I am haunted, too, by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki’s chapter on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, how they note at key moments Godard’s film becomes about the actress, Anna Karina, not the part she is playing. Pike is playing a part here, of course, but it’s impossible to leave her out of it. She exceeds the role. Ledwidge in an interview with Alex Denney in Dazed magazine agrees:
It’s not a role that you would traditionally associate Rosamund with, quite often I think she hasn’t been given the chance to explore herself as an actress. Until recently you might have thought of her in a period movie or something like that, but then she did Gone Girl and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, she’s really capable of some dark stuff.’ So I thought if Rosamund really went for it, and went as balls-out mental as she would need to, she could be a really interesting, really surprising choice.”
The more traditional Pike of period piece films at odds with the disruptive and excessive Pike. The film evokes the first Pike to corrupt her with the second. Her out-of-date moss-green dress, her nylons, her heels, all seem to suggest something is not quite right, like she herself is a little alien here, out of time and place.
I am haunted, too, by the Salpêtrièr hysterics.
Georges Didi-Huberman summarizes in his Invention of Hysteria: “In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the Salpêtrière was what it had always been: a kind of feminine inferno, a citta dolorosa confining four thousand incurable or mad women. It was a nightmare in the midst of Paris’s Belle Époque.”
Charcot gained a reputation for his Tuesday lectures. These partly live on in photographs. In his analysis, Didi-Huberman links the hysteric’s body with the doctor:
With Charcot we discover the capacity of the hysterical body, which is, in fact, prodigious, it is prodigious; it surpasses the imagination, surpasses “all hopes,” as they say. Whose imagination? Whose hopes? There’s the rub. What the hysterics of the Salpêtrière could exhibit with their bodies betokens an extraordinary complicity between patients and doctors, a relationship of desires, gazes, and knowledge. This relationship is interrogated here. What remains with us is the series of images of the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière.”
The hysteric’s contortions then connect doctor and patient, a transference and counter-transference. Drawing back to Pike and Ledwidge, we also see the connection between the director’s camera and Pike’s hysterical performance, possessed, dispossessed and disruptive.
It’s hard not to see the alien device as camera, especially in the manner it seeks to possess and objectify her. Narratively there is no catharsis here, no place where she triumphs over the alien device or is set free. Pike’s body performs for the camera / device as it seeks to possess her, puppet her to extremes of expression, drive her to violence against herself.
Yet I am haunted by Pike, haunted by her laughter and her howls, her body as defiant. As Ledwidge notes,
For an actress you’ve got to be brave, because you’re doing things that are gonna make you look ugly or weird in certain moments, and if you’re not committed it ends up not looking great. But she really nailed it – we built foam tile walls she could slam into, but she was still pretty bruised and exhausted by the end. It was disturbing and scary and sexy all at the same time. You felt like you were seeing something you shouldn’t really be seeing.
Her laughter and howls rupture the puppetry. Maybe it’s something we shouldn’t really be seeing, but she is the voodoo doll and the bokor. Despite the possession, Pike wins.
“Upon first watch,” Cam Robert for NPR writes, “the music video for Bonobo’s song “Kerala” seems simple: a repetitive series of on-the-beat cuts as lead actor Gemma Arterton runs through the streets, losing her mind for no apparent reason.” The repetition Robert points to here rules the music video, only ceasing when the protagonist, Arterton, closes her eyes. She stumbles through a park, then along a street, then across the roof of a building as bystanders collide with her, reach out to help, stare on in wary fear.
The rolling repetition Bison (Dave Bullivant) uses is unnatural, the manifest opposite of persistence of vision which perceptually allows us to blend distinct film frames into what we perceive as motion. Here our desire for motion, for the visual narrative to progress, is relentlessly resisted. We are trapped in loops.
This would create perhaps an untenable relationship with a protagonist: an exercise in stuttering and nausea, an experiment the viewer would tire and turn away from. Except, Arterton’s character it would seem has her reasons; in the background, sometimes out of focus, sometimes with immediate effect on her, impossible and uncanny things are occurring: rocks lift off the ground, a meteor hurtles towards earth, a building floats in the air. We are drawn into a double seeing: we see the film footage repeat and are caught in its repetitions as she is, and we see or try to see past those repetitions to the strange events occurring around her. As Robert adds, “The anxiety created by that repetition serves a purpose: It forces you to pay attention to the things happening around Arterton as the scene plays out. Nothing in this video is as it seems.”
Alone, the repetitive editing would be technique killing art. Instead, where we might tire of her stuttering world, we see in these uncanny events a counterpoint, an antagonism, a conflict that threatens her. We identify where we would otherwise have lost interest or been just overwhelmed with stimulus.
Does this make our viewing desire threefold: a desire to see forward in time, free of the repetitions; a second desire to not be drawn into the past and what we have already seen; and, third, a desire predicated on the uncanny occurrences, which has us yearn to see past the repetitions, past the tug forward and backward in time. It’s as though Proust’s manic melancholic poetics found Eisenstein’s montage and seeing is being pushed to its limits. The result is perhaps not what Julia Kristeva called Proust’s “time embodied,” but perhaps anxious bodies as victims of time. I experience this film with my queasy stomach, my anxious compassion, and the place where migraines start – no small feat for a play of images on a screen.
Jacob Brookman in the British Journal of Photography traces this technique back to an earlier video Bison made for the group Four Tet: “The glitching technique was first premiered by Bison in a promo for Four Tet’s remix of John Hopkins’ ‘Vessel’, back in 2010. The looping motif matches the mechanical EDM aesthetic of both tracks, but the new video’s decreased choreography results in a more unique, potentially more nauseating effect.
The visual experience of “Vessel” is more palatable, the loops are not as large, where in “Kerala” the narrative and the lengths of the shots promise us motion, that the narrative will move on; then it does not. That repeated refusal causes more nausea. Both films, then, borrow from photography in the sense that they resist motion, fragment it.
With over three million views on YouTube at the time of the writing of this article, the video has intrigued online audiences. The repetition joined with the uncanny occurrences around Arterton create a peculiar ambivalence, something to see past the repetition. More than one viewer has posted on the threads, attempting to itemize almost manically the uncanny moments:
0:00 – meteor
1:00 – rock levitating
1:05 – man on bench feeds nonexistent birds
1:50 – building floating, rotating
2:02 – door caves in
2:15 – man in restaurant’s eyes glow
2:27 – TV footage shows the video about 30 seconds into the future flipped horizontally and without the roll back edits
2:42 – man crossing street duplicates
2:50 – restaurant sign foreshadows building fire
3:03 – car gradually changes color
3:06 – man floating in sky
3:16 – fire in building
3:28 – solar eclipse
3:46 – people standing in a grid pattern, looking up
3:57 – birds take flight (or are they humans?)
The resulting anxiety and desire suit the story being told, Arterton’s overwhelmed character and her struggle to escape. Bison, in interview with Brookman, remains ambiguous about what all these events add up to: “I like everyone else’s theories about it – I think they’re really interesting. I’ve been driven by curiosity instead of an end goal.”
Bison defines his process as technical first: “I have my mini obsessions into a technology and that’s how I like to work [but] I think that a strong aesthetic voice is something born out of a large body of work. With Bonobo, there’s a lot of technical things going on within it, but it still has this warmth and this character. And that is – as a solo director – where I exist.”
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:
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.
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.
In this scene from Eugene Green’s Le Pont des Arts, an opera singer, Sarah (Natacha Regnier), sings a profound performance of Monteverdi’s “Lamento Della Ninfa.” She has been struggling to please the conductor, a bastard destroyer of beauty who cruelly describes her voice, in a previous scene, as sounding like a “sick kangaroo.” They are preparing the piece to be performed for a recording, and in this scene we see a sublime moment where his opinion no longer matters. The sequence, like others I’ve pointed to in Numero Cinq at the Movies, could be a standalone short film: everything we need is held in this discrete scene. Green’s careful crafting of shots distances us from the soulless, impervious-to-the-sublime conductor and brings us face to face with a heart-breaking beauty.
