A flurry of snow in the darkness taunts frames Inga Birgisdóttir’s film for Sigur Ros’s “Varúð.” Then a darkened landscape, a pink hue as the sun rises. I hesitate to interpret this as a sunrise though, as this is a mostly gloomy landscape, as though Turner had an extended stay in Iceland and discovered he loved darkness more than light.
Only by the end of the film, when what light there is sinks into darkness and the flurries return do we get the sense that a day has passed. This is winter here, too, flurries stuttering our eyes, a reaching out to connect across the darkness, the scraping of skates on the tennis courts turned ice rinks, the wails of the snow plow blades shuddering on the next street over. We fall we fall we fall on the icy steps, reminding ourselves of mortality and other cold Icarus dreams.
What rises out of the darkness of Birgisdóttir’s film is a painterly landscape, Turner-esque, equal parts realism and psychological. The Icelandic Arts Centre describes her work as “a game of layers, both in her smaller collages and her bigger wall-pieces, as everywhere in her imagery one will find a mixture of old national emblems, waterfalls, mountains, and animals. Nowhere does Ingibjörg leave an empty space, evoking a Baroque-era fear of emptiness. Her symbols can be interpreted in various ways in a broad art historical context; all reveal evident sources of inspiration, especially Surrealism. As she samples and mixes from various fields, Ingibjörg’s ornateness nevertheless strips these symbols of meaning, leaving only a play of forms and giving her art a playful dimension.” She is a visual artist who Frankensteins her images together, suturing them into beautiful monstrosities.
This film sneaks up on you. When you realize there is light, it is already gone. When you notice a cloaked figure on the hill, you wonder how long it’s already been there. Then another arrives. It is paradoxically a meditative film, which first suggests we watch as we would look at a painting, but then the painting betrays us and changes as figures appear. Each time they appear it as though they were always already there, watching, waiting to be noticed. I was always late.
Film theorist Linda Williams would tell us that when we chase a film and arrive too late that there’s a bit of horror to it. Yet the figures are not in themselves scary, merely ominous. They appear on the ridge, flashing morse code messages out into the darkness and light, calling for someone, calling for a response. Then they find the response in each other. Birgisdóttir times the crescendos of the song with flurries of snow and then the arrival of subsequent figures in the landscape. These are indecipherable love letters for those of us who do not know the code, pleas across the barren landscape, across the winter light. A desire to connect.
As they appear, they outnumber us, their figures all eerily similar. Freud suggested there is something uncanny in twins. he would probably have winter nightmares with these proliferating figures.
Birgisdóttir’s film is part of the Sigur Ros Varaki project and she made two films for that, the other Ekki múkk:
For Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month we feature talented filmmaker and NC at the Movies contributor Jon Dewar’s short film “Hypothermia” which just finished the festival circuit and is up on the web for the first time. Here in dialogue with his cinematographer on the film, filmmaker Matt Rogers, they explore the film’s themes and how it was made. Dewar just wrapped an epic film shoot adaptation of one of my short stories, The Beautiful Drowned,” and I am so pleased we get to share this, his previous film, in the bittersweet moments as he finishes up the new one.
— R. W. Gray
Jon Dewar’s “Hypothermia” asks us to relive fractured and incomplete memories of a love story rife with nuanced tensions and unspoken complexities. As an audience, we are tasked to temporarily experience the leftover pieces of a relationship between characters Verity (Michelle Duncan) and Harper (Greg Profit) as they search for each other in a frozen forest. Dewar’s precise editing leaves us to find meaning through stark juxtaposition and intended absences. The film features a tonally complex score by Nick Mazerolle, which draws us in and provides connections between the characters’ dispersed memories.
In the end, Dewar asks us to implicate ourselves in these cold fragmented pieces of the story through a simple, but bitter, glare. Since 2014, “Hypothermia“ has enjoyed great success on the Canadian and international film festival circuit, winning Best Picture at the Tottering Biped Film Festival and I won Best Cinematography at the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival for my work on the film. My following discussion with Dewar, of Quispamsis, New Brunswick, is an extension of all the conversations we had through the making of the film and gives him a chance to elaborate on the film’s craft, and on what brought him to this frigid romance.
MR: When people ask you to describe what “Hypothermia“ is about, where do you start, and what do you tell them?
JD: I generally try to keep the synopsis for my films simple. For me, “Hypothermia“ was always a love story set to the backdrop of winter.
MR: The narrative of the film comes to us in small pieces and fragments. Why did you think this film needed to be told this way?
JD: I wanted this film to feel like a memory. When reflecting on an experience, our minds tend to oscillate between different parts of that experience; we try to pinpoint where we were, how we felt, and what was influencing us. Time can distort memories and this can affect how we perceive them. I wanted this film to explore this conflict.
MR: How does that distortion play out between these two characters? Do you think these distortions ask audiences to distrust elements of the narrative?
JD: It’s less a distortion of truth and more a distortion of emotion. If we line up and juxtapose all these moments what is the final equation? Are the moments of wonder between Harper and Verity any less so because of their moments of hardship? The characters spend the film trying to navigate this idea.
MR: Did the story come to you first or the style of telling it?
JD: Every draft of this script told the story in fragments. Rather than using a linear story structure, I wanted to try to blend moments together in a visual or kinetic sense, without ever losing the arch of the characters. I wanted to find ways for the images to represent scattered pieces that form the whole. I thought this was vital in depicting the film as memory.
MR: Where did you find your influence for this approach? What films were you watching at the time when you came up with “Hypothermia?”
JD: Blue Valentine was a source of inspiration for “Hypothermia;” I was really drawn to its nonlinear narrative and to the type of romantic conflict between the two characters. Upstream Color is a film I’m continuously drawn to visually and also served as inspiration for “Hypothermia.”
MR: You and I had a lot of conversations while making the film about how the terrain is another character in the film.
JD: I try to ground my films in the resources I have available. One thing that New Brunswick continuously offers is unique landscapes and weather, and I’ve tried to use those in most scripts I write. When I decided to lock this story into a winter backdrop, the setting started to influence the choices I made for the characters, the themes of the story, the color palette, everything. Winter became a reflection and embodiment of what this story is about.
MR: I found this is a very tonal film. Besides the terrain, what were some of the things you focused on to help establish this stark tone?
JD: The dialogue and acting were a big part of that. I wanted the characters to speak more in sentiment than in specifics. The characters’ memories fail them in a sense. They don’t remember exactly what was said or how they felt but can recall the tone or spirit of it. This puts us at a bit of distance from the characters. We experience the moments as they do – as reflection.
MR: I particularly liked that, how as the story progresses we relive this growing disconnect between the characters with them. The coldness of the terrain, that third character, definitely helps establish that feeling. Did that third character (winter) have an impact on the production of this film, did it in any way influence what was possible for you to do with this story?
JD: It certainly locked us into a specific time frame of when the film could be shot. It also meant that everyone was going to be very cold. There are a lot of obstacles that come with filming outdoors in the winter but I try to see this kind of restraint as a positive thing. When you lock yourself into a specific parameter you have to get creative and that creativity undoubtedly has a positive influence on the film. This is much of the premise that Dogma 95 was built on.
MR: Were there other limitations in filming the film?
JD: We didn’t have much of a budget and worked with a bare bones crew. I never saw this as a hindrance though. Sometimes having that tight knit group can get everyone in the same wavelength or head space. This is an intimate story and I think having a small crew helped highlight that on screen. That intimacy was something I wanted to preserve in the film and a vital part of the onscreen romance. Greg and Michelle are a real life couple and the three of us were able to work together to weave elements of their relationship into the film.
MR: Audiences also get much of the meaning of this story through what you present to them visually. What is your storyboarding process?
JD: I’ve always had trouble describing my storyboarding process. I generally just try to go with my instinct. When I read the scene on the page I try to focus on the images I see with it and draw a representation of that. It becomes difficult when I overthink it or ask myself how another director might do it. That initial image gets skewed and it can be hard to return to it. I stuck to the storyboards on this film more than I have on any other production. The storyboards were basically my script and shot list. I thought this was key for working with a nonlinear narrative.
MR: What was your approach to editing the film? Did you know the choices ahead of time, or did many of your choices come in the edit?
JD: It ended up being a mix of both. If you watch the film with the storyboards, there are scenes that are identical. There are also several that took on a different form while editing. In some cases Greg or Michelle would bring something great to the scene that I hadn’t considered or noticed and I’d follow that thread. The setting, location, or cinematography could work the same way. Telling the story in fragments or non-linearly also greatly influenced the editing. I had to find that right way to blend the scenes together. Sometimes I would connect them through visuals or motion rather than continuity. It all came back to that notion of the film feeling like a memory.
MR: How did the score of this film help you tell the story?
JD: With each scene representing a different point or jump in time I wanted the score to represent something more fluid. Nick, our composer, created something that weaves between the emotions of the characters. The music seamlessly morphs throughout the film so that it’s always changing but without us ever really noticing. I thought having this fluidity in the music would mesh well with the visual contrasts in time.
MR: For an ultra-low budget short, this film has had great success reaching audiences. What was your experience like navigating the film festival circuit with this film?
JD: “Hypothermia“ was really my first time navigating the film festival circuit. I’m not sure if I initially had much of a strategy but what I found worked for this film was pinpointing independent or underground based film festivals.
MR: Did you get to travel with the film? What was it like screening it in other contexts besides the chilly North?
JD: “Hypothermia“ ended up screening at 18 film festivals across North America. I attended the screening at the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival and the audience and programmers responded very strongly to the snowy setting. It became known as the “Canadian winter” film. That was a lot of fun. Regardless of where the film was screening, festival programmers were always highlighting the landscape of the film. I think that almost became its selling point. I was very proud of that. It was such an integral part of the story for me and I’m glad it connected with audiences in that way. Of all the festival screenings “Hypothermia“ had I was only able to attend two. I wish I had been able to attend more. There is nothing else in the world quite like a film festival. I’m glad it is finally going to be online now so that I can share the film with larger audiences.
MR: Anything you learned that you will take with you to the next film?
JD: Film is such a collaborative medium. It’s all about the people you have around you. For every film I’ve directed I’ve been part of an incredibly supportive and committed crew. Without that there really is no film. Surround yourself with people who make you want to be better.
—Matt Rogers & Jon Dewar
Matt Rogers is an educational researcher, a former teacher, and an Atlantic Canadian filmmaker. Matt is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick. His teaching includes critical teacher education in film and media studies, social studies, technology, and educational foundations. His research focuses on the intersection of critical pedagogy and participatory filmmaking with youth in school contexts. He is also active in the NB film community and has coordinated the What’s up Doc? youth film program since 2009. His personal film work has been internationally recognized with awards and nominations in cinematography, editing, writing, and direction. Recently, his latest short film, a list, (Frictive Pictures)won the award for Best Direction at an international film festival in Boston. Currently, Dr. Rogers is co-directing a documentary with Dr. Susan Cahill (U of C) focused on the ongoing history of government resettlement programs in Newfoundland.
Vincent Haycock’s film for Florence + the Machine’s “What Kind of Man” is a nightmare dream of a tango, shaken, sultry, and salt-licked. A vortex of brutality, longing, and beauty swirls around one woman in this cat’s cradle of a film that explores vulnerability, passion (in its full Latin root meaning ‘suffering’), and the ragged place where the bitter meets the sweet.
The film opens with a lover’s confession to his beloved that he watched her suffering in her sleep and did not wake her, did nothing to save her. This simple conversation, the camera in the back seat of the car eavesdropping, is intimate and feels prophetic. It’s reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s films that take place in cars (Taste of Cherry, 10), but even more so Mania Akbari’s 20 Fingers which follows a man and a woman having various conversations about their relationship in moving vehicles, one of them a car. Cars seem the perfect architecture for such intimate conversations, traveling and unmoored from the day-to-day, public yet private, the passengers facing forward but able to turn and see one another, the way two people on a therapist’s couch might interact, the therapist perhaps containing something of the road’s horizon in him or her. So it seems apt that the only time couples talk in this film is in cars.
In the brief conversation that opens “What Kind of Man,’ the man tells the woman what he saw as he watched her sleep, so that sleep smudges all that follows, spreading a dream logic where car rides repeat, storms appear on television and in the distance, mobs of men in churches and basements swarm her.
The film is a vortex of masculinity with her in the eye, in some peculiar tension between causing the storm and being buffeted by it. Some of the images are unbelievable, more dreamlike than real, while the two dialogue-based narratives (set in moving cars) feel real, too real: the sublime and the mundane all intertwined.
The central unifying figure here is the woman, played by lead singer Florence Welch. There are, too, thematic repetitions that connect the parts. The woman in the first car asks the man, “So you think that people who suffer together would be more connected than people who are content;” her question is then followed by two vignettes: her with a man on a balcony overlooking an impending storm and her with a man in a hotel room with the news of a storm on the television; then the woman, in the back seat of a limousine, tells the man she is with about her dream: “And there’s this big storm that’s all around us and we’re in the middle of it, so it’s calm, but you can feel it, like it’s everywhere.” This storm dream links back to the first car conversation about the nightmare the man did not wake her from, and it links to the storms on television and in the distance.
The stories bleed into one another, the men seem similar, maybe the same man, maybe variations on the same man, though their faces don’t matter as much as her experience of these men. All that ultimately connects these threads is the dreamer, the woman, as she moves from desire, to fear, to violence to mercy, exploring suffering in her relationships with men and questioning when is it passion and when is it destruction.
As the tango dream unfolds though, three other narratives appear: the woman surrounded by men in a sort of church 12-step meeting room; a quasi crypt where she presides over a bare mattress like its a shrine, flanked by men; and a scene of baptism and cleansing where she is ministered to by women in the ocean. The film slides us from the allure and ease of that first philosophical conversation, to confession, to baptism, to the demoralizing sheet-less bed as the sublime and the abject bleed into one another.
