An Interview with Chloť Griffin
Instead of an ordinary biography, Berlin-based artist Chloť Griffin's Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller is an oral history of the people who knew underground writer and actress Cookie Mueller, best known as a character in John Waters's movies Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs: her friends, members of her family, and her colleagues, who shared their stories of the time they spent with the artist. For several years, Griffin traveled around recording conversations and taking photos that she distilled into a book spanning all periods of Cookie's life.
Chloť Griffin, an actress herself, also recently starred in Desire Will Set You Free, a film set in the queer art scene of Berlin featuring the musicians Nina Hagen and Blood Orange among others. I met Chloť in her living room and workspace in a former shop in Kreuzberg that has an old sign reading "Elektrogeraete" in the window. The door stood open, and during the interview, several people passed by, including a friend, neighbor, kids, and a tourist. We talked about Cookie and the making of her book as well as her movie projects.
How did the project come about? What interested you about Cookie Mueller?
At first I was introduced to Cookie through John Waters's films. And I guess I was a bit of a troublemaker in high school, so for me she was the perfect bad-ass girlfriend that I wish I had had. The Dreamlanders (cast of regulars in John Waters's movies) made being bad seem really funny, rather than really tragic. They were the perfect rebel role models. But it was really when I first read Cookie's stories -- her actual writing about her life, specifically her book, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black -- that gave me the drive to do something about Cookie in particular. There is something about her writing which is so immediate. When you read her, it's like you're meeting her.
So her writing is very autobiographical?
Yeah, it's usually very autobiographical. It's like you encounter the person, and then you can relate to the person, if you can relate to that person. It was her sense of humor and her absurdist observations and wild adventures which just drew me right in. I imagined finding an older sister or something like that.
Did you plan the project as a book from the beginning?
No, originally, I wasn't quite sure, but I had in mind more of a film type thing. I didn't know what kind of film, or exactly how I would make it happen, but I had entertained the idea of a film. Then I quickly decided that the format of a book would allow me to get more intimate with people. Sometimes there are barriers when you film people because people become self-conscious when you are putting a camera in front of them. Then you also need someone else there. I didn't have the means at that point to get a crew and equipment like that together. I documented a lot of my first encounters with people with Super-8 film and with digital cameras, so I had a lot of visual material. But I quickly decided that working with text would also be something new and something different.
Are you going to do something with the visual material?
Yes, I'm sure I will put something together. Whether or not it becomes something more than a home movie of the making of the book, I'm not sure. So far I've used some of the film material for a presentation that I did in Beirut and in New York where I was asked to give a presentation about my research. That was a great experience and I structured it in a way where I told stories and showed film segments.
And why in Beirut?
Because I was living there for a year. There is a really interesting project space there called 98 Weeks, which is run by Mirene Arsanios, and she asked me. I showed one of John Waters's films, Female Trouble, there, which was quite exciting. I don't know if Female Trouble had played in Beirut before.
It's interesting to show it to people from a very different background.
Look, when you walk down the corniche in Beirut, you'll see a lot of women who look like Divine. They are wearing hijabs and they glamor almost to the grotesque.
When I watched the movies, I felt that they are coming from a very specific time and place, and I felt quite removed from them. How much do you think is it necessary to know the background of the movies and what of them is maybe timeless?
I would say the playfulness about them in some way maybe is the timelessness about it. There is a playful humor which transcends, or which I hope transcends cultures and backgrounds, if you have a sense of humor. But of course John Waters's films are very American.
In the book someone said that at that time, it was a very outrageous thing to do to dye your hair red and blue (like the Marbles in Pink Flamingos), but today this is more or less normal. I thought maybe this is how the movies are time-bound in a way.
