Area Filmmakers Make Art Out Of Lessons Women Learned From Failed Relationships

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Can you name one practical thing you learned from a former partner?

This question was the seed of "Lessons from Exes," a new short film featuring five vignettes by Kansas City filmmakers.

“I was making some popcorn in a pan on the stove,” Lyn Elliot remembers, “and the thought came into my mind that a particular ex-boyfriend had taught me how to do that.”

Though she’d moved on, Elliot says, “there remained from that relationship this small bit of useful knowledge.”

When most people talk about what they “learned” from a past relationship, Elliot notes, they tend to talk about emotional or behavioral lessons. But she wanted to explore the small, specific and practical things that survive relationships.

Elliot also wanted to expand the idea to other women. Over the summer of 2014, she made audio recordings of about 30 interviews (full disclosure: I was one of the interviewees). She then offered the audio to four other filmmakers, who work in a variety of styles, to choose as the basis for a two-minute film.

“I invited filmmakers who I knew worked in animation, narrative, documentary, or experimental modes,” she says.

The dissimilar filmmaking styles end up complementing each other, and the result is a sequence of stories that are sweet, contemplative, sometimes educational, often funny and deeply endearing.

In the first vignette, Alexis Catanzarite describes “How to Find a Wall Stud” while Mary C. Taylor’s playful animation puns on the different meanings of the word “stud,” highlighting Catanzarite’s lighthearted memories of the experience and relationship.

An image from Mary C. Taylor's 'How to Find a Wall Stud,' part of 'Lessons from Exes.'
Credit Courtesy Mary C. Taylor

The tone shifts a bit with Misti Boland’s dreamy “How to Make Meatloaf.” Sorcha Hyland’s Irish accent underscores a cultural divergence as she recounts her ex-husband teaching her to make a basic, Midwestern-style meatloaf. Boland’s blend of live-action, drawn animation and digitally manipulated sequences slow and speed with Hyland’s verbal cadence, layered over quiet kitchen background noises, creating a slightly melancholy, ethereal moment of meditation.

Elliot’s own contribution, “How to Drive in Snow,” is a live action narrative built around Angela Roulette’s story of being taught to maneuver out of a skid in the snow. Over a sequence shot in the summer, Roulette cheerfully builds a driving/relationship metaphor as Elliot riffs on the theme and the couple on screen (Ogechi Ofodu and Teddy Trice, charming in their silent performances) segues into its own storyline: a sunny, clever scene about restarting a stalled car.

Two trends emerged in her interviews, Elliot says. One involved driving, the other involved cooking, so the final two pieces return to food.

Meg Jamieson’s “Cook the Onions First” is the most aggressively non-narrative piece, featuring segments reminiscent of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. While Germaine Halegoua talks, the camera refuses to linger on onions, moving instead to follow a bee trapped in a window, a hand moving through sunlight, skylines reflected in a handheld lens. Rather than seeming disjointed, Jamieson’s diversions interweave with Halegoua’s chatty storytelling, always returning to the onion, themes of its layers and the sound of the knife striking the cutting board.

An image from Meg Jamieson's 'Cook the Onions First,' part of 'Lessons from Exes.'
Credit Courtesy Meg Jamieson

Caitlin Horsmon’s “How to Peel Garlic” features animation interspersed with occasional live-action images and bright line drawings. As Kenya Harris remembers learning to cook from an older ex-girlfriend, the protagonist’s head becomes a head of garlic; her hesitant movements in the kitchen transform to self-assured skillfulness. The experimental style lends a gentle sweetness to the straightforward nature of Harris’ narrative; Horsmon’s use of color and surprising pops of live action are joyful reflections of Harris’ love of food.

The five directors will show additional shorts (and attend for a Q&A) at upcoming screenings of "Lessons from Exes" in Kansas City and Lawrence, but those shorts may or may not share the style of the filmmakers’ contributions to her film, Elliot says.

“There will be animations, music videos, short narratives, a web series episode, and some poetic films.”

Whether it was changing a flat tire or mapping a computer network or making the perfect chicken stock, surely you remember lessons from your own exes. Do you ever wonder what they'd say they learned from you?

"Lessons from Exes," 7 p.m. Tuesday, December 5 at Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111, 816-561-5222; and 12:30 p.m. Sunday, December 10 at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont Street, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044, 785-843-3833. Both screenings are free.

Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture.  She can be reached at melissalenos@gmail.com