At the core of this scene is a fascinating visual distinction between third-person and second-person framing, where we see the primary action of the other musicians performing (third person) while in other camera shots we see Sarah and a select audience listening to her singing as they stare right at the camera, ostensibly Sarah but vicariously, us, directly addressing us with their emotional experiences (second person). This split between perspectives probably speaks to Green’s own theatre background and the theatre device of dramatic asides, but here it also creates a dichotomy where as audience we are encouraged to have a closer and more vulnerable experience of the beauty of what Sarah’s voice creates.
The scene is blocked like it would be on a stage, the places where the musicians, the conductor, and the singers stand and even the formal way that Sarah enters the scene. What is glaringly missing is an actual audience, but in its place we have a small chorus of more significant witnesses. The audience within a film can show us how to experience the art at hand. This is a common film device, one I have pointed to elsewhere: the backstage audience in the knife throwing scene in A Girl on a Bridge (which also has a suicidal woman on a Parisian bridge, incidentally);
but also appearing in profound ways in films like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique with the music conductor’s inscrutable melancholy, nostalgic gaze;
or similarly in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, where the male nurse in the audience witnesses a more profound response to the art via the man sitting beside him.
These characters show us what we might feel, give us permission.
In Pond des Arts, the split between third person and second person in this scene begins with Sarah’s entrance. We see her begin, we identify her with the sublime voice, then the camera moves to spend time with her audience: the lovesick looking lute player intent on his accompaniment (read desire);
the envious, though moved vocal accompanist who sits gloaming like an understudy;
but most importantly, Cedric, the blond man who openly weeps at the performance. Though elsewhere in the film the recording of Sarah’s sublime vocal performance will prevent a disillusioned philosophy student from committing suicide, nothing equals Cedric’s experience in this scene.
The later two of these people are, in the blocking of the scene, actually behind Sarah. The camera frames their direct-camera emotional experiences for us but there are not available to Sarah. We see them illicitly. These are private moments, much like the dramatic monologues in theatre, where a character expresses something internal and private with the audience alone.
These direct camera address shots offer us, the viewing audience, possible mirrors. Who will we identify with and who do we want to be in the film: the jealous and envious and enraptured woman, the mandolin player with the absurd affections, or the beautiful blond man with who is deeply touched by the singing. Or Sarah, after all who would not want to sing with such sublime beauty. Or perhaps identification is more complicated than I am allowing, and this emotional experience for the audience involves identifying with all of these mirrors.
The piece itself, Monteverdi’s “Lamento Della Ninfa,” is composed to have a frame similar to this scene. Monteverdi noted “she has to sing according the her emotions” (al tempo dell’affetto del animo), while the pastori were expected to sing at a regular beat (al tempo della mano). Green parallels this tension between the regular beat, the rather unmoved third person shots here, and the more emotionally affected line of the vocalist, here the chorus of faces having emotional experiences in reaction to Sarah’s performance.
The pastori, the three men singing with her and by extension the conductor and the accompanists, offer this frame visually in the film. They are the day-to-day, the regular heartbeat, the floor and walls her voice echoes off. The frame is useful here: imagine if the film only presented us with Cedric weeping. Would we be less likely to identify with him, less open to his expressiveness? Nothing visually compels us to choose the mundane world, to be the third-person audience. The film inserts us into the desiring chorus of the second-person expressions, intimately connected to the sublime.
Seen just in this scene, we don’t know fully why Cedric weeps, what it is about Sarah’s performance that moves him, and this too creates a space for desire, a visual desire to understand the mystery of what he experiences and why. Something about the vulnerability of his experience rules out erotic or romantic desire. His experience seems very much for himself. Even seeing the rest of the film doesn’t permit any greater access to Cedric. We see him as a pawn to the conductor, we see he cares about Sarah insofar as he loves the beauty of her voice and feels compassion for her, but nothing that would explain the depth of his emotional experience in this scene.
The scene ends without applause, another space of negation. Do we want to applaud and do we want to applaud more to fill the absence of applause?In the face of such a sublime emotional experience, applause seems a trite response. The players are left in awkward stances, paper rustling, speechless as to how to make the sublime reconcile with the desert of the mundane world. Immediately following this awkward silence the conductor tells the players “Not too bloody bad, my children, not too bloody bad.” His negative compliment desecrating the sublime, showing us the most base way to move from it back to the day-to-day; he has no access to the experience we have had.
This scene, like the film to some extent, seeks to trouble the relationship between beauty and art and the rest of the world. As Stephen Holden argues in his article “A Leap, With Music, Into the Seine of Art,” “The movie is an audacious, mythically slanted inquiry into the place of high art in today’s chaotic culture and an assertion of its primacy.” Pond des Arts prioritizes the vulnerable experience of art, particularly in the face of “ideas” or posturing that move away from that experience.
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.
In David Cho’s “Where We Are,” the film’s assertive title is betrayed by a montage of images under the dialogue of two lovers who wonder where they might be now, both geographically and emotionally. The title might suggest a destination, a place where we and they will find one another, but the tension between what the characters say and what we see in the film instead reveals that either one or both of the characters would rather not arrive, would rather carry on desiring across the distance between them.
The film’s dialogue is composed of what might be an intimate phone call, non-diegetic sound for an otherwise silent film, separate from the pictures we see. In an interview over at directorsnotes.com, Cho indicates that he saw these voiceless and soundless images to be flashbacks. He connects these to his “themes of separation, distance, and memory” and adds that he’s interested in “blending what characters see in their minds’ eye with reality and the present. It’s something that our minds do so seamlessly and we can fall into daydream without even realizing it.”
Film language, in its most realist forms, cannot show or represent the reality of this stream of consciousness and memory which is so indelible human, so it falls to more formalist, styled film choices to show us what that visually might look like.
The peculiar thing about “Where We Are” is that Cho chooses to shoot the visuals in a more realist, hand held, improvised fashion. On the one hand this captures the randomness of moments in desire, but because these moments are small here and not momentous or overwrought in terms of symbolism or narrative significance, they do not necessarily read like memory.
The visuals have the kind of Terrence Malick style that Nick Schager laments in his Vulture article, and, indeed, the content is visually pleasing but the content is not necessarily distinct, unique, or revealing of character or plot. Yet that is probably the point. These are small happy moments, the kind most easily lost to memory.
Traditional film syntax would Vaseline or blur the lens, but Cho resists this for the most part; the images are warm and sometimes there’s soft focus, but nothing overt. The absence of diegetic sound (relating directly to the action) does to some extent dislocate the images, contain them in a way which makes them more memory like, but there is something insistently present tense about the visuals.
“Do you wonder where I am?” “Do you miss me?” The woman on the call persists with her questions. When the man suggests the woman should come to him, however, she replies, “I’m happy here.” On the most overt level, this is the woman defining her contradictory desires, where she seeks the answer to “Do you miss me?” before she will assert “I am happy here.” Come here / go away. This is Anne Carson’s “sweetbitter,” cultivated by the woman who wants longing more than having. On another level, the dislocated dialogue appears over these memories and the “here” where she is happy could be memory, specifically these memories.
When the man replies with his checkmate question, “Are you? Are you happy with him?” he unfolds a second possible reading of the film, one where he is not the man in the footage. Supporting this, there is no diegetic sound moment where we hear the voice of the man on the call connected to the body of the man in the film. Granted, I am a little oversensitive to these dislocations since I just shot a film on super 8 film that has no sound and then after the fact had to find some way to identify voice overs with bodies in some symbolic fashion. I found, as I find here, that voices divorced from bodies can sometimes be symbolically useful. Here, it adds an indeterminacy: we cannot know if the man who speaks is the man in the film and we cannot know if what we see is the love he once had with her or the love she left him for. The more realist, improvised footage also more readily supports this later interpretation, looking less like memory and more like caught moments.