Yes. As a group I would say they were very ahead of their time, and Cookie in particular also was very ahead of her time. She raised a child on her own, intentionally on her own. She had a girlfriend, but wasn't necessarily a self-identified lesbian, and she dated men and married a man. One of the people I spoke with said she was like a postmodern woman. And I think while she embodied this idea of a free spirit which we identify with the 1960s and 1970s, she also was someone who was in the moment. She really followed her heart. This was something which was revealed to me about Cookie from the process of doing this book. Which I didn't know before, was that she wasn't only that tough-as-nails, tough, hard chick in the movies. She also had vulnerability, and she also had tenderness. She had a lot of tenderness which she shared with the people she loved, and who were close to her. She was an empathetic person, and a very gracious person. It was quite remarkable how loved she actually was by so many people. Someone said to me that in a city like New York in the 1980s, especially where everyone is just scratching on everybody else, everybody is just trying to get to the top, nobody would say a bad word about Cookie. She was very much an exception. She was very much in that scene too, in a scene that can be quite vicious and sharp. She had this effervescent giving off of warmth.
You say in the book that she turned from an icon into a real person for you.
Yes, the longer you spend with a person, even if it's a person through other people's memories, you start to develop a relationship with that person. You go through so many ups and downs with that person, just like you would in a relationship with a real living person. And you are changing too. You have hopes, and you have disappointments. You have points where you feel you can relate and you understand, and points where you don't understand. To me the important thing was that somehow me and Cookie kept working on it, and didn't give up on each other.
In the introduction, you said that there were points where you wanted to abandon the project.
As I'm saying, what kept me going was that it became like a real relationship which is not just a projection of a fantasy of an icon. She became like a real friend. There were also difficulties to know how to deal with all this material. It was a new process to me, a new project to work on a book. There were points where I didn't know (what to do) work wise, where I would be kind of lost.
You arranged the interviews in a special way. You didn't print them per person, but rather cut them together.
I wanted it to be very much like in a room. I imagined it like a house where you go into one room, and you hear these voices speaking and telling you this part of the story. Then you go into the next room, and some of the people are in that room as well and there are new people. I really wanted it to be like a conversation, like an extended dialogue. That was important to me. Some people warned me that oral history is very difficult. They are difficult for readers who don't know who different people are and this kind of thing. But I wanted it to become unimportant at a certain point, who is telling you what.
There are some people who come back and come back and become just as important characters in fact. That was very important for me too. I tried to transcribe and edit the interviews as meticulously as possible to keep the voice, the real sound of these voices. Sue Lowe, for example, she's from the south, and she just (has) got an amazing voice in the way she would say things and the inflection... Such a particular way of telling stories.
It would be great to have it as an audio book.
Yeah I know. Well, I'd like to eventually make an audio piece of it. I'm planning on making a couple of sections for sure, and then maybe a longer one for a radio too. Also Max's (Cookie's son) dad, Earl, has the most amazing voice, too, and I feel like you can hear it when you read it.
You are an actress too. How did Cookie Mueller inspire you as an actress?
Certainly the kind of films that I made with my friend Martin Deckert primarily in the beginning. We made a film called Speed Madness and Flying Saucers here in Berlin, and we've made many other very short, strange, absurd, late-night, very underground films. Another one's called They Shoot Movie Stars, Don't They?. Those films were made very much in the same kind of spirit, I would say, as John Waters's films, like using our friends, using a kind of trashy, pop, kind of comical sensibility... So we were certainly inspired by John Waters in those films. Also our approach was very similar to the way the Dreamlanders approached it, which was, we were just friends making a movie. We weren't going to acting school, going to university to become an actor or a film maker. We just borrowed a VHS camera and then videotaped the TV with a VCR, and for the soundtrack we turned up the radio in the background and we were really quiet or read voiceovers. Our biggest movie was Speed Madness and Flying Saucers, and if you see it it's like an attack on your eyes and your ears probably too. (Laughs.) They Shoot Movie Stars, Don't They? was based on a play written by D-L Alvarez, an American artist. He did this show with a friend of mine, GwenaŽl Rattke, who actually designed, with me, this book. That was a part of a Klaus Nomi exhibition that they did. It was a play that took some of Cookie's writing and is basically about the New York 1980's scene. We took that scene -- the whole cast of characters was from that scene -- and then we replaced it with Berlin characters. Joey Arias was played by Namosh; and we had Johnny Thunders, played by Steve Morell; and we had Sandra Bernhard, played by Peaches; and we had Jean-Michel Basquiat, played by Eric D. Clark; and it goes on. And Divine is played by Martin.
