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Q+A: Isabella Rossellini Does Insects, and Sometimes Whales Too

"Starfish" is just one of seventeen short films about marine animal and insect sex that Rossellini wrote, directed, and stars in as part of the Sundance Channel online series, Green Porno.
December 25, 2009, 11:23am

"If I were a starfish, I could reproduce sexually or asexually."

Isabella Rossellini is looking into the camera, her head peeping out of a starfish costume. It's not much of a costume really. You can clearly see the buttons on her red long-sleeved shirt, which, like her red pants, is affixed with construction-paper suction cups. "I can grow new starfish by fragmenting my body," she continues, as her fake paper starfish arm floats to the ground and a second cardboard Isabella-starfish pops up next to her. Another starfish segment pops off at her knee. "Make as many starfish as I wish," she huffs with triumph. "To mate, you don't have to have a penis," she announces, smiling, the edge of her mischievous voice in contrast to her wobbling as she stands on one foot. She keeps her opposite hand in the air for balance, and to look more like a starfish.

This isn’t a kinky sex video, at least not the kind you might have hoped for. It’s not the kind you could have ever imagined either. "Starfish" is just one of seventeen short films about marine animal and insect sex that Rossellini wrote, directed, and stars in as part of the Sundance Channel online series, Green Porno.

"I always liked animals, I always read things about them," says the 57-year-old actress. "When it was time for me to write a film, I thought: people like sex, more than animals. So if I write about the sex of an animal it will be more appealing, basically. It wasn't more than that thought."

Though Rossellini is most well known for her impeccable genes (Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini are her parents), long Lancôme modeling career, and bizarre acting turns in films like Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, and Death Becomes Her, it's amusing to think that for younger generations, she might just be known as that hot mom in those videos from biology class, a sort of Birds Do It, Bees Do It version 2.0.

Each film in Green Porno features Rossellini dressed up as the title creature, explaining and reenacting how it has sex. The costuming and sets are elaborate paper constructions made by Andy Byers and Rick Gilbert. Though stunning in their craft and visual beauty, the shorts also retain the do-it-yourself feel of a student project—Rossellini's six spider eyes are cut imperfectly, and the fishing line is exposed—as well as the mischievous abandon of adolescence. It's like Rossellini has taken over Martha Stewart's workshop, but instead of making cute paper masks of kittens and owls, she's used it to create giant Lycra snails with leaky anuses and pink six-foot whale penises.

"The whole idea of the puppet was to try to do something that can be executed in the kitchen," says Rossellini. "It gives you the impression that you could reconstruct it in your basement. It's true that the people that I'm working with, Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers, are incredible paper cutters. But then, why not use computer animation? Because I don't know how to use it. I would have to hire a staff and to give instruction—that's when you lose control of your film, and that's where I always got discouraged about making a film because I always felt that you need so many people. I liked the idea of a short film that I could totally control—with the help of some people, obviously—but even if I didn't have Rick and Andy, my costume could have been made by me, maybe in a less fancy way. The idea was for it to be homemade."

The choice of paper puppetry for the production of Green Porno was not only an aesthetic decision. Rossellini had been speaking to Robert Redford about the resurgence of short clips, which have achieved popularity in recent years due to Youtube, and they saw the opportunity to do something artistic with the small time frame. That, along with the fact that short clips are usually seen on laptops and mobile devices, influenced their decision to make films that would be visually appealing on small screens.

"It seems that the Internet has already started a tradition of the short film format," says Rossellini. "Sundance is investigating what to do with the Internet, not only in terms of business but also in terms of this new canvas—does it offer a new expression? Robert Redford loved that, because they were very popular at the beginning when cinema was invented, at the beginning of the century."

"The other problem was the aesthetic," she continues. "A lot of the web is seen in small devices. When we looked at films like Apocalypse Now and Gone with the Wind, they disappeared; you don't really see what's happening. When we looked at Disney cartoons or Chuck Jones, they looked very good. So that's why we decided that the puppets, my little theater, were going to have the same aesthetic as cartoons—strong colors, three or four per film. To select them, we did the same thing as when you paint your walls—worms will be on a brown background, because it means earth, and the body would be pink and have red lips. We decided on a complimentary color palette."

Though they're only a few minutes long, each film manages to encapsulate Rossellini’s dark sass, ribald humor, and charm. They're at times dreamy and whimsical, like when the squid rise to the ocean's surface, glowing white in a deep purple sea in an act of vertical migration; at other moments they are playfully crude—Rossellini grinning as she dry humps a giant paper fly with focused glee.

Some make you want to freeze the frame. In "Why Vagina," the first film in the marine series, Rossellini walks among a myriad of giant, odd-shaped penises, as she explains with bizarre poetry why vaginas and penises are made specifically for each other — “so that I'm not screwed by a bear.”

“To have babies, I need to mate with another hermaphrodite—in the sixty-nine position," she says in another episode. She sounds as titillated as we expect her to be as her head pokes out, red-lipped, from a long earthworm body.

"I do think my voice, which I didn't know I had, is more surrealistic-comic," Rossellini says with modesty. "It has been revealed to me as I'm going along."

The shorts clips are throbbing with sexual undertones, but they're also much more informative, brief, and gorgeous to watch than your typical porno. And since they're already referencing children's television, the jump from internet to classroom isn’t much of a leap. Rossellini considers herself an experimental artist; she wasn’t thinking of younger audiences when she made the films. But her sixteen-year-old son digs them, as do his friends, and some of their science teachers have played the films in their classes.

"I mean, I thought the Bible Belt wouldn't like it, frankly. I thought I would be in trouble with them, but I've been in trouble with them since Blue Velvet," she says. "When you write something, there's an expectation commercially that you have to bring a certain audience, but we didn't have that in mind."

The most recent shorts, featuring shrimp, squid, elephant seals and anchovies, have an environmental component to them, featuring real-life clips and interviews with biologist Claudio Campagna speaking on topics like overfishing.

“The message out there about the environment is very gloom and doom," says Rossellini. "[Campagna] liked that Green Porno was comical, because [comedy] hadn't been used much in the environmental message. I thought it was a valid experiment—why don't we try it, instead of staying it's the end of the world and you have ten days to throw your car away and walk?"

As for the other message embedded here — the feminist one — Rossellini rejects it. But the videos are a clear attempt to challenge the gender stereotypes popular among homo sapiens.

"[Scientists] are re-looking at behavior and seeing that females have a lot of ways to select. We projected our society onto animals. For example, with the whale—all the males [fight] and the strongest one gets the female. They weren't paying much attention to the fact that the female was swimming upside down. They attributed it in a human-like way that she was being coy and shy and running away, and that allowed the male to get to her. But someone said no—it might be her strategy to select the male because she's unreachable, and that gives her time to look upside down, see the male she likes, and turn. It was one of the reasons why I did whales. I didn't really want to do mammals, because they're so close to us. But I thought this female swimming upside down was too amusing."

You can watch Starfish and the entire Green Porno series at Sundance Channel.