Wolf's Canyon

Liz Zito

I am an observer of people and personalities and have always been interested in what faces have to say and the stories they tell. Shortly after college came a vocation in vaudeville, which led to documenting my acts and thus began my career in video and performance art. Through characters I mimic come the stories about lives that parallel my experience.

Wolf’s Canyon is an episodic “television show” based on the pop TV culture of my youth, including Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and the recent teen-girl phenomenon, Pretty Little Liars. By taking their tropes and archetypal characters, I created a female-driven comedy series based upon the absurdities of the daily life of an orphaned 16-year- old girl who moves across the country to live with her uncle in a haunted town. Though similar to stories that have been told before, my version is absurd, abstract, and comedic, as it addresses the pressures that society places on women to hate themselves, their bodies, and each other. It is quasi-formulaic art and comedic commentary designed to reach a community that is looking to laugh, as it critically revolutionizes how we digest female stories on television. It is aimed specifically toward young women whose window to the world is the screen in front of them.

Much of my prior work was performed solo and addressed aging. Those ideas took root as I transitioned into my thirties and became obsessed with the inevitability of growing old, and an inability to predict the future. As a way to break from the obsession, I developed the character Courtney, a ditsy stereotype teenager. She was a welcome relief, helping me take a break from analyzing Liz Zito. It was easy to make Courtney the victim of trauma, loss, and loneliness. She is bullied at school, although she seems not to be completely bothered by this, as her general attitude is quite superficial. As a character, she opens the door to absurd happenings that surround her in the town Wolf’s Canyon.

Directly inspired by Twin Peaks, I wanted to create a community in the Northwest that is home to a variety of unique and bizarre eccentrics. While the story of Wolf’s Canyon focuses on Courtney’s adventures, it is equally about its history and people. As the plot unfolds, so does the depth of our dimwitted Courtney. The outcome is a balance between good and evil in human nature and society. While previous acts of performing and filming myself were part of a meditative, creative process, and provided an intimate mood, for Wolf’s Canyon I wanted to have the opposite feeling. So I imagined a very large ensemble cast. Part of the development included asking colleagues what type of archetypal high school horror/drama character they would most relate to. Acquiring an improvised dialogue helped the relationships along as I chose untrained actors, to relate to and be inspired by characters. Their performance energy also added to the chaos of the aesthetics.

The film contains much appropriated footage. It is mostly shot with a green screen and the inserted backgrounds come from image and video searches. These appropriated environments, mixed with handheld filming, aids in creating a bizarre reality that only exists in the town of Wolf’s Canyon. A major artistic influence for this work is Mike Kelley, specifically in his stories based on found photographs: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions. Usually these images are of archetypal characters performing in low-budget, theatrical productions. The videos he makes from these photographs are placed in individual sculptural installations, which are often from the set of his films. The general feeling of these films is oddly reminiscent of a cultural past. His celebration of pop culture comes from a type of loathing of the mainstream world. I am making a mockery of similar television shows, which stems from indulging in it, and is thus a romantic relationship of sorts. Though I may not agree with the content, I can’t get enough of it. Where Kelley uses material from his past, the team of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch are infatuated with the present and creates hyper, neo-reality videos in which characters frantically communicate with each other using Internet slang as dialogue. The characters are carefully painted and decorated, ranging in tone from extreme florescence to washed-out white. They are placed in immersive installation rooms and visually blend into their environments, which aid in the storytelling. There is a connection between Wolf’s Canyon and the Trecartin’s work, which he states is influenced by the Disney Channel and MTV.

While making Wolf’s Canyon, I thought about George Kuchar, particularly Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967). I connect to his view of the world and his techniques of storytelling in a time-based medium that unites the viewer to his vision. The film creates the sensations of Kuchar’s struggle with religion and sexuality, as well as feelings of romance, and the absurdity of family relationships and expectations. His storylines and enthusiasm for film paved the way for filmmakers to experiment with ideas of what storytelling can be.

In addition to Twin Peaks, other shows that have inspired Wolf’s Canyon include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pretty Little Liars. Buffy is a show that I watched growing up, in which the protagonist is a high school girl who had to save the world over and over. Less supernatural, Pretty Little Liars deals with female teenagers who have too much life and death responsibility; and each is keeping a secret, much like Buffy. I find it undeniable that these shows have incredible success in pop culture and great agency in influencing maturing young minds. I continue to research why this genre has become of interest to so many women through an exploration of abjection in feminist, philosophical theory. In Wolf’s Canyon, Courtney is symbolic of a certain element of societal repulsion. She remains oblivious to her shortcomings and continues forward with minimal introspection. While other characters seem to evolve, she remains a product of circumstance. Ultimately, Courtney represents an amalgamation of everything society has warned young women against and she embodies the paradox in what contemporary expects of young women.