By Victor Omojola
The first time I met Sophie Paquette, CC ’23, she told me a story. She spoke of a girl named Belladonna from a small town called Shoegaze Station, haunted by a specter from her youth.
Perhaps this account is slightly misleading. First of all, Paquette did not read this tale aloud. And secondly, Paquette’s narrative wasn’t directed towards just me, but rather an entire Zoom-box-filled computer screen of Columbia students who had gathered to workshop one another’s screenplays. Paquette’s was one of the more memorable ones: a script deeply committed to worldbuilding, intertextuality, and depth of character. On Zoom, I was welcomed into the world of this multidisciplinary artist through screenwriting—just one of her many mediums of choice. But Paquette is also a poet, an essayist, a filmmaker, a visual artist, a roller skater. I’m probably forgetting a few. When I asked her if she is opposed to the term Renaissance man, she joked that she prefers “multihyphenate.”
Strolling through the woodland of Paquette’s body of work, I found myself surrounded by a familiar tension between form and content. In a video piece titled “House: A Sonnet: A Palinode,” the words “THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE” are projected onto the exterior of a home. She explained to me that there was a period in high school when the phrase dominated her imagination. “I was, like, crazy for it,” she said, laughing.
This fascination with form has drawn her to seemingly disparate fields, craving the imaginative possibilities latent in new angles of approach. As a student artist-in-residence at Barnard’s Movement Lab, Paquette had the opportunity to explore the expressive potential of the body. Last spring, Paquette would visit the lab to take videos of herself with her phone. She explained that using the lab’s motion capture technology, she spent most of her time thinking about “muscle memory and the body retaining information.” She found, as with other physical forms she enjoys like roller skating, that her movement was most compelling when she wasn’t overthinking it. “I think I have a difficult time being in my body and not thinking through it and not rationalizing or really trying too hard to force something that, if you just kind of exist in your body, can come naturally.”
Despite the many videos Paquette amassed during her time at the lab, she has no ‘finished’ project to show for it. “My original idea was over the summer to edit it into a project, and at that time I just found myself a little less inspired by experimental video,” she explained. “I just didn’t feel like I actually wanted to make something out of it at that time.” Paquette’s reluctance to Eisenstein her footage was partly due to an overall shift in her creative interests, and partly an abstention from that pressure among artists (particularly palpable among film students at Columbia) to constantly create. Resisting the idea that her time at the lab “almost didn’t count” if there was nothing to add to her Vimeo, Paquette feels that, for now, her time at the lab should simply exist as something experienced, a mentality she hopes to continue to lean into.
Perhaps Paquette’s unwillingness to manufacture a video project just for the sake of it also points to her particular reverence for film. She said that her preoccupation with process is well satisfied by the idea of “any film being a document of its own making.” One such document is constructed through Paquette’s short film Out of Order. And so I must return to our screenwriting workshop, where the original script for the work was regularly discussed. I wish I could claim that my comments and suggestions played a crucial role in the outcome of the rather stunning final product, but the truth is that from the moment Paquette expressed her desire to use a grieving park jogger to explore the relationship between urinary relief and emotional release, the project was destined for success.
Equal parts Wertmüller and Linklater, Out of Order is beautifully self-assured, spurning the student film’s tendency to over-reassure its viewer. Its characters engulf each frame physically (handheld close-ups abound) and emotionally, despite an economical use of dialogue. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the film is its construction. Made with only roommates and friends, Out of Order realizes Paquette’s infatuation with Cassavetes’ low-budget filmmaking while also exceeding expectations for an undergraduate independent study. Paquette, rather diplomatically, didn’t take the bait when I brought up Columbia’s less-than-stellar record for undergraduate film production, explaining that she hasn’t taken enough film classes here to chime in.
Paquette’s experience with film pedagogy in high school, however, has had a significant impact on her practice. A graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, she told me about a class she took at the Michigan boarding school where students surveyed the works of a few great directors from around the world. She appreciated how the class eschewed the practice of considering the formal elements of the film for their own sake: “I hate doing the ‘and then the long shot represents the distance we’re feeling from the character,’” she said. For Paquette, movies are more than a math problem in which aesthetic choices have clear-cut meanings. Rather, she explained, her teacher would encourage discussions that concerned “the director and the writer as creatives ... seeing how they tell creative stories.”
Paquette’s time at Interlochen also shaped her affinity for writing (some of which has appeared in this very magazine). “I just got to write all the time,” she said. As a creative writing major at Interlochen, her work was published in a variety of prestigious literary journals; her prolificacy earned her recognition by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National YoungArts Foundation, and the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program. Paquette considers herself in another “page-based writing” phase right now. Though she was, at one point, interested in pushing the boundaries of the form, she said that she currently takes refuge in a more conventional sort of storytelling. “I’m a little bit disenchanted by experimentation,” she asserted. “I mean, I’m always gonna like that, but I just have this desire right now to make narrative work.”
Paquette’s stopover in the sphere of greater convention has allowed her to consider another meaning of the word ‘medium’ in her work: She explained that she’s become increasingly intrigued by the “spaces between things.”
She explores these fissures in a conceptual video titled “Miss Medium” in which Paquette’s friend Yanna gives a tarot reading across a multitude of dynamic screens. The work invokes the late TV psychic (and/or scam artist) Miss Cleo. Perhaps her articulation of this additional relation to medium is relatively new, but characters who confront the ethereal have been common in Paquette’s art for some time now. But it is not any genre-related affinity that draws her to the ghostly realm. Instead, it is the gap between the spiritual and physical world that is “magical” for Paquette—she believes that the best art often provides mediation between the two.
It makes sense, then, that so much of Paquette’s work often conceals initially. She respects her reader or her viewer and demands that they involve themself in the transmission of art. “Medium, I like also, because it implies a kind of participation,” she said. It is important to note that even when Paquette experiments formally, the worlds and characters of these works invite the audience in.
During our discussion, Paquette drew me in repeatedly, compelling me to ponder my own relationship with storytelling, obliging me to (for better or worse) bring myself into this very piece. Would it be wrong, then, to categorize our dialogue on that temperate October afternoon as art?
Brimming with humility both frustrating and heartening, a picture of reticent confidence—if you’ll allow me the oxymoron—quickly takes shape when speaking with Paquette. I’ve been told she repeatedly questioned her worthiness of the title “Campus Character,” and her playful “multihyphenate” quip was one of the few times she actually lauded herself as a creative. Even the text that lists her writing accolades on her website sheepishly disappears after a moment, preventing you from marveling for too long. Never one to take herself too seriously, she refrains from verbosity even when making profound points about the very essence of art. As I prodded her to pontificate, she couldn’t help but ground this so-called interview in easy conversation. Quirks like her signature winter hat or knuckle tattoo that spells her nickname (SOAP) accentuate her relentlessly light-hearted demeanor, making it feel wrong to even refer to her by the ever-so-formal surname.
Sophie represents anything but an average or a standard; still, she is a proud spokeswoman for the often overlooked wonders of the middle, the medium. As we sipped our tea from Butler, I couldn’t help but compare this live-action Sophie with the virtual counterpart I met many months ago. The medium may have changed, but the message was the same. No matter if we were on Zoom or at “that plaza thing outside of Schermerhorn” (her suggestion), I was simply being told a story. This time, the girl was named Sophie, and the town was called Bloomington. But nevertheless, a story. More of transmission than testimony. Something that emphasizes the in-between.