Roberta Cantow on the making of Clotheslines

A telephone interview with the filmmaker Roberta Cantow conducted by Tom Davenport in August 2018.


TOM DAVENPORT:  The Clotheslines film is remarkable, it's different than most of the films  on Folkstreams and probably different from most of the films of that period. It must have been quite a shock when it was shown.

ROBERTA CANTOW:  I don't remember people being shocked, but I was very surprised, actually, that they took to it as well as they did.

DAVENPORT:  How did you come up with this idea?

CANTOW:  I had finished two films in film school and I had been out of film school for a number of years. I was working for an organization known as Theater for the Forgotten, teaching drama workshops and going into detention centers for kids as well as group homes and community centers and that was taking me all over the various boroughs of New York City, which meant that I had to get on the elevated train from time to time and you know, the trains are going through these various neighborhoods where there are all these clothes lines hanging out the window. And I just began to reflect about that and I guess the most immediate thing I was aware of was that the clotheslines were evidence of the unseen work of women. The clotheslines were emblematic of all of the unseen work of women, what went on inside...the sorting, mostly for others... the washing, the ironing, the folding...and that the clothes on the line were what we get to see, the display....So that was kind of my starting point.

How I was going to pull it together [into a film] was another matter entirely.  I also had to work with what I had, which was a silent 16 mm Bolex camera and a Uher recording machine - no synch sound. It was those limitations that predicted how the film would be made: with images and separate voiceover. I don't remember the exact sequence, but there was a time when I had collected some footage and all I knew to do with it was to put it to moving music and it looked really nice, blowing in the breeze with the Pachelbel Canon music and I spent a lot of time enjoying the feelings evoked by watching all the    different kinds of clotheslines with that music - the billowing sheets, the uninhabited shirts and pants, the neatly hung socks and underthings..  But I said, “You know? It just doesn't have enough substance.” For me, it was mesmerizing, but I knew there was more to it than that- more substance, more stories, deeper truths. I began to list them: pain, loneliness, drudgery, isolation, folklore, art, thwarted creativity, wisdom, generational links, changing attitudes, etc.  So that's probably when I decided that it was the unseen work of women that was the subject of my film and I didn't even know I had a film until I got funding from New York State Council on the Arts, which was in 1978.  I didn't have an absolute initial starting vision at all.

I began with this idea- I don't even know if there's such a term- but I called it a circular style of editing. I worked on the editing of this film for a very long time and anything could be moved anywhere because it didn't have an ABCD structure. I could have started anywhere. I could've ended up anywhere. And I included certain repetitive images, which was part of this notion of circular style of editing, which I also identified with as kind of a feminine style of -not editing, so much- as thinking. I also gave myself permission to repeat certain images (which is frowned upon) but it was part of this notion of a circular style of editing, with the return to certain images being anchors or reference points. Not all of this was clearly conscious. There was no treatise on what I was doing. Then at a certain point I got this woman who I knew was a composer with homemade instruments and I thought, well, that sounds right, you know, to have some of that kind of thing in there. It's evolved into much more than that. But there were any number of sounds that came from toys and homemade instruments in that film in addition to the cello and clarinet.

There were a lot of naysayers. I have to say that as I worked on this film from the moment of first announcing what it was about when people would say, oh, you know, “Laundry. Why would you want to make a film about laundry? They thought it was kind of weird. And then there were men [who] commented, “How relevant is that? I mean, how important is that?” Clotheslines are just the manifestation of poverty, which was, kind of a double whammy dismissal because on the one hand, it's saying it wouldn't be important to make a film about poverty and, and on the other it's dismissing the whole meaning of, not just the clothesline, but of the very essence of my film. So I basically, I mean, part of my experience of making the film was learning not to listen to people.

There were also people who advised me that I needed to include certain kinds of music. Like, you know, the work song traditions that would have been relevant to laundry or more talking heads and I'm glad that I had the strength not to feel that I had to listen to everybody because I don't think it would've ended up being my film if I had.

DAVENPORT: Did you ever have a point where you were so depressed you thought you'd give it up?

