Episode 100: Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952)

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In this episode, I talk about Vittorio De Sica’s classic 1952 Italian Neorealist film, “Umberto D.” It’s about an elderly man trying to evade eviction against the backdrop of post-World War II Italy. As his life becomes more precarious and desperate, he clings to his only companion, his dog Flike, and struggles to survive. I talk about Italian Neorealism, why this film moves me so much, and more. At the beginning of the episode, I also reflect on this being my 100th episode! I’m thankful for all my listeners.

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Episode 99: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008)

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In this episode, I talk about Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film, “Wendy and Lucy.” It stars Michelle Williams as Wendy Carroll, a young woman stopping in Oregon on her way to Alaska when her car dies and she ends up losing her dog, Lucy. Much of the film revolves around her desperate search for Lucy and her interactions with various people who either show a bit of kindness or cruelty. Released at the beginning of the Great Recession, the film resonates more than a decade later in the way it looks at financial instability, the struggles of the working class, and the precarious nature of our lives. One bit of bad luck–her car breaking down–sends Wendy’s life into a kind of tailspin that she tries to get out of with very few resources. I talk about many things in this episode, including the bonds we form with pets, our responsibility to other people, the making of the film, and much more! There are spoilers.

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Episode 98: Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night (2014)

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In this episode, I explore the Dardenne brothers’ 2014 film, “Two Days, One Night.” Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a factory worker who tries to return to her job after a bout of depression only to find that her coworkers have voted to receive a bonus and eliminate her position. Over the course of a weekend, she visits each coworker and tries to convince them to support her in a second vote. I talk about my own experiences of working at a factory, struggling with depression, and living as a working class person. I also provide behind-the-scenes information about the making of the film and Marion Cotillard’s preparation for her performance.

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Episode 97: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993)

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In this episode, I explore Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1993 film, “Three Colors: Blue.” Juliette Binoche plays a woman who loses her husband and daughter in a tragic car accident. Overwhelmed by grief, she tries to cut herself off from human connection and sever ties with the past and her memories. I provide behind-the-scenes information about the making-of the film and discuss key scenes and why they emotionally resonate with me. I also talk about the devastating loss of my father when I was just a teenager and detail my own struggle with grief. This episode contains spoilers.

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Episode 96: Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016)

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In this episode, I talk about Pablo Larrain’s 2016 film, “Jackie.” It looks at Jackie Kennedy’s grief in the days after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963. I explore how the film represents grief and trauma, delve into the real struggles Jackie faced after losing her husband, give information about the making of the film and Natalie Portman’s performance, explain why the film is comforting to me as someone who has known a great deal of loss, and more. As I recorded this episode, the 13th anniversary of my father’s death passed. I channel my heartbreak into the episode and go in-depth about losing him and how devastating his death has been for me. There are spoilers in this episode.

 

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Episode 95: Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000)

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On this episode, I talk about Agnès Varda’s 2000 documentary, “The Gleaners and I.” It looks at people who glean in modern society, whether in the fields, at orchards, or after the markets have closed in Paris. With her camera, Varda inserts herself into the film, reflecting on ageing and how she gleans images. I talk about Varda’s presence in the film, how she critiques the wastefulness in society, and why the film remains deeply relevant. I also include a discussion of the follow-up documentary she made in 2002, called “The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later” and how it’s a powerful look at the afterlife that a film can have.

 

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Film and Flesh: On Kawase, Kieslowski, Varda, Akerman, and Tait

I wanted to say: film believes it can preserve what you are doing at this moment. But you, from where you are, wherever it may be, whether you have gone away still bonded to the sand, or the wind, or the sea, or the wall, or the bird, or the dog, you will realize that film cannot do that.

— Marguerite Duras, The Atlantic Man (translated by Alberto Manguel)

 

One of the most powerful things about the medium of film is its capacity to seemingly preserve the dead. Now that we have home videos, photographs are not enough. To see our lost loved ones walking and smiling, or to hear their voice, is an overwhelming experience. Film appears to capture the sensual reality of a person in a way that photographs cannot. The camera seems to contain the soul of a person, something closer to who they were when they were alive. Home movies feel like resurrection, like you can reach out and touch someone who is forever lost.

I no longer have any videos of my father. During an unexpected move in 2015, we grabbed the photographs but overlooked the VHS tapes. When he died in 2006, it was another world–one where smartphones were not yet ubiquitous and people still took photographs on disposable cameras. My family was working class, and we didn’t have a digital camera or camcorder when I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. All I had were some VHS tapes with a few birthday parties on them. I watched the tapes shortly after his death. Even though I no longer have the tapes, I have the memory of what was on them. I have my own inner film constructed from the fragments that I remember.