If it is not memory, then whose perspective? Is it the man’s fearful imagining of how happy she is now with this other man, or is it real, present footage of her current happiness with the man she has chosen over him?
If it’s her perspective, what we see and hear is a woman happy with one man while she longs for another. She lures a declaration of longing from the man in the dialogue while we see her being happy with another man, one who is perhaps oblivious to her duplicitous heart. Then, her last line — when the man asks if she is happy with the man she’s chosen instead of him, when she replies “I love this place” –reads even more like betrayal. She has chosen “this place” over the one who longs for her, and chosen the man she’s with for his place.
Or maybe these are just memories, the title playing off the more Hollywood narrative The Way We Were. Regardless, “Where We Are” ultimately won’t let us know where we are, just leaves us in a space of indeterminacy. All of these interpretations are possible and true. All of these desires, these words, these images, lovely memories or not, suitably point to just how impossible and contradictory desire can be.
In Ryan Cockrell’s quirky, macabre short documentary “Fishhooks,” he interviews taxidermist / artist Becca Barnet about her relationship to her work. What unfolds in Barnet’s reflections and the visual narrative is dense with reflections on art, life, death, and memory.
In the documentary, we first meet Barnet reflecting on life drawing and essentially the relationship between art and taxidermy. She notes that she most likes doing pieces for museums, where they remain unsigned and are there just to enhance the day of those who experience the pieces. In contrast, she notes that she finds the art gallery scene frustrating because people are always trying to interpret meaning in the piece. Here in the documentary enjoyment and interpretation are juxtaposed, and Barnet asserts that she loves taxidermy because it “is what it is.” For her, the allure of her taxidermy art is that it is close to life.
Barnet describes how she steers clear of her own discomfort around death and corpses by regarding the work as a “project,” something that requires her attention despite the discomfort. This perspective shift is both troubled and made profound by the fact that her current project is Fishhooks, the pet whose name makes the title of the film.
Fishhooks is Barnet’s pet rat who died a year before. We don’t find out how Fishhooks has stayed so fresh for the task. Perhaps this is a trade secret. It’s a small throwaway detail, this year since the rat’s death, but for the purposes of a narrative that reflects on loss and memory, it’s significant: Fishhooks could not be a project until time had passed, perhaps until grief had itself determined a little distance in perspective.
Core to this film then is what we imagine must be Barnet’s own grief and love for Fishhooks and the part of her that is compelled to make a project of that grief. This is something that Barnet is concerned with in her work in general, as she notes on her website that her artwork “explores why humans have the tendency to try to hold on to the fleeting corporeal.” Barnet is realistic about the limits of such a project, tells us and the camera “it’s really hard to capture the lifelikeness of a pet.” So it makes it perhaps even more profound that she has undertaken the work of preserving Fishhook’s physical form. What will be preserved will be a fetish object of the original pet, but she still undertakes and desires it as a project.
Cockrell’s visual treatment of his subject is playful and emphasizes the absurd, as though the folly of memory and nostalgia must be loved and represented that way. The dog rubbing his butt on the floor, the old photographs and museum staging of bones, skeletons, and taxidermied animals, all emphasize through humour and with affection the line between the living and the things we do to remember them when they are gone. If there is an archetypal moment here it is when Fishhooks, as a project in process with pins holding her posture, is juxtaposed with her sister Foxhunt, who nestles up to her, the dead and the living in close quarters. It is an uncanny and lovely moment.
Equally, Cockrell uses plenty of footage of Bruce, Barnet’s bull terrier, demonstrating his playfulness and essential aliveness and showing Cockrell’s love for her pet. As adorable as Bruce is, Cockrell’s intention is not to let the dog upstage the rat. Cockrell uses this footage of Bruce to stand in for footage of Fishhhooks. If this is how Cockrell loves Bruce, she must have loved Fishhooks similarly.
Cockrell is a South Carolina filmmaker and one part of the creative house Lunch and Recess. Below is a short interview with him talking about the making of the film and his approach to filmmaking.
— R. W. Gray
Numéro Cinq’s R. W. Gray Interviews Ryan Cockrell
NC: How did you this documentary idea occur to you?
RC: I’ve always been inspired/interested in Becca Barnet’s work at her fabrication shop which is now called Sisal & Tow. I’m no hunter but I like taxidermy when its done to things you don’t expect. Becca has a lot of interesting things in her shop. It’s pretty eclectic, as are her talents and interests. Making a mini doc about Becca had been on my mind for a year or so. At my production company, Lunch and Recess, we were looking to graduate from the DSLR world, and we needed to test a few cameras. The ikonoskop is a weird camera that we wanted to try. So we thought, why not test the camera by making this film about Becca? It worked out great and Becca was a real sport, because we told her that we hadn’t used this camera before and we were not sure if we would have anything cool to show from it in the end. Luckily, the test turned out pretty great. Even so, we decided not to buy that camera because it shoots such giant files, the memory requirements are ridonkulous which creates problems in transferring and editing.
NC: What does “Fishhooks” tell us about you?
RC: I hope “Fishhooks” shows people that I’m a listener. I hope it shows my willingness to hear another perspective on life, art, etc, and consider others’ opinion. I hope it shows that when I make a documentary, I don’t go in with an agenda and try to get someone to say what I want. Instead, I’m there to learn and observe.
NC: What other projects are you working on?
RC: We are working on a short which is about a kid who started making plush toys to give away to other kids in need. She’s pretty cool, and she calls her thing Plaze toys. I’m producing that piece, Brittany Paul is directing (she edited and produced Fishhooks). Ironically, the Plaze toys piece also shows animals being stuffed. We have a couple other projects in the works including a feature doc about bicycling and other things. I’m really excited about this one and we plan to spend about 2 years on it. It will be an ongoing process.
NC: Who inspires you as a filmmaker / storyteller?
RC: I wish I could tell stories as well as my uncles and grandparents. Sitting at the dinner table with them is humbling. Listening to the way they spin a yarn and craft their story is a treat. I’m also inspired by anyone doing something with a singular focus that they believe in no matter what anyone else says or thinks.
NC: The world is ending, you’re boarding the escape pod, and you can take one film with you, which one do you take?
RC: I’m going to defer to my go-to answer on “what’s your favorite movie?” This is the hardest question in the book, because I love so many movies. I always want to choose something obscure or classic that makes me look smart. But I decided long ago to always have one answer to this question and the answer is: Groundhog Day. Funny, but I can watch it over and over again.
NC: If you could taxidermy any person / creature, who / what would it be?
RC: Another one where I have a lot of answers but in lieu of a list, I’ll give two answers. I would love to have a T-rex, but I have for some time now been wanting an Ocean Sunfish aka Mola mola. I would never kill one for the purpose of art or taxidermy though.
In the achingly beautiful short documentary “Mother’s Song,” filmmaker Matthew Brown investigates “the opera woman” of Seattle and carries us intimately close to a life we might just pass by on the street. Brown notes,
There is a woman who walks through the streets randomly singing opera. Wherever she goes she is singing, sometimes under her breath, sometimes loud enough for whole blocks to hear. Some people think she is deranged, some think she is inspiring. I was compelled to sit down with her and have a short conversation about Why. I only had an hour and a half with her, but she struck a cord enough that made me buy a ticket to go see my mom, heh. I decided that I would put this online and hope to inspire people to go embrace their mothers and children. She’s also a very prime example of why not to judge people by their eccentricities.
Though this is ostensibly a documentary about the opera woman, how Brown documents this glimpse into the woman’s life matters tremendously. Brown chooses to begin and end his documentary short with just a voice, her voice singing opera over a black, empty screen: this is the opera woman, Janna Wachter.
