Review: The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye


One idea that underlies The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye comes courtesy of Beat icon William S. Burroughs and artist Brion Gysin: cut-ups. The cut-up technique involves literally cutting up existing texts and then rearranging the fragments in order to create new associations and juxtapositions. Through chance and change, something original and perhaps even beautiful can come about.

That sort of came through in our interview with Genesis P-Orridge and director Marie Losier. It’s sound cut-ups that helped inform Genesis’s approach to music and art. It’s cut-ups and collage that informed Losier’s approach to this documentary. And in a way, it’s cut-ups that pervaded the romance of Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye: after a chance encounter, the two fell deeply in love and decided to undergo various plastic surgeries to resemble each other. In their pandrogyne project, they were two fragments that could be arranged into a new whole.

So these cut-ups result in new kinds of writing, new sonic potential for music, a novel form of documentary, and even a new sex. But even though the results and associations are new, the raw material is still the same old and essential stuff: language, image, flesh, and love.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye
Director: Marie Losier
Rating: NR
Release Date: March 8th, 2012 (NYC); March 9, 2012 (limited)

While some documentaries would linger on the strangeness of the pandrogyne project, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye treats it as just another expression of love. It’s philosophical and sincere rather than a human oddity, and though it’s taken to a literal level, real romances do involve people taking on traits of the people they love. In David Cronenberg’s audio commentary for The Fly, he mentions how Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum were a couple at the time and Geena would often mimic Jeff. There’s that line in Matthew Sweet’s “I’ve Been Waiting” that expresses an eagerness to become alike in the exclamation “You can wear my clothes” before tumbling into the fawning pre-chorus: “I didn’t think I’d find you / Perfect in so many ways.” (The song was written for his wife when they were dating.)

This expression of the wholeness in a relationship recalls that bit in Plato’s The Symposium where Aristophanes talks about the conjoined lovers. That was the take-off point for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is itself a glammed rumination of gender and music and personal connection. My entry point into The Symposium was actually a Clive Barker poem I saw back in a 1999 interview. (One of the hobbyhorses in Barker’s work is flesh and transformation, so how fitting.) It was called “Brother Plato” and went:

Brother Plato — right or wrong?
Says the tribe where I belong,
Is a family of souls in two,
Me a half, another — you
Let’s stay together, one, tonight
And prove our brother Plato right.

I don’t think the poem was ever published, but it stuck with me because of its simple encapsulation of the idea of union, and even ends with a dare: baby, let’s get together and make this theory a reality. This is all just a way of saying that we do take on traits of people we’re deeply in love with. The pandrogyne was just Genesis’s and Jaye’s way of doing it.

Lady Jaye died in 2007. At that time, Losier had been following Genesis and Jaye for a few years and had formed a close friendship with the couple and their circle of friends. This level of intimacy informs part of her approach to telling the story their love. Watching a lot of the footage in the film reminds me of watching someone else’s home movies. There’s a spontaneity to the actions of the people on screen that can only be triggered by the proximity and awareness of a running camera. And so there are times when Genesis, Jaye, the members of Psychic TV, and other friends will vamp and mug and dance. We’re there with them, watching, in backyards and living rooms and in parks.

Rather than using interviews with various talking heads, Losier instead uses some narration by Genesis and archival footage to help bridge gaps in the film. She also stages little scenes or, to use a Burroughs word, routines. Some are restagings of actual events. The recreation of Genesis and Jaye’s first meeting is particularly moving, as is one of Genesis’s childhood memories of teasing. Other routines are works of sheer artifice: Genesis and Jaye dressed up as fascists, with Genesis delivering a screed against the fascism of gender and lifestyle conformity. The film even opens with such a routine: Genesis dressed as a whistling, tweeting bird.

This bouncing back and forth between home movie-style and staged vignettes creates a kind of hybrid documentary. There is still the emotional truth there and the factual stuff, but it’s filtered through a friend with a sense of metaphor and strangeness. The collage approach to the story of a cut-up romance makes sense to a large degree: it’s that attempt to marry form and content, or maybe in this case, an attempt to fragment form and content and arrange it into a different sort of film essay.

The documentary is short at just 72 minutes, and I felt that while there’s a power and a beauty to what’s presented, there could have been more there. More of Jaye, certainly, who seems to haunt the movie as a ghost or a beautiful memory rather than receive the same level of exploration as Genesis. There could have been more of the routines and the home movie footage as well, and maybe something more — something I can’t name or articulate — to bring me closer into this world of cut-ups, art, and love. So while The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye made me think of the palpable joys of relationships and home movies, it also made me think about the limitations of home movies and the insularity of such deep intimacy.

When you watch another person’s home movies or look through another person’s family photos, you’re struck by the image and what it can communicate to you as an image. And yet, there is something missing in the home movie and the family photo for the outside observer: the full weight of the memories behind the image. The person viewing can get a sense of joy or sadness, but not the same fullness that the people in the image experienced. We can fill in the gaps with our own memories, but I sort of feel that’s an imperfect encounter, particularly when it comes to the potency of another person’s life and the individuality of that person’s love. A certain amount of hand holding and guiding could be there. It’s not lacking in The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, but maybe just a bit more holding hands and a few more recollections could have helped me dwell more with these lives.

Related to that, home movies and family photos communicate only what is there. What’s not there is usually known only to those intimately involved in the image. In other words, what’s present in the image is communicated to everyone, but what’s not present in the image (the thing that gives the full heft and importance of the image) is known only to a few. It wasn’t until I spoke with Genesis and Marie that I realized how much loss was wrapped up in the film — not just Jaye but the dog and the place they lived in were gone as well.

Being close to people you care about — whether friends or lovers — results in a sort of private language. Words and images take on new meanings and a certain shorthand for shared memories is developed. I think it was Joseph Campbell who said in one interview that great love brings with it that possibility of the greatest sort of pain. Maybe it’s too painful to revisit this sort of loss overtly, and so the shorthand (in this case the presence of the image and the absence it conveys) suffices. And yet it seems like the immensity of that pain could have been explored more in some way, as much as we can sense the depth of the love.

But even though I wanted more — to know more, to see more, to have more revealed (“I want more life, father”) — that’s just because Genesis and Jaye have led such fascinating lives. There’s the art and avant garde aspect, there’s the older New York City with edge aspect, there’s the music scene aspect. More than that, there’s the bigger implication of their love, which is familiar at its heart but they expressed it differently in the flesh: love can change us.

I mentioned Burroughs’s assessment of Genesis in the interview yesterday, but I left out the last half of the quotation. It seems right to mention it here: “I was interested in [Genesis] primarily as a character. A phenomena. I was already into the idea that the most important work is the way you live and you should live life as a work and try to make each aspect of it as interesting as you can.”

And so there it is: an interesting person inspired by fragmentation, in an effort to be wholly himself or herself, fragments, recreates, and tries to become whole with someone very close and very connected in a deep way. The tragedy is that the catalyst to become whole is gone. And yet the changes are still there, and I wonder how much of Jaye is in Genesis, who uses the plural pronoun “we” rather than “I” these days: we went to the store, we played a show in Australia, we learned a lot through cut-ups, we cried, we were in love.

I think Plato was right, brother — I think Plato was right.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.