It was a birthday party. I was maybe 2 or 3. We were at my grandma’s house. She’s dead, too. The images flash in my mind as I write. Me sitting in my mother’s lap, laying my head on her chest, putting her necklace in my mouth. My grandma in the kitchen holding me. My dad trying to assemble one of the presents I received. He’s around 30. I’ll soon turn 30. He doesn’t know he’ll be dead in a little over a decade. None of us know what’s coming. The movie captures us in that one moment that both is and isn’t lost. The movie caught it and, even though the tape has disappeared, I remember the movie.

I wish I had that film of him. I wish we’d grabbed those tapes. I wish he was still here. I can’t forget the experience of watching those home movies. Putting them in the VCR (I don’t even own one now), sitting on the living room floor, seeing the scenes flash on the large television (no flat screens back then). It felt like he was with me again, like it had all been reversed, he was back, he came home. But he never came home, and he never will. The movie was an illusion, a beautiful illusion.

The truth is, film is a lie. The dead are not alive, even though they move and smile on the screen in front of us.  A memory of a movie is a second movie that only I will ever see. I can only describe it in words now. I have language as a substitution for the lost film. But words can’t bring him back. Film can’t bring him back either, but the film at least let me pretend for a little while, it gave me a reminder of the physical reality of him. He was once right beside me. Now, his absence consumes every room. The film gave me his presence again.

If I could go back, I’d do what so many women filmmakers have done–I’d document the living before they die, record their skin and hair and voices so that I never forget them. The camera would defy death; it would tell death that you can take the body, but I have a copy, I still have this person with me that you stole. I could show the footage to other people. I could have physical proof of the dead’s existence. They were here. I loved them. They loved me. We knew each other. We were together.

I think of Naomi Kawase’s 1994 film Katatsumori. In it, she records her aunt who adopted her and who she also referred to as “Grandma”. In one scene, her aunt is outside and Kawase is standing at a window watching her, she reaches out her hand almost as a way of touching her from afar. It feels like a gesture of preemptive grief for the time when the aunt will be gone (she died a few years ago) and will be untouchable. The hand forever frozen in the act of reaching out for the person who is no longer there. She records her aunt’s face. I think about how sometimes we stare at a person intently, trying to memorize everything about them. In Katatsumori, the camera seems to function like Kawase’s own eyes, taking the aunt in, recording her face and body, committing her to memory for Kawase.

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I’m reminded of a scene in Kieslowski’s 1979 film, Camera BuffThe film is about Filip, a Polish factory worker who buys a camera for the purpose of filming his newborn daughter. But what begins as a personal endeavor steadily becomes something more when Filip’s employer asks him to film the company’s 25th anniversary jubilee and submit the film to a festival where it wins third prize. Soon, Filip is obsessed with his camera and instead of focusing its lens on his daughter or his wife, he places it on the gray, desolate world around him, producing insightful documentaries for the television news. In the early days of Filip’s amateur film making, he captures a poignant moment for his friend Piotrek. He briefly films Piotrek driving up to the apartment building where he lives, exiting his vehicle, and smiling up at his mother who leans out of a window. This moment will become even more important when Piotrek’s mother dies. After her funeral, in his time of intense grief, Piotrek asks to watch the film.

He sits in a darkened room with Filip and other friends and looks at the screen as that moment in time comes back to life. He watches himself drive up to the apartment building and smile at his mother. She appears at the window, her face materializing out of the darkness; she is a beautiful blur, resurrected for only seconds.

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Piotrek asks to keep the film. Then, he reflects on the meaning of the moving image. He most likely has many photographs of his mother, but this is the only film he will ever have of her.

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I think of Agnès Varda, who, in The Beaches of Agnès, shares profoundly intimate footage of her late husband, Jacques Demy. When she knew he was dying, she took her camera and recorded close-ups of his hair, face, and skin. The camera is almost more than an eye; it becomes a hand, caressing Demy, touching his flesh the way a lover would. Varda continually circles around to Demy in her work. She made several films about his life. His memory was precious to her, and she repeatedly engages with him through the medium of film almost as a way to keep him alive and present in her life. In The Beaches of Agnès, she explains why she had to film Demy before he died

 

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In her film, The Gleaners and I, Varda turns the camera on herself, filming her ageing body. She records close-ups of her hands, her graying hair, and reflects on the horror of growing old. In The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later, Varda says that it was only afterwards that someone brought to her attention the parallels between filming Demy and filming herself. She was not conscious of it at the time. Now that Varda is gone, this footage is all the more precious.