CANTOW: That's a very good question and I don't know if I remember the answer. I know that I gave up a lot to work on that film. I'm thinking of one particular editing room where, you know, literally down the street you could hear people having a good time and I was, you know, stuck in this room, spinning straw into gold, but I don't think I ever reached a point of despair.

DAVENPORT:  I had to laugh a couple of times in the film when you show those red pants and everybody starts clapping. It just tickled me to death; the feeling that the laundry was like a kind of personal recital. These women were hanging it up and showing it to the other women.

CANTOW: Right. Also, the importance of the generational difference between the mother who was telling her [daughter] she should be ashamed for the way she hung out her laundry and the daughter saying, “I gotta’ be ashamed?” She's been doing all these things. “I'm going to work. I’m going to school. I'm doing this [laundry]. I gotta’ be ashamed, too?” Those were mostly- not exclusively- women with Italian backgrounds.  They were wonderful and they were extremely generous with their time.

DAVENPORT: You took an ordinary thing [doing the laundry] and you made it into a universal, beautiful thing.  That's a true goal of art.

CANTOW: Thank you for saying that.   I didn't want to film talking heads. I knew that I wanted to do something different than that, exactly how I didn't know, but I was aware that these images, various images, whether with the sheets or the shirts or the pants, that they all had a certain poetry to them and what I emphasized was what was poetic and lyrical, expressive, and those are the words that ended up being most often referenced about the film.

DAVENPORT:  The sound track was extremely sophisticated and the way you did the music. Talk about the way you integrated things, the voices and the laughter of children and the whispering of gossip. All those voices and sound effects became part of the music of the whole thing.

CANTOW:  That was me. The soundtrack embodies all the things I felt and thought about as they relate to the themes and ideas embedded in the film. I had once declared that I love to play with sound. I mean that was my personal imprint in that film as a way to give life to all the feelings expressed in ways that fascinated or intrigued me.

DAVENPORT:  Are there any other things you would like to share?

CANTOW:  Well, you know, I haven't really said anything to you about the participants.  I had reached out to an anthropologist and an economist as well as few others I can't recall. The anthropologist was the one who made any number of suggestions to me about organizations that I could connect with to get access to the various women. (The economist signed all of her emails with this anonymous quote: "The visionaries are the ones who are considered crazy until the vision becomes the primary metaphor of a people." It was totally helpful and encouraging and I never forgot it.) Anyway, one of these organizations was The National Congress of Neighborhood Women located in the Carol Gardens community of Brooklyn. That was not where all the women came from, but a large group of Irish and Italian women in the film were from that organization. I knew these were housewives who were trying to enter the workforce. What I didn't know was that there was possibly an addiction component to their backgrounds and that some of them might have been in some phase of alcohol recovery. They hadn't talked about it and I hadn't asked because it wasn't on my radar. I found out about it years later when, several of them came to a screening in 2002. That was when they mentioned that they always knew it was a good film, but they didn't have the time to absorb it because they were still dealing with their issues. In spite of that, they gave themselves 100% to the interviews and some of the interviews were group interviews. That's why you get a lot of excitement in the voices (one person talking over another). I also had done some more individual interviews and they were all very lively, colorful characters, you know, so that came through. As for the older woman in the movie who starts the film, I was shooting something in Massachusetts- I think it was at some kind of a historical museum. I don't know if it was all laundry-related, but I was shooting some laundry-related contraption when two older women came along and wanted to know what I was doing. I explained the film I was working on. This one woman in particular said, "Well, I could tell you stories." I said, “Okay, let's do it." I drove to her house in New Jersey and that's how she got in on the film. In many ways, her voice, her passion, the intensity of her complaint carries the film. So the only thing I regret is that I didn't have a lot of access to black women. There was one important voice over by a black woman and one scene with a Puerto Rican woman, but she was serving as a domestic, not a housewife. She might've been a housewife, but in the film she's wearing some kind of a uniform and I shot her in a location where she was, you know, doing some kind of domestic work.