Brown does not just simply place his subject in front of his camera and leave the audience to judge or appreciate. He lures us first with her voice, her singing, then, in close-up shots, presents Wachter bare faced and vulnerable as she tells the story of her son, her grief, and her philosophy on joy and singing. We have a strong visual and narrative connection to Wachter before we see her on the street singing opera.
Another documentarian might have begun on the street, started with Wachter singing there without context, perhaps sought to evoke discomfort, anxiety, or judgment in the audience and then subverted it by revealing this woman’s story. This narrative strategy runs the danger of playing out like a trick, one used to embarrass audiences and show them their prejudices.
Brown’s narrative strategy, however, helps first build a compassionate relationship between the audience and Wachter, through the intimacy of her singing and then the profound vulnerability in the story she tells of her son. He gives us first the voice without the sidewalk, the bare face before the lipstick, the world indifferent and busy before she sings bursts into song on the corner for us.
Brown goes further though, departs from the realist conventions of documentary when he takes artistic liberty to emphasize the passion behind her opera: he knocks books to the ground and shakes the camera, crescendos the music so we, in an aesthetic way, might understand the emotional urgency and impulse to sing, the desire to break through the day-to-day into the sublime moment.
In all these ways, Brown’s film is not just endeavouring to build tolerance and compassion, or reflect on our superficial understanding of others, he’s building awe for a woman who lets candour and earth-trembling joy rule her life instead of decorum or polite pedestrian street etiquette.
In Michael Venus’s music video for “The Hunt,” a woman (Katja Danowski) blanched and polyestered by life is haunted by the band Parasite Single, two outfit-coordinated hipster angels, who call to her and torment her with their pop song and provoke her to the possibility of something other than her sweat-pant suit life.
From the first shot in the furniture store we are in an uncomfortable space: the angles askew, florescent lights running to the left of the frame into the distance, their static hum scratching our ear drums, the woman’s prone body running from the centre off to the right. She’s wearing a yellow sweatsuit, but this is yellow drained of any allusion to lemons, sunshine, or fluffy baby chickens. This is yellow defined by the absence of yellow.
Sidebar: I don’t think mattress merchants as professionals are prepared for the intimacy and vulnerability of people going prone. They should have to have some training or certification to prepare for this burden.
In the second awkward shot, a foot’s eye view, we look up the length of the woman, up her nose, and along her arm outstretched, spanning the empty side of the bed to the right of the frame. Either she sleeps like a horizontal crucified Christ each night, board straight and perpendicular, or perhaps her arm and that space of empty bed signify something.
Then, in an insert shot, we see her fingers fumbling with the mattress’s plastic cover, trying to get past the plastic or pondering the empty space that is the other side of the bed to her. Her eyes close slowly in pained longing as the plastic cover crinkles in deaf response and we see that the back corner of this cold furniture store is reserved for longing.
Venus composes each of the first shots with awkward angles, plays with empty space and underscores the sequence with a minimalist sound design, just crinkling plastic and the buzz of the lights, all to emphasize this woman’s loneliness and isolation before the hipster angels’ music begins.
The musical duo proceed to plague and torment polyester woman in various locales: the furniture store, her work at a car garage, the grocery store and a laundromat. In what follows there are three small moments that define her journey: the sack of unshelled peanuts, the discarding of the shopping cart, and when she mimics the band.
The first moment is just after her second sighting of the band, in her office at work: she escapes outside where she sits on a potted palm, shelling and eating peanuts from a sack slight desperation.
Sidebar: unshelled peanuts must be the unofficial snack for depressed polyester wearers. It explains why country and western bars are littered with their remains.
Sidebar to the sidebar: unshelled pistachios, on the other hand, are too coy, salty smooth, and hard shelled to every get caught in a country and western bar, though they have, undoubtedly, seen it all before.
The second moment is when she sees the band in the grocery store and, not so coincidentally the word “love” on a cake decorating box. Here she breaks, shoving the grocery cart away from herself.
Then, around the 1:47 mark when the hipster angels take a break for coffee in the laundromat, polyester woman has had enough and she picks up their instruments and mockingly pretends to play with the same hipster joy they do. It’s a tiny moment and if you blink you’ll miss it, but it foreshadows the angry catharsis to come.
These three small moments define this character, her resistance to the gaudy coloured pop angels that are pressuring her to break out of her drab life.
So when catharsis comes for her, after the hair salon and dressing up, in a bar full of gambling machines, angry, glorious dancing is the answer. In a nice turn, the strobed shots draw her in to the same frame as the hipster angels, showing us they were part of her all along; they are connected. Moreover, Venus places her in the centre of the frame, positions her as their lead singer, their missing piece.
She is, however, not done. In the last shot, ragged and sweaty from her angry dancing, she stands in profile, then turns her head and looks at the camera, a mix of defiance and Teflon: if at any point we, as audience, lacked compassion or took amusement from her journey, here she wins, and its her victory not ours.
Over at the site Director’s Notes, there’s an interview with Venus where you can read more about his work with Curtisfilm and about how they shot the film. If your German is better than mine you can consider supporting the band and their future creative endeavours through their crowdsourcing campaign.
Patrice Leconte’s La fille sur le pont (Girl on a Bridge) tells the story of Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a knife thrower, who returns to a certain bridge in Paris looking for suicidal women to be his assistants, for they, usefully, have nothing left to lose. When he meets Adele (Vanessa Paradis), he finds more than an assistant, he finds a woman who might as well be throwing the knives back.
Though I encourage you to see the whole film, there is one three-minute scene that stands on its own as a well-wrought short film. In this scene, Gabor throws knives at (or, more accurately, near) Adele. The scene derives its power primarily from the intense anxiousness of Gabor and the ecstasy of Adele.
We begin in the audience and then we pinball between the knife thrower, the target, and the faces of those who watch enraptured, fearful, and envious. Much of the pleasure in this scene is derived from the expressions of others in a way similar to Woodkid’s “I Love You.” The chorus of faces in this film that layer and shape how the story is told: the face of a woman in the audience as she leans to see better and, backstage, the various circus performers, the small woman with the massive floral headdress and the stricken clown with the oblivious dog. The circus performers, more than the others, instruct us to be fearful, because they do this for a living every day but they seem worried.
We are all of them and yet we are not simply them. The camera lets us behind the sheet and in a medium shot we get to see what Gabor cannot: Adele’s ecstatic experience. We also see what Adele cannot, in close-up: Gabor’s concern, his worry, his focus. Later in the film, Adele and Gabor are able to communicate with one another over great distances, letter writing to one another without the writing, and this seems possible because of their intense connection. This moment reads us back to the theatre and the knife throwing where we, the audience, were caught between them and the sheet lightening connection to the enraptured onlookers. We see we inhabit the air between them all and were, perhaps, amorousness itself.
Of all the spectators in the montage, it is particularly Irene, the woman backstage dressed somewhat like a showgirl, who stands in counterpoint. Irene gives us every indication that she is vicariously deriving a great deal of pleasure from the spectacle. She is identifying with Adele. Does this envy encourage us to also identify with Adele’s pleasure or does it just make Adele’s pleasure more real? Regardless, what plays across her face is a pleasure both envious and nostalgic, as though she too once knew a pleasure like this.
The worried faces, we find out at the end of the scene, were right to worry: one of the knives has nicked Adele and drawn blood. It is for Gabor an admission that he can’t see the way he used to. It also foreshadows that he cannot see Adele clearly enough and this might not bode well for them.
For Adele, the cut is more complicated. What would be different if every knife had lodged perfectly around her and there had been no cut? This is in some ways the knife thrower’s version of Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler.”
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar
The ecstatic joy on Adele’s face seems connected to this, wounded, the experience now written on her body. Indeed, if all the love songs tell the truth, then the amorous experience threatens the lover the way the knives do here. There is always the threat of loss of the self but the pleasure of being made specific.
