Stacey Steers’s Night Hunter film left me speechless the first time I watched it at the Denver Art Museum in 2011. At that exhibition, it was accompanied by the most delightful and creepy of dollhouses, which you peered into and could see looping clips of film. But it was the full-featured animation (16 minutes and 16 seconds) that had me riveted with its imagery of eggs, violent moths, worms, a gargantuan snake, and somewhat haunted house all set within a gothic wilderness. No verbal dialogue or voice-over helps ease the ambiguity of this surreal narrative; instead, the delicate and eerie score of Larry Polansky pushes us further into a familiar and yet utterly strange dreamscape.
At the beginning of the video we see a woman (Lillian Gish) performing standard acts of domesticity and “femininity”–sewing and cooking–even as violence and decay surround her. Giant worms have invaded her house at night and flies hover around uncovered food. The bird carcass on the kitchen counter is grotesquely displayed, looking almost monstrous. There are cuts to the outside of the house, which appears to be nestled within the trees, thereby solidifying the symbol of nest and house. What then, to make of that carcass? Lillian doggedly continues her sewing, often staring into space with a desolate gaze, as if she lost something. One day she discovers a giant egg in one of the rooms, with what appears to be a red umbilical cord coming from it. She cradles and tickles the egg like it is a newborn. At the same time, a snake appears from her sewing basket and slithers throughout the room. Gish is shown in a few scenes studying books, but we are kept in the dark about the nature of this education–does she have some secret knowledge about this strange birth? In a red pencil she writes to her mother that strange things are happening. I am reminded of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”–a woman trapped in domesticity even as the house explodes with uncanny life–the solitary fly is now replaced with a multitude of moths and plants erupt from drawers and the floor. The one egg has now multiplied into many, and we see that Lillian herself is beginning to morph into a bird-like creature (you can view a clip of these scenes on Steers’ website).
The excerpt Steers let us post below occurs at approximately 9.5 minutes in.
The eggs have multiplied, and now we see that she has been the one laying, or “giving birth” to them. The relationship between predator and prey, distraction and creativity is complicated by the sensuous folds of the linens and curtains, the blood that might represent wounding or menstruation. The snake kills one bird, which she tragically holds and caresses, but then with a emphatic gesture Gish magically gets the other eggs to crack and releases her offspring into the wilderness. She leaves the house, along with the birds–as if this were not an actual home, but simply the place to breed. Yet how odd was it that I, as a writer, identified so strongly with this image? How often do we who create stories, art, science projects, films, etc. feel like some hybrid creature giving birth to a monstrous thing in secret? There are so many battles to be fought in that process–doubt, distraction, domestic duties, our own nightmares, and the darkness of humanity–it’s a wonder that anything takes flight at all. And perhaps that is what Steers’ work allows us to tap into and acknowledge.
The film certainly works on that level, but it also plays with gender construction as well. The images of Gish were taken from four silent-era films (Steers) and show her in different stages of horror, resignation, and stoic determination. The snake is certainly phallic, but also sinuous in its movements while the plants–representing “mother nature”–burst violently up through the floorboards. Together with the moths these fluttering and jutting things force her out into the night, thereby alluding to the Garden of Eden narrative. Yet she defies taking Eve’s blame, or the narrator of the “Yellow Wallpaper’s” madness. The acts of domesticity–sewing, cooking, birthing–take on a nightmarish quality not because they are worthless things to do, but perhaps because they have been assigned to Gish without her consent or desire. While fulfilling these feminine roles, she does not get to partake in the home as sanctuary, the nest as a place to raise her young. Instead she must flee, donning a a cape and hood just like Little Red Riding Hood so that we wonder what wolves will she encounter, as opposed to the seductive, pulsating serpent that seemed to bring such catastrophe with it. Or, if we turn this back to the metaphor of creativity, then we can quickly see how often instead of getting to rest from our labors, we but have another task to do, or find ourselves in the wild, along with our work, struggling to keep it alive. Such rich, complex layers of meaning allow Steers’ work to play on our deepest desires and fears while questioning some of the strongest rhetorical binaries in our culture.
To see more of Stacey Steers’ work, please visit her website.
End Note: The film was shot on an Oxberry animation stand using a Mitchell 35mm camera and was made with over 4000 handmade collages.