The crybaby – the exploiter – the pin-up girl – the self-absorbed… these terms have been used to describe Laurel Nakadate’s positions in her performance and video art, which explores the line between fiction and reality. She’s known for starting conversations with strangers — particularly awkward old men — and creating absurd situations in their homes.
Although she lives in New York City, Nakadate was born in Iowa and is a Midwestern girl at heart. She travels across the country to search for chance encounters, “to find beautiful places, to meet strangers, to find a guy who will do this ‘thing’ with me,” she said at a visiting artist lecture at NYU.
Her early video work involved her meeting old men, returning to their homes with them, and asking them to dance to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” with her, or to celebrate a fake birthday party with her. She has asked men to follow her across open spaces, truck drivers to dance with her in parking lots. She has videotaped herself facing an old pot-bellied artist, both in their underwear, watching one another as they turned around, as a way to “explore how we navigate relationships.”
Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice in 2005 wrote about Nakadate’s orientation toward herself and her body through her art, “If a young male artist preyed on women this way he’d risk being kicked out of the art world.”
But Nakadate’s work has recently taken another turn, where the artist is no longer at the center of the visual record she’s creating. Instead of photographing herself crying every day, she’s taken to photographing other people and casting inexperienced Midwestern teenage girls as her main characters in films.
The Wolf Knife is about Chrissy and Julie — two seemingly innocent and naive 16-year-old girls who go on a road trip together from Florida to Nashville, Tennessee. Chrissy is a troubled teen who lives with her mother and mother’s boyfriend, and asks Julie to join her in finding her real father in Nashville.
Armed with nothing but flowery little dresses, junk food and each other, the girls embark on their quest. The film is filled with long, empty scenes, several without the actors speaking or moving. In one, the girls sit on the ground in a parking lot, eating fries and cheetos under a burning sun. We watch them lying next to one another on motel beds or sitting near beaches, the wind tossing their hair.
The girls are never seen actually driving a car, mostly because Nakadate didn’t want the film to be about driving or The Road — rather, it was about their relationship. The camera focuses on close-ups of their faces, figures, and skin as they tell one another of their sexual experiences, crushes, family problems, or ask aimless questions like “Would you rather date a black prisoner or white prisoner?”
While the camera follows their most intimate moments, Nakadate’s signature creepy old men from her video works lurk in the shadows. The film starts out with Chrissy’s mother’s boyfriend offering Chrissy a pair of pink underwear. As the film progresses, we discover that Chrissy wasn’t going to Nashville to find her real father; in reality she’s made plans to meet an older guy she’d been “talking” to — her former 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Dews (Dave Cloud), who is an chain-smoking 50-something man living with his geriatric father. The way Nakadate directs the camera on the girls as they stand in bathing suits near the beach, in parking lots, and near motels — looking very vulnerable — makes the audience feel disturbed, as though they were voyeurs themselves.
The process behind the film, though very different from her video works, still involved a sense of “chance encounter” and improvisation. Nakadate said in a Q&A session after the film’s screening at IFC that she had about 20 scenes she knew she had to do, and the rest were improvised, which she considered an advantage. She shot the film in 10 days, many of the scenes made up on the spot.
For example, the ending scene of The Wolf Knife concerns a struggle between the two girls at the end of their road trip, in which they wrestle one another in a parking lot. By chance, fireworks began going off behind them, in the background.
“I just had to go with it,” Nakadate said. “The fireworks were by accident, but they’re one of the great gifts that you get when you’re making a film with nothing — which is that the world takes care of you anyway.”
The actresses, Christina Kolozsvary and Julie Potratz, were on the verge of being pure non-actors, Nakadate said. “These young women were really pushed to a place where they really became the characters,” she said. Chrissy’s bedroom in the film was the actress’s real bedroom; the woman who played her mother was her actual mother.
“When you work with non-actors, they’re really experiencing the scenes… while real actors are trained to experience the scene but it’s not really them,” Nakadate said. “These young women were really pushed to a place where it really was them.”
Currently, Kolozsvary is in grad school for film and Potratz in grad school for art.
Although she’s not physically in The Wolf Knife, Nakadate’s signature voyeuristic presence is still felt. Many of the issues Chrissy and Julie deal with — isolation, loneliness, naivete, sexual curiosity — can be found in Nakadate’s earlier work as well. But she plans to take her feature filmmaking to the next level.
“I do have ambitions to make a film with a better budget because there’s a challenge there,” Nakadate said. She didn’t wish to disclose any more information about her third film, other than this time, it will be be about adults rather than young girls.