By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Give Me Pity! is a natural progression to the previous work because it pushes the idea of artificial space further. We’re located on a stage meant to look and feel like a stage. The film is about a consummate performer performing a performance.”
Sissy St. Claire is a true diva and, as she constantly reminds us through her primetime Saturday night TV special through endless song and dance routines, she is all about “making it” – and don’t you forget it! But despite the glitz and glamour, the edges start to fray as the show progresses, with all Sissy’s doubts and fears and insecurities revealing themselves as the cracks in her plastic facade begin to increasingly appear (all with an ominous masked man thrown in for good measure). Maybe “making it” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
Brought to life through a jaw-dropping performance by Sophie Von Haselberg, Sissy is yet another extraordinary, complex, overwhelming, challenging and fabulous addition to American filmmaker Amanda Kramer’s rapidly expanding stable of unforgettable women characters. A prolific filmmaker whose career highlights include wholly original treasures like her short film Bark (2016) and features Ladyworld (2018) and Paris Window (2018), Sissy’s small screen TV special is presented in Kramer’s latest feature, Give Me Pity!
An wholly original, fiercely talented writer, director and producer, Kramer’s work has previously played the Toronto International Film Festival and the London BFI Film Festival amongst many others, with her next project Please Baby Please certain to attract even further attention, starring as it does Andrea Riseborough, Harry Melling, Karl Glusman and Demi Moore.
Kramer kindly took the time to talk to us about Give Me Pity! which has its world premiere at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam as part of the “Filmmakers in Focus” retrospective on her work.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (AHN): The TV special is a largely forgotten format, commonly maligned if remembered at all with a tone of cruel nostalgia. Give Me Pity! feels like such a vital reclamation of the form to me, both in conversation with the past but also very much of the contemporary moment today. Can you tell me a little about how you initially situated the TV specials that so inspired you in regards to time, the then and the now?
Amanda Kramer (AK): I’m not a nostalgist. I don’t consider myself retro or even intrigued by picture-perfect reflections of eras. In fact, I have a real aversion to work that appears to mirror images from previous decades because it feels like I’m watching perverse obsessions with replication. I also see a real preciousness in it, which I don’t care for. There’s nothing wild or edgy about sticking an actor in bell bottoms and platforms, nothing punk about finding the exact dishes an historical figure would’ve eaten off of. What does inspire me are the filmmakers who use the past as a lens for the present, and vice versa. Julian Temple’s Absolute Beginners projects the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots through the morphed tunnel of an overwhelming, theatrical Eighties New Wave freak show. The Fincher video for “Vogue” was a cinematic nod to German Expressionism and film noir, while Madonna wears haute couture Gaultier. Putting her in head-to-toe vintage would’ve sucked.
I’m not a nostalgist. I don’t consider myself retro or even intrigued by picture-perfect reflections of eras. In fact, I have a real aversion to work that appears to mirror images from previous decades.”
So when I set out to create the visual landscape for Give Me Pity! I let my team know immediately that anything that felt on-its-face-Seventies/Eighties would be wrong. We needed a contemporary collage effort, a decades-spanning combination of lighting aesthetics, camera bodies, prop options, hair moods, costume changes, editing styles, etc. This is what we call the hypnagogic space – it’s like a dream of the era, like a painting or drawing you’d make only from imagination without hard/fact reference. Yes, we look at photos and we watch the specials and we listen to that music – we do study – but when it comes to the filmmaking, we lose our research momentarily and infuse ourselves. Our creative collective, our personal imagining. Because we live now, we inject now into then. So that the overall feeling is out of time. It’s a period piece that feels suddenly timeless.
AHN: Television plays such a central role to both Paris Window and Give Me Pity!, aside from anything else there’s clearly an aesthetic there that appeals to you about putting the small screen on the big cinema screen. What is it about this tension of scale that appeals to you? What, for you, does TV allow you to explore both aesthetically, thematically and narratively in your work?
AK: Television was such a vivid medium for me in childhood and teenagedom. I grew up with a television in my bedroom, which sat atop a clunky VCR, and this was essentially my pop paradise. I watched everything and had nightly program schedules that I set the rhythm of my life to. “TV rots your brains” was an easy refrain back then, but I never had the sensation of numbing out. I watched with fervor and passion, connecting with characters that I committed to for years. When you consider the fact I hadn’t lived many years at that point, it’s a profound kind of engagement.
