I’m sure I’ll live to regret it, but I made the decision this weekend, after learning that filmmaker Jen Proctor had moved to Ypsi Township, to broaden the scope of the Ypsi Immigration Interview project to include people moving not only into the city proper, but also the surrounding environs… Could this be the start of a “One Ypsilanti” movement, or a fierce “Annex the Township” campaign? I’m not sure, but it’ll be interesting to see where it leads… Here, in the meantime, is my interview with Jen. Enjoy.
MARK: Let’s start with the easy stuff. What’s your name?
JEN: Jen Proctor!
MARK: Do you always use an exclamation mark after your last name?
MARK: Where were you born?
JEN: San Francisco, California, though I grew up in Novato and San Rafael, just north of San Francisco.
MARK: Do you know the circumstances of your birth?
JEN: A pretty ordinary birth, as I understand it. My parents had to rush from where they were living in Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge, to get to the hospital. (Kaiser didn’t have a maternity ward in Marin at the time.) I was a little bit sickly, but everything was relatively normal. The girl who would become my childhood best friend was born 24 hours after I was. Our parents had met in lamaze class.
MARK: Do you ever worry that maybe you and another baby may have been switched at birth, and that you went home with the wrong family?
JEN: I totally worried about that as a kid, or that my parents had actually become pod people, and that I was the only human. But I’m way, way too much like my other family members to be a mistaken adoption, and I look way too much like them too. So, no dice.
JEN: I’m curious, and I’m a wanderer. It’s taken me many years to understand how they instilled those traits in me, or at least how I followed in their footsteps. We all love to explore, even if it’s just on a small scale, in the neighborhood. And I definitely find that I can be both taciturn, like my dad, and silly and outgoing, like my mom.
MARK: How are you least like your parents?
JEN: I think I’m a little more stable, for better or for worse. I like to live a simple life, and I don’t like to shop or accumulate stuff. But you can also give things up when you keep your life stable and simple – discovering new things, embarking on new projects, making new investments. So I try to continue to learn from the complexity of their lives, even as I strive to keep my own life a bit bare.
MARK: What kind of kid were you?
JEN: Oh man. I never thought to characterize myself as the kind of kid that I was! I was driven and creative but also painfully shy. (Later, as an adult, I figured out it was social anxiety, which I finally got treated. Lifechanging.) I was gregarious in my interests, with a love of movies and moviemaking from an early age, and endlessly curious, but my gregariousness often hit a wall with my shyness, so I was a pretty temperamental kid. I have also always had a rebellious streak, which I channeled into writing and video production. When I read about how our brains aren’t fully developed until we’re 25, a lot of things start to make more sense about my childhood and adolescence!
MARK: What’s the first film you were ever passionate about?
JEN: Like a lot of kids, the films that lit fires under me, and made me want to be something bigger than I was, were the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. They made me want to be a hero, and they made me understand the power of cinematic storytelling to make you want to BE something. Of course, as a young girl, most of my heroes were men (I loved Princess Leia, but I really wanted to be Han or Luke), so a lot of what I study and teach now is about gender representation, and how we can do better to provide diverse and complicated heroes (and villains) in our films… But Winnie the Pooh was the first film to scare the hell out of me.
MARK: What was it… the honeypot getting stuck on his head?
JEN: No, getting stuck in Rabbit’s hole, and then Rabbit turning his rear into a face. There’s still something unpleasantly uncanny about it to me.
MARK: If you could go back in history and give one person a kiss on the cheek, who would it be?
JEN: Someone I think about a lot is Spalding Gray, the monologuist/performance artist and writer who took his own life about ten years ago. [I have his autograph.] He had a profound effect on my life as an adolescent, and I’d like to thank him for that. The sad thing is that I actually had the chance – I met him briefly when I was working for KUT, the National Public Radio station in Austin, where I lived in the late 90s/early aughts – and I could have given him that kiss then if it wouldn’t have been, you know, creepy and awkward. But I was also too shy to really express my gratitude and then a few years later, he was gone. That’s not really that far back in history, but his loss is one that I still feel.
