Boston filmmaker Jane Gillooly found the subject of her latest project in a suitcase a friend of hers happened upon on eBay. Advertised as “Suitcase of Love and Shame,” it held 60 hours worth of tapes made in the 1960s by secret lovers Tom and Jeanne, audio love notes made on reel-to-reel recorders. Gillooly asked her friend to bid, and in short order she had the trove for the minimum price of $100.
That recorded dialogue between Jeanne, a young widow, and Tom, a married man, drives Gillooly’s experimental film, also called “Suitcase of Love and Shame,” which screens at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Saturday (March 30), followed by a conversation with the filmmaker.
Alternately sweet, sad, and steamy, the movie, a collage of audio and images, follows the pair as they tease each other, visit St. Louis together, and cope with roadblocks. That includes poignant moments, such as when Jeanne laments into her tape recorder that Tom is hours late, and she hasn’t heard from him. There’s comedy, too, when Tom explains exactly how he used plaster of Paris and candle wax to custom-make a sex toy for his lady love.
Because the audio is so richly evocative, Gillooly says, “My initial thought was to make a film without images at all.”
The filmmaker realized that might be a tough sell to funders, so she wove together imagery that supported the sound: news photos from the period, images of houses, of light seeping through the cracks around a door, of old tape players playing. Sometimes the images are hard to read — lights blur into gauzy bubbles, two glasses on a turntable rotate in a shadowy silhouette.
“You don’t want to just illustrate the sound,” says Branka Bogdanov, the ICA’s director of film and video. “You don’t want the images to overpower the soundtrack.”
Gillooly says the imagery is intended to spark free association. Being guided by the sound, rather than pictures, prompts a rich internal engagement, like listening to a radio drama or reading a great novel, in a way that most visually dynamic films do not.
The effect enhances the highly charged listening experience. Hearing the voices of the lovers on their private tapes, viewers become voyeurs.
“So much of the film is about who is listening, who is witnessing, and where the audience is located,” Gillooly says. “Are you inside the film? Outside the film?”
The filmmaker is still considering creating an image-free version of “Suitcase.” That would push the film into the realm of installation art — a piece for which you’d sit in the dimness and listen.
Film and video (or audio) installation can be distinguished a couple of ways. Formally, you watch a film in a theater, and you sit there for the duration. Movies have a beginning, middle, and end. An installation, set up in a gallery, runs endlessly on a loop; viewers wander in and out and sit, usually, on benches that may not encourage lengthy stays. Gillooly envisions something in between.
“I want people to come in and sit down and begin. But I don’t want to give them what they would normally expect,” she says. “I don’t want them to walk out, either. I want to hold people’s attention.”
Gillooly has always been creatively adventurous. “One of Jane’s characteristics as a filmmaker is that her films are in essence very different,” says Bogdanov. “But a subtle thread unites all of her work: compassion for the subject matter.”
The nonfiction filmmaker’s past projects include “Today the Hawk Takes One Chick,” a portrait of grandmothers in Swaziland caring for their grandchildren, orphaned by HIV, and “Splendor,” about women, aging, and friendship.
As she researched “Suitcase,” Gillooly tracked down Tom and Jeanne, both Midwesterners who worked in veterinary hospitals. Tom had died. Gillooly met and interviewed Jeanne twice, although she was suffering from dementia.
“She remembered making tapes,” Gillooly says. “I told her I had her tapes, that they were personal tapes. Whether she wasn’t biting, or she couldn’t talk about it then and so it wasn’t implanted in her memory, I’m not sure.”
Gillooly’s film doesn’t follow the actual arc of Tom and Jeanne’s story — she doesn’t know the whole story. She says she’s certain there are tapes missing. So she chose to listen to them randomly, rather than in chronological order, and crafted her own narrative from the material she had.
When she first listened to the tapes, “I felt as uncomfortable as I make the audience feel,” she says. “In some cases I’m intensifying the experience. In some cases I’m sparing you. It’s too prurient, and it didn’t fit into the structure I was building.”
Then, as she went through dozens of hours of tape, digitizing and transcribing, Tom and Jeanne’s drama took its toll, as it might on any listener.
“I worried for them,” Gillooly says. “It was so real.”