One of the central causes of bleeding here is the film’s use of choreography, where the scenes play less literal and realist because of the attention to gesture and movement. Both Haycock and Welch in a behind-the-scenes video describe their approach here as “ dance first,” and Welch points out that “You can’t fake it with your body. . . So I think it was quite important for me to do it as a way of exorcising feeling” (though in the interview, “exorcising” sounds like “exercising,” though these might be equally true). This choreography prevents the scenes from being swallowed by realism, reminds us that this is first and foremost an emotional story, and that affect links the film’s non-linear structure.
Gestures recur: in the throng of the mob she touches a man’s face, the man on the balcony looking over the city touches hers, she touches the face of the man in the hotel room, then tosses him aside, as she also tosses aside the man on the dingy mattress in the basement. A catalog of lover’s tango gestures accumulates here and these connect the narrative’s pieces.
The last three images of the film hint at some sort of a catharsis for the protagonist: her arms embrace air, an absence, she is cleansed by the women in a milky ocean at dusk, and she crawls from the wreckage of the limousine, solitary as she retreats from the disaster. Gone are the couples, the men. She is all that remains.
This is the first video released from the band’s new album and it is featured first in a larger film incorporating videos for all the album’s songs, a project titled “The Odyssey,” a title with classical and gendered connotations of heroes journeying to identity. In Welch’s words, “I was talking to [Vincent Haycock] about the record and the car crash of a relationship break up I was going through. The highs and the lows of love and performance, how out of control I felt, the purgatory of heartbreak, and how I was trying to change and trying to be free. And we decided we would re-tell this story in full. We would re-claim this experience, re-imagine it and in some way perhaps I would come to understand it, to exorcise it. And so the Big Blue Odyssey began…” This project, says Haycock, is “obviously about relationships, but it’s also about Florence traveling through our version of the Divine Comedy. So in essence this video is the first layer of Hell.”
Michael V. Smith’s short film triptych “Wolf Lake” brings three poets together with three colliding narratives: two men driving on a country road, the unconscious or dead woman who they come upon, and the man who abducted her who is lifting her from the trunk of a car. The first two films focus on Elizabeth Bachinsky and Matt Radar‘s two poems, both also titled “Wolf Lake.” The films use impressionistic footage to simulate memory and visual desire to disturbing, haunting, and beautiful ends. Michael V. Smith is a writer, award-winning filmmaker, comic, and drag queen. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a harrowing, adrenalin-driven flight into vulnerability and revelation. Continuing our conversation about film from last month when Smith interviewed me about my film “zack & luc,” here we explore his work-in-progress and how he sees this narrative, filmic, collaborative collision playing out.
RWG: How did the collaboration for the first film of “Wolf Lake” come about?
MVS: I signed up for a free course on making Super 8 films. My friend Juli Saragosa was running a workshop. And Liz Bachinsky and I got to talking about wanting to make a film, and I said, “Let’s do it for this.” And then we picked her poem “Wolf Lake,” because I loved it, and just started brainstorming what that might look like. What kind of images worked best, or what approach. And together we had one of those aha moments, where we realized the film footage would be from the perspective of the stalker. Everything clicked after that, like tumblers opening up the project.
RWG: The super 8 format for the first film, the “Bachinsky Version,” and the way you shoot lots of long shots is very voyeuristic, pervy. This seems in conflict with the very personal voice of the poem. Are you intending to create conflict between the persona of the poem and the man?
MVS: I always call it “stalker footage.” The idea is that what we see in the film is the footage captured by the assailant, so we’re indirectly voyeurs, as well. If I remember this correctly, one of the reasons Liz wrote her poem in response to Matt Rader’s original version of Wolf Lake—itself a great poem—was because she took issue with how the girl in the poem is an object, a nameless body to serve the male narrator. She loved his poem and wanted to give a voice to that girl. So part of the strategy in making the film was to play into that conflict between the girl as object and subject. We get her story, but she is the object of someone else’s gaze—the filmmaker, you might say, recording in the subject position of the imagined assailant. There’s a quiet critique in this approach, I hope, that draws our attention to the fact that most women on film are objects. Their clothes are tighter, we show close ups of their eyes more. Their hair is flawless, even after a windstorm, right? Those goddamn high heel shoes in Jurassic World. So unreal. That’s the protagonist not being allowed to be a fully-realized subject. Nearly every actress is made a Barbie. And we’re the creeps who don’t care, or notice, or expect better. So I hope a bit of that critique plays out here, putting the audience in the perspective of the creeper. What exactly are we looking at? Why are we looking? What does it say about me that I’m watching? How am I complicit?
RWG: I am fascinated with how you double the voices, the narrative reading and the whispering voice which begins before the narrative but then echoes on a delay. It’s haunting and it feels like it troubles or bridges the words and the images. What inspired you to double the voices?
MVS: I’m glad you found it compelling. I love this affectation too. The choice to double was just practical, at first, but then when something works, it’s because it does other things as well. It complicates or compounds. The story is, I’d asked Liz to read her poem a few different ways, to try things out, you know? It’s hard to imagine in advance what all the pieces put together will do—so I know I want the voiceover and I know I have these images captured, but you really do remake the film again in editing. There are so many variables when shooting, that by the time you get to editing you have to work with the materials at hand. So I said, “Okay, now read it more slowly. Now can you whisper? Can you read it without much emotion, just as fact?”
When it came time to marry the rough cut and the voiceover, neither the whisper nor the flat delivery worked. They just felt hollow, somehow. Like, they were missing something. They were too literal, maybe? And so I did that thing you do, and played with it. I laid both tracks down, and the clouds parted. It worked for me. With little need to alter their pacing. Suddenly, there was some mystery with the multiple voices—like, which tone do we believe?
My sense of how it works—or why it works for me, I can’t really speak for anyone else—is tied to a few ideas. One is that we don’t believe women enough—like we don’t believe blacks, we don’t believe queers—so multiple voices are necessary. We have to tell our story over and again and still people doubt the truth of our experiences. They doubt how we describe our assaults. So here are two versions of an assault that are identical. There are no discrepancies in the different tellings, no room for doubt. They do not contradict each other.
Another way the doubling is effective has to do with how I don’t think we know whether that girl survives her attack or not. So the two voices work like the voice of the dead girl and the voice of the one who survived. For me, poetry is always multiple. It functions as an ‘and’. It is this and this. She dies and survives both. Here are her two voices, each as true as the other. In many ways, it’s an embodiment of an emotional moment, right? We don’t have a singular emotion in any one crisis, we have multiple feelings. We are multiple. And so she gets to have at least two of her emotional truths present in the one telling—the candid one, and the subtext, maybe, compelling her to whisper. Ands.
RWG: The voices run at different speeds so that by the end when the narrative finishes, the whispering continues, haunts. Something about this felt like it echoes how memory or trauma work.
MVS: Yes. That too. The delay speaks to the lingering of a moment, to the memories that haunt. Trauma as a resounding echo through the telling. The echo begins before the plain spoken delivery starts—the trauma and fear are present before the regular voice begins—and they persist even after the telling. Exactly.
RWG: How did the idea for the second version, the “Rader Version,” come about, or have you always seen this as a triptych of films?
MVS: It just seemed obvious to me that I’d make the other films to complete the trio of poems. I loved Matt’s poem first—he wrote his first—and we just ended up making Liz’s poem into a film from circumstance. So it seemed necessary, even, to make his. My poem is the third, told in the voice of the assailant. I know what I’m shooting for the third poem—which I don’t really want to reveal—I just need to find the time to make it.
RWG: You used two different shooting formats for the two films, super 8 and an old digital camera. Why the shift?
MVS: For two simple reasons. I like shooting on different cameras to see what they’ll look like. I like to try new things. And I thought the formats suited the characters, to some degree. Like, they’re two different characters, two different perspectives behind the cameras, so of course they’d have different cameras.
RWG: In “Wolf Lake,” the “Rader Version,” the footage seems closer than the “Bachinsky Version,” feels more home movie like, on the brink of being erotic. There’s this sort of homosocial space, intimate masculinity, that is then brought up against a violent face of masculinity. What are you exploring with that tension?
MVS: Matt’s poem really is a coming of age poem, in a way. They are innocent boys on the day they see a man toss a girl’s body over his shoulder. And then one of them reaches for his gun. What follows next, we can assume, is a horror. The narrator, I think, is nostalgic for that innocence. So at its most basic, I wanted to capture something very, very simple, something naïve, that spoke to that sense of nostalgia.
The long singular shot couldn’t be much more flat, or romantic, in the naïve sense of romantic, a world without irony, a world of rosy glasses. Much of Matt’s film is landscape, a world with few humans, so it’s maybe easier to be romantic. The contrast, then, comes from the imagery run alongside the content of the poem. That road they’re traveling down, it’s literal, and metaphorical, both. Around a bend in the road, a hell awaits. That simplicity, I would hope, creates a kind of tension of sophistication, a tension of maturity. If they seem homosocially intimate, great. Because those boys are about to be thrown into a tragedy, as featured players.
RWG: You’ve said there will be a third piece in this project, forming a triptych. What will it be about and how will it extend this project and how will it differ technically and aesthetically?
MVS: I don’t want to say what the third will be, not yet, but the time of that third film will take place after the incident. The aftermath. The third poem is a confession, of sorts.
I’m hoping when all three are complete I can do a gallery showing and have them all run at the same time, in loops. Because they’ll be slightly different lengths, the images will collide with each other in new triptychs. The sound would play through three sets of headphones in the centre of the room, each playing only one of the three voiceover poems, so you’d get a different story depending on which you picked up.
RWG: Running through these two films and in places in your other work seems to be a theme of the destructive, violent side of masculinity, present as a sort of vertigo. In relation to your memoir My Body is Yours I think you even refer to your own failures at masculinity. What is that vertigo and, for you, is there a counterpoint, an expression of gender or specifically masculinity that doesn’t end up at “Wolf Lake?”
MVS: Oh man. That question is the hardest, Rob. Okay, vertigo. Yes. I think that’s a succinct word for how I felt growing up—there was this masculine place I was meant to occupy, and I just couldn’t seem to find it. Every time I tried to be a ‘boy’, I just felt dizzy with failure. I couldn’t read the signals, I couldn’t manifest the signs. I was like an alien who couldn’t make his three arms fit in a straightjacket. It was disorienting.
I didn’t see much tenderness in masculinity. And if I did, it was often complicated with shame, because tenderness and affection were also part of sexuality and desire. If you’re raised a fag in a straight world, and you’re afraid of being a fag, then male affection of any kind is always complicated. I think I’m more nuanced and secure as an adult, for sure, but we see symptoms of this still in films everywhere. All those goddamn super hero movies with protagonists that only win by might—by brute force—rather than any cleverness or ethic. We don’t build heroes that win because they make moral choices. We build heroes that win because the hero wins. And the tools of their victory are the same tools as the evil they are battling. And everything is a competition, rather than a dance. So if my masculinity in films seems violent, and destructive, I think it’s because that’s the only way we can recognize masculinity. If it’s destructive, it’s masculine. And if it’s affectionate, well, chances are we read that as feminine, regardless of the gender.
RWG: In your novels, (Cumberland (2002), Progress (2011)) your memoir or non-fiction pieces, and in your various films, you seem to alternate between very direct autobiography and more indirect pieces like “Wolf Lake.” Why do you think you have both impulses in your work? What do the two forms of expression offer you?
MVS: In my novels, and films like “Wolf Lake,” which are more imagined, I’m interested in the fairy tale, I guess. The parable. I love the puzzle of making and inventing and discovering characters, as an exercise in negotiating structure and character. Characters and personalities drop out of our imaginations who are not us. That’s a thrill. That’s something magic, that is greater than myself. I love it, the experience of that discovery. And much of the thrill comes from trying to build the mechanics to embody the emotional or spiritual or psychological insights that come with the intimacies of that character and their life they present to me.
I love autobiographical work, like memoir, and confessional poems, for how that personal story—someone’s version of truth—is a fiercely singular perspective. I love the voice in autobiography. I love building a character that is close to myself—‘cuz no character is the self, right?—drawing a reader in close so I can share my private vulnerabilities. That shit is magic. We learn by experience, but some of that is also the experience of reading someone else’s life. They’re gifts we lived ourselves.
Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, comic, drag queen, and an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a memoir detailing his emancipation from masculinity.
For Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month we welcome writer and experimental filmmaker extraordinaire Michael V. Smith who in this month’s issue interviews our own R.W. Gray about his film “zack & luc.”Gray wrote about this short film in his article “Love at First Sight, or The Problem of Beginnings.” Next month, R. W. Gray will interview Smith about his film work and will turn the dialogue the other direction.
R. W. Gray’s short film “zack & luc” is a polyphonic love story, a duet that follows two young gay men falling in love then breaking up. Told using a pair of split screens which play out either character’s perspective, the images create a tension between its moments: tender first encounters play alongside the machinations of separating. The film feels contemporary and vintage, all at once. It feels at once innocent and experienced, as much weary as it is refreshing. It’s a lovely film, and sly. I had a discussion with Numero Cinq’s intrepid senior editor to get his thoughts on this little gem of a story.
MVS: There was this wonderful moment for me watching “zack & luc” where the split screens began to clearly do two very different things. And I wondered, isn’t he worried about us missing something in the film? We might miss an important clue, maybe.
RWG: The ongoing conversation was always what does it matter most that the audience get and what can be left to subsequent viewings or never be noticed at all. When near the end of the film you see on the left the first moments they met, the tree / bird scene, the characters are physically further apart, the shot wider, because we and they know it’s going to end even as we remember the beginning. That changes the memory. I was conscious I was layering in details that might never get noticed.
MVS: Yes, the characters are also missing signs from each other. The small moments that lead to resentment. One doesn’t notice how he’s being irritating to the other. One character sleeps through an intimate touch in the night. So that we see through some of those moments how their information is incomplete.
RWG: I suppose in a larger sense I wanted this to be a film where you might wonder why the relationship doesn’t work out, might see some clues, but not be able to decide beyond the shadow of a doubt. One of my favourite films, Une liaison pornographique, has a similar conceit, where the two lovers meet for some unspecified sexual act in a hotel room, and they and the narrative never let you know what it was, though they do describe having a sore back, thighs and I think point out that they can’t really do it twice in one day. With “zack & luc” I wanted the same flirtation, but with heartbreak.