That the film is presented in black and white makes this a nostalgic cinema with a hankering for the way romances used to appear on the silver screen. This coupled with Marianne Faithful’s broken glass and whisky vibrato creates a peculiar tension between the nostalgic and the primal. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, its take on romance stands in resistance to the current take Hollywood has on the genre:
Occupations like knife-throwing were not uncommon in silent comedy, but modern movies have become depressingly mired in ordinary lifestyles. In many new romantic comedies, the occupations of the characters don’t even matter, because they are only labels; there’s a setup scene in an office, and everything else is after hours. Here, knife-throwing explains not only the man’s desperation to meet the woman, but also the kind of woman he meets, and the way they eventually feel about each other.
What Ebert is essentially saying is that Leconte here presents a romance that is specific. This is echoed in Gabor’s act of knife throwing. He cannot throw the knives the same way twice. We see him study the contours and outlines of Adele’s body before he pulls the white sheet over her to begin. She has become specific. Even the gesture of pressing his index finger to her forehead pins her in that specificity. Amorous discourse is this battle between the specific and the generic. When “I love you” is the most cliché thing one can say, the rest must conspire to free the sublime experience from the generic.
Whether you are staggering through the chocolate wrapper detritus of Valentine’s Day or reeking like a yack-stained shut-in thanks to the polar vortex, this short film will bring some relief with its simple declarations and hopes. Alexander Carson’s “We Refuse to be Cold” tells the story of one man who navigates winter and his relationship looking for something he can promise that will get them through.
The film is a narrative collage of documentary pieces collected under a voice-over narrative that explores what, given a Montreal winter and the impermanence of the world, two people might promise to one another to weather it all. He and his girlfriend come up with the simple yet complicated promise that they will refuse to be cold and will attempt to keep one another warm. “So love was warmth that winter. And following the line of so many Montrealers before us, we started scheming on ways to get it, to keep it, to make it.”
The film opens with two men in a heated argument, the one giving advice to the other which might be about sports or love. “I don’t want to talk about this, I thought we were talking about baseball” retorts the one man. The dialogue between the two men, like the advice from the narrator’s father when he returns home for Christmas is heavy with cliché and empty of meaning: “Sticky wicket.” “Adjust your rudder.”
Carson’s narrator follows various ship phrases for navigating relationships (apologies for extending the metaphor) with a picture of an actual ship. The metaphor swallows the language, effectively sinking. This ship-y metaphor and the truisms it tries to transport serve to emphasize the empty impotence of language when it comes to understanding romance.
In contrast to this failure of advice and metaphor, Amanda and Alex share with us and each other a love story of confusing snow suits, do-it-yourself haircuts, and found objects. With them, the amorous is specific and the specific is something you can hang your heart on. This becomes an allegory for making real instead of fairy tale promises to survive winter and the vagaries of relationships. And in the end, failing all else, there is the consolation from one of the actors in that the play within the film that although they might not have entirely succeeded at keeping warm, theirs is “a very acceptable failure.”
This is a visual tale that requires the bare honesty and intimacy of the first person voice-over narrator, similar to spoken word video pieces like the collaboration between Andrea Dorfman and Tanya Davis “How To Be Alone” (two other Canadians familiar with winter) which made an extended tour of the internet and resurfaced for Valentine’s Day.
Both narratives work because they find that fine combination of soft underbelly, alluring particulars, and acute observation.
Filmmaker and author Julie Trimingham’s new book, her debut novel, Mockingbird was recently released from MP Publishing.
You might remember Julie from my Numéro Cinq at the Movies post on her gorgeous triptych of films Beauty Crowds Me.
Aritha Van Herk describes the book as
“teeming with yearning, with the indescribable smells and tastes of Cuban ardor. This tale of passion and its smudged fate, its undeniable allure, intensifies with each improvised move, so that readers have to gasp for breath, yet cannot help but follow this impossible seduction, and the center of gravity that shapes the beauty known as longing.”
In Ryan McGinley’s short film “Varud,” a young woman dressed for backyard summer play with a t-shirt as a dress and a gold lame wig skips through New York, altering the city as she goes. The film’s simple repetition and its dream-like collision between youthful exuberance and the mundane design of the city is perfectly captured in the slow skipping of the young woman down yellow meridian lines, among the gentle yellow taxis of New York traffic. It is both sublime and common, unspeakable beauty with a cheap wig, t-shirt dress, and bare feet.
The simplicity of the film makes the experience a more poetic than narrative experience. McGinley in his own words describes his intent:
“this piece is my poem to new york city. i wanted to bring a childhood innocence to the streets, through a character whose own light and wonder effects (sic) the world around her. i’m always interested in an atmosphere where dreams and reality mingle on equal terms.”
As the film unfolds, small details gather around the wonder: the orangey gold wig, as cheap as it might be, sheds bits of sunlight; pedestrians turn and watch her go by; she traverses even more extreme concrete and empty spaces like the highway off-ramp.
If McGinley had stopped there, with just the intervention of the young woman skipping through the city, that might have been what this film was about: a simple, sepia-with-joy filter to see the city through anew. But this city, McGinley’s city, is altered, ruptured. As the film progresses the city starts to seize up mid breath as though the young woman’s skipping, her strange combination of joy, youthfulness and alarming play, stop time. These pauses, these cessations, we can read as moments of reflection where the city’s denizens pause to glimpse some wonder among the asphalt, the crowds, the day-to-day.
Yet these are not simple pauses. They do not end. The only pause that ends is the final one where the girl fades into the sepia long light of the end of the day, and, ever so slowly, the frozen pedestrians find their stride once more.
Until this final moment of the film, the people she has passed have all remained frozen, caught, as though she has put the kingdom to sleep. And though there is a beauty in that, in this reflection, there is also something ominous and a little apocalyptic in it. As each street falls to silent pause, after pause, the film’s images recall the horror of other film cities left in stillness, like at the start of 28 Days Later and in the psychological twists of Vanilla Sky.
She leaves the city, as these other films do, not resembling itself, lacking its bustle, fury, and perpetual motion. It is the end of things, heralded by an innocent in a sparkly wig. Could there be a more grace-ful way to go?
What does it mean that the skipping girl not only stops time but does so repeatedly? There is something here of Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion: “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.’ Each repetition, each frozen moment she creates has her skipping past what might have been momentary encounters with wonder and towards an absence of time, and the philosophers will tell us that without time there is no being. Block after block she freezes the city. But this is what we expect from wonder. Beauty that potentially annihilates the self.
The music, with its indecipherable lyrics and at times choir-like arrangement, encourages a heightened emotional engagement. The film is # 6 in Sigur Ros’s The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment, one of the sixteen films that were made with the support of the Icelandic band. The sixteen were chosen from almost 800 entries. The press information for the project notes that
“valtari was sigur ros’s last album as a four-piece. An elegiac work; they didn’t feel much like talking about it, and so, instead asked a bunch [of] talented directors to make whatever they felt like making to go with music. These 16 films are the result. Sad, funny, beautiful, and, occasionally, plain bewildering, they represent just some of the available emotional responses to this most contemplative of sigur ros (sic) album.”
Sigur Ros’s atmospheric music inspires each of the directors to move to more poetic and less narrative pieces (though the Valtari film already analyzed by Nicholas Humphries for Numero Cinq at the Movies, Dash Shaw’s “Seraph,” is significantly more narrative). This poetic atmosphere of the music and the overall project makes it possible for “Varud’s” repetitions and slow, unfolding, and makes it possible for us to submit to its unspeakable and breathless wonder.
If only it were as simple as Julie Andrews would have it and we could just “start at the very beginning” because, of course, “it’s a very good place to start.” But in terms of narrative, there is always for me the pressing question of where to begin. I carry a few principles with me I have learned from various teachers and from trial and much error.
1. Walk in late.
2. The end is in the beginning.
3. Show the audience how to experience (love) the story.
The trick, then, is to keep these things in mind but, as Andrew Horton reminds us in Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay, “Remember you wish to draw the viewer into your world, but you don’t want to drown him or her in the first ten minutes” (159). Easy peasy.
