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.