Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
I get off the subway holding a cluster of balloons above my head. I have a string in one hand, as the other hand balances two pizza boxes holding lumps of pizza dough. I’m heading to my studio to shoot a short silent comedy in which I play a pizza chef. The balloons are for another short. A Hollywood movie is setting up in the neighborhood. Teamsters park their trucks and trailers in reserved spaces and unload the puzzle pieces of a make-believe world. Stairs from trailers extend onto sidewalks. The pedestrian way is suddenly crammed with bodies standing around. A table unfolds, displaying all kinds of snacks. Carts with clunky equipment sail in all directions, like rafts on a fast-moving river. People with headsets walk back and forth, shouting, pointing fingers and colliding with the real world around them.
I step onto the block and notice a trailer with two doors. One has a sign that says “Lucy,” the other says “Desi.” I stop and ponder. I sigh loudly. I feel my shoulders go up, and when they come down, they stay down for a long time. It’s over. I missed my chance. It took me too long to get famous, so no one called me to audition. They’re making a movie about Lucille Ball without me. I was born to play this role! She and I are from the same tribe. I was the one to carry her torch through the wind and rain. I wanted to walk into a pole, or juggle my pizza dough, or pop my balloons so someone would notice me. Then someone with a headset looked at me, because certainly she could recognize a funny woman when she saw one. As she started toward me, I tried to fix my hair with the pizza box in my hand. This was it! “Hey,” she shouted, “are you with props?”
A few years later, as I carried a Super 8 camera, a baby and a tripod to whatever location I could shoot in, I noticed another truck with a trailer door that said “Lucy.” I thought, “Boy, they’re having a lot of trouble with that film. It’s taking forever to finish. That’s what they get for not casting me!” Then, five years later, I’m walking with my husband down a street that’s been transformed into a movie set. The trailer door says “Lucy.” I ask my husband, “When are they going to finish that movie?” He tells me that every trailer on a Hollywood set has gendered bathrooms with “Lucy” on the female side, “Desi” on the male side. It’s tradition.
Watching the new documentary Lucy and Desi, directed by Amy Poehler, I remembered a time when society was much more rigid. It reminded me of the roles women were expected to play, and of the women who wanted to redefine those roles. Women wanted liberation both in real life and on screen. Watching the doc, I was also reminded … how much we all loved Lucy.
Growing up, there were two chairs in the living room. The one closest to the TV wielded the power to change the station. My great-aunt Jean sat there in the afternoons to watch General Hospital. My grandfather seized the power in the evenings for Bonanza and The Benny Hill Show. I grabbed a seat every chance I got to watch I Love Lucy.
I’m not sure if I was laughing out loud, but I know both my grandmother and my great-aunt Jean were. My grandma had a pointy eyetooth that you’d only notice if she was really laughing. I saw it when we watched I Love Lucy. I sometimes wonder what attracted me to Lucy first … was it that she was funny, or was it that she made the people I loved laugh?
I didn’t understand, at that time, the comical nature of a marriage like Lucy and Desi’s. But I did understand the nature of the domesticity that my grandma, my mom and I lived in. I understood there was a patriarchy and that my grandfather was the authority of the house, and of the world. I think my grandma reveled in all of Lucy’s mistakes. I bet she secretly wished she could cause that much mayhem in the house. My grandpa called my grandma “Toots.” He spent most of his time outside or in the basement. Whether she was working as a butcher, or later, staying home being a full-time grandma, my grandma always had dinner on the table, clean dishes afterwards, babies bathed in the evening. My grandpa only cooked one thing: oatmeal. And no one could touch it. He had an old wooden spoon, and that was his oatmeal spoon. It wasn’t for stirring sauce, pudding or macaroni. It was for his oatmeal. I never saw him wash a dish. He never said “Thank you” for any meal she cooked. (There are no accolades when you’re taking care of the home. That’s just what you do.) When dinner was ready, my grandma would pound her broom on the floor. My grandpa would come up from the basement, where he shoveled coal into the furnace to keep us warm. He also stored his toy trains and Playboy magazines down there. I wondered why Grandpa was sometimes late to dinner. Grandpa always sat at the head of the table, facing north. He used to say, “Hey, Toots, pass them green beans, will ya?” And that’s all he’d say.
My grandma kept the house in order. She never complained or expected something in return. She took her home seriously and was the best housewife I ever knew. She almost never messed up. Except maybe a couple times, like when she tried to get the middle leaf out of the dinner table by herself. She removed the leaf, but when she pushed the table back together, her nightgown got stuck in the center between the two ends. The table had her by its teeth. She was yelling, “Help!” from on top of the table, her face sideways and her cheek flattened like a breast during a mammogram.
My grandma loved plants. She took great care of them. She bragged about one particular plant for years: “It’s always in bloom. Look how green it is.” She’d water it and admire it, show it off. One day, my mom took a closer look at the miracle plant. It was artificial! My grandma once made pumpkin pie without the pumpkin. Instead of covering chicken in bread crumbs, she once coated it in confectionary sugar. When she got older, her eyes were getting fuzzy and she mistook green dye for Gravy Master. After all the dishes were put away and night settled in, we’d sit at the table together. She’d pour a little glass of red wine and bring up her errors and foibles. We’d laugh at all the things gone wrong, just like we did watching I Love Lucy.