The odd thing about beginnings is how often they are forgotten. When I’m teaching and asking students about the first frames of films, they often reference later plot points more than the actual first shots. Roland Barthes, in his A Lover’s Discourse, points out that there is no love at first sight.
I never fall in love unless I have wanted to; the emptiness I produce in myself . . . is nothing but that interval, longer or shorter, when I glance around me, without seeming to, looking for who to love . . . Yet the myth of “love at first sight” is so powerful . . . that we are astonished if we hear of someone deciding to fall in love. (190)
So how we do suggest, provoke, encourage the audience to want to fall in love, firstly. And how do we not falsely advertise, lure the viewer or reader in with the promise of a torrid and lurid affair only to promptly pull out the TV dinners and our sad house coats, narratively speaking?
The question of how to begin has been more recently preoccupying me with a film I shot last may, “zack & luc,” where I planned a beginning but lost it. I shot the film all on super 8 film which in this day and age is an exercise in desperate waiting for a hopeful outcome: you shoot the film, you send it off to the lab in another city, you then wait for the lab to develop it, send it to another place where it is scanned and digitized, and then months later your film footage and its electronic version arrive back and you see what you have (or don’t have). In our case, of the thirty-eight rolls of film, we were rather lucky that only one had some exposure to light and only one didn’t turn out at all. The problem that presented itself was that the footage on the missing roll was intended to be used for the first and last shots in the film. Because I believe the end was in the beginning, I lost both.
In the beginning,
The rain clattering against the windshield of the parked truck, the wipers forgetting then remembering to clear away the water. The lights of the cars driving by become clear then blurry, then clear, then blurry again.
And in the end,
Zack turns and opens the door and then he is gone, the cab filled again with the sound of rain on the glass. Through the windshield the world is dark and impressionistic, sparkled with the red and white lights of passing cars.
Perhaps I would not be so concerned with this lost beginning and ending if I wasn’t acutely aware that the stories I am interested in telling are a little high maintenance and thus a little hard to instantly fall in love with. In my short film scripts I am drawn to stories that are narratively challenging. “alice & huck,’ directed by the wonderful Kaleena Kiff, tells the story of two characters who collide but mostly miss in various scenarios or universes, exploring the question of how timing plays into our possible romances.
“zack & luc” is two versions of the entire story of a relationship, told for the one character on the right chronologically and for the other on the left frame in reverse chronology, so the first and last moment the two lovers are together are juxtaposed.
Among other things, this non-linear story I think gets to explore that beginnings principle (“the end is in the beginning”) and how it pertains to relationships. Once you’ve loved and lost a few times, you look at beginnings a little differently. In writing both stories, I was aware that I had to find some way to coach the audience to watch the films differently than they would a realist or classical (typical Hollywood) piece.
A film that taught me a lot about beginnings was the Belgian film Une Liaison Pornographique(a fantastic title which was then rather confusedly and perfectly translated into the title for the American release as An Affair of Love, which betrays an American confusion around endings or love or both).
It’s a peculiar film: it tells the story of a man and a woman, both unnamed, who are being interviewed by an unidentified interviewer about a sexual act that the two met for but insist they will not disclose to the interviewer. There are a barrel of monkey questions that could easily undo the “love at first sight” state we might want to experience for this story: who is the interviewer? Why is he making this documentary? Since the two versions of the affair contradict, who is telling the truth? And what the hell were they doing in that hotel room anyway? Here the filmmakers had to create a difficultly achieved balance between building the audience’s desire and not creating so many questions that the viewer might be more attached to the questions than the momentum of the story. How to coach an audience to not over focus on the details? How to get them to go along with an improbable though compelling story?
In the case of Une Liaison, the filmmakers bracket the film with the same crowd footage you see linked above. We begin and end with this out of focus, impressionistically shot, crowd of strangers on the street. If you watch intently I promise you that you can almost see the woman and the man in that crowd; or do you? This is flirting; this is the possibility of love. Regardless, the opening, in the style of an impressionistic painting, coaches us to see what follows in a similar fashion: to see associatively or impressionistically. One could look at a Monet painting and just look at the brush strokes but then one would be kind of missing the point.
Other films embrace the same principle with different methods. Tom Tykwer‘s Run Lola Run has an ominous clock followed by a similar crowd scene that emphasizes and introduces its themes around time and the interconnectedness of people.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s Amelie does a beautiful job of establishing its themes of connection and synchronicity and its tone of absurdity.
When it came to writing “alice & huck” I knew I needed a similar sign post declaring“Watch this way.” It presented itself in the swing and the clouds
That did not seem enough to signify the leaps between the various versions of how the two characters might collide, so I then wrote in a recurring impressionistic montage of body parts saturated in sunlight:
A world out of focus, what look like limbs, a mouth, a throat, 1 all blurry and impressionistic. breath and sighs. these are the moments that bridge time and place, like puzzle pieces each time, but pieces to a puzzle all about the sky — no one can put this together.
This is what it translates into in the film:
With “zack & luc” I needed a similar sign post so the viewer would be prepared to watch loosely, associatively, patiently. The impressionistic beginning I wanted was that visual through the windshield in the rain. It had partly come to me from Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (presented and written about by Sophie Lavoie right here on Numero Cinq at the Movies).
There when the fish explain their dream where they go driving in the rain, we see footage of the highway through a windshield in the rain. This image stuck with me and seemed a perfect way to bracket the complicated story of “zack & luc.”
So when it no longer existed, when the roll was damaged, I had to decide how important it was. Then when I woke up two weeks later declaring to the ceiling that I needed the shot, I had to go about it. It took until the end of the summer for me to order in the film, book the camera and grab a handful of people to get the shot. I think it was a Tuesday night, in a friend’s driveway with a very long garden hose, but we got it.
It will be months still before an audience sees this beginning / ending and before I can really get a sense of whether these shots create a space for love. But I am hopeful and this is a good ending to the story where I lost my beginning.
Daryl Wein’s short film “Unlocked” is itself an experience of trauma as it follows a teenage girl who is already negotiating a difficult tension between the bored surface of her teen life, listening to music and sitting around, and the inexpressible experience she is having with a mother who has cancer. Though her friend tries to reach her, even tries to go to the hospital with her, Wein’s protagonist is having none of it. She wants the surface and the depth to keep a discrete distance. She appears to long for normalcy more than anything — louder music and dancing to avoid the incoming messages on her phone — and is willing to separate from reality to keep at least the appearance of that.
The man with the clipboard she meets on the street who suggests she give to charity is a gate keeper who offers her a chance, for better or worse, to bring surface and depth together. Truly, we can’t be certain he is not charitable, but the van and the brusqueness, the rather scripted tone to his own story about a mother with cancer all point to her being duped for his peculiar pleasure.
She is drawn along and through the violence by the possibility of doing something, doing her part, helping children or others in need or even the hope that she might herself make sense of the senselessness of her mother’s cancer. We are forced to sit idly by with dread and a sense that she is searching for something other than sacrifice, something more like mercy.
It’s the final scene which sticks with me, as she walks down the street transformed. She weeps, bare to the world. Not that this excuses the actions of the man in the van, but this outer transformation seems to at last signify, at last create meaning for her around the pain and suffering she has been experiencing but denying.
It is a transformation that recalls for me the transformation at the end of Nadine Labaki’s gorgeous film Caramel where one of the minor characters who has been struggling with a very different type of repression throughout also gets a radical shearing and walks down the street also not recognizing herself. I considered posting that clip, but out of context that would be its own violence. See the film and you’ll see.
Though I am new to Wein’s work, there’s a certain impulsiveness to his characters that compels me: they are creatures of action and tragic victims to their own heroic gestures.