MVS: Yes, that incompleteness, that made me think about romance. The filmmaker has a god-like perspective on this piece. So do we. We can play it over and again and collect each half. I don’t think it’s the act of replaying that is romantic, necessarily, but the desire to do so. The filmmaker’s desire to capture all those conflicting intimacies strikes me as romantic. I’m going to be a jerk and say that that perspective—that we can know anything in its entirety—is naïve, because I suspect you can run with the provocation.
RWG: I agree. I hope the film plays a little more with omniscience, the way fiction or the novel can more easily, but I didn’t want it to claim one could know another, the beloved. Each can never fully know the other. And, truly, they are never absolutely present in terms of time except in a throwaway staring contest in the epicenter of the film and in their final moments together. The two sides are never simultaneous except with the staring contest.
I’m attracted to that modern irreconcilable structure of narratives, what Kurosawa does in Rashomon with the three versions of the story that cannot be resolved into one truth. Intellectually. Luc and Zack, like the rest of us, are stuck in their little goldfish bowls, bumping against others hoping to find time and space to be together.
MVS: That sounds maybe a little jaded. A little anti-romantic.
RWG: Yet there is no romance, no desire, without that separation. But yeah, it does sound a little nihilist I guess.
MVS: Balanced, I guess, which is ironic, because I was going to ask you about nostalgia next, which is like romance’s dreamy cousin. I want to argue that both the content and the aesthetics of the film are nostalgic—the characters are looking back on their relationship, the film quality is what? Early 1970’s split screen, where the voiceover in the story replaces dialogue, making two times overlap. I’ve seen lots of that overdubbing in ‘70s gay porn. Are you consciously remaking a history, or filling in the silences in a history? Is this telling a kind of love story we haven’t had in romance films? Is it showing the intimacies from those porn worlds, like we’re seeing the footage the films have left out?
RWG: Never thought of a porn connection. Super 8 film is very much home footage though, which taps it into the personal / subjective / memory category instantly. I love the memory pieces in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, though I don’t know if those were specifically super 8. I knew from the start that I wanted the look to be grainy, flawed, over saturated the way memory is.
Super 8 film has no sound, so no matter what I did there was going to technically be a gap between sound and image. But I wanted any dialogue or voice over to be stylized, dream like, dislocated slightly. I imagine this is the way dialogue or talking appears in dreams.
MVS: There is also this sense of time standing still, or all times existing at once. Time repeating. Like with the repetition of the line, “Can I kiss you?” The strategy is tied to that delicious ending. What’s your sense of nostalgia’s relationship to time, playing out here?
RWG: The seed of the film was a relationship I was having where, in a sense, I think I was the man’s first love. On the other side of that, as I am sure you know, I have had a few more loves. We would have these conversations as we were starting to go out and as we were breaking up where I would invariably say something the gist of which was “So now this will happen,” like I knew how the story goes. Yet he didn’t. And, often, I was wrong about how the story would go.
In “zack & luc” there is Luc in the right hand, chronological frames, experiencing the relationship in real time. On the left hand side, there is Zack, who even from the first moment of the relationship has a sense of the ending on the left. And in the end, he is remembering the beginning. Some of us are more nostalgic creatures. The end is in the beginning. Once you have loved and lost a few times, firsts and lasts are layered this way I think.
MVS: I’m always interested in how metaphor is made from two things that in turn create a third. In “zack & luc,” the split screen sort of does this, making emotional ironies. There are bittersweet moments created with the tensions between happy and sad images sharing the screen simultaneously. I’m being reductive when I say happy and sad, but you know what I mean. The film celebrates the grey scale between white-and-black polarities. If this film is using the in-between as a strategy, I’m curious what you think it is between? “zack & luc” resides in a spectrum between what and what?
RWG: Technically, this was such a nightmare challenge for the composer Christian Berube. I am in awe of how he was able to read the two frames together musically.
I like what you’re saying about the idea of metaphor here. It’s like Eisenstein’s montage: two images clash to make a concept. The frames paired were always intended to clash, but some more than others. I don’t think they resolve themselves so much. At least for me it becomes about the irresolvable bits in a relationship. Moments of toothbrushing joy clashing with irritating cereal slurping. Sad break up conversation silences with first date breathless silences. These can’t be mulched up into one new thing so much as emerge as a feeling of ambivalence (seeing more than one direction at once, not apathy). A melancholy ambivalence. One that can look forward and backward at the same time. But also one that can see both joy and sadness in the same beloved at once.
MVS: It displaces us, to some degree. Unsettles what we think we know—like a tap on the shoulder, we know more than we think, or care to admit.
I’d like to also ask about Kristjana Gunnars’s poem which is referenced in the credits. Was that where the story idea came from? If “zack & luc” is an answer to Gunnars’s poem, what do you think her next response would be? What do you imagine Gunnars’s answer would be to this film?
RWG: Her poem is the one Zack is reading next to the bathtub. For Zack, who in the film always seems to have his face in a book, I wanted a poem that had that tension, of great love yet terrible restraint, fear. I love Gunnars’s work, so much so that I wrote a dissertation on melancholia and focused partly on her work. She’s moved to painting now so I think her response to the film would maybe also be visual. Then of course I would have to move to something like 3D animation so I could respond to her in turn. Maybe it carries on into infinity.
MVS: At the end, one of the young men delivers a voice-over in a different voice. It’s reflective, more a narrator’s voice, and we’re listening in on his internal monologue. I’m assuming it comes from that poem? Why the switch? Why is that moment prior to the end self-reflective? It’s like he’s talking to himself, looking in the mirror. What’s your relationship to that pause? You’ve left us there for a reason, so I want to know your reason.
RWG: I’m not sure. I think on the one hand I wanted a direct intimacy between Zack and the audience there. He speaks in the second person. He implicates the audience. I think, too, he is pointing out to the audience that they are already implicated. They now have all these memories, they are now in this last moment carrying all these other places in time, all these other moments of love. What follows is a bit of a quick montage of memory fragments, because I couldn’t bring myself to end the film as Zack leaves the truck in the rain.
As I was saying before, Zack’s side of the film is more nostalgic from the start. And, truly, he wins. The film is nostalgic. I don’t think anyone would argue that the moral of the story is that Luc’s version of reality—being more present, in the moment, nostalgia-free—is the way to live. It’s built to offer you a chance for your own nostalgia.
MVS: The film implicates the audience, opens itself to a dialectic.
RWG: Exactly. I wanted this film to be a series of significant yet nothing moments and in between the gaps I hoped the audience would bring their own archives, their own nostalgia. From the start I kept thinking about Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. He says something like, and here I am butchering it, that we carry this lover’s archive with us. It’s why when a friend tells us about their heartbreak we tell them about ours. One broken heart reads another. I bring you mine, you bring me yours. We go get new loves. From a poem to a film to a painting to infinity. Our longing can be this place where we commune.
Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, comic, drag queen, and an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a memoir detailing his emancipation from masculinity.
E. M. Forester asserted that, at least in terms of plot, “The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.” In Yulia Mahr’s short film and in Max Richter’s SLEEP, the composition it springs from, sleep at last gets its due. Richter describes SLEEP as “an eight-hour personal lullaby for a frenetic world and a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” Mahr’s visual lullaby “Path 5 (delta)” is decidedly more restless, but still haunts this unspoken, dreamy space we hardly understand, draws us down under the covers to find our own sleepy understandings.
The film, like the music, is minimalist, repeats a few visual themes: the waxing and waning of a moon, time lapse film of crowds, traffic, cities, and time lapse footage of people sleeping. In this way it moves from the macro to the micro, from the ghostly, pock marked face that pulls at us, watches over our sleep, through the frenzy of the lives we choose, down to the small dances of sleep in our tiny rooms and beds.
Mahr chooses to make all the footage black and white and then reverses the colours so the film takes on the ghostly appearance of photography negatives. This reversal means that light takes over, swallows the moon then offers it up again, bodies of light rush through cityscapes, and sleepers of light toss and turn. All the darknesses here are sublimated into light.
Fades to light in film, and perhaps most notably in the TV serial Six Feet Under, lean towards the divine, look heavenward, counter to the fade to black’s going under swallowing of time, of consciousness. Less established in film vernacular, a fade to white is highly specialized, more rarely used. Jacob T. Swinney explores this visually in his video montage of the device:
As Sami Emory points out, “When filmmakers invert the norm, however, and end on a wash of white, what follows can be wholly enigmatic.” The fade-to-white’s ambiguity is perfect for Mahr’s repeating, minimalist reflection on sleep and its place in our worlds.
Where Richter’s composition lulls towards sleep states, Mahr’s visual composition is restless. None of the film is peaceful. The chaos of the time-lapse crowds and cities crossfade so that they layer over the sleepers, the moon haunting the background. The boundaries between the images are porous, sleep not a separate eden of peacefulness. What this emphasizes, divulges, is the bare truth of sleep, its vulnerability.
Richter, in several interviews, has talked about his fascination with the neurological aspects of sleep. In interview with Robin Murray in Clash Magazine, he describes his process and the questions he has explored with “Sleep” is how he has created a work of art that, in many ways, relies on the experience of the listener:
“It’s actually on the condition that people bring their own biography and their own thoughts about it, and then you start to get a sense of the bigger picture of the thing. Because until then it’s just hypothetical, really,” he states. “You’ve got this thing and you think this is what it is, but honestly, that’s just through the lens of my experience and my intentions. And actually, especially in this piece, the experiences of the listener are really at the centre of it. If there is a theme, then it’s the act of hearing and the act of sleeping – that’s the theme of it.”
Though performances of the piece have incorporated actual sleepers, this is something Richter himself can never experience. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy Daily, he confessed “For me, though, that part of my brain is just incapable of turning off. Listening to music is a really busy activity. I’m going, “Hmm… I’d rather do that, I’d fix that noise…” [laughs] That’s how I’m wired. I don’t listen to music before bed because then I’d never fall asleep! You think about it from a maker’s perspective, you know – how is that made? I think that’s quite natural, that sort of curiosity.”
The fundamental experience of SLEEP is inaccessible to him, like the secret world of our sleep is inaccessible to us, the audience like dreams indirectly linking the artist to his artwork.
Yulia Mahr is a visual anthropologist and award winning filmmaker, a combination which evidently makes her the perfect dreamer for Richter’s “Dreams.”
In James W. Griffiths’s “Room 8,” a prisoner finds a box with a dark, intriguing secret in his new jail cell. A psychological Escher painting of a film, it thrums with claustrophobia as we watch the protagonist step into the undertow of his own curiosity.
Griffiths’s film is one of five different films from the same script, created as part of Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series. Oscar winner Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) was selected to provide the source text and wrote a script stripped of any stage direction or character names, then the contest asked people to imagine their version of a film around that simple script.
Five films were developed from the winning scripts. The five embrace the imaginative exercise, each striving to tell distinctly different stories: in “The Mrs,” the malaise of a long term relationship finds sudden criminal excitement;
“Water Song,” tells the story of a hearing impaired competitive swimmer and a secret;
the animated film “Crab” has two crabs collide over what to do with a magic bottle on the beach, their curiosity having fatal consequences for the entire universe;
and in “Concrete,” a cleaning lady and business man face off over a magic box.
The films incorporate some small dialogue changes but these are, for the most part, cosmetic and Fletcher’s original text is at the foundation of each of the diverse stories.
“Room 8” takes that simple scenario and applies it to a perfectly small premise: two men in a jail cell and a small, horrific warning against curiosity. The loop of the plot here is in itself particularly satisfying: this happened and will continue to happen after the film ends, due to the nature of human curiosity and the desire to be, externally at least, free.
The most marvelous shot is also the most nihilistic perhaps: the Michaelangelo-esque Adam touching the hand of God moment, a sense that we are our only chance for divine intervention; there is no God, which, in this world, means we are left to our own flawed devices, our own horrible choices, the world turning in on itself as we hurl ourselves into awful endings.
I did find myself wanting a little more from this iteration of the script. In its present form I am not entirely clear what the man in the cell gets from the loop. If, for instance, he wanted the cell to himself, or found others too noisy, then he would have a personal stake in this peculiar collaboration with his jailers. As it stands his stake is unclear so he remains perhaps too simple an antagonist. Regardless, that doesn’t take away from the horror of what is in the drawer and the pleasure of a vertiginous window into possibility that then torques into a narrow hell.
Darwin Serink’s short film “ABAN + KHORSHID” tells a non-linear tale of romance from a prison cell. Khorshid fashions a flower out of a piece of paper, then lies down facing it. He remembers his lover Aban, sleep tousled, waking up next to him, in their apartment, in a honey-drenched room. The film then cuts back and forth between two timelines: the lovers wrestling, eating and teasing one another on their life raft of a bed during one endless morning and the two men in their separate prison cells, an impregnable wall between them.
In their morning bed, Khorshid makes a film within the film, recording the beauty of his beloved with his smart phone, so we — in the place of the camera eye, Khorshid’s eye — are invited to behold the pulpy-lipped beloved Aban. “When I see beauty I have to record it,” says Khorshid. Thus so do we. It is, after all, essential we fall a little in love before the lovers are torn asunder.
How then does one make a viewer fall in love in less than a handful of minutes? This kind of romantic love, the melodramatic (in the film genre sense), requires a keen attention to time. Even the lovers are in neighbouring cells, even though they can hear one another’s voices, they will, very likely, never see one another again. Time is up. Linda Williams describes this in “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” as the “too late” of melodrama. She references the Italian critic Franco Moretti who “has argued, for example, that literature that makes us cry operates via a special manipulation of temporality . . . at the precise moment when desire is finally recognized as futile.”
Williams adds that in Moretti’s analysis of the genre, there is a tension between what we desire and an incompatible reality. “Pathos is a surrender to reality but it is a surrender that pays homage to the ideal that tried to wage war on it” (Moretti, 1983, 179). Moretti then stresses a subversive, utopian component in what has often been considered a form of passive powerlessness.” For Aban and Khorshid, that ideal is romantic love.
