Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham‘s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.
In keeping with Numéro Cinq’s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her third article, “Raising Hell.”
Reading Trimingham’s reflections on film is for me like reading someone else’s love letters. It led me to reminiscing about my own film loves, and here, specifically, the moments that have made me gasp and filled me with wonder. We’d love to hear about your favourite film moments of wonder in the comments.
— R. W. Gray
III. Raising Hell
The first time I saw Les Quatre Cents Coups I felt like I’d found myself. It is the film, the story, on which I stand. Awkwardly titled in English The 400 Blows (as if this were a film about hitting) the title comes from the French idiom faire les quatre cents coups which means to raise hell.
A boy steals a typewriter; his stepfather and others yell at him; the boy runs away from reform school to the ocean he’s always dreamed of seeing; these are scenes that define the arc of the film. These are scenes – writing, raising hell, beauty – that act as code on the double helixes that determine my self.
Truffaut was a delinquent; writing saved him. I never had to steal a typewriter; my auntie gave me a red plastic one when I was four (a proper dictionary soon followed). My thefts have been less tangible, as has the trouble; I have never had to reach beyond my own head for difficulty.
When I was a girl, I would often see myself and the situation I was in as from a surveillance camera. When I’d hear news of the classmate who’d gone down in his uncle’s small plane, or of the classmate who was riding in a car that spun out on gravel and fatally flipped, or the one who overdosed on Tylenol and even stomach-pumping couldn’t save her, or the one who cerebrally hemorrhaged after a tackle on the football field, or the one whose boyfriend pushed her out of the moving car, I’d imagine these horrific last moments, the terror of these children, as if I were there, an intrusive and unhelpful observer. It was a short step from what used to be called an overactive imagination to what is now called anxiety disorder, where the brain becomes crowded with disastrous possibilities rendered so believable that the body reacts.
And when the anxiety, when the suffering overwhelms, imagination as escape: Jean-Claude Lauzon’s 12-year-old Léo escapes his schizophrenic home life by fantasizing another self for himself: he becomes Léolo in the eponymous film, a boy conceived when his mother falls into a heap of semen-studded tomatoes. Imagination is Madeleine Stowe’s only refuge from torture in Closetland. A stargazing boy muses on the life of doomed Russian space dog Laika in My Life as a Dog because he can’t countenance the recent deaths of his own dog and his mother. Too much loss: no wonder the boy barks. A mother I know once told her young daughter that the great thing about imagination is that it’s always there when you need it. The daughter, though, pinpointed the tragedy of imagination when she tearfully countered her mother: but it always goes away.
It took me a while to figure out that the engine for imagining disaster is the same as that for delight; the image machine spits out images. I became a filmmaker because films are the most direct expression of how I think and perceive the world. Making films was an attempt at transcription, at shaping the content, keeping drama, whether revery or catastrophe, on the screen and out of my life.
When I was a filmmaker, I was married to my producer. When we divorced, I made a film (that he produced, good sport that he is) about divorce. Kind of. The project was structured like a matryoshka, a nesting doll, with music video that stood alone and was also part of a short fiction film, which in turn stood alone and was part of a documentary. The subject was voice, how you can lose it, how you can get it back. The subject was a woman’s relationship to a man, how she loses herself, how she gets her self back. How it can be hard to tell a suicide jump from a leap of faith, spiritually or artistically speaking. Both require the abyss. How to tell falling from flight?
Being in front of a camera scares me, but I forced myself into the documentary because I thought I might find clues to my life in the editing room. Likewise, the fiction was shot to mirror and provide clues to the documentary (or vice-versa). If it was filmmaking as forensics, it was also filmmaking as desperate alchemy: the same impulse that led me to give my wedding ring to a young jeweler rather than throw it into the cold Bow River compelled me to make the film. The fictional singer’s troubles imperil and enrich her performance on Opening Night, which is what I called the film. I wanted to open up night, rip the dark fabric of sky, see if the stars were glued-on sequins or tiny holes that revealed a great light behind. It is a film I never watch, but making it got me through a rough patch: film as refuge.