Lola, the protagonist in his film Lola Versus, overwhelmed by a party scene with two of her ex-boyfriends and her best friend who is dating one of them, has an emotional explosion and storms out, but leaves behind anything generic when she grabs a large block of cheese off the food table on her way, holding it in the air as a triumph. Cheese as an exit strategy. These are the kinds of characters that invite emulation and leave me wanting for a good party with a generous cheese plate.
In probably the most horrific and pornographic scene in Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; Or, Up with Dead People, one man sexually penetrates the gaping wound in another man’s abdomen. It is a shocking scene, and it marks the moment when we realize perhaps zombies have more erogenous zones and erotic options than we do. Though theorists like Georges Bataille, have pointed to how death is a structuring aspect of the erotic, the gory abject as it appears in Otto and LaBruce’s subsequent film L. A. Zombie puts a perhaps bolder more graphic face on the relationship between mortality, the body and eroticism.
Navigating these uncomfortable hinterlands between horror and pornography is a confused and confusing young man named Otto who thinks he’s a zombie and can’t remember his life from before. The perverse collision between horror and pornography for Otto opens the possibility of a narrative turn to melodrama and a possible connection with another, however untenable this might be in his zombie world.
Near the beginning of Otto, Up With Dead People, Otto rises up out of a grave with his name on it; the gravestone simultaneously names him and troubles naming as it is only his first name that appears there and there are no dates indicating his birth and death: the stone’s ability to name and identify him is limited. A voice-over reveals that, “Once upon a time in the not so distant future there unlived a zombie named Otto.” This underscores the fantasy and fictional aspects of his zombie identity.
This fictional status is further underscored through the film’s multiple narratives and texts: his first first-person narrative is intercut with the first-person essay-like narrative of a filmmaker Otto meets, Medea Yarns, and these are also intercut with several of Medea’s films, primarily a longer narrative telling the story of a gay zombie who rises up in a revenge plot against straight men who bash gays. These many narrative texts that make up the larger film Otto problematize classical Hollywood story structure that might offer Otto the protagonist a more privileged, unproblematized position. Whether or not Otto really is a zombie is more ambiguous as a result.
Medea’s film within the film further problematizes Otto’s zombie identity: the narrative repeats the scene where Otto rises from the grave and this time discloses that it was staged by Medea for her film, “Up With Dead People.” Medea’s attraction to Otto as a zombie figure for her film and her desire to tell a fictional story of a zombie world where the gay undead seek revenge creates narrative ambiguity as it becomes unclear how much of a zombie Otto really is, what aspects of his identity and narrative are constructed by Medea, and which parts are his own invention or experience.
This collision of genres and narratives is characteristic of LaBruce’s work. Eugenie Brinkema in her essay “A Title Does Not Ask, but Demands That You Make a Choice,” observes that “[LaBruce’s] works bear witness to the aesthetic and historical crisis of this borderland, speaking the wild language of the indeterminable”(97). Like LaBruce, Medea, the filmmaker within the film, is overtly ideological. Yet, oddly, she is making a fictional film about zombies and is attracted to Otto because “there was something different about [him]. Something more authentic.” In the confusion of texts and in the face of the indeterminable, Otto stands as perhaps more determinable than the others, and as the possibility of something authentic in among the ambiguous texts, at least for Medea.
Both Medea and Otto script scenes with zombies and sex (Medea’s more graphic, the penetration scene already mentioned and the film’s climactic zombie orgy) so that zombies are sexualized and fetishized in the film in a pretty common way. While naked zombies have appeared in films before, (in the opening to Day of the Dead and the self explanatory Zombie Strippers) and, faced with impending death, live people in zombie films have been known to fornicate, as a generalization most film zombies are interested in one thing: eating live humans. There’s a beauty to that simplicity and however it might serve as a metaphor for other drives, it removes all the complicated issues of desire. There is the drive to eat. That is all.
Otto as an ambiguous character signifies in both the genres of horror and pornography. Medea points out that Otto works perfectly: “In a way he fits the typical porn profile: the lost boy, the damaged boy, numb, phlegmatic, insensate boy willing to go to any extreme to feel something, to feel anything.” This, too, could describe the horror figure of the zombie: Otto’s detachment, his extreme repression make him something to fear or be repulsed by. As Fritz, the star of Medea’s zombie film, describes him when Medea tries to hook them up, “he’s homeless, delusional, and possibly schizophrenic. Plus he seems to have some kind of eating disorder . . . if you think I am going to sleep with him you’re crazy.” Indeed, even in scenes where he encounters other zombies he seems more detached than them, too zombie even for the zombies.
For Otto, however, zombie identity seems to be a coping mechanism, as though he has opted to feel nothing even in the presence of sex. Near the beginning of the film, on his journey to Berlin, he sits in an abandoned carnival where he finds other zombie gays cruising one another, two of whom proceed to have sex in front of him, almost on top of him as he sits paralyzed. Later he is picked up by a man in zombie make-up out front of a bar aptly called Flesh (the man warns, “it’s dead in there”). The man takes him home to his apartment where he has what we must assume was sex. We have to make this assumption as we are visually given a before and an after but the narrative (and by extension Otto) seem to black out for everything in between. In the aftermath, the man lies disemboweled, his walls and sheets sprayed red with blood and his furniture overturned and destroyed. But he still asks Otto “Can I see you again?”
What the one-night stand in particular points to, something underscored by the films within the film, is that gay sex in the film Otto carries something of death and infection with it. This carries all kinds of significances mirrored in LaBruce’s follow up film L.A. Zombie and its profound reversal where the zombie creature there is able to bring dead bodies back to life through his sex and fluids. What is of primary interest for me in Otto is simply that Otto sees sex with men as potentially harmful and the destruction in this one night stand also reads back over Otto’s own attempts to only satiate on non human flesh (road kill, stray cats, butcher market chickens) as a way of repressing what he sees as his own destructive impulses with other more lively men.
Otto confesses, “I wanted to consume the living, to devour human flesh but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. At first I thought it might have something to do with the time before. When I was alive. It occurred to me I might have been a vegetarian. Or worse, a vegan. But that wasn’t exactly it.” Otto’s zombie hungers are something he tries to repress, but both the hunger (via the zombie identity) and the desire to repress it refer to a back story that is inaccessible to him.
What undermines these scenes is that they are told unreliably from Otto’s perspective. As the film unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent that carnage and disembowelment, cannibalism and death are metaphors for Otto, not reality based: he sees the world through zombie-coloured glasses. This is partly revealed via the fragmented structure of the film as it moves from Otto’s first-person narrative to the filmmaker, Medea’s first person narrative and her “real” engagements with Otto. It’s in one of these “real time” moments, when Medea asks Fritz to let Otto stay with him for a few days and Fritz describes Otto as “homeless, delusional, and possibly schizophrenic.” This response is both comedic and tragic as the ambiguity drops out from under Otto’s first-person narrative. Medea’s fictional gay zombie dystopia and Otto’s performed zombie identity are compatible, but Fritz’s reality-based response undermines both, grounding everything in a rather disappointing realism.
What we must gather then is that Otto’s perspective and experience of the men cruising in the abandoned carnival and the his one-night stand with the man from the bar called Flesh are unreliable, a fantasy of zombie bodies. We are then left to ask, why does he see these experiences as laced with death, objectification, and the abject? What is the lure of a corpse-like abject identity? In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva theorizes that the corpse has a significant place in terms of the abject: “the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled” (3-4). Further, she theorizes that “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object” (4). The zombie is both corpse and pseudo subject, animated and hungry.
For Otto, then, the zombie identity is in some way the obliteration of the ‘I.’ The key here, though, is as Kristeva asserts, “abjection is above all ambiguity.” Otto is neither corpse nor live body, neither self nor other, but maintains an insistent ambiguity. And this is not just a specific response to sexual situations, but a generalized response to his identity in the world at large.