And it is too late, but it’s also something else. The scenes on the bed remind me of the end of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. Noé’s entire film is built to shock and create discomfort, but the film ends with the beginning: a man and a woman naked in bed, expansive, endless lovers’ moments before all the destruction to come. Moments we have already seen thanks to the film’s reversed chronology.
We have the awareness of “too late” thanks to the frame of the narrative, but inside that we have the small moments of fullness and denial of time that are the lovers’ domain, their amorous prerogative. These remind me of Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse discussing “the amorous embrace”: “Besides intercourse . . . there is that other embrace, which is a motionless cradling: we are enchanted, bewitched: we are in the realm of sleep, without sleeping . . . this is the moment for telling stories, the moment of the voice, which takes me, siderates me. . . everything is suspended: time, law, prohibition: nothing is exhausted, nothing is wanted: all desires are abolished, for they seem definitively fulfilled” (104). Noé’s naked lovers, Serink’s playful men waking up, eating, chatting in love. These quiet thrumming, full moments abolish time.
What both Irreversible and “ABAN + KHORSHID” share then is this double sense of time: a frame where time is running out around a core where time is suspended. So the film structure encourages us not just to be desiring subjects, but amorous ones, holding on to sweet full time that we know is already gone. “Time destroys everything” reads the title card at the end of Irreversible. Yet “ABAN + KHORSHID” lets the sweet triumph a little over the bitter.
The film was inspired by the photos of two young men, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, that circulated in Western media in 2005, outraging LGBT rights groups. The two men were condemned for allegedly raping a 13-year-old boy, though many were skeptical and argued that they two young men were being persecuted for being gay.
Regardless of the controversy, the photos are arresting. Haunting. The boys in their clean shirts, blindfolded, looking ready for school.
Serink’s tale takes only the idea of persecution, elaborating from that a story of one lover showing the other that the prison walls cannot hold them, can’t cause them to despair and lose their love. Khorshid is the one who adores, the one who knows he has to show Aban that their love is limitless. The story would not have worked with two boys, both despairing. In this sense we share Aban’s struggle to not suffer since he cannot see the beloved, and we share Khorshid’s deep desire to help Aban see that despite that wall they are still in love. This is the subversive, utopian force that Moretti pointed to.
“ABAN + KHORSHID” has screened at over forty film festivals world wide and won many prizes.
Electrocution, suicide, heart attack, murder. All things actor / producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, singer Joseph Ruddleston, and a rowdy bar of folks can sing along to in the music video for “Adieu.” This animated video brings together death, joy, and raucous bar singing, all while meditating on the impermanence of life, love, and other people. Drinking with strangers with accordions helps take the sting off all this mortality, a little sweet for the bitter.
“Adieu” is the product of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “open collaborative production company” hitRECord, a unique project, crowdsourcing talent and extras and clips to make a collaborative finished product. According to the stats at the start of this film, “Adieu” is the product of many submissions: 15 video, 1896 images, 1 test, 6 audio records out of 2557 contributions. Here, for example, you can see how Joseph Gordon-Levitt solicited the necessary deaths.
The collage of animations here adds to the whimsy of the song, the various animations (rotoscoping, claymation, etc) throwing us into a more emotional and psychological register here. If all these death scenes were left depicted with the realistic video footage submitted, the tone of the piece would be a lot more dark and painful – we would not be allowed a distance in which to feel whimsy and would be less able to make light of death.
The montage structure also helps this: we see death after death of characters we have not met until the moment of their (often comical) demise and this prevents us from over identifying or caring too deeply. The point here, too, is the sheer number of deaths; dying is the most natural thing in this short film. Drinking and singing loudly in French along with (or in the face of) those deaths becomes second nature. “La la la” here is more than a drinking song, it’s the call of strangers across the bar, across the ether, people disconnected connecting over social media and youtube to create a bittersweet chorus.
The singer songwriter behind the song, Ruddleston, describes himself on his site as “an Indie Folk singer-songwriter, creating songs of heart-breaking humility. His music is the belief that honesty and vulnerability is what it takes to connect with people.”
That vulnerability is infectious: it found Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord, found the online collaborative world of people who would embrace the vulnerability, contribute art, lend harmonies, feign death, and sing at the top of their lungs. Sing together to say goodbye.
In these last days of the year, as we near the longest night, Temujin Doran’s short film “Sum” comes to help us take stock of our time, our brief time here.
“Sum” asks what would happen if the afterlife is a place where “you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.” On the most surface level, this organizes a life into a spreadsheet of time and emphasis: five months of reading magazines on a toilet, twenty seven hours of pain, thirty years of sleeping. It invites first a reflection on whether the narrative’s list matches one’s own life and, in the grand math of it, how much more time is spent cutting one’s finger nails (six days) than experiencing pure joy (fourteen minutes).
An adaptation of a very short story by neuroscientist David Eagleman, the film features all the text of the short story while it visually presents the experiences Eagleman’s story lists and, for the more abstract experiences on the list, interprets them. Boredom, longing, heartbreak, more abstract states of experience could have been expressed via direct facial expressions perhaps, but here Doran nicely finds more tenuous, less literal visuals.
Here, too, Doran draws in recurring images of statues, the human form but preserved, evoking time and the desire to endure, find what is not just fleeting in our experiences, these statues raising the more quiet question of what will an ephemeral life made up of these fleeting experiences add up to.
We are prepared to interpret, to flirt with signification in our viewing, via how the film opens (and later closes): a mural of ocean waves filling the frame, an impressionistic, slow seething canvas that prepares us to watch the montages that follow associatively, engage more emotionally, seeking the connections between the images.
The story is the title story in Eagleman’s collection of “forty tales from the afterlife,” a collection that Metro UK argued “is as much an object of desire as an actual book.” Though I would add that it is, too, a desiring subject, reading each of us back as objects of desire. Both story and film provoke us to wonder about our time, how it might be organized thematically, how much time would be spent doing each thing.
This emotional engagement and the film’s montage visual structure reminds me of Godfrey Reggio’s essay films (The Qatsi Trilogy) and his desire to engage the viewer in something more than spectacle. As he puts it, “There is the possibility if you do come to this film [Koyaanisqatsi] you’ll have an experience, rather than telling you a story . . . I think Einstein said that ‘fish will be the last to know water.’ My film is premised on the idea, the tragic feeling, that humans will be the last to know Technology.”
For Doran’s film and Eagleman’s story, this peculiar sum of things is a chance for we fishes to know the time we drink, and if we let it this is an aching reflection, one that offers us the chance to appreciate that we get these brief moments one by one free of the excel sheet.
An almost lethal dose of high school anxiety, peer pressure, and girl gangs courses through the veins of Sofia Coppola’s second short film “Lick the Star.” Coppola, best know for films like Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and The Virgin Suicides, throws us into a terrifying world called the seventh grade via a protagonist with a broken foot (her father ran over it by mistake and she’s been out of school for a few days). Our wounded protagonist arrives at school via car, in an opening driving shot reminiscent of the French New Wave’s Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, with the streets of Paris replaced here by suburban driveways.
Seventh grade is a feral fighting pit where the young women are on the brink of enacting a plan to poison the boys in the school inspired by the book they love, V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. As the protagonist / narrator notes, a lot can happen in a week (“Missing school is like a death wish”) and she’s arrived back to the fighting pit with a broken foot. It does not look good for her, and vicariously us, the wounded gazelle(s) on the edge of the herd.
In one of the more endearing moments in the film, the teen girls study the boys, what the boys eat, attempt to learn the numbers to their combination locks. All ostensibly to poison them, but there is something about the boys that intrigues them, so they seem undecided about which one to poison first. Indeed, their intent may not be to murder, but just to slow the boys down a little, assert an ounce of control in this volatile and unpredictable high school world.
There’s something here too that subverts typical gender constructions of young women, repressive constructions to be sure, so that when young women do rebel in films or act out they become a site of horror or something to be feared: Ginger Snaps, Heavenly Creatures, Pretty Little Liars. So much for the sugar and space and everything nice; Chloe and her rat poison have other plans.
The girls’ anthropological stakeout anticipates Coppola’s later film The Virgin Suicides in which the boys are the ones fascinated with the five mysterious Lisbon sisters. Both films construct the other gender as an unknowable, unpredictable and almost threatening place just out of reach. A longed for, unapproachable truth.
In “Lick the Star,” the young women seem equally perplexed with their own gender, in awe and fear of the antagonist, rat-poison wielding queen bee of the seventh grade, Chloe. She is the one girls give up their seats for, shoplift for and play minion to. Sparkly eyelids, a noir-lipsticked assassin’s smirk and ironically coy ponytails all caught in slow motion as she arrives at the school, her kingdom.
Even in this early film, Coppola’s sense of style finds flourishes. As Anna Rogers notes about Coppola in Senses of Cinema, her mise-en-scene “creates an affecting and primarily visual style, often at the expense of extended dialogue, this same style also serves to cover, but only partially so, the spectre of something dark and insidious.’
Stylistically the film resembles Truffaut’s 400 Blows in other ways too: the film is shot in black and white and the classroom shots recall its school shots. There, however, teachers and adults of all sorts provide the tyranny to revolt against. Here, the other seventh graders are the ones to fear. Thematically, too, the film has an anti-establishment air and flirts with the criminal impulse (they steal the rat poison, they break into the boys’ lockers and they plan to poison them and they smoke behind the bleachers, a crime so great that when our protagonist is caught the principal changes her status to “non student.”
What unfolds for Chloe and our one-footed protagonist suggests power and popularity are fickle and flux. Ultimately this plays out as the tension between the desire to belong and the fear of becoming an individual, isolated. This anticipates Coppola’s later explorations of isolation, in Tokyo hotel rooms and beside Hollywood pools. Yet after this short, all that adult ennui looks like kids play next to having to eat lunch alone in seventh grade.
. This month for Numéro Cinq at the Movies we’re turning the lights out so that filmmakers Nicholas Humphries (Vancouver, BC) and Jared Carney (Fredericton, NB) can have a cross continental conversation about horror. Both filmmakers have written articles for Numero Cinq (Humphries on Dash Shaw’s short “Seraph” and Carney on Denis Villeneuve’s short “Next Floor” and the Spanish horror short “Brutal Relaxation”) and they both direct primarily horror films: Carney is just putting finishing touches on a short-film adaptation of a Stephen King short story and Humphries just premiered his second feature film, Charlotte’s Song, at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Here they get to explore what scares them, the nuances of horror, the struggles of being genre directors, and the future of fear. And they explain to us why crickets and tiny doors might be scarier than you think.
— R. W. Gray
Nicholas Humphries: Stephen King was quoted as saying, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” Do you think this is true?
Jared Carney: I believe this is true to an extent. I mean, people go to see films of any genre as a form of escapism. We as a society absolutely love immersing ourselves in the problems, or horrors, of other people so we can forget our own. But, that said, to be honest I like being scared. I remember when I was young and watching scary movies with my cousins they always made me sit at the end of the couch near the dark hallway because I could handle it. I feel like when I’m scared I can truly see the world clearly. One thing that I’ve always loved about horror is how it bursts people’s bubbles and reminds us of how ugly and abject the world can be.
NH: What is something that scares you that might surprise your audiences?
JC: Well I think a lot of people would think I’m one of those “I’m not afraid of death” people but to be honest, the thought of dying or the death of my loved ones scares me the most. Mind you I also believe death is a beautiful thing, but the fact that we eventually move on from this life, to complete nothingness does bother me. Death is scary, plain and simple, and although audiences may no longer be scared by horror films, put yourself in the shoes of a horror movie victim and I like to believe it becomes a little more terrifying. That and grasshoppers, I’ve had some bad experiences with those things.
NH: I’m afraid of absolutely everything. But not just things like the dark. I’m talking school buses, cornfields, tiny doors. Especially tiny doors. Like, the kind that lead into crawl spaces. It doesn’t matter where it leads, they make me uncomfortable. I don’t know why. I could never fall asleep in a room with a tiny door in it.
JC: What film scared you the most?
NH: The only movie I can’t watch alone is called Session 9. It was shot at Danvers State Hospital and director Brad Anderson takes full advantage of the unsettling location. The way it also leaves so much to the imagination through a terrifying series of audio tapes just gets under my skin.
JC: I remember, as a young child, watching Poltergeist in my grandfather’s living room with all the lights turned off. That film really disturbed me to my core, one scene from that film that always sticks out in my memory is the infamous “face ripping” bathroom scene. I was really young then and that was the first and only time I’ve scene the film. I purposely avoid re-watching it as to preserve that memory of my grandfather and I.
NH: What film has inspired you most as a director?
JC: I had always had an interest in creating my own films but looking back I’d have to say House of 1000 Corpses by Rob Zombie. After seeing that film for the my first time I had a real weird feeling in my stomach and after watching its behind-the scenes documentary “30 Days of Hell,” that’s when I decided I wanted to make other people have that same feeling.
NH: For me it’s The Shining. But this can also depend on the project I’m working on. My latest feature was a period / dark fantasy and so I turned to Pan’s Labyrinth a lot for inspiration.
JC: What do you think in your own work is the scariest thing you have filmed?
NH: I directed a Steampunk-inspired, sci-fi series in 2009 called Riese: Kingdom Falling. In the episodes I directed, the titular character encounters an abandoned village full of evil children. Some people don’t find kids scary. I think most of them are mean and unpredictable.
JC: I feel like I do understand fear, to a certain extent at least, and I’m good at scaring other people but as far as scaring myself with my own films, I can’t say that I’ve done that. But with that said, in my the newest film “The Man Who Loved Flowers” I explore themes different than what I’ve dealt with before and I consider it in-part a horror film, but for a completely different reason then expected. It deals with the dark nature of love and heartbreak.
NH: I think any effective film deals with basic human condition stuff. Relationships can take over any of our lives. They can make us better or they can drag us down. We’ve all experienced them or crave them, have been saved or destroyed by them. While I will watch anything, the films I get really excited about are the ones that take on horror in content but make an attempt in some way to elevate the genre to art through visuals and a rich subtext. .