We think of causing trouble when we think of raising hell, but I also like a more literal interpretation: hauling hell up out from underground and letting light work on it, transforming it. As an anxious depressive, I’ve careened through countless therapists and quaffed various mood-changing substances (mostly caffeine and zoloft) all in a grasping search for non-suffering. It never occurred to me that equanimity might be had by diving headlong into nightmares. Literally. My analyst Sharon and I dredge up scenes from my subconscious and expose them to the sun. The dreams and anxieties, bathed in conversation, develop like a reel of film into an understandable narrative that gets projected back into my waking life.
I’ve always known that my own work cuts close to the bone, but apparently I was sleeping during anatomy: it has taken me two decades to realize that my very first film, Gravity’s Angel, was autobiographical. The woman’s tail, which she initially hides from the man she loves, turns out to be part of what her lover loves best, it is what makes her her. This is practical information that my younger self has sent across time to my current self; I am less neurotic now that I get, finally, that I’m not, by virtue of being, defective. Such psychic shake-ups, though, I suppose are their own form of trouble, disturbances in the field.
Raising hell also implies its opposite: bringing heaven down. After you have stolen the typewriter and been sent away to prison, after you break free and run, how much more lovely is the ocean, how heavenly? Film stock is graded for sensitivity, for how well it can hold shadows and brights without losing clarity or detail. Empathy opens us up to beauty. We choose how much to see: to be willfully blind to either darkness or light is to be a one-eyed king.
If there’s a sound that can crash the divide between heaven and hell, it’s a roar. Laughter is a convulsion, a disruption of the body, an eruption of sound, air, mirth, relief. It’s rebellion against constraint: when we die laughing, we surrender to something outside our selves. I know that when I am laughing, truly, I am not afraid: hell is here, likewise heaven, and I can take it all. I give part of my heart to anybody, or any film, that makes me laugh, but rarely can I remember a joke or gesture or situation that gets me in stitches. I give part of my heart to anybody, or any film, that makes me laugh, but rarely can I remember a joke or gesture or situation that gets me in stitches. Aristotle’s treatise on Tragedy has survived the millennia, but the one on Comedy was lost. My movie mash-up, the shifting montage that flickers amongst my synapses, is short on funny scenes not because I haven’t laughed and loved, but because I can’t find the scenes once I start looking. Wise humor can fling off the yoke of comedy and tragedy, free us from time’s straightjacket, and let us hold all our absurd contradictions at once. It’s a wide-angle lens, the long shot: the cosmic Ha! Give me Lester Fallsapart in Smoke Signals, Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor in The Lion in Winter for such perspective. I never feel closer to the God I don’t believe in than when I am cracking up.
The apocalypse is coming –it always is –endings unfold in myriad ways around us. The people we love most are bound to suffer. Increasingly, I feel a need to write in a way that both acknowledges the end of the world and trumps it. I have introduced my little boy to the notion of soul, because I want him to learn to tolerate despair; however, he is an empiricist, and dismisses the idea of soul as imagination. I understand: ever since I can remember, I have been agnostic, neither believing nor unbelieving. And yet, I find comfort in acknowledging the limits of cognition; I like the idea that our lives are projections of something beyond our collective grasp. All the world’s a multiplex.
God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions, Jung wrote. Might films, our collective dreams, nudge us towards awakening? Might these images allow us to see the wonder and brutality that are always with us, not as individuals but as a species? We are made bigger than our single selves when we bear witness to the truths of others.
Movies may be conceived of and executed by a specialized team, but they are set loose upon us all. Our subtle minds splice scenes we’ve watched into those we’ve lived into those we’ve imagined; the montage, the film, of our shining selves. We may dream alone, but who can say we’re not stealing scenes from the dreams of others? We’re all together, watching the same unspooling frames, seeing light in the darkness.
Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.