Growing up, I didn’t think women had permission to be funny. When Aunt Jean was the last one still sitting at the dinner table, she’d yell for me to come sit a minute with her. “Did you hear the one about the Italian, the Polish guy and the Jewish guy?” In her jokes, these guys were usually standing at the pearly gates of Heaven, or screwing in a lightbulb, or stranded in a desert with a genie bottle. Aunt Jean was Italian. The Italian guy in the joke always knew how to screw in a lightbulb. When my grandfather wasn’t around, Grandma would put on a private show for the bored faces at the kitchen table. She’d snap her tongs together to a cha-cha while she waited for the hot dogs to boil. If my grandfather ever saw her acting like a buffoon, he might send her to the loony bin. He caught me being funny a few times and suggested the loony bin was the place for me. Lucy was the only funny woman I knew who didn’t stifle her silliness, who wasn’t afraid of the loony bin. She was the only woman I knew who had a job making people laugh.
I Love Lucy reruns played through my whole adolescence. That show was unlike any other out there. I loved the predicaments Lucy got into. I loved her rebellion. I loved that she was a new kind of woman. Bette Midler says in Lucy and Desi, “You saw someone who was so beautiful and she wasn’t afraid to look ugly.” Lucy wasn’t there to throw her hair over her shoulders, stick out a hip, and bat her eyelashes at the man. She was there challenging the role of the common housewife who seemed to sleep in her apron and wake up in her oven mitts. I Love Lucy was a break from the macho-controlled world of TV. “A woman can be the dominant character too,” says legendary writer-producer Norman Lear in the documentary.
Lucy’s character was a confirmation that other types of women existed, that not every woman had to be bound by high heels, or wear poodle skirts. Some women wanted more than the latest, greatest can opener.
In the documentary, Carol Burnett says, “What Lucy gave me was a sense I could do anything and say anything and not be afraid of falling on my face. That I could be free.” Lucille Ball liberated the female performer. Lucille Ball says in the film, “As an actress, body movement is one of the most divine things to know about. You should be observing everyone’s body movements. Everyone’s – cats, dogs, old ladies in the park, drunks. Just observe.” And what Lucy could do with a body movement!
With Lucille Ball in my bones, I ran for the city. I was starring in my own films and discovering that my silliness was attracting some audiences.
I started to show in Chelsea galleries. Sixteen years ago, one of those galleries proposed to me my first solo show. Soon after, I got the news that I was pregnant. That spring and summer, I was preparing for a fall exhibition. The show would be a series of short genre films. My husband was away working, and I was a new mother, at home, with a hungry child. I was breastfeeding full time and getting broken in on the selfless ways of motherhood. I barely went to the bathroom.
I had to film myself as a stripper in a comical peep show for one of these short films, Rattles and Cherries. But what would I do with my baby? I couldn’t leave him in the hallway. What would Lucy do? I decided I’d just have to mix domestic reality with the glamour of the silver screen. I’d shoot with him there. I sat him in his little baby carrier on the concrete floor. I set up the camera. I took position on a lounge chair. I wore a sexy slip, a platinum blond wig and high heels. I pressed Record. Every couple seconds during my performance, he needed something. First it was a burp, then a diaper, then someone to “ga” and “goo” to. I was trying to balance his needs with my needs. He stared at me. He fussed in his seat and wanted to be fed. I tried to ignore him. The camera was recording. His fussing escalated, so I ran offscreen and came back with a baby who looks at the camera then looks for my breast. At four months old, my son made his debut in the movies, and I had my punchline.
This was motherhood, and it was a striptease, all right – stripping away the superficiality, the confidence, the sexuality, shedding vanity in order to get down and dirty. Like Lucy, I couldn’t be afraid to look ugly. I couldn’t be afraid I’d disappoint or disgust anyone. Motherhood was being the unbathed, unrelieved, unappreciated bodyguard of a little human being who shits and vomits, cries and spits up, and can’t do a thing about it. Motherhood was learning to find balance between the self and another human being.
In Lucy and Desi, Lucille Ball explains that she and Desi really wanted a family. Their show was already extremely successful when Lucy found out she was pregnant with her second child. In the ’50s, you weren’t supposed to mention pregnancy on TV. She wanted to say, “I feel like a pregnant goose.” The network wanted her to say, “I feel like an expectant swan.”
Like Lucille Ball, I fell foul of the rules around pregnancy and motherhood in the professional world. At my solo show, Rattles and Cherries and a few other films played on a large screen in the gallery space. I was getting a good response. I sold some videos. Then the show was reviewed by a very reputable female art critic. She always came across as a feminist to me and I admired her for that. When the review came out, I was so happy she’d even written about it. I read the review, the last line of which said, “Keep the kid out of the picture.” I found myself questioning feminism, questioning motherhood, questioning the art world. Was feminism defined as being like a man, rather than a woman? According to this critic, a woman who was a mother couldn’t be an artist or a professional or anything but a mother. Like Lucy, I wanted a family and I wanted to make my work. I tried to mix it all together so that would be possible. The art world wasn’t ready for that.
Lucy and Desi renewed my appreciation for the Lucy spirit. Lucille Ball made a show that challenged traditional ways. It helped to liberate women, but it also confirmed that women could have families and make exceptional work. The character of Lucy offered girls a new type of role model. She also gave female performers the permission to be outrageous, silly and wild. In the years that followed my solo show, I opened that trailer door that says “Lucy.” I stepped in. (I never knew it was a bathroom.) I might not be playing Lucy in a biopic, but I’ll carry her spirit with me in all that I do.
In Lucy and Desi, Lucille Ball says: “How do you make a star? You don’t necessarily go out and find someone wearing a sweater sitting in a soda fountain. That’s a Cinderella story. I prefer to find a trooper, people who know what to do when they’re given a great opportunity and they don’t take advantage take advantage take advantage. Show business means that the show must go on. The show comes first, instead of your personality. All of these things can be applied at home just as easily as it can to your work and it’s something I would like to expand on later.” I feel like the “later” is now, as so many women become professionals but still want to be mothers. It does take a trooper to stay the course. I try to be a trooper both in my art work and with my family. We can’t give up. Our show must go on!