JC: I’m a huge fan of splatter horror but I’m also quite drawn to the darker, more transgressive horror films. I also have a great appreciation for the more “subtle” horror films, films that don’t show or tell you much, but leave it up to the imagination of the audience.
NH: Your short film “Dark and Stormy Night” is a particular flavour of horror-comedy. Did you pull inspiration other directors when making it?
JC: Eli Craig and his film “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” was a major inspiration for “Dark and Stormy Night”. I found its self-awareness of the horror genre and its ability to flip expectations very refreshing. There is also the involvement of beer which carried over into “Dark and Stormy Night.” [Dark and Stormy is a type of beer from Picaroon’s, a New Brunswick brewery].
JC: In your short film “The Little Mermaid” you take a beloved childhood story and return it to it’s original sinister form. What attracted you to this story?
NH: “The Little Mermaid” was always my favourite fairy tale [The feature film Humphries just premiered at Vancouver International Film Festival, Charlotte’s Song, is also developed from that core fairy tale]. But I think the queer subtext is what attracted me most to it as something to adapt. Growing up different and forbidden, unrequited love, these are all themes I grew up dealing with. Filmmaking is therapy.
NH: Your short film “Waiting” employs split screen and elements of magic realism. Would you consider this film avant garde in its formalism? Why did you feel it had to be told this way?
JC: Yes, I would definitely consider “Waiting” to be avant-garde. I was studying film at the University of New Brunswick at the time and as I was writing the script I was very interested in learning how editing could be used to represent the themes of films and how it could convey certain feelings or emotions, so the split screen idea was born out of that.
NH: In your short film “Oasis,” the location is like a character in the film. How did you go about finding it or did the location inspire the film?
JC: In this particular case, the location completely inspired the film. I had stumbled upon the location, a campground that’s been abandoned for over thirty years, during a photography outing one day. When I had the opportunity to make the film months later, we did! It was such a beautifully sublime location that just screamed danger and I simply couldn’t leave it be.
NH: You’re in the process of adapting a short story by Stephen King. What made you decide to adapt it and how did you go about securing the rights?
JC: Stephen King has actually had this program, called “Dollar Babies”, available for many years now in which he grants selected film students the rights to adapt his stories. I was no longer a student at the time but I decided to request the rights to his early short story “The Man Who Loved Flowers” as it appealed to me for several personal reasons at the time, and was lucky enough to be granted it! What attracted me to the story initially was how short but how much impact it had on me, and I also felt like it was something I could really make my own while at the same time staying true to the original narrative. As I began adapting it into my script I began to like it even more as its content and themes kind of coincided with some stuff that I was going through personally. At the core, “The Man Who Loved Flowers” is a love story and it takes us all to a dark place that we’ve been to before, a place we can all relate to. Most of us however, are lucky enough to survive that dark place while others are consumed by it.
JC: Do you think there is a negative stigma that is carried with the term “horror”?
NH: I cannot count the number of times I’ve endured judgment when I tell people I love horror movies. There is absolutely a stigma. But at the same time, it’s probably the most reliably lucrative genre there is. Always has been. So film snobs can sneer all they want. What would you say is your biggest challenge is as a genre director?
JC: I think getting noticed by people outside of that specific community is the biggest challenge for most genre directors. Horror in particular carries a sort of stigma with it that it’s just senseless violence and gore. But on the contrary, I believe that horror films can be just as innovative and complicated as any other film out there. Although horror-specific festivals and screenings are a lot of fun, perhaps organizers, and crowds in general, need to open up a bit and look past all the scary or disturbing stuff. If we can get beyond that, then there’s no reason why a horror film can’t win an Academy Award some day.
JC: I think a “horror” film is not the same thing as a “scary” film. What’s it going to take for horror films to start scaring people again?
NH: The best scary movies follow you home. And so they need to tap into primal fears but also everyday situations. Most of us don’t worry about zombies in our daily lives. We do feel nervous in open water, a dark parking garage, in the shower. As our routines change, horror filmmakers will need to keep an eye on in which situations we feel the most vulnerable.
JC: What do you think is next for the horror genre? We’ve seen it evolve technologically with the birth of the found footage genre (The Blair With Project, Paranormal Activity, etc.), we’ve seen it become self-aware and pay homage to itself (Scream, A Cabin In The Woods), and we’ve seen it take a dark/trangressive turn with the likes of The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film. So what’s next?
NH: Themes are cyclical but the way we consume them will continue to evolve. It seems like most of the content being developed for VR right now is horror-centric (film and gaming) or pornography. The future is now and it’s terrifying.
—Jared Carney & Nicholas Humphries
Jared Carney is a writer, director, producer, and production designer with Creeker Films from Fredericton, New Brunswick, and is a graduate of Film Production from the University of New Brunswick. He is a Features Writer for Horror-Movies.ca and just recently wrapped his 9th film, a Stephen King adaptation entitled “The Man Who Loved Flowers”. The horror genre in particular has always piqued his interest and many of his influences stem from both classic and new-age horror cinema.
Nicholas Humphries is an award-winning director from Vancouver, Canada. His accolades include Best Short at the Screamfest and British Horror Film Festivals, Audience Choice at the NSI Film Exchange, a Tabloid Witch, an Aloha Accolade and a Golden Sheaf. His films have been nominated for multiple Leo Awards, have screened at Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theaters, on CBC, Fearnet, SPACE Channel and in festivals around the world. He is also a director on the acclaimed Syfy digital series, Riese: Kingdom Falling, which was nominated for four Streamy Awards, three IAWTV Awards and a Leo Award. Riese was also an Official Honoree at the 2011 Webby Awards. His feature film credits include Death Do Us Part and Charlotte’s Song (2015). He teaches Directing at Vancouver Film School.
The homage to Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is obvious, Seydoux even resembling a young Jeanne Moreau. Here the tone and style is more playful, absurd even, inescapable overtones of a Wes Anderson film (for a more length exploration of Anderson’s style see this Numéro Cinq introduction to his short film “Hotel Chevalier”). Where Moreau’s Catherine at times in Jules et Jim seems more antagonist than protagonist – her tempest storms and desires things the two men seem to weather together – in this short film Candy has Catherine’s dynamism, but seems more insistently a traditional protagonist.
In the first film (above) she treats the men to a film and is keeper of the popcorn, reserving a healthy mouthful for herself.
In the second, she refuses their competition, takes the cake, and has them all dance.
And in the third, perhaps most key, we see that she is the only character who struggles here, as she explains the two men’s limitations to the women in the salon.
Certainly it’s not much of a struggle, and why be conflicted when you can just choose both, she eventually shows us. The last frame strongly emphasizes this. She is again centre frame. She has taken the all-of-the-above option.
The films are brief, there is no significant story development except the three flirting, and what conflict there is is fluffy as candy floss. The films are meant to tease more than please, though by the end it seems impossible not to want Candy too.
Roy Andersson’s “World of Glory” opens with unspeakable horror: a truck load of naked people, a child last, are herded into the back of a cube van, the doors locked, and a hose is connected between the truck’s exhaust and the back of the van that holds the people. This allusion to the holocaust is made more horrific by the crowd of people watching on as the scene plays out. Halfway through the scene, and then again at the end, the film’s protagonist looks back at the camera, at those of us watching, drawing attention to our watching: it is an incriminating glance that identifies us with the others who stand idly by. We are complicit.
This horrific spectacle is at odds with the rest of the film’s numb and disassociated narrative. The protagonist who identified our complicit gaze at the beginning of the film directly addresses the audience and introduces us to his mother, the bed he sleeps in, his son, his brother, and various other mundane details as he takes account of his life for and through us. What’s left unresolved by the end of the film is what this mundane life, bracketed by the first scene’s atrocity and the return of the screams at the end, amounts to. What can this one man’s fear of his mortality mean in the face of his complicity in the deaths of so many others?
“He eliminates the editing entirely,” Linqvist says. “There is no editing within a single shot. The camera does not move. And so it’s our eye that has to move, has to roam around the picture.” Andersson demands we pay attention; he refuses to manipulate us with close-ups. And his filmic philosophy is also expressed through lighting. “I want to have light without mercy,” he says. “There are no shadows to hide in. You are illuminated all the time. It makes you naked, the human beings — naked.”
“Light without mercy. ” At the screening of his new film at the Toronto International Film Festival last year he added,“So the truth can’t hide.”
Andersson departs from the neorealists in how he chooses to stylistically emphasize the bareness. “World of Glory” is clearly an Andersson vision with the washed out florescent lighting, the pale visages of the actors who appear drowned or corpse like, and the staged and theatrical mise-en-scene. In his explanation of his most recent film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Andersson describes a connection between reality and fantasy in his work that equally applies to “World of Glory”:
“some of my favourite Neue Sachlichkeit painters include Karl Hofer, Felix Nussbaum and Georg Scholz. Their combination of reality and fantasy resulted in abstracted condensed realism, a kind of “super-realism”, an ambition that I also have for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, in which abstraction is to be condensed, purified, and simplified; scenes should emerge as cleansed as memories and dreams. Yes this is no easy task: “c’est difficile d’être facile” – it is difficult to be very simple, but I will try.”
In the push to get to the truth in reality, to make it simple, Andersson paradoxically stylizes it, exaggerates it. He condenses the complexities of real life into a simple juxtaposition between atrocity and the mundane.
Andersson connects one man’s mortal fears, the lurid, almost pathetic, small things he holds on to as normalcy against life’s passing, and the awful crime that haunts the film. “World of Glory” suggests that the most remarkable thing in this world is our insensitivity, our passivity, our disconnection. Glory exists is an absence. In his other works, this leads to moments of great awkward laughter, yet here in this small film he holds us to the pain. Maybe in that pain lies the hope of glory.
For their fourth album, Tales of Us, British group Goldfrapp produced five music videos before the album’s release that they subsequently screened as part of a live event. The five films are meant to be part of a larger “film anthology” also titled Tales of Us.
All five films are black and white, establishing a noir-ish old Hollywood feel; they span various genres, from realism, to thriller, to what might be best described as romance. The resulting anthology film complements the storytelling the band does with this album. More to the point, the anthology haunts the viewer into tracing connections between the songs on the album, an aesthetic choice that is antithetical to the music industry’s current culture of the ‘single.’
Tales of Us, the anthology, is made up of the music videos for five songs from the album: “Stranger,” “Laurel,” “Jo,” “Drew,” and “Annabel.” The videos extend the album’s character studies taking us past the lyrics and music into cinematic expressions of the characters. Given this, and that the album is titled “Tales of Us,” it would have been strange for the band to release singles and videos one by one, the current music industry standard practice.
This anthology develops a sense of the first person plural “us” and also frees the band up to take a different approach to the individual music videos themselves. This is particularly relevant and significant for a song like “Annabel,” based on the novel with the same name by Kathleen Winter, both of which tell the story of an intersexed child. Goldfrapp notes that “if you just listen to the song, maybe you’d think it was just about a little girl . . . So it felt really important to make that film.” The song and the video provide both poetic and visual complements to Annabel’s struggle which is correspondingly both emotional and physical.
The third film in the anthology, “Drew,” is a peculiarly loose narrative that Dan Reilly for Spin Magazine describes as “Alison Goldfrapp wandering around a sprawling country estate, with a trio of nude friends following her and occasionally flying remote-control planes.”
The short film and the other four in the anthology are dream-like, cinematic, and shaped to psychologically offer more than just a sense of character and action. Kory Grow for MTV Hive describes the film as “shots of her loneliness intertwining with the threesome’s threesoming (pillow fights, entwined limbs, forest frolics, and so on), sometimes intersecting with the singer acting as a voyeur.”
“Drew” could be a simple music video with nudity if it were not for two interesting choices: the choice of three naked figures and the juxtaposition of past and present. Gunning chooses to include three naked figures, two men and a woman where a more conventional choice would have been two figures or a clear love triangle. Choosing three has the narrative of the film resist easy readings of what the three represent: are they past lovers, aspects of the protagonist, ghosts in the countryside mansion? Or do they represent more of an age or time in the character’s past, nostalgia passing over the mansion or by her as she rides her bike down the country lane?
Further, there are moments when these naked figures interact with her: the woman takes her hand and the man shows her how to fly the model plane, yet there are other moments where they run right through her as they do on the stairwell, ascending as she descends, rushing through the past as she steps down to the present. All told we never find out why she rides through the countryside alone, why these naked ghosts haunt her, and where they might be running off to together, a frolicking, haunting threesome. Nostalgia, though, seems the persistent point.
All five films are directed by Lisa Gunning in her first time director effort. Gunning is a film editor known for such films as Seven Pyschopaths, Nowhere Boy, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and she is the real life partner of the band’s lead singer Alison Goldfrapp. In a behind the scenes documentary, they describe how Gunning was around during the recording of the album and generated ideas rather organically alongside the album’s creation. They then shot the films on a limited budget all at once.
Gunning links the films through subtle repetitions: the various films locations repeat (the seaside, the woods, the large country mansion), two characters ride bikes along a country road, even the figure of Allison Goldfrapp herself repeats and links the tales. Also the black and white aesthetic, the simple narratives, and the choice to focus on one central character in each, connect these five films in the anthology into a larger whole.
The anthology music video concept has been around for a while, one of the earliest examples provided by iamamiwhoami who released all their videos in series, starting in December 2009.
More recently, this anthology concept found a different use in the mainstream with Beyonce’s album where she made music videos for each of the songs, a grand total of seventeen full music videos, and dropped them all at once, without releasing singles or doing any marketing campaign prior to the release. Lily Rothman in Time Magazine points out that “it used to be that fans heard one or two songs on the radio and had to purchase an album to check out the rest of it. These days it’s common for fans to have heard every song before deciding to buy.” The anthology of videos accompanying the album release were initially only available with the exclusive digital download of the album and these levels of exclusivity all draw a listening audience to experience the whole album rather than taste it single by single over time.