Not only do I love the quality of old CRT televisions (the way they compress/filter image), but I also love static as an aesthetic companion to picture. VCR warble, I love. The way videocassette degrades provides endless new visuals, something psychedelic and surreal. High definition isn’t a draw for me – it’s a reason I no longer like looking at commercials (which I used to enjoy, strangely) because that crisp realer-than-real look is ugly. It has no unique texture, no tactile energy. And motion smoothing is the absolute worst. People watch Gone with the Wind with motion smoothing on, can you imagine?
Thematically, I think of the television image as my version of a mirror. We are captured and made smaller. We are turned into 480p, our colors blend and bleed, lines flicker across us. We’re trapped inside a box. There’s levels of distortion, technorealities. And of course, narratively, there’s that voyeurism, that watching/witnessing.
AHN: I was unsurprised to see that John S. Boskovich’s Sandra Bernhard vehicle Without You I’m Nothing (1990) was listed in your inspirations; Give Me Pity! to my eye seems to both share both its structure in a general sense but also (more interestingly) a really fundamental tension between contrived performativity and a kind of subconscious unleashing of very different kinds of women to their respective divas. I’d be fascinated to hear how Without You I’m Nothing specifically but also other influences relate to what you were doing here with Give Me Pity!
AK: Without You I’m Nothing is one of the greatest films of all time and, alongside Demme’s work with Spaulding Gray and The Talking Heads, is the best “concert/performance” film ever conceived. Sandra is that stunning combination of brilliant actress, punk comedienne, and super diva whose stage persona is sexy and snarky and wise. In contrast to the original diva television specials, she’s far too self-aware; a writer who wrote herself in on the joke. The way she travels through roles and egos while keeping the thread of Sandra is vividly compelling. The final number (and her nude ode to Prince) is a triumph and a shock – one the most glorious, fulfilling endings to a film I’ve ever seen. I wish I had directed it. I’m plainly envious. And obviously when I feel that strongly, I know that work will influence my own.
I watched thirty hours of female celebrity-centered television specials in preparation to write the script. Singing, dancing, musing, talking, sketches, flights of fantasy, guest duets, puppets. This kind of viewing will frazzle your mind, especially when you stop looking at the props and costumes and choreography and start looking into these women’s eyes. When you study their gestures, sense moments of deep insecurity, feel the myth cracking. Mostly it’s an hourlong swirl of charm and affability and a promise to be let in. Cheryl Ladd wants you to feel like she’s your friend from back home so she recreates a South Dakota bar onstage complete with “local flavor.” Barbra Streisand wants to share her love of animals so she builds a flamboyant and frankly terrifying circus around her. Donna Summer wants to take you inside her songs, and what follows is what I can only describe as a loving homage to 70s hooker and pimp culture. All of it a hugely inspiring fascination.
The stage is also a place that represents perfection, rehearsal, routine. Shows run on a loop, becoming more accurate with each production. It’s an easy conclusion to create chaos, to cut a link in the loop….”
AHN: With the craziness of lockdown and the almost ambient hysteria related to Covid, I have found myself more than once these last two years thinking of Ladyworld and just how prophetic it was in terms of how people respond in the pressure cooker of isolation together. Like all your films that I have seen, there’s a fascinating sense – whether it’s explicit like Ladyworld or the limited sets of Paris Window and Give Me Pity! and even Bark – of confinement, always in these instances played through a heavily gendered lens of these really complex women’s experiences. Can you talk me through the idea of space in your films more generally, and how you see this film relating in other ways to your previous work?
AK: I like to shoot walls and floors and ceilings, and I don’t like to shoot nature. In fact, I prefer to never shoot the outside world unless I can make it look like it’s inside/fake. This comes from my past with theatre, my predilection toward specifically designed interiors, and my desire to be in control of every inch of a frame. Confinement and claustrophobia holds a deeper evocation for me, as I grew up in air conditioned rooms, shopping malls, and cinemas. I like the idea of privacy, of what is hidden/unexposed. Visually, I think of madness and hysteria as a brain banging against the inside of a skull, as sensations trapped inside of bodies that want to be loose of them. More interiors. In narrative filmmaking, the space that surrounds a character is a reflection of that character – it is built, and set, and made just so – in order for symbolism and metaphor to continue/enrich dialogue and plot. Inside spaces are more opportunities for theme jamming.