The acting thing -- I've always been part of different projects. I also did some work with Stereo Total. We did a very dark, German expressionist piece that was a monologue written by Valeska Gert. She left Berlin just before the war, and she moved to New York and to Provincetown (where Cookie lived too). It was a monologue that she wrote in 1951 about Ilse Koch, the she-wolf, the famous wife of a concentration camp commandant. She was an awful woman. She was really one of the worst. Valeska Gert came back in 1951 and wrote this monologue and performed it in Berlin, and people were not ready for that. So that was a piece that we did. And also with this other filmmaker Lior Shamriz -- he comes from more of a proper filmmaking background -- and I was in a couple of films that are, I think, the only films online, maybe Saturn Returns. There is another film coming out with Lior called L'Amour Sauvage. That is actually how I got connected with Yony (Yony Leyser, director of Desire Will Set You Free), through Saturn Returns. Because Yony saw Saturn Returns.
Then he contacted you because he wanted you to play a role in his movie?
Which role did you play?
I played the role of Catherine. How can I describe her? She's unpredictable, she is kind of vicious and yet somehow sympathetic. She is playful and restless. Maybe she's a bit of a thrill-seeker. There is something tragic about her, but she is herself at the same time. Working with Yony was really great. It was a super great team.
Yony wanted to make a film that would be a kind of time piece for Berlin, and I think he really wanted to pull in this idea of community, which is great. He was very ambitious with it too. In my opinion, the production element of it was very -- as far as the camera and working with such a great cameraman was (Ali Olay Gozkaya) -- he really wanted to push it to another level. Right on the edge of being an underground film in some way because some of the characters he used are people who normally work more underground or independently. Independent has so many different meanings, that's why I say underground because then we really know what we are talking about, when we say underground. An independent film can be a big film. So when we say underground, we really mean like no budget or low budget. He kind of wanted to keep this rawness, but at the same time make it, in my opinion, like a real movie. And I think -- I haven't seen the movie yet, I have just seen the trailers -- but I think he managed.
You included some of Cookie Mueller's writing in the book too.
Yes, I wanted people to have a taste of the language and her voice. It was really fun finding the segments of writing to prompt the reader into the next section. I also had the idea at one point that I wanted to do a photo novella of the Berlin story. (Cookie Mueller traveled to Berlin for the film festival in 1981 and wrote about the trip.)
Where she accidentally climbs the Berlin Wall?
Yeah, and when she goes to the Paris bar, she meets Udo Kier and Fassbinder and Tabea Blumenshein, and I know who would play all these different people, and turn it into a photo novella. I will still. It was so much work to do this -- the other projects around it will still come. But I love the format of a photo novella. People don't do that enough anymore.
So that's what I wanted to do for the Berlin Stories, but then it also would have taken a lot of pages. We had a space issue, as you can see. There is a lot of text and a lot of images. It was already hard to narrow it down. Too many years of collecting images. This section for example, this is the section called "Hellfire and Betsy Ross," and this was kind of about the nightclubs, the sex clubs and nightclubs in New York at the time in the 80's, and we wanted to, with the design, to conjure that time period and even some of the ads would have this exact aesthetic, and if you look at the old East Village Eye magazine and you look at the ads, these were the exact backgrounds they would use. My friend GwenaŽl Rattke and I, you know he and I were the ones who worked on the visual layout which I can talk to you about because this was a whole interesting part of the process of the book.