Gunning’s haunting visual tales avoid the literal and respond to the Goldfrapp songs and lyrics in a way that sublimates the traditional music video conventions. For the five characters in this anthology of music videos, this permits a more narrative and visual exploration of each of the characters and draws the five arguably marginalized individuals into a connected “us.”
At the end of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Mr Chow (Tony Leung) travels to Angkor Wat, the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia and whispers a secret into the walls of the ancient temple. Secrets run through the film and, indeed, the initial English title of the film was to be Secrets so it is not much of a surprise that Wai ends the film with Chow whispering one into the temple wall. For a film set almost entirely in Hong Kong, though, this might seem a bit of a non-sequitur, this epilogic jaunt to another country and its ruins.
In the pseudo sequel to In the Mood for Love, 2046, a fictional character describes how travel related to his unrequited desire: “I once fell in love with someone. After a while. she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there.” So I, too, went to Angkor Wat, but after I traversed the causeway, the moat, and stepped past the tourists making cutesy photos for their Facebook updates, I didn’t find Mr Chow there waiting for me. I was, however, struck by two things as I entered the upper regions of the temple: the sounds of the birdcalls and the length of a secret.
One of the reasons Angkor Wat does not read like a non sequitur in the film is that, despite the film’s tense intimacy and claustrophobic 1960s Hong Kong setting, travel is a trope throughout the film: Mr Chow’s wife and Mrs Chan’s husband are always away on business in Japan; near the end of the film, Chow eventually transfers to work in Singapore and Mrs Chan follows briefly; the music, particularly the title song, come from other cultures, the Nat King Cole songs in Spanish providing significant flavor (an English American singer singing in Spanish for a Chinese audience); and Mrs Chan seems to work in an imports and exports office, where we hear of ships coming and going. Elsewhere matters in the film. Wai builds Hong Kong as a place people are always leaving so there is a story logic to Mr Chow’s destination and what he whispers to the ancient temple.
Even if elsewhere did not matter, the trope of the secret runs significantly through both Wai’s In the Mood for Love and the pseudo sequel 2046, though the only thing the characters seem to keep secret are their unrequited desires. In In the Mood for Love, Chow recounts a story to his lecherous friend Ping about a certain kind of secret:
Chow: In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did?
Ping: Have no idea.
Chow: They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.
There’s something faulty in the lover’s logic here, because if one didn’t want to share such a secret, no trees would be harmed. The act of telling an untellable secret to a tree, or to temple ruins must offer something greater than the discretion of staying silent would.
The tale of the secret also appears in 2046 in a slightly different form when a man who might be Chow (who indeed has the same name and is played by the same actor) several more jaded years later writes a science fiction serial in which a character riding a futuristic train tells a similar story to an android attendant on the train he’s falling in love with:
Before, when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain. They’d find a tree and carve a hole in it. And whisper the secret into the hole. Then cover it over with mud. That way nobody else would ever discover it.
I once fell in love with someone. After a while, she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there. But I couldn’t find her. I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not. But I never found out. Maybe her answer was like a secret … that no one else would ever know.
Ostensibly this is a character in a serialized novel named Tak, a man riding on a futuristic train talking to a beautiful android woman about a woman we never meet, one whom he once loved. Yet if we read In the Mood for Love and 2046 as connected stories, and we take Chow at his word when he says the characters that appear in the novel are taken from his life, then Tak’s unrequited love relates to Chow’s unrequited love for Mrs Chan.
What the second tale of the secret highlights is a reason for telling a secret in a way that it will never be heard: imitation. For Chow, the secret is in part an imitation, a chance to perform Mrs Chan’s silence and, possibly, decipher it.
The night before I am to visit Angkor Wat, I contemplate imitating Mr Chow, finding the place where he told his secret to the ruins, and telling a secret too. I search for the photo of that scene in the film and save it onto my phone so I can compare it to the temple when I get there, see if I could find the exact spot. It feels goofy, but more than a fan impulse, though I can’t be articulate about the imitative urge.
In the morning, as the guide leads me along the corridors, up and down the disheveled steps, I hold back showing him. Maybe I feel too goofy. Then, I see the women. The faces of the women carved into the stone. The ones that appear beside Chow in the film. They are not the right women (these figures are everywhere in the temple) but now I am curious. I tell my guide about the film; he has never heard of it but has much to say about Angelina Jolie and Tomb Raider (which used a nearby temple as a location). I show him the picture. He hands me back my phone and I am not sure he has understood. The tour continues as he tells me of gods and demons, the frothing of great seas and the search for immortality.
The guide is trying to explain to me where I should walk next and where he will wait for me, but my thoughts are caught by sudden and distinct bird calls trilling off the temple walls (you can hear these at the start of the clip posted at the top of this article).
I have heard these birds before, but only in this final sequence of Wai’s In the Mood for Love. They are film memories for me. The first shot with the monk and the temple wall begins in silence and then the birds’ calls become distinct. So there is something blaringly real about them, and oddly dissonant, as it would not have occurred to me as a filmmaker to add bird noises to shots of a temple – not peaceful enough. Though Wai added them, I now know they are dietetic, (they actually occur in that place). What I had heard in several movie theatres, on my couch at home, a film sound I had heard and disregarded on many viewings and even listened to ad nauseam on my iPod via the soundtrack, is now “playing” around me. I experience a shock where the scenes in the film becomes more real and I am closer to that moment, to Mr Chow. This is the shock of art and life feeling too close together somehow.
I find the bird making the song, and I follow him for a little, trying to get a good photo of him while my guide watches on, no doubt thinking I am doing this sightseeing thing wrong. His poker face reveals nothing. On our way back down the steps, the guide asks to see the picture again. During our tour he has been searching for the right place. He has not forgotten. Then he points to the wall. And he has found it. The four women standing together, the images that flank where Chow tells his secret. I stare at the wall, then look around, a bit speechless, the guide watching on in his quiet way, the way he has watched through the whole tour, like he agrees speechless reverence is appropriate.
As I stand at the wall, my hands cupped between my face and the ancient stone, it suddenly occurs to me that perhaps for this moment to be authentic I should have an actual secret if I am to approximate why Chow stood there, if I am to understand him. For Chow standing at the wall, there is an indeterminacy, an unsolved mystery: did Mrs Chan love him after all? For Chow, performing such a secret creates a possible explanation for Mrs Chan’s silence: she loves him but must keep it secret.
Imitation and performance form another trope in the film: Mr Chow and Mrs Chan have a dinner where they eat what the other’s spouse would eat; they try acting out scenes that imagine how their spouses might have seduced one another; Mrs Chan practices how she will ask her husband about his infidelity; and, towards the end of the film, they practice how they will say goodbye. In the scenes where they play their spouses they are liberated to imagine and perform flirting with one another by playing the parts of their less restrained beloveds. And yet these scripts they improvise trap them as (off screen and by association) betrayed and spurned, and limit their performance because, ultimately, they do not want to resemble the husband and wife who have cheated on them.
Their desire, their flirtation, has been defined by imitation and performance, so it’s not a leap to imagine that Chow’s secret whispered to the walls of Angkor Wat is in itself a performance and imitation, one that shows him seeking to understand Mrs Chan and her secret emotions and one that makes possible and real for him that there is indeed a secret affection, that she does in fact love him.
Mouth and hands to the temple wall I search for a secret to tell, but I cannot think of one. Perhaps I can’t keep a secret. Or I can’t imagine one I wouldn’t want to be found out. I come from a long line of blabbermouths. Maybe I have no secrets to keep. Perhaps I should think of an unrequited love in this moment, but I can’t think of one of these either. Sure, I have old, melancholy longings for past loves that happened or didn’t happen or I wish were still happening. Maybe I am over thinking this, but I feel inescapably aware I long for moments that are gone, not those people presently. Even then, none of those moments feels much like a secret.
I wonder whether unrequited love was something only my twenty-something or thirty-something self could covet. Chow was certainly in his late 20s or early 30s in the film. I remember hankering for the unrequited, so fleeting, so enduring, so swoon provoking then. Now, I wonder, maybe not so much. All that drama would get in the way of my morning coffee, the good book, a well-lived life. All those big loves of mine went on to get other lovers, and though I still get messages from them occasionally, nostalgic ones even, it’s no longer possible for me to imagine a narrative with death bed confessions of great loves that never were, or were cut short, or endured for all time. These, it strikes me, are the impossible dreams of young lovers.
The original Chinese title for the film was “Huayang Nianhua (translated in the subtitles as “Full Bloom” but more accurately meaning “those wonderful varied years”)” as Stephen Teo points out. He goes on to argue that the original title “is more suggestive of period nostalgia and the Shanghai association, pointing to an iridescent, kaleidoscopic age of bygone elegance and diversity.” Wai himself, though, points to the original title, how for him it is “very poetic, depicting the prime of one’s life, and in particular a woman’s full bloom. The tale itself is nostalgic for a place, a time, and a stage of life. Chow and Chan are ripe for romantic love, for the unrequited, for profound secrets.
My silence at the wall, in a sense, is a moot point. Chow had plenty to say. In film time he speaks to that hole in the wall for quite some time, the monk, like my guide, looking curiously on. For see, the monk and I are no closer to understanding or deciphering the secret even though I now stand precisely in Chow’s place.
This is a paradox: when Chow stands at the walls of Angkor Wat his secret is not very secretive, yet we don’t know what it is. There is nothing else in the film to suggest the secret could be about anything but his unrequited love for Mrs Chan. In the unity of this story universe, there are not a lot of other options, so this is a rather open secret. Why tell a secret we already know. Between what we think we know and the moment of Chow whispering to the temple wall is an indeterminacy, one that suits this tale of unrequited love, for, if we have even a little doubt about the content of his secret, then our desire, too, is unrequited.
David Ng, in his review of the film, points to the complexity of the ending, something Wai apparently struggled with too:
The extent to which Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow have controlled their passions by the movie’s end is open to speculation. Are they still in love? Or have time and distance allowed them to forget each other? The deleted scenes provided on the DVD take us beyond the movie’s conclusion and into the 1970s. We see a changed Hong Kong, one where the young women have traded in their vibrant cheong-sam dresses for fur-lined jackets and bell bottoms. Mrs. Chan, now the proprietress of the apartment building, and still married to her unfaithful husband, learns that Mr. Chow has returned to Hong Kong from assignment in Singapore. Though they try to avoid one another, they have a chance encounter at the noodle stand where they first noticed each other ten years before. The scene is played as an elongated heartbeat: their eyes meet, they tense up, and like a flash it’s all over. Another deleted scene shows them meeting by chance at the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This time they do speak to each other, though it’s clear that they have moved on with their lives. As they stroll through the ruins of the temple, it’s as if they are touring the remains of their own abandoned passion.
These two alternate endings show us how the unrequited tale asks for an epilogue, one that is not satisfied by these two possibilities, as though that frame will stand in for or provide traditional catharsis, as the unrequited narrative demands catharsis without catharsis.
In Wai’s oevre endings are as complicated as beginnings. In directing Maggie Cheung to play Mrs Chan, Wai suggested she “imagine she was [the same character she played in Days of Being Wild, only ten years older]. To make it more easy, we gave her the same name. From that day on she somehow got an idea of her character and was fine.” Tony Leung appears in that film as a hitman character, appears as Mr Chow in In the Mood for Love, and recurs as another Chow in 2046. Characters are connected from film to film, but then not in clear ways. Another unrequited indeterminacy. David Ng, pointing to the alternate endings and how the characters seem to bleed from film to film, points to a tension between story and plot and the desire between them:
Maybe, and this is wishful thinking, these two characters will meet again and again at different stages in their lives. We will see them have children, grow old, and experience all of the pains that come with a compromised life. In this respect, the deleted scenes are like abandoned tunnels: they make us want to explore where the movie might have taken us if Wong had indeed filmed forever. They make the movie feel bigger and more ambitious, as if the final cut were but a snapshot of the story in mid-development.
These characters live in an unrequited story universe that transcends the individual films, that carry on in a chain of desire, built from moments of indeterminacy and longing.
As the guide and I walked down the steps behind the temple, leaving, I noticed one of the walls seems like a jigsaw puzzle of wrong pieces hammered together by impatient hands. Over time, through changing faiths and political histories, some of the temples have been disassembled, reassembled to form new temples even. I pause on the steps, the OCD part of me wanting to take the wall apart and reassemble it correctly. It occurs to me this is, too, a lover’s metaphor, how we take apart one faith, carry the stones all jumbled to the next one, assemble them into new expressions. The metaphor falls apart on the long walls of what used to be Buddha images just scratched out to leave a parade of stone wounds. Or maybe the metaphor could get carried further, but I won’t.
My various critical and personal attempts to understand Chow and his secret at the wall are also not that different, my reading so full of my own desire, mismatched clunky jigsaw pieces. Yet somehow this is preferable to looking out at the lost stones still strewn out among the flanking forest floor. I look back at the temple rising so fiercely out from the trees, and see a fragment of why Chow came to Angkor Wat, why he chose this instead of climbing a mountain and whispering it into a hole in a tree. With the small act of telling a secret to the walls of Angkor Wat, Chow opened the possibility of the secret enduring, living on, held by the temple, staining its walls, creating a new faith around it, the orange-robed monks as witnesses, the trilling birds as heralds.
“La ciudad que huye” is a more documentary turn for Martel and Lavoie’s reading here lends us essential socio-economic and historical filters to understand this short documentary and understand it in relation to Martel’s other work. Lavoie also turns this analysis back to us, gives us pause to ponder Martel’s film and reflect on our own increasingly absurd ideas about how to plan cities and build walls.
—R. W. Gray
Twenty-five years ago, while on a location scout in the sprawling city of Buenos Aires, Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel filmed what seemed like an endless wall. At the time, she remarked “What an absurd idea!” and thought gated communities would never work. However, upon seeing the expansion of these upper-class sanctuaries in the Argentinian capital, in 2006 Martel directed this informative short (whose title would be better translated as “The City That Flees” in English) about the more than 600 gated communities that can be found in Buenos Aires alone, an area of real estate totaling 360km2, roughly the size of the Gaza Strip.