Pornography and horror contribute to a terrorized subject position for Otto. As Brinkema notes about Catherine Breillat’s theorizing of sexual acts in her films, “Breillat’s insistence that it is the sexual acts that themselves act on the spectator, that lead to physical or intellectual satisfaction, affirms that sexual representation is still conceived of in terms of affect, that sexual representation moves the spectator, displaces him or her from an otherwise stable spectatorial position” (102). The unsimulated sex scenes in Otto trouble the spectator’s position in much the same way that Otto’s voyeuristic eye is troubled. There is no safe, cold, zombie distance from which to watch these experiences for him or for us.
Otto’s one night stand with the man who is wearing zombie make-up reveals to us and him why he seeks that distance. When he fully embraces his zombie identity with that man, the resulting carnage, imagined or not, illustrates what Otto fears in his own hunger. In Otto’s world, sexuality is often a little horrific. In an interview with Interview magazine, LaBruce discussed how for him pornography and horror have corresponding real life collisions in some gay experiences: “If you’ve ever cruised a public toilet or a bathhouse, it’s like Night of the Living Dead. You’ve got people in this zombie-like trance, in dark shadows with disembodied body parts. And I don’t mean that negatively; it’s kind of exciting. But there is that aspect to gay culture and sometimes it can be kind of sad” (Speyer). For LaBruce, sex that is objectifying this way is both exciting and sometimes sad, and one could read Otto’s experience as similar. The room the one night stand lives in is full of sexual paraphernalia that intrigues Otto and the wall above the man’s bed is collaged like a teenager’s wall of magazine clippings, though here the images are of penises and various other body parts. This objectifying sexual experience is both exciting and overwhelming and Otto can no longer repress his zombie hunger. As a zombie having sex he can have the safety of numbness and the freedom to consume, but the carnage emphasizes his conflicted relationship with that release.
Otto’s work with Medea the filmmaker at first promises to make his life easier, but then further troubles the boundaries between his zombie world and the real world. Initially, he notes, “With a camera following me around, no one would suspect I was a real zombie. I would just be playing one in the movie.” But through working with Medea in her fictional film, Otto’s sense of his zombie self wavers, and begins to fail. Where prior to this he would practice imagining live passengers on the train were zombies, shoring up his detachment from (and peculiarly also his affinity with) them, through Medea he builds relationships where he is in a sense normalized and not objectified. This dangerously opens him up to being a subject. When she pays him and tells him to put the money in his wallet to keep it safe, he realizes he has a wallet and subsequently that that wallet holds evidence of his former identity and self: a library card with his former boyfriend’s phone number. Details of Otto’s former life flood in and he’s left defenseless, able to only verbally parrot what the exboyfriend says: that Otto himself has mental issues, that the boyfriend left him because of this, that Otto’s father is a butcher and that Otto was a vegetarian in that life before, before he took to eating the flesh of roadkill, grocery store meat cases, stray cats, and the occasional gay man.
The exboyfriend’s disclosures point to both romantic loss and mental breakdown. Indeed the two become inseparable in Otto’s zombie identity. So the zombie identity, though an extension of his schizophrenia and mental illness, is also here a coping mechanism to block the memories of his former happiness and his loss. To be dead is to escape memory. The zombie identity protects him from the past and any other possible present vulnerability. As a dead man, the living should not be able to hurt him. This logic is challenged by the various interactions with the living throughout the film though that are the product of him being un-dead.
The last sex scene of the film occurs when Fritz, the lead actor in the film within the film, finds Otto outside the film studio beaten and bloody. He takes him home and checks his wounds and then a tender love scene occurs.
This scene stands in contrast to the prior sex scenes in the film as the emphasis is less on the objectification of the two men’s body parts and more on the kindness and tenderness between the two. Also absent is any zombiness, blood, or gore. Their bodies are left unbitten, uneaten, untorn, and, at least on screen, unpenetrated. Otto does not black out and no one dies. In the Interview magazine interview, LaBruce revealed that for him, “The idea was to lure in these horror geeks on the promise of a zombie movie and torture them with a tender love story” (Speyer). From this we could conjecture that Otto himself is lured in by the zombie genre, lulled into thinking it might protect him from the pornographic and melodramatic aspects of his life.
But the co-presence of both horror and pornography tropes do not provide explicitly safe havens for Otto. Linda Williams, in her essay “Film Bodies: Genre, Gender, and Excess,” argues that horror, pornography and melodrama are bodily genres, intent on bodily affect. What all three have in common is how they affect the body. This, in Otto’s case, is paradoxical then. He chooses an undead identity, partly to preserve himself, but that body performs the intersection between a horrifying sexual hunger and a terrible emotional vulnerability. The play of these three genres, all three aspects of his own experience, promises a numb and safe identity, but concurrently terrorizes him, provokes him bodily and emotionally. Around Otto, through the imagined films within the film and through his interactions with the men he meets, it turns out sex and death are not as safe a split as he might have hoped and yet might secretly wish. This abject place, caught between genre and fluid and decaying bodies, both promises and protects an ambiguous place between self and not-self.
Despite Otto’s desire to separate himself from the living and his own past, becoming a walking corpse in essence takes him to the ontological threshold of what it means to live. When after their more tender and less cannibalistic night, Fritz awakes to find a sign that Otto has left him that says simply “Otto. RIP.” It is an ambiguous ending for in a sense Otto kills himself, but the phrase is “rest in peace,” so his note also implies he has found some peace. Not enough that he will forgo the allure of his zombie identity, though, so he goes on lurching into the distance, still searching.
Otto, or Up With Dead People is available for viewing on Netflix.
Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.
Brinkema, Eugenie. “A Title Does Not Ask, but Demands That You Make a Choice: On the Otherwise Films of Bruce LaBruce.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts (48:1) pp. 95-126, 2006 (Winter).
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
LaBruce, Bruce. Otto; Or, Up with Dead People. 2008.
Speyer, Ariana. “Up with Bruce LaBruce: an interview.” Interview Magazine February 13, 2009.
Waugh, Thomas. Romance of Transgression in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.
Wes Anderson’s short film “Hotel Chevalier” is a lean, bruised and naked tale in a Paris hotel room. Anderson shot the short with his own funds (and the actors, Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman, donated their time) two years prior to his feature The Darjeeling Limited but it was often screened at the same time and is referred to by many as a prologue to that feature film that followed it (as mentioned in this previous NC at the Movies entry). The two are aesthetically consistent, but that’s not surprising as most of Anderson’s films belong to the same visual palate and characters seem descended from the same family tree.
Though they were conceived separately, Anderson brought the short and feature together through their common character of Jack Whitmore. Whitmore is precious, careful and, in his manicured construction of his hotel room a bit compulsive. In contrast, his beloved shows up with her fierce toothpick-in-mouth machismo, her velociraptor-attack dialogue (“What the fuck is going on?”), and her sudden bruised nakedness.
It is an uncomfortable film on several levels: visually there are the awkward, stagey wide shots of the room, the contrasting dolly shots and camera pans, the manicured way Jack has designed the room for his beloved’s arrival (complete with soundtrack queue on the ipod and a freshly painted painting): has he created the perfect setting for their reunion or a well designed bunker to defend himself against her impending assault? And does it matter since either would be in vain?
Then there is greater discomfort as Portman’s character arrives, asks almost mockingly “What’s this music?” and then touches all the carefully laid details of the room with further ridicule, even touching the wet painting, all as if to throw aside any attempts he had to set decorate or defend himself.
Does he love her or hate her? At this late stage they’re post woodchipper and it seems futile to sort through the bits of each. We’re given next to no back story except that she says to him “I never hurt you on purpose” and that he escaped her and seems clear when he says to her, “I will never be your friend. Ever.”
We don’t need to know more. This is the story of a man who fled, waits, then with gentle bath robe in hand shows her his view of Paris and offers her back her toothpick. She’s only there for the night after all. It’s a perfect condensation of past and present with no future.