MARK: I always feel bad when I think about him. But I think it’s selfish. As I understand it, he, like me, suffered from both OCD and depression. And, when I think about him, there’s always a fear that I could go the same way… I tend to personalize stuff.
JEN: I’m sorry to hear that. Yes, he had many troubles, and his mother committed suicide (following a similar pattern that he did) when he was young, which haunted him. [This article by late, wonderful Oliver Sacks about him offers some insight.] Certainly, I think I identified with his depression and struggles, but I think I also learned from his honesty and openness. I think it’s quite easy to see ourselves in someone like Spalding, and maybe there is an element of selfishness in that – but I like to think it’s also about compassion and empathy. He gave a lot of himself to the world.
MARK: What’s your first memory?
JEN: Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between memories and stories you’ve been told a million times. But I distinctly remember the joy of sitting in a metal cooking pot and spinning in our duplex kitchen when I was maybe four years old. I often wish I could get an adult-sized pot and spin. It was pure delight.
[above: Jen and her sister Anna probably somewhere on Mt. Tam, California. Hat crocheted by her father.]
MARK: Do I understand correctly that you have audio of your family from when you were a kid?
JEN: My dad recorded the family on cassette tape around Christmas every year. Those tapes are amazing. In many ways, sound is a far richer and more vivid way of evoking memories than video, and I treasure them. It’s amazing to hear the change in the sound of our voices over the years. [You can hear some of it here.]
MARK: And what brought you to Michigan?
JEN: In an unusual twist on the Michigan story, I came for a job, from graduate school at the University of Iowa. I taught at Grand Valley State University and lived in Grand Rapids for three years before moving Ypsi-side for my current job at UM-D.
MARK: What did you think about Grand Rapids? I’m a little conflicted. I like a lot about what’s going on, but I feel like I shouldn’t… Does that make sense?
JEN: That’s interesting, what do you not like? I really quite liked Grand Rapids, and thought the city was doing a nice job at revitalizing the downtown, which had otherwise been abandoned. I didn’t sense that it was doing it in a way that encouraged gentrification, but it could be different now. There is great food and a strong community that is really devoted to the city and grassroots work. I have many conflicting thoughts about ArtPrize – it’s been great in many ways for the city, but I have lots of thoughts about it as an artist. There’s also the influence of the DeVoses and Amway money that I find troubling, but I have to say they’ve invested incredibly in the arts there. [I also discovered, while in Grand Rapids, that I have a great-great-great-great grandmother buried near there.]
[above: Grand Rapids pillow fight flash mob video by Jen Proctor, 2008.]
MARK: I like Grand Rapids for the same reasons you just shared. It’s just very white and conservative. And I don’t like that much of it was built on Amway riches. But people there really love their community. They support local businesses, and their local non-profits. We could learn a lot from them.
JEN: It is very white, though there is a strong Latino community that often goes unnoticed. The conservative culture there is real, but as I spent much of my time among artists and academics, I never felt dominated by it. I don’t know, I encountered a lot of active progressives there. And their community media center is truly fantastic.
MARK: And you just moved to the Township from Ann Arbor?
JEN: Yes, though we didn’t move far – about two miles. We used to live near the Pittsfield Village condo complex, right near the border of Ann Arbor and Ypsi.
MARK: I think you’re the first Pittsfield Township person I’ve ever interviewed as part of the Ypsi Immigration Interview project. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe I’m softening with age… I think, in part because there were a few libertarian folks from the Township who would leave comments on my site, I was inclined to see everyone outside the City as bitter, well-armed “small government” types who shared the opinion that, if not for affirmative action, the EPA, and women’s rights, they would have been hugely successful captains of industry. But, I guess I’m evolving. I mean the Township can’t be all bad, right?