There's one woman at the end who says "It’s just something we gotta’ do. There's nobody else to do it." And that's over a shot of a Taiwanese community of women washing clothes in the river. The woman anthropologist that I was working with told me about a study that had been done where washing machines were introduced to a certain community that didn't have them, and the whole social fabric fell apart as a result -when women were no longer going to the creek to do their laundry and exchange information.

I’d like to say one more thing about the women that I worked with, particularly those from the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, you have to realize they were a lively bunch. They were connected to each other, not at all strangers, comfortable with each other and able to speak freely. Some of the interviews were as a group and their comments echoed each other’s. I also did some individual interviewing with them. I was most taken with their modes of expression, the accents, how real they were. They might have thought the subject was weird to begin with, but once we got going with the conversations, I think that for them, it was cathartic. All their humor came out along with the sorrow and exasperation. But there was also something unspoken - that we were from two different worlds and that I was entering their world to learn more about it.

Davenport makes a comment  about a scene with the woman hanging the clothes at night at recalls a comment about how the clothes on the line reminded her of ghosts.

CANTOW:  I'm recalling about the nighttime scene [when] the woman was referring to hanging laundry at night. I think so nobody would see her hanging out her laundry so late, which was the only time she had to do it. She was hanging nylons, nylon stockings, but there's a woman who refers to the clothes on the line looking like the ghosts of the people who wore them. I don't think she says that over that nighttime scene but it hardly matters. There is a moment when a woman is talking about the linens and the closet and how she tied all the linens with all ribbons. She never refers to the color of the ribbon. But when people report back about that scene of the woman tying up the linens, they always refer to the red ribbons even though red is never mentioned. That's another way the film works with people's subconscious and memory and other elements come in that are not even in the film.

Davenport makes a reference to having his own childhood memories of hanging clothes on a line.

CANTOW:  You know, mentioning men, I mean I'd just like to make a comment about that in terms of the responses of some men, because there were men who felt left out of the film. Yeah! They felt resentful because they did laundry but the film didn't recognize that. “Why were they left out?” That was one kind of comment. There weren't that many of them who had that take and the comments have shifted a bit with the passage of time. It was interesting to me because I felt we can't even have that? You know, we can't even have our own domain when it comes to complaints? Perhaps the men wanted to be able to complain too - or perhaps they wanted the film to acknowledge their efforts in changing times.

On the other hand, such comments were not made by working class men for whom I think those remarks would have been much less likely. I was surprised at that response from men. I mean, I wouldn't have thought there were that many men who would've been in that category.

There's a couple of other elements about the film we haven't spoken about. One of them is the spirituality in the film. I had a memory when I was living in Paris of doing my own laundry and I had to do it all by hand, I had to hang it out and the whole thing. And I remember bringing it in and having that experience of the fresh scent of clean laundry. I guess what I'm saying is that as for the genesis of the film, there were aspects of it that came from my personal experience, even though I didn't share the experiences of the women in the film or didn't live in those kinds of neighborhoods with those kinds of demands and expectations.

DAVENPORT:  I mentioned at the beginning of this interview that Clotheslines was an unusual film and different from the other films on Folkstreams.  Would you comment on what you see as the folkloric aspects of the film?

CANTOW:  Well, I didn't have any folklore background per se. I was certainly encouraged afterwards that I maybe might be interested in becoming a folklorist, but I think that was already an interest. I mean I was certainly into folk songs, you know, as a young teenager and there was nothing studied about it in the film, but I just knew that the content was women's folklore or related to women's folklore as much as it was related to women's studies.

The film discusses peoples' beliefs and how these beliefs or even standards of performance are passed down through the generations. The film discusses how things are artfully done by the mothers and the difficulty that the daughters have in meeting those standards given the changing times. In the film, I see folklore and folk art in everything from the belief that if you leave the clothes out overnight, the devil will get in them to the communal sense of joy in hanging everything out on a bright and sunny day; the wisdom of how to fold sheets and towels or the need to hang them with a loop; to the messages that each individual clotheslines "spoke" to the other women who would see their "artworks," that women wanted to be seen through what they displayed, to me, is really interesting and that has to do with what I have referred to as thwarted creativity invested in mundane tasks.