Ellen Warkentine cannot sit in her chair.
In the music video for “Thanatos,” the first track off her forthcoming album Nonsense Mouth, Warkentine looks deeply confused and fearful as she paces back and forth around a white wooden chair. She fidgets and pivots as a group of figures move around her in organized disorder. What is she supposed to do with that chair anyway?
“It’s me being self-conscious, realizing, ‘Wow! Sit in your chair and own it and have all the parts of yourself and not be ashamed of them,’” says Warkentine, a local musician, theatrical composer, and performer. “I’m 34 and I don’t want to go through my whole life being ashamed of who I am.”
The 36-minute visual album—a collection of six dreamy music videos which will screen this Sunday Nov. 11 at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, followed by a short Q&A segment—is a surrealist interpretation of the heroine’s journey, traveling from a painted forest to an enchanted one where she shares a meal with mutinous creatures who lead her to ultimately face herself.
This project is by far the most personal for Warkentine, who has composed for the LA-based Ovation-award theater company Four Larks as well as LOLPERA, the absurdist cat meme opera which earned mentions from New York Times and Broadway World Reviews. While Warkentine may be very accustomed to the theater stage, this is her first endeavor into film.
“The plan was to possibly have this other dancer who is going through the whole journey, and Ellen was going back and forth: ‘Should it be me? Could I do it?’” recalls Danielle Kaufman, head of production design. “Then ultimately, I think [she] made the decision to do it because that’s what it’s about—facing that fear and stepping into it.”
And so, the metaphorical rite of passage became a real one, with Warkentine fighting her inner demons and aversion to vulnerability while on set.
“I think in true art, there is that vulnerability and that rawness because you’re exposing yourself,” director Anjela Vega says. “I always think of it as kind of peeling your chest open and exposing your heart with no rib cage. You’re just standing there. And that’s what [Warkentine] had to do.”
In 1990, Jungian psychotherapist Maureen Murdock penned the groundbreaking book The Heroine’s Journey. It was noted as the first time an academic had challenged Joseph Campbell’s popularized trope of the Hero’s Journey, a universal narrative centering around the male protagonist and his call to adventure, with women thrown in as mere side pieces or distractions.
As female organisms experiencing this world in full, many luminaries in the creative realm have long fought against this narrative; painter Frida Kahlo, composer Meredith Monk and Ukrainian-born filmmaker Maya Deren, to name a few. Invoking these “avant-garde women weirdos and outsiders” that have come before her, Warkentine shares her own journey as an unconventional woman, artist and human being in this modern world.
“The whole thing is about trying to enact a ritual, an art ritual to actively shed [baggage] and shed light on the dark places that I didn’t want to see in myself,” Warkentine says. “It’s about creating this whole spectacle to arrive at authenticity … It’s so much easier to mug and be a caricature than to be seen. What does it mean to be authentic and be seen and take yourself seriously, but not too seriously?”
Filmed this past August over the span of six hot days at Basic Flowers — a performance space in downtown Los Angeles — the visual album was fittingly helmed by an all-female production crew, including Warkentine’s close collaborators Vega (director) and Kaufman (production design), as well as Dana Fytelsen (director of photography), Lisa Tom (gaffer), Jaclyn Chessen (editor) and Mieko Romming (costume designer).
“I’m really interested in how we experience opera and musical theater digitally,” says Warkentine. “And having these epic spectacles. And the music video is a medium of performance art where it’s experimental and anything goes.”
The album, slated for release on Dec. 2, via Long Beach’s Monte Bre Records, was recorded this past spring at Big Ego Studios in Long Beach with producer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Schlarb who has collaborated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Glen Hansard, Cherry Glazerr and Nels Cline. A collection of songs written in various eras of her life, Warkentine explores everything from the topic of self-destruction (“Thanatos”) to navigating relationships with others as “sacred mirrors,” and perhaps, most importantly through it all, excavating and learning to harness a relationship with her own self.
Much like Warkentine’s past bodies of work, the new tracks feature a theatrical composition of strings and horns, with her own whimsical voice, which invokes strong modern singer-songwriters such as My Brightest Diamond, Bjork, Kate Bush and Fiona Apple, as the anchor.
“I did not realize until later in life how much I’ve kept from fully expressing myself because I want to be a good girl or don’t want to appear ugly, and that’s still a thing,” Warkentine says. “It felt really good to work with women. That’s part of the thing—trusting your voice, trusting each other, trusting intuition and honoring that.”
The world premiere of Ellen Warkentine’s Nonsense Mouth visual screening at Frida Cinema takes place Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. Presale tickets are $10, and $15 at the door. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page.