Born in 1951 in (United States)
Lives and works in (United States )
Considered as one of the pioneers in the domain of new media, Leslie Thornton works on the borders of experimental cinema and video. She has built bridges between the two practices since the start of her career, which was a highly original approach at the time. She then progressively turned to multimedia and installations.
Born in 1951, in Tennessee, she developed an interest in the sciences very early on, encouraged by her familial environment. Her father and grandfather, both engineers, worked in atomic research. This troubling familial context is evoked in Let Me Count The Ways (2004), a project in which an extract from an amateur film shows her father and his associates working on Little Boy (the Hiroshima bomb) juxtaposed with an interview in Japanese about the bombing.
After fruitless attempts as a painter, she studied cinema at New York State University, with Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Stan Brakhage and Peter Kubelka as her professors, then at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA), where she was a student of “Direct Cinema” directors Ed Pincus and Richard Leacock. She directed her first film in 16 mm in 1975, X-Tracts, in collaboration with Desmond Horsfield. Their approach introduced a more sensitive and narrative dimension into the experimental domain. The following year, she shot All Right You Guys, which provoked such a scandal at its screening at MIT that she was expelled. Sceptical of this form of cinema “without interviews, reconstitutions, staged sequences and very little voiceover” according to the definition of direct filmmaking given by her professor, Richard Leacock, she used the camera like an actor in its own right, thus breaking away from her teachers’ principles. For her, form and content are bearers of meaning, and she refuted the idea of the neutrality of the director’s point of view that was developed at her university.
She started work on the project Peggy and Fred in Hell from 1984, consisting of films, videos and installations on the crossing of an apocalyptic world by two children, raised on television. Influenced by the A-Bomb and its effects, Thornton envisaged a world devastated by explosions in which these young people survive, independently. The same images – that she shoots or recuperates – are reworked, subverted, transformed and re-edited for her various projects, in a variety of media (video, super 8, 16 mm etc). This constant recycling of sequences contributes to her subversive game and the displacement of meaning according to context, since the media is inherently malleable.
Another work in progress relates to a historical figure : Isabelle Eberhardt. After devoting a first film, There Was An Unseen Cloud Moving (1988) to this 19th century explorer, who died in 1904 during a visit to the Sahara, she has been working on a new and ambitious approach to this unusual character, since 1990, with the project The Great Invisible. By combining historical sources and reconstitutions, Thornton explores the contradictory nature of the various documents. The biography that she makes of this woman, who explored the Maghreb disguised as a man, is composed of little anecdotes about her family, but also relate to the railways, cinema, Thomas Edison, Sarah Bernhardt, and therefore the whole story of the emergence of modernity and the birth of the notion of documentary, which emerged during the explorer’s lifetime. These parallel stories combine to produce a sensitive, poetic and amusing portrait, in which the notion of veracity has little importance, since the relationship to history and archives remains subjective. In the work of Leslie Thornton there is no fixed form, but instead intermediary phases that – through accumulation – result in rich and complex sequences. While questioning the notion of documentary and its various media, she develops a sensitive and fine-tuned cinematographic writing.
Leslie Thornton is currently a professor of the history of media and modern culture at Brown University, New York.
Translated by Anna Knight