Call Her Applebroog isn’t your typical documentary. For one thing, Ida Applebroog isn’t your typical artist. For another, the documentarian is her daughter, filmmaker/artist, Beth B.
Oddly enough, children making documentaries about their parents seems to be a bit of microtrend at the moment, with Anderson Cooper turning the lens on his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt; Jacob Bernstein memorializing his late mom, Nora Ephron; and even rockstar Dave Navarro bankrolling a film about his mother Connie’s brutal murder. But unlike the linear narratives used by these filmmakers, B and Applebroog’s collaboration is more like a piece of art itself, which can be disconcerting at first, but once you get onboard with the fact that you’re not going to trace a straight line of Ida’s life from baby carriage to present day, you’re in for a fascinating look at a very private artist.
Your last film, Exposed, was a behind-the-scenes look at the burlesque scene, and some of your earlier films were really edgy, as far as sexual content goes. This film is obviously very different—what drew you to this project?
I started filming 15 years ago, and my intention was not to make a film, but to document some of the shows and installations. It wasn’t a conscious idea. I’ve always been very inspired by her work and I wanted to there to be a record of it.
Call Her Applebroog tells the story from more of an intuitive, emotional place. It’s about someone I care deeply about, and someone I whose history I know intimately. As a filmmaker I was coming to it in a different way and perhaps that’s why it took me so long to finish it. I finished it while my father was dying.
Which brings me to another question—while you talk about her growing up in a very oppressive, religious household, we don’t really hear from other family members, which is unusual since women are so often painted as mothers/daughters/wives first, professionals, second.
The complexity has still only been coming to me recently. I’m not just the daughter—I’ve made the film from the variety of perspectives—as an artist, a mother, a colleague, and a filmmaker. I knew that painting a portrait of her and the complexities of her work would be probably the most challenging film of my life, but also, in some ways, also the most rewarding.
Was there anything she declared off-limits? Some of my favorite parts were when she was just getting sick of you filming her and told you to stop it.
We had an agreement —I said that if there was anything she was really uncomfortable with, we could discuss it.
Discuss?! That’s not very diplomatic!
There was a time where she wanted to see it as I was editing it and I told her I couldn’t edit if I was always second guessing whether she was going to like it or not.
She understood that it was as if someone was standing over her while she was painting; I can’t make my best work if I’m second guessing what anyone—including the person I’m filming—is thinking. That’s why it was critically important for us to come to a place where there would be that kind of trust.
It would seem that being mother and daughter that kind of trust would be a given, but you can really see the evolution of her opening up over the course of the film. What were some of the important moments for you?
She was very resistant to talking about anything to do with her hospitalization. She only opened up to that when she started to work on her 2013 show. She said she might go into her journals and I really encouraged that.
She asked me to pick out what I wanted her to read, and I picked “The Green Dress,” and in some ways that’s the foundation of where a lot of the ideas of her artwork come from.
Why was it so important for you to talk about her hospitalization for depression?
It was so pivotal in her life, and mine. I was 13 when she was hospitalized—the same age my daughter Lola is right now.
I watched my mother in this dramatic, intense struggle, and I really supported her. She moved out and even though intellectually I didn’t understand what was going on; emotionally, I wanted her to be independent.
I look at Ida and Lola and we’re three generations of women, who look at feminism in a very different ways. For her generation, it was survival, and there were a lot of women of her generation that did not survive. Women didn’t have an identity back then. They were “Mrs. Don Pierson.” Can you imagine being called by your husband’s name? They had no identity as individuals. For them, it was really making a radical break from the tradition of what and who a mother is.
Speaking of names, both you and your mother adopted new surnames as adults. Can you talk a little about why you did so?
I changed mine in 1978. At the time [Beth’s first husband] Scott and I changed our last name to “B,” as a nod to B movies—we were not making A-list movies. I think Ida had different reasons, but a similar motivation was to have a name of one’s own.
Along with premiering the movie, Metrograph is also doing a Beth B retrospective—so exciting! How does it feel?
It was important to me to show that some of the films I haven’t shown in so long—like Salvation and Two Small Bodies. I think in some ways, TSB is one of the best films I’ve made and it hasn’t been shown in 25 years. Then we brought in the idea of showing some of the films that Scott and I had done. We’re working towards preserving all of my films with a fantastic, lovely woman producer, Sandra Schulberg, who is the coproducer of indie-collect. Their main objective is preserving independent films.
The retrospective shows that even the themes and the idealism of me in my twenties—exploring different subjects and genres—themes of power and control and the outcast are still totally relevant in my work today, yet they’re dealt with in very different ways. Especially in the case of Two Small Bodies—it wasn’t until I was finished and showed it to Ida that we both went, “Wow.” It was about my childhood and her as a mother and I hadn’t realized it. If you go see it, you’ll see why I was so obsessed.
Call Her Applebroog opens at the Metrograph on Friday, June 11, and the Beth B Retrospective runs from June 11 through the 13th.
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Judy McGuire is the author of “How Not to Date” (Sasquatch Books), “The Official Book of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Lists” (Soft Skull), and recently finished ghostwriting a book for a celebrity tattoo artist. For 13 years, Judy wrote the “Dategirl” advice column for the Seattle Weekly, and has also been a columnist at MSN, Time.com, The Frisky, New York Press, Men’s Fitness, and the Eugene Weekly. She’s contributed features about everything from music to sex to drugs to health to pop culture for outlets including Today.com, Dame, Esquire.com, ForbesTraveler.com, Vibe, The Daily Meal, Bust, Paper, High Times, Time Out, and Complex, among many, many others. You can find samples of her work at https://judymcguire.contently.com/.