JEN: Ha! Well, I’m honored. My experience of the Township so far is that it’s a bit of a confused place – my taxes go to the Township, the schools and library are Ann Arbor, but the mailing address is Ypsi. So it’s kind of a nebulous place with no clear identity, which I’m kind of into. That’s interesting to hear about the libertarian angle – I haven’t encountered it yet in person, but maybe I’ll try posting a bunch of “Feel the Bern” signs in my yard and see what happens. Generally, though, my neighbors have been lovely and welcoming and really look out for each other, and that’s the kind of neighborhood I want.
MARK: Can we trust you? [It’s nothing personal, I’m just required to ask all people moving to Ypsi from Ann Arbor.]
JEN: You know, the thing about living right on the edge between A2 and Ypsi is that I was often faced with a choice when I left the house: left or right, east or west, red pill or blue pill. And more often than not I went Ypsi-ward. I don’t know if that was the red pill or blue pill, but I definitely identify more with Ypsi. Before I moved to this part of the state, people told me Ann Arbor was kind of alternative, kind of hippie, kind of crunchy, but Ypsi was punk rock. It’s that rebellious streak again, I think – Ypsi feels like a place that talks back, that scraps, that does its own thing, and that has opportunities for making it happen. I’m excited to dig more into that community. So I think that’s a “yes.”
MARK: What do you do for a living?
JEN: I teach film and video in the Journalism and Screen Studies program at UM-Dearborn. That’s another reason for the Township move – I commute to Dearborn, while my husband works at the main campus in Ann Arbor. Ironically, his bus commute is now longer than my car commute. We would have considered moving farther into Ypsi if it weren’t for the insanely long bus ride into Ann Arbor.
MARK: And what kind of films do you make?
JEN: I mostly make little personal experimental films that hardly anybody sees, ha! But I also work in interactive documentary and video installation and I work with found footage quite a lot. My most successful recent film is a remake of Bruce Conner’s seminal 1958 found footage film “A Movie“, where I used YouTube and LiveLeak videos instead of newsreels and novelty films. Despite being 50 years apart, it shows that as a society we’re still obsessed with violence on a global scale, but also still delight in videos of people riding funny bikes and having accidents on waterskis.
[above: A Movie by Jen Proctor.]
MARK: Are you actively working on any projects right now?
JEN: I’ve been capturing a hell of a lot of episodes of Jeopardy! for a project. I’m going to be working with those wonderful awkward sequences at the beginning when the contestants smile painfully at the camera as they’re being introduced. I hope to get started on that before the end of the year.
MARK: What would you like for people to know about you?
JEN: Oh hell. Um. Hmm. I’m eager to participate in/develop more of a filmmaking community in Ypsi/A2. Donald Harrison, who also just recently moved to Ypsilanti, has made some strides in doing that, but it would be great to have a more regular gathering or event. So if anyone’s interested, hit me up! I also love cats, and I love Star Wars, and best of all I love Star Wars cats. I don’t know. What should I share? [right: Jen with a Star Wars cat cake produced by Sweet Heather Anne.]
MARK: What would you like to accomplish over the next five years?
JEN: I’d like to produce a more significant, long-term filmmaking project with social impact. Most of my projects are short and small, which I enjoy, but I’m ready to sink my teeth into something more significant, once I can find the right story. I’ve actually thought for some time about a documentary about the Paranormal Convention that takes place in Sault Ste. Marie every year. It might sound light and fluffy, but I think there are actually really fascinating issues to be examined around the ideas of ghost hunting, and perceived hauntings, and it could be an interesting entry point for exploring what it means to live in the Upper Peninsula.
MARK: Please finish the sentence: Community is important because _____.
JEN: …it gives our lives meaning, and allows us to participate in creating meaning for others. In a community, we are bigger than the sum of our parts, and as such, we can make stuff HAPPEN.
[special offer: I’m not sure how she’ll do it, but Jen says that if anyone in Ypsi watches her new 30 minute textual film all they way through in one go, she’ll send them a cookie!]
[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]