Give Me Pity! is a natural progression to the previous work because it pushes the idea of artificial space further. We’re located on a stage meant to look and feel like a stage. The film is about a consummate performer performing a performance. There is no real life. There is nothing offstage or backstage but personal demons. This is not a fresh perspective (Shakespeare said something about the world being a stage and all the men and women merely…) but an enduring one, as we see meteoric heights in fame for pop stars and divas every year. The stage is also a place that represents perfection, rehearsal, routine. Shows run on a loop, becoming more accurate with each production. It’s an easy conclusion to create chaos, to cut a link in the loop, to have the actress forget her lines, reveal the supporting cast are saboteurs, the set is about to fall on our heads.
AHN: I understand that you wrote the screenplay for Give Me Pity!, but Guilio Carmassi and Bryan Scary wrote the lyrics as well as the songs? I’m really intrigued by this process because in the final film it feels almost seamless, I just assumed that you’d written the lyrics as well. I understand music is also a big part of your creative practice, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on collaboration when it comes to this aspect of the film.
AK: Bryan wrote the lyrics and melodies after he’d read the script and we’d discussed the plot of each number. The opening song had to be a happy/posi warmup anthem about making it in Hollywood, on network television, in the homes of all Americans. The second song had to feel like a Boozy Doozy, revealing hidden rage, jealousy, insecurity, and Sissy’s persecution complex. The final song had to be a hallucinatory, uber-exalted vamp out plea for love, acceptance, and pity. Then the genius Giulio – Bryan’s multi-instrument-playing partner – co-produced the orchestration and harmonies. Both are musical prodigies with chameleonic talents for shifting styles. Together they created a Broadway/Cabaret/Disco sound based off a swirl of references – Olivia Newton John/”Xanadu”, “Fly Robin Fly” by the Silver Connection, anything/everything Streisand, “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity, “Mighty Real” by Sylvester, “Is That All There Is” by Peggy Lee.
The musical collaboration is always a revelation for me, as vital as choosing a lens or location. I only hire musicians with great taste and visionary ideas because I want to be overwhelmed by their unique concept of the work. I want to feel wrapped in their sonics. Score/soundtrack is the ultimate manipulation in filmmaking and, because of my history running underground record labels, I’m unwavering in my musical distinctions. I come with a strong judgement. I know immediately what doesn’t work. But I also don’t put my film in the hands of composers who can’t give me exact temperatures and tones. My decision is to hire them, then they make all the choices. At that point there’s epic trust.
AHN: And speaking of collaboration, like I am sure everyone else who sees the film, it is simply impossible to imagine Give Me Pity! without Sophie Von Haselberg. If I understand correctly, you found her after you had written the film and started pre-production, and yet it feels like it was written specifically with her in mind! Can you tell me about your collaborative relationship with Von Haselberg? Was there anything she brought to the film that surprised you or took it somewhere you didn’t expect?
AK: When I wrote the script I was imagining Patty Lupone or Bebe Neuwirth, seasoned Broadway actresses who’d perhaps respond to the theatricality and song-and-dance cabaret diva style. But when it came time to begin casting I never wrote to their agents – I wrote only to my filmmaker friend Nicole Delaney, who’d recently shot a short film starring Sophie. It was an intrinsic impulse. I didn’t expect her to say yes, but she did. I never reached out to anyone else. Once the role was Sophie’s it was always and forever Sophie’s.
Sophie is such a dedicated, committed actress. She would rehearse for me on FaceTime (she’s located in NYC, I’m in LA) and ask for notes. I had almost none. She seemed to immediately relate to the humor and pain, what makes Sissy sexy and bizarre and what makes her depressingly regular. Sophie could access the vanity and ego, also the self-doubt and loneliness. She understood that she’d need to be the whole face and whole body and full expression of this film – she carries it on her back and in her claws, in her trembling voice and cracked smile. I wasn’t directing Sophie so much as I was guiding her through blocking, that’s how absorbed in Sissy she became. In a film initially envisioned for an actress twice her age, Sophie gave me spontaneous ambition, a shock of yearning and hope, and an irony that elevates the entire monologue.
I’m the kind of writer who isn’t interested in representing real people, so I don’t struggle with presenting real men. Historically they are the Oppressor, the God Figure, the King, the Warlord, the Father, the personification of Corporation and Industry. The Man. But every man was once a boy.”