The documentary short seems to be meant as a warning against one of the most important urbanistic transformations taking place in Argentina and throughout Latin America and the world: the move towards gated communities. These compounds have become playgrounds for the rich, featuring country clubs with golf courses, polo grounds, shopping malls, bilingual schools, and medical centres, as the film points out. They provide the illusion of an oasis for the wealthy, allowing them the freedom to circulate freely within the confines of their fences.
Martel’s short documentary juxtaposes the steady, foreboding view of the wall with shots of the neighbours across the street, emphasizing the fact that her film crew was not allowed into the neighbourhoods, in spite of their many attempts. The outsiders, like the film’s viewers, are left to muse about the wonders contained within.
Calgary writer Marcello Di Cintio’s recent award-winning travel reportage on the subject, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, puts the existence of this divisive phenomenon in its global context. While Di Cintio’s project examines many different walls, from his privileged position he naively claims: “My nationality grants me access anywhere. Nowhere in the world bars my entry. No place claims I am not wanted or not worthy. No one has ever built a wall for me.” Di Cintio has probably not attempted to enter one of Canada’s prestigious gated communities, a phenomenon which is developing as inequalities further widen the gap between rich and poor.
The most important feature of these new walled neighbourhoods is clearly exclusion, keeping out people who do not belong. Only those people who are (pre-)approved can enter. Although he does not mention them specifically, French anthropologist Marc Augé would surely qualify these gated communities as one of the non-places that breed solitude and alienation, and this is captured in the lens of Martel’s short film.
For Augé, in Non-Places: Introduction to Anthropology in Supermodernity, “the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it). He is reminded, when necessary, that the contract exists. (…) the space of supermodernity is inhabited by this contradiction: it deals only with individuals (customers, passengers, users, listeners), but they are identified (name, occupation, place of birth, address) only on entering or leaving.” Martel’s film emphasizes the contract. We see the gated communities from outside the walls, from the gates leading into them, and, thanks to modern technology, we are even able to see them from above, using a satellite view, perhaps Google Earth. These wider views, unavailable to the naked eye, reveal large grassy expanses and enormous mansions with pools, all hidden behind the walls. We see where we might go, but have no ticket to enter.
As with most of Martel’s films, we hear lots of puzzling ambient sounds and partial conversations. The only human beings we see up close are security guards. The off-camera dialogues of the security underlings with their bosses illustrate the seclusion and secrecy of the communities as well as the strict hierarchies of power upon which these communities are built. Indeed, the film’s narration points to the secretive, ruthless military dictatorship in the seventies as the culprit for the construction of the extensive highway system that now allows for the movement of personal vehicles out of the dense city centre and into the peripheries. This construction, coupled with decreases to publicly funded transportation, has made the greater urban centers what they are today: places where each social class has its neighbourhood and where, in Greater Buenos Aires at least, close to two million poor (of a population of over 14 million) live in and around the city in precarious slums.
The upper echelons of Argentinian society supported the dictatorship that was responsible for the killing, torture and disappearing of thousands of people during the period known as the Dirty War (1976-1983). Structurally, the elite Argentine society has shifted little since the dictatorship; many of the same families and their descendants now live behind the walls of these gated communities.
They fear the violence which they perceive comes from the lower levels of Argentinian society, from the so-called villas or villas miserias, the Argentine equivalent of Brazilian favelas or shantytowns that now surround every major city in the country.
Films from South America often focus on the differences in social class stemming from the inherent inequalities present in most Latin American countries. If this class disparity is not explicitly on the screen, it is often there between the frames. Most of Martel’s feature-length films display these inequalities in Argentinian society: her award-winning films La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008) all portray upper-class families leading seemingly pointless and secluded lives.
Although for her full-length feature films, Martel herself has not incursioned into these gated communities to tell the stories of their inhabitants, many recent Latin American films have touched upon this problem. Costa Rican director Hernán Jiménez made a perceptive documentary in 2004 about the change he saw in his native city of San José called Chains and a City Lock/Doble Llave y Cadena.
The 2009 feature length film La nana/The Maidby Chilean director Sebastián Silva showed the life of a family in such a community, told from the point of view of the domestics. In many cases, these modern-day slaves live in the gated communities far from their loved ones. These are but two examples amongst many.
Martel’s film was made with the help of many prominent figures including award-winning architect Juan Manuel Borthagaray, his frequent collaborator, Maria Adela Igarzabal de Nistal, a leading authority on urbanism in Buenos Aires, and Pablo Martorelli, President of the Argentinian Railways Institute (IAF), among others. Their presence is not seen or heard in the film, except in the information they provide regarding the changes to Argentine society. The ingenious geographic map animations in the film illustrate the changing urban landscape and perfectly contrast with the meek austerity of Martel’s chosen scenery: slowly passing walls, fences, hedges and other fortifications. These visuals help us go beyond the dominant inert image and cumbersome idea of the wall.
Lucrecia Martel’s La ciudad que huye demonstrates once again the director’s keen eye and ability to tell a story that is much greater than what we succinctly observe on the screen.
—Sophie M. Lavoie
. Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.
In the short animated film “The Approximate Present,” Filippo Baraccani juxtaposes journeys across impressionistic landscapes with an etch-a-sketch rendering of chaos and its patterns. The impressionistic landscapes appear in a repeated visual narrative where we pass over them on a sunny day and then with stormy weather, illustrating how weather alters our emotional and psychological experience. This intense personal experience of landscapes stands in stark contrast to the measured, diagrammatic, and decidedly non-impressionistic illustration of the patterns of chaos as it unfolds in black and white. As the lines progress, it is as if NASA with all its scientific authority has mapped the trajectory of our emotions. Despite this authority and clarity, the graph ultimately cannot triumph over the beauty of the landscapes. Like the man who dies from beauty at the beginning of Paulo Sorrentino’s The Grand Beauty, Baraccani positions the short film’s spectator to swoon at the limits of the self, troubled between the self and beauteous landscapes, gripped by something akin to awe or wonder.
For this short, Baraccani chooses a simple, retro animation. As he notes, “I knew from the outset that I wanted it to be stylized, minimal and solid (for lack of a better term), somewhat reminiscent of early flight simulators. At the same time, I strived to convey a certain sense of place and emotion, drawing inspiration from my own experiences of various weather phenomena.” This might seem counter-intuitive, choosing low resolution graphics resembling something as utilitarian as a flight simulator to render landscapes, let alone to present them as an experiment in the kind of emotional landscapes Baraccani seeks. Yet here the blocky animation renders emotional what would have, in a calendar-like photo realism, been beautiful but perhaps not moving.
He himself compares the light and emotional effects he goes for here to the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, the 19th century English landscape painter.
In his article “The Paintings of Turner and the Dynamic Sublime,” George P. Landow points to how “in place of the static composition, rational and controlled, that implies a conception of the scene-as-object, Turner created a dynamic composition that involved the spectator in a subjective relation to the storm.”
Thus, one of the things that distinguishes Turner’s work as sublime is this sense of dynamic composition. In similar fashion, “The Approximate Present” uses a perpetually moving camera and constantly changing perspectives to maintain a dynamism between the viewer and the images. The film instructs us through this movement and these perspective jumps that our perspective is limited: if we are moving past the landscape, if we have many perspectives and are always moving to the next one, our time with these landscapes is fleeting.
Fleeting, yet recurring, as the film in coda like fashion repeats and we revisit the landscapes and the perspectives; the second time, however, they are altered by weather systems: repetition, but with a difference. We can return but our return is bittersweet, as the landscapes we return to are altered.
Landow’s analysis is part of a long tradition of artists and art critics seeking to account for this dynamism in landscape art: a tradition of the sublime. As Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn define it, in their article “British Art and the Sublime,”
‘the sublime’ is many things: a judgement, a feeling, a state of mind and a kind of response to art or nature. The origins of the word in English are curious. It derives from a conjunction of two Latin terms, the preposition sub, meaning below or up to and the noun limen, meaning limit, boundary or threshold. Limen is also the word for ‘lintel’, the heavy wooden or stone beam that holds the weight of a wall up above a doorway or a window. This sense of striving or pushing upwards against an overbearing force is an important connotation for the word sublime . . . By the seventeenth century, the word in English was in use both as an adjective and as a noun (the sublime) with many shades of meaning but invariably referring to things that are raised aloft, set high up and exalted, whether they be buildings, ideas, people, language, style or other aspects of or responses to art and nature.
Up to the limit, or, in other words, at the border, at the threshold of experience. Yet there is also this sense of a force they describe, here a beauty that exceeds words or even realist photography, sending hipsters everywhere scrambling to add instagram filters to approximate aesthetically what photorealism fumbles and drops at its feet. To be human is to take luckluster photographs of wondrous sunsets and glorious fireworks, these photographic failures each reminders that we can’t take it with us — the moment — that perhaps the most beautiful and experiential moments cannot be carried into the future with us, that, truly, you had to be there.
The sublime is vista, is landscape, but rendered in a way that is meant to challenge or engage the self and its aching, pleasurable sense of its own limits, but the sublime representation must also maintain the tension of that limit. To understand this, we need only look at a grotesque and excessive example of the sublime limit transgressed: the viral and eternally mocked and quoted “double rainbow.” You could argue that part of its viral force was due to its relatability, how words fail us when we are faced with the sublime. That the man gushes over the double rainbow does not maintain the tense limit of appreciation throws the sublime moment into the comic grotesque. The obviously high man on the brink of a possible triple rainbow makes a fool of him and what could have been a sublime moment.
This sublime tension, not to be exceeded, is wrought from two forces: a sense of melancholy failure, and the opposing and enduring hope of holding onto beauty and the experience of beauty. So it falls to artists to imagine how this might be possible. As Riding and Llewellyn point out, “It was at this point in the history of the word sublime [during the Enlightenment] that visual artists became deeply intrigued by the challenge of representing it, asking how can an artist paint the sensation that we experience when words fail or when we find ourselves beyond the limits of reason.”
In “The Approximate Present,” the absence of words means that the film can avoid the traps of pathetic fallacy, or worse, the trap of double rainbow blather, as it resists locating the vistas in one troubled or amorous psychology. No one tells us why we are looking at these landscapes, why we are traveling by plane, train, and car, or who we are in all this. There is no character referent, no avatar in the film standing in, interpreting or defining meaning for us. In addition, the repetition of the landscape with and without the weather locates contrasting emotional states, of wonder and more melancholy awe. These are inescapably our landscapes and there can be no singular awe.
Baraccani’s film, unlike the sublime Turner paintings he says inspired his lighting techniques, leaves human images out of the landscapes. The airplane appears as a condensation trail or the edge of a window that frames the view of the clouds, similarly the train appears as a line in the distance, and the shots from the train and the car are also framed by window edges, traces of the real world that barely edge the impressionistic landscape. Cars, buildings, and other human effects when they do appear are more impressionistic in “The Approximate Present,” where in Turner’s paintings the emotional landscapes are almost grounded by more realistic images like the ship in the painting above.
As a result, “The Approximate Present” is a consistently impressionistic and emotional landscape, and the absence of realist markers means we can’t look back at ourselves, can’t locate ourselves in any way that is not emotional. We are at sea, at sky, at landscape, inescapably.
The only break away from this impressionism are the animations of chaos’s patterns. These patterns play out an oddly narrative frame for the weather: The lines drawing themselves, weaving around previous lines, even doubling back, define trajectories and demonstrate the past, where previous lines of weather have gone. As lines of chaos go, these seem oddly soothing and consolatory, signifying a logic or magnificent design, some sort of meaning behind the chaos. This, too, layers the weather and the landscape with significance, makes us see chaos as part of a larger pattern. For this reason, perhaps we are reassured, we are not wrong to feel these landscapes. They are significant, though we don’t know how.
Baraccani’s retro-animated shapes, constant camera movements, perspective shifts, and images of chaos cartography, combine to create a sublime landscape that avoids the had-to-be-there trap of landscape photography, creating animation that shares more with painting than film. “Approximate Present” creates a weather and chaos simulator that ultimately engages us in a game with our own emotions via vistas of our own experience of beauty in a virtual and always almost present.
THE OPENING SEQUENCE of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) begins with the mouth of a canon firing and ends a few minutes later with a tourist collapsing dead from the beauty of Rome. An operatic opening, the shots in this sequence expose a sordid relationship between beauty and death and anticipate one man’s journey through memory, loss and longing as he seeks something of more substance than la dolce vita.
This first sequence is distinct from the plot of the film, but operates as a thematic prologue. Everything of the film that follows could be said to be contained in these few minutes: the locals stand among the statues – a woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she reads the paper and a man in his undershirt washing himself in the fountain – the garish tourists gawk, the steady cam passes by floating out over the cerulean fountain waters operating as the visual embodiment of the glorious operatic voices that also pass over all these images and the vista of Rome. Sorrentino, in his New York Times commentary notes that “Rome is a city where the sacred and the profane work together . . . they are tied to each other.” The divine and the destructive, the operatic and the mundane, the still as marble figures and fluid motion of the camera, all create an absurd and sublime mélange. Beauteous, yes, but unsettling too.
These tensions in the opening have something of Freud’s ‘Uncanny’ in them, appearing familiar and yet oddly unfamiliar. This uncanny offers a taste of the dream-like logic of the overall film to follow, a story world of outlandish parties with lascivious suitors, child artists, massive dance numbers and assorted revelry, then side journeys to strip clubs, secret enclaves of the city only accessible by a key master where they find night gardens and even a giraffe. All of this passes by, the visions of a somnambulant searcher, playing homage to other despairing artist journeys like Fellini’s 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita.
The central protagonist, Jep, is our guide and searcher here and the opening sequence, from canon fire to tourist’s death by beauty, tells us everything we need to know about his struggle, his searching. Ostensibly the canon fire, as Sorrentino in his commentary for the New York Times points out, indicates that it is noon and the listless and lazy characters in the film to follow are only just waking up from the reveries of the night before “they are lazy and always tired so they probably started their day at noon.” However, Sorrentino has the camera begin in the mouth of the canon and pull away so that the canon points directly at the film spectator. A moment of threat so great it is absurd.
