but there can be a lot of social anxiety as well, that I write about. I sent my editor many clips. He’d send me the edit, so we went back and forth, working separately a lot of the time, because of the pandemic. The text was written by then, and the seasons [that you see changing in the film] acted as the organizational device.
In Horse Opera you sometimes capture images with an open lens, other times with a telescopic one. How did you settle on this alteration?
We had a bird feeder [in the country]. I started filming the birds with my phone and then decided to watch the horses through the telescope. The phone image is so beautiful. I was really amazed, actually, that just a straight phone image could be of such high quality. But I like the telescope, because it gives [the picture] such a cinematic look, maybe a bit like Super 8.
Your own presence throughout the film is quite fleeting and elusive.
I used to put myself full-frontal in the picture, but now I’m trying to figure it out. Maybe it’s a compromise between not wanting to be in the picture at all [and] being in it only in these fragmentary and fleeting ways. I’m not sure where I’m going to go from here, actually. I know many artists who are aging, and they just put themselves in their work in a way that’s very brave. I can’t say that I have this level of courage yet, but we’ll see what happens.
Speaking of courage, I know that you consider the first-person voice to be pretty fraught, and yet honesty in storytelling—and bringing in autobiographical material—is something that you uphold as valuable in your prose and filmmaking.
I’ve always stuck to George Orwell’s idea that you can’t trust an autobiography unless the writer reveals something shameful about themselves. It’s not that I’m consciously operating under that assumption, but I think that I kind of let things into the narrative that are maybe embarrassing, because there’s a level of honesty that I want to attain in everything I make. It’s about building trust with the audience, with viewers.
Is the courage to reveal something shameful part of what draws you to Hilton Als? It’s something that struck me about his memoir, The Women.
He’s a very honest writer. You can trust him. You know that when he’s writing about an artist or about another writer, he’s really compelled by an inner conviction.
I also kept thinking of Emily Dickinson while watching Horse Opera: “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Using fiction seems to be such a “slant” for you. It’s a distancing device.
You’re right. I think the only way to get at the ideas is in a sideways manner. An approach that’s a bit more vague helps you get at the truth of what you’re thinking and what you want to say.
Is the fictional character of Elle in the narration of Horse Opera drawn from your own experiences?
The film is definitely based on real people, but all the characters are slightly changed in certain details and the timeline is fictionalized. All these things didn’t necessarily happen in the way that they unfold in Horse Opera. Some are memories of other periods in my life.
Your writing in general is informed by passionate cinephilia, particularly a love for Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which comes up a lot.
Akerman is definitely someone whose work I adore and who influenced me a lot as a young artist. When I was a student, I watched everything that I could get my hands on. I also saw many of her installations. I remember seeing her first film, Saute ma ville [Blow Up My Town] (1968), and hearing that she made it quickly to raise money for another film. It’s such a brilliant film. Her humor, anger, ferociousness—it’s all there. You see the level to which she is driven and her raw brilliance. From the East (1993) was another film that made a big impact on me: just this slow-moving, panning camera, taking in what’s there, without any kind of manipulation. This kind of straight documentation of faces, lines, people waiting at train stops in the freezing cold. It’s so simple, but it’s riveting.
You seem to share a restlessness, a drive to constantly evolve, with Akerman. In this vein, I wonder what you’re currently wrestling with?
I think that restlessness is harder now than ever, because we have too many distractions. The challenge now is focus. Just carving space for concentrated work. You have to be very, very disciplined—I do, anyway. I try. I don’t know how successful I am, but that’s my biggest challenge now. For everything. Writing, photography, cinema.
Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic. She‘s written about the moving image, art, and literature for Artforum, Film Comment, Harper’s, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books, among others.