AHN: I’ve mentioned Ladyworld already of course, but one thing that struck me about Give Me Pity! is how both films are marked by this sort of abstracted male presence – as almost amorphous as that presence is, however, his impact on the women characters and how their journeys play out are enormous. I’ve always really admired how you tackle gender politics in your films, it’s very complex and sophisticated and is frequently quite fearless in reducing “men” to a symbolic feature which allows you to focus on how women respond. I may be completely off the mark here, but it would be fascinating to hear your thoughts on this, both in regards to your films in general and of course in relation to Give Me Pity! specifically.
AK: As a straight woman who has sex with the opposite gender, I am obsessed with men. I live in a constant disbelief of them. Daily, I cannot fully imagine why and how they are. It’s likely I see them as stereotypes, generalizations, because I don’t relate to their complexities. I’m the kind of writer who isn’t interested in representing real people, so I don’t struggle with presenting real men. Historically they are the Oppressor, the God Figure, the King, the Warlord, the Father, the personification of Corporation and Industry. The Man. But every man was once a boy. And every boy is stumbling through a maze of perceived/faux importance, strength, prowess, bravery, victory. It can’t be easy, and must be traumatizing. And so I write men as symbols and metaphors, as haunting images-ciphers-demons, as bodies to project fear and lust onto. As objects. Because that’s how every “Great Man” appears to me.
Specifically in Give Me Pity! the male phantom is both symbolic paranoia/anxiety/imposter syndrome and a very real danger. The danger of the stalker, the rapist, the killer. He’s the hint that something is wrong, that we are unstable, a classic harbinger of doom. He’s also handsomely suited, tall, with beautiful dark hair, and a mask made of pink satin. An Armani Archfiend. The allure is part of the villainy.
AHN: It would perhaps be ludicrous to describe your films as “genre movies” in the orthodox sense, and yet you clearly love to experiment with elements of genre in your work – most recently, I guess, with the horror motifs of the masked man in Give Me Pity!. What are your thoughts on genre both in your work and the films that you enjoy or that provoke or fascinate you?
AK: Genre is having a moment right now solely because it’s making money. Audiences became fatigued with general adult drama, overblown and deadly serious period pieces, meandering coming of age narratives, big broad aimless comedies. Humans have always been thrill-seeking, but now we want our thrills everywhere (I think it’s easy to understand why, the psychology of that is very available). So if a filmmaker can make work that is horror-inflected, or sci-fi tinged, or even just tense and suspenseful, they can hook an audience (and therefore financing) that has lost its compass for the traditional long form, for the non-serialized. This all sounds cynical but really it’s exciting – a cool dimension to experiment within.
I can’t create in specific genre – I don’t think my talents lie in making work that is definitively scary or has succinct pay-offs or even distinct rules that science fiction requires – but I love the boldness and camp of musicals, action, giallo, erotic thrillers, Hollywood melodrama. Genre is just extremity. It’s just “the most fucked” in any direction. So of course I honor and respect that.
AHN: As I am sure you will have heard a lot by now, my jaw dropped when I saw the line-up involved in Please Baby Please. With big-name talent of that caliber, it feels like both the scale of production and the size of your audience will expand quite dramatically – can you tell me about this journey? Riffing somewhat glibly on Give Me Pity! here, how do you feel about the concept of “making it” when it comes to your own career? (And best of luck, it sounds amazing!).
AK: Andrea Riseborough, Harry Melling, and Karl Glusman amaze me – obviously they’re talented, and icons in their own right, but the fact that they’d take this specific trip with me is a forever-bond. For respective reasons each is chic and memorable (weird people, cool artists) and our collaboration reflects a commitment to theatricality, cinematic symbolism, and an intrepid/punk spirit. I’ll seek out those rare actors for the rest of my career.
As far as fame, I’m only interested in what pertains to endurance and constancy. I want to keep making, keep expanding vision. I want the work to be financed, the cast and crew to be supported, the possibility to be endless, but only when it stops short of people-pleasing. I don’t want the love of a generic audience, nor do I fantasize about taking a stalwart franchise/reboot and “making it my own.” I’m not presumptuous enough to believe I’d be allowed to “make it my own.” Studios hire visionaries to cosplay as controllers when they’re not afforded final cut, or even a minor deviation off book. The power of an auteur like Yorgos Lanthimos, Ruben Ostlund, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, or Lucrecia Martel is that they remain original. Their content is their own. They can’t be tamed, and lucky for them the world would recoil if they did. That is my only aim: stay weird, wild and radical, no matter the star meter, no matter the size of the check.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.