The canon fires right at the camera and, whether it’s live ammunition or not, that shot is semantically connected to the tourist who collapses dead a few minutes later. The canon might go off every day at noon and might also be part of a historical display about Rome, but here it symbolically connects to the death of the tourist that prologues the film and runs basso continuo under the narrative that follows.
Yet, it isn’t the only shot that addresses the camera directly: there’s the canon that fires at us, the lead singer in the choir, her rapturous voice, her face full of melancholy jouissance, and then, when we finally meet him in the middle of his birthday party, there’s the face of Jep.
These shots are connected through their direct relationship with the camera: violence and the rapturous sublime build to the tourist’s death and then these all culminate in Jep’s ponderous and melancholy gaze as he stares down us and perhaps his own mortality.
Jep’s melancholy reflection directly pertains to the tourist he never meets. Sorrentino notes in his commentary for the NY Times that the tourist’s death is a “standard case of Stendhal Syndrome.” Though associated more with Florence, the syndrome is also connected to various psychosomatic afflictions involving travelers and other great cities like Paris, Jerusalem. In Paris, those afflicted are most often Japanese tourists who have so romanticized the city that when they arrive reality shocks them to the extent that the Japanese consulate has set up a crisis line for those afflicted. In the case of Florence, scientists recently monitored visitors to the Palazzo Medici Ricardi.
Graziella Magherini, an Italian psychiatrist who analyzed and specialized in this phenomena, named the syndrome after French author Stendhal who in one of his travelogues described “a sort of ecstasy from the idea of being in Florence.” Maria Barnes, a journalist who interviewed Magherini on the subject, felt herself compelled to explore the subject when she saw an American man faint beneath the Giotto ceiling paintings. In a confession that might as well be written by Jep she notes “For me, it is an exciting idea that art has the power to cause people to be seriously disoriented for significant lengths of time, perhaps because that reality seems so far removed from me. I can’t remember ever becoming directly emotional or having had a physical reaction to looking at art.”
For “The Great Beauty,” then, the psychological experience of travel, as troubling as it can be for many, perhaps allows us to reflect on the more static or stationary aspects of life, on the places where we don’t make room to be so moved by beauty. Sorrentino in his commentary notes that he chooses this location, the Janiculum, for the tourist perspective it offers: Rome seen from an outside perspective. Sorrentino also chose to preface the film with an epigraph from Paul Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night: “To travel is very useful. It makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” The epigraph might seem misplaced as the film that follows tells the story of a man who seems, save a memory from a time by the sea, to have never left Rome. Yet the episodic, wandering structure of the film resembles a travel narrative and ultimately underscores that Jep’s struggle is not with an itinerary but with how to most deeply and meaningfully experience the time he has left, that inner travel.
Beyond its tourist perspective, though, the Janiculum has another significance. It is also a temple to Janus, the figure usually noted for being two faced in the sense that he sees to the future and the past. He is the god of beginnings and transitions, and a tourist’s death in a temple to memory and crossroads is a potent beginning for Jep’s story.
But it’s not enough that the tourist dies from beauty, swoons into oblivion. What follows immediately is a scream, one that could be added to the three direct camera shots I already noted: canon, song, scream, Jep.
Syntactically this would imply a shocked scream in response to the death of the tourist, but as the wail of the scream subsides and the camera backs away from the screamer’s mouth, it becomes apparent that she is screaming from so much party joy. What does this say about the man’s death by beauty? It is not grieved; it is not tragic; it is forgotten in the next frame in a sea of revelers. This isn’t just any roman party though, it’s Jep Gambardella’s 65th birthday party. A profound and powerful relationship to beauty is then juxtaposed with an irreverent and superficial dolce vita.
This collision of the tourist’s death and the party set up what is perhaps Jep’s central question and crisis: what is the difference between experiencing and living and what does beauty have to do with either? As Jason Marshall points out in his article “When Beauty is Not Enough,” the locals who wander among the statues at the beginning of the film provide a chorus of those who are insensitive to this question: “They are surreal figures, the kind that haunt most cities: idle and indifferent to the beauty and excitement around them, to the history they wash themselves in.” They are callous in comparison to the operatic experience of the singers above and the doomed-by-beauty tourist.
Other deaths string along from the first tourist death, accompanying Jep’s searching travels: the offstage death of Jep’s love from his youth; the dancer who dies, almost as an afterthought; the suicide of the tormented son of one of his friends; and, perhaps most looming and oppressive, not the death but the presence of the 104 year old nun Sister Maria, her faith and her reverence. Each in their own way interrupt and shape Jep’s wandering, question his questions before they die or leave him. And each are travelers with him, seeking meaning in the face of beauty and death.
We are left with the impression that little from the moment of that failed kiss in his youth, to the acclaim of his only book, to this journey of reflection for Jep has mattered, but as he travels through the city we also get the sense that the fellow travelers have given him fresh eyes to see the great beauties around him, to risk the pain of living and inevitable death. The tourist, as he falls to the ground dead in the opening sequence, is the apotheosis of feeling that has escaped Jep, and towards which he journeys. “Roma O Morte” is inscribed on the statue in those first shots, Giuseppe Garibaldo’s rallying cry to draw volunteers to his military and nationalistic cause, but at a glance here it suggests these are two options: Rome with its sort of immortal and limbo-like dolce vita, or a reverence for beauty that leads to death. Jep, by the end of the film, perhaps escapes this dogmatic binary, or at least as a traveler has an experience of beauty that will shape the words to come.
I used to teach this movie over and over to creative writing classes. First of all, it enchanted me, then I began to notice the structure, the repetitions, the mirrored scenes, the composition of the scenes, the rhetorical flourishes, and finally I began to think about so-called realism and the romantic comedy. The romantic comedy, a genre I adore, is a deeply conservative confection, a bon-bon based on the idea that out of all the people in the world, there is one true love for you, a person with whom you’ll form a mystical attachment and have many babies and people the earth (these kinds of dramas have their roots in ancient fertility rites, which existed long before we realized that lots of people only meant pillaging the countryside and causing global warming). Nevertheless, they appeal to us because deep down we’re programed to believe that somehow our sexual instincts, love and society will/should converge and create many years of happiness (and babies). This movie is just full of weddings, not just the four in the narrative, but the funeral itself is coded with wedding thematics, and then there are a bunch of after-plot wedding photos at the end.
In any case, what you have here is my teaching outline for taking people through the movie. I am an incredibly tedious person when I have the AV remote in my hand. I describe things, let you watch a few seconds, replay it again and again, whole scenes are repeated, then I explain again and digress and so on and so on. But invariably you begin to see that though this seems (aside from the fantasy aspects of the genre) a fairly realistic treatment of a bunch of young friends looking for love, the movie is actually a carefully constructed artifice, every word, action, and scene carved to contribute to the larger work. And the writing is superbly witty (and full of classical Greek rhetorical devices). The screenwriter was Richard Curtis, who also did Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually (which repeats the ensemble cast/multiple plot structure of Four Weddings and a Funeral).
If you watch the movie with the notes in hand and use them to trigger a deeper technical analysis of what is going on, then watch it again and again, till you can really FEEL the repetitions, catch the nuances and tie-backs, see the thematic passages inserted, watch the multiple plots each advance step-by-step, if you pay attention, you’ll learn a good deal about the structure of narrative. Or you can read through the notes and watch the example scenes first.
Genre:Romantic comedy (true love); ensemble structure with multiple subplots. A fanciful, socially conservative genre, much like the ancient tales told around campfires in caves that educated the audience in the ultimate mores of the tribe. Get married, have children. An ancient, conventional genre, the art is in manipulating the conventions in a witty and original manner.
Basic composition principles:
1) Repetition is the heart of art. Watch for repetition of all kinds: large structural repetitions, subplots, thematic passages, bookends, motifs, anaphora, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, tie-backs, simple word repetitions. Distinguish also between repetitions that work to organize the whole work and those that are used to organize smaller segments only. Note also how repetitions are varied to keep them fresh. Note the repetitions of “meringue” and “lovely” and “sheep,” e.g.
2) Strict time control. In this case by using invitations, text time markers, and the clock (lateness) comic motif throughout.
3) Plots are organized into clear, simple steps.
4) Each step, event, or event sequence has a simple informing desire and some dramatic interference. The informing desire varies and can be quite simple. E.g. In the the movie’s third segment, Charlie must simply not be late meeting David. Many small dialogue scenes begin with a simple question. The interference can take many forms as well: not-answering dialogue, scene crunches or interfering scenes, speech impediments (in this movie), suspensions, nested scenes (a version of parenthesis, or what I call in a different jargon nested globs), intercut scenes. Often the desire/interference structure can be expressed grammatically as a but-construction.
5) Clear announcement of thematic material. In a movie, this has to take place in dialogue.
1. Overture: Music closing with the words “when every happy plot ends with a marriage knot.”
2. Wedding #1 (Broken up into segments: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception. Each segment then broken up into separate steps and scenes.)
a. alarm clock motif (note how it repeats and varies throughout; call it a species of anaphora)
(1) Note how the lateness+alarm clock anaphora is used in a series of parallel structures to introduce the various characters economically
b. wedding invitation+time switch device (time control)
c. lateness motif
Lovely dialogue: The only words used are “fuck” and “bugger” (only once at the end).
d. wedding ceremony (ring issue; meringue word repetition starts up)
(1) The chief technical problem here is that weddings are all the same. The writer had to invent technical ways of creating dramatic interest in each wedding ceremony. Obviously, the ceremonies are all cut down one way or another. But also note the different other devices that make the weddings interesting. In this case, the device of the scene crunch: while the ceremony is going on, Charlie also has to find replacement rings.
e. wedding photo motif
f. walking to reception (Gareth/Mathew thematic scene structure established)
(1) Secondary subplot (Bernard and Lydia) starts up and goes through preliminary steps, leads to second wedding
(2) David’s romantic subplot starts up
g. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MEETS CAREY
h. bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man
i. speech motif (Charlie; sheep word and image repetition begins; note suspension in speech)
Charlie begins with a joke narrative, leads to a suspension (“there are now skeletons…or so I thought”), followed by a moment of truth-telling about himself and his awe of people who get married, then the suspension ends: “But now back to Angus and those sheep.”
j. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED BUT SHE LEAVES NEXT DAY (Note word play in sex scene, esp. the repetition of “skulk”.)
Sex scenes: difficult to write; three different strategies offered in this movie.
1) word play over sex scene, e.g. skulking;
2) scene crunch (Charlie trying to be alone while Lydia and Bernard have sex);
3. Wedding #2 (Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception)
a. alarm clock
b. wedding invitation+ time switch
(1) Bernard and Lydia subplot advances
d. wedding ceremony (mispronunciation gaffes)
e. wedding photos
f. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE SEES CAREY BUT SHE’S ENGAGED
g. speech (Tom’s travesty of Charlie’s speech)
(1) Fiona’s subplot (dialogue scene)
(2) Scarlet’s subplot (dialogue scene)
(3) David’s subplot advances (meets love interest)
h. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED AGAIN
4. Non-Wedding Interlude Segment (Broken up into: waking up, wedding dresses, list of lovers, conversation with David, Charlie’s near declaration of love.)
(1) Note here how the wedding motifs are dragged into a non-wedding segment: invitation, wedding gifts, trying on wedding dresses, etc. (This is an example of thematic forcing.)
b. alarm clock
c. wedding invitation
e. backfill: gorgeous scene with a LIST and a SUSPENSION.
f. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE ALMOST SAYS HE LOVES CAREY (lovely word repetition begins)
5. Wedding #3 (Broken up into: wedding, reception)
b. lateness (this time not comic)
c. wedding (truncated by Charlie’s lateness; note the point at which he enters the wedding ceremony and how this segment of the ceremony is repeated in the next wedding)
d. Gareth/Mathew thematic scene
(1) Scarlet’s subplot (meets Chester)
(2) Fiona’s subplot (admits love to Charlie)
(3) Hen’s subplot (new boyfriend)
e. speech again (Carey and Hamish)
f. PLOT STEP: GARETH DIES
6. Funeral (Funeral and post-funeral dialogue)
(1) Note how the language in this segment turns the funeral into a wedding: the church setting, the various tie-backs to ongoing plots, the opening words of Mathew’s speech, the dialogue between Tom and Charlie in which Mathew and Gareth are identified as being married
(2) Note also the way the comic motifs are omitted: no alarm clock, lateness, no time switch (because the funeral follows so quickly upon Carey’s wedding)
b. speech again (Mathew)
Note how the camera marks the various plot and subplot characters through the poem.
c. Tom/Charlie thematic dialogue on true love (thunderbolt repetition begins)
7. Wedding #4(Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, non-wedding, aftermath and real not-wedding)
a. alarm clock
b. invitation (note suspension)+time switch
d. bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man
e. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MARRYING HEN, BUT CAREY SEPARATED
(1) Fiona subplot advances
(2) Scarlet advances
(3) Tom subplot advances (meets Deirdre)
(4) First marriage couple advances (now have twins)
(5) Second marriage couple advances (Bernard is “exhausted”)
f. Mathew/Charlie thematic dialogue in vestry
g. wedding (interrupted by David; note use of suspension)
h. PLOT STEP: CHARLIE PROPOSES TO NOT-MARRY CAREY; SHE SAYS, I DO
a. multiple subplots end in marriage (except for Fiona)
Anadiplosis: “Repetition of the last word of one sentence, or line of poetry, as a means of (sometimes emphatic) liaison.” Dupriez
Epanalepsis: “Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.” Lanham
Parenthesis: “The insertion of a segment, complete in meaning, and relevant or irrelevant to the subject under discussion, into another segment whose flow it interrupts.” Dupriez
Suspension: A narrative moment when some crucial information is promised but held back till later in the action.
Tie-Back: Textual reference back to earlier material in order to remind the reader, create rhythm and add textual density.
Anaphora: Multiple repetitions of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of successive textual elements.
But-construction: Grammatical construction using the word “but” or some cognate to create dramatic interruption, interference, or contrast at the level of a sentence.