We started completely by hand because we didn't have experience working on InDesign and Photoshop and stuff, so we found a full scale model of the book, another book that was this size, and then basically, page by page -- well first, we worked with a wonderful German typesetter who came up with the right kind of typeset for the actual text, the columns and the spacing and everything, he gave us that structure. So he gave us the whole book just as text and then we took that and hand cut and pasted the whole book. So we just went page by page and did it all by hand and then I photocopied every spread and gave that as kind of a sketchbook back to the typesetter.
It's definitely not the easiest way to do it (laughs), but for us, it was the easiest way. I mean, we took a two-day InDesign course in German and I was like, "What?" No, it was not possible. It felt really inspiring this way. Every day we would meet and we would be like, "Okay, let's do the next page!" and we just cut and paste and listen to music.
You spent a lot of time with the people you interviewed, and sometimes stayed with them in their houses.
Yeah, with Susan Lowe. I stayed in her house almost for a week at a time. I'm writing about it in my introduction. I would sleep in her leopard print-walled, high-heel closet, and we would stay up all night and watch alien- and UFO-sighting TV shows. We'd go out and find fur coats for two dollars. And then with Sharon Niesp, Cookie's girlfriend, totally amazing. I'd been spending a lot of time in Provincetown with her and Max Mueller, Cookie's son. I think these friendships were the most rewarding part of the whole process. I felt like it was a very sacred place to be in, to be given that kind of trust, and like a very special and treasured place to be. When I finished, when I had my first real draft of the manuscript, I gave it to Max and Sharon to see, and when they came back to me with full support and belief in it, this was really like the most rewarding moment.
I also feel very grateful for all the incredible contribution that people gave. This was a very special part about the book that people were so generous with their stories and pictures and literary material.
You also say in your book that you needed to build up these relationships before you could ask all these things.
Yeah, especially with Max. I wrote that in my intro -- it was like five years of just kind of hanging out and getting to know each other as friends before I kind of had to come back in a way to what the reason was (that) I contacted him in the first place.
You mentioned that the process also changed you. Could you describe how making the book changed you?
It's hard to know how one changes because it was over such a long period of time. I think in a way it's like what I said, where this feeling of kind of having started a project with a gust of inspiration and then having such a story developed, not only a story about the person, but also the story which involves all these other people and then having this sacred place of dealing with memories and storytelling, I mean that rewarded, I think that that has changed me in a warm way... I don't know how to answer that perfectly.
Vali Myers gets mentioned in the book too. There was a feature about Vali Myers recently here on Bookslut. Do you know if they met? Because she married an Italian, and Vali Myers lived in Italy.
Yes, they met in Positano. Cookie spent quite a bit of time in Positano. I don't know if it's true, it sounds kind of unusual: but one of the people I interviewed said that Cookie and Vali had a cat fight. Like a full-on fist fight.
But you don't know why?
Another person, who was quite close to Vali, said that Vali was feeling excluded, and that she was dealing with a lot of starving animals, under a lot of stress. I mean, look, they were both obviously divas. Maybe Positano was a little bit too small? Caroline Thompson is also an interesting character who is connected to Vali Myers. She was Vali Myers's lover for a long time, and she had her face tattooed, like Vali Myers.
Yes, and she is tattooing Cookie in the book. And they were lovers too.
Yes, they were lovers for a short period.
What would you think would Cookie Mueller be like if she would have been born today?
It's an interesting question -- I think in that process, her friends thought about that too. It came up as, "What would she be if she hadn't died? Where would she be now?" I think it's really true what Sharon said, which was that she probably would have been collaborating and interested in the people who had innovative minds and creative minds because she wasn't someone who was exclusive to this or to that, she liked innovative minds. She would probably be doing a lot of what she was doing then which was a lot of collaboration, a lot of working with interesting artists or writers or filmmakers, kind of pushing herself; this is what Sharon said. But then at the same time, it's difficult to say because it's such a different world now than it was then. AIDS really cut into a lot of people's hearts and souls in a way from that time, and it really fractured a community, traumatized a community, really. So it's hard to say.