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It seems obvious, but, as filmmakers, these women needed to film. Film is how they understand the world and how they make sense of their lives. It’s understandable that their reaction to the eventual loss of a loved one is to record their “very matter,” as Varda says. These films are not just about the dead who are recorded but also about the one doing the recording, the women holding the cameras and their relationship to the subjects–the love they feel for their mothers and spouses. It’s that thread between the filmmaker and the person on screen that makes the documentaries so poignant, so haunting.

I think of Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, which is an intimate look at Akerman’s mother, Nelly, who eventually passed away. In the film, the mother is already slipping away, and the camera seems to be a way for Akerman to hold on to her for as long as she can. Her mission is to dissolve distance. She even films herself video chatting with Nelly. It’s as though this is a rehearsal for the way that Akerman will interact with Nelly after she’s gone–only through video. In the scene, Nelly exists on a screen. She can’t be touched or held, and that’s ultimately all Akerman will have once her mother dies–a recording, a remnant, a face on a screen. But, in that moment of their chat, Nelly is alive and that’s what the camera captures. For that time, distance does not exist. Mother and daughter are still together.

 

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Ultimately, death is the greatest distance, the distance that cannot be dissolved or bridged.

Finally, I think of Margaret Tait’s A Portrait of Ga, a short 1952 film of the director’s mother. It’s a poetic documentary that shows Ga engaging in everyday tasks, like reading a book, tending her garden, and eating a sticky candy. Tait provides voice-over narration, but it’s not a particularly personal or emotional film. Rather, it’s a playful and light-hearted look at Tait’s mother. Unlike some of the other films I’ve mentioned, there’s a joyousness about it. It’s not grieving Ga, it’s celebrating her life and spirit.

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All of these films live together in my mind, along with the home movie of my father. They are films that try to arrest the corporeal essence of their subjects, mostly for posterity, as something to watch when the subject is gone, but are the films enough? Can they ever be enough?

I don’t want a film. I want him.

Movies are what we settle for in the aftermath of loss. Film is neither substitute nor replacement, it is artifact, something we salvage from the ruins. It is not the dead, it is not the person we ache for, but it is a connection to them, a moment of almost holding what is lost forever, and maybe that’s all we can hope for, even though the dead’s presence on film only seems to magnify their absence in real life. The artifacts and the ruins we are left with rarely comfort or soothe me, they are only reminders of what is missing.

Listen To My Guest Appearance on The Complete Kieślowski Podcast

For the first time, I’ve appeared as a guest on another podcast!  Every season, on The Complete Podcast, Matt and Travis explore the filmography of one director. Right now, they’re focusing on the work of my favorite director, Krzysztof Kieślowski. It was a pleasure to speak to them about Kieślowski’s 1985 film, No End, which is about Urszula Zyro, a woman mourning the recent death of her husband, Antek. The film is set in Poland in the early 1980s, during the time when martial law was declared in the country and many people were imprisoned. Before his death, Antek was representing a young man who was put in prison for organizing a strike. Urszula does her best to assist the young man and his wife while she also struggles with her intense grief. Matt, Travis, and I go into all aspects of the film, discussing its powerful exploration of grief and the complexities of the political narrative. I hope you enjoy it!

Listen to the episode

Grief in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End

There is a scene in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End that will always haunt me. The film is about a widow whose husband continues to haunt her after death. One day, the widow–Urszula–is at a bar. She sees an British man across the room. He has hands like her husband. The British man mistakes her for a prostitute, but she plays along and goes to a hotel room with him. After they have sex, she asks if he understands Polish. He says he doesn’t. As they lie in bed together, she starts to pour her heart out in Polish. He doesn’t understand a word she says, but that’s the point. She doesn’t want him to understand. She just wants to speak. It’s the first time in the film that she communicates her grief, says it out loud.

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There is such a rawness to the scene, an emotional nakedness that mirrors her physical nudity. Her silence says as much as her words. Her face expresses so much.

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Maybe sometimes we need to speak even if it’s to a stranger. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we are understood. Some of us–myself included–need to put experiences into language. We need to articulate, like Urszula, what it means for someone to be here one moment and then for them not to be here, how that sudden disappearance is profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Absence, the void, the missing–these are things that, by their very nature, defy language.

I was thinking just recently about how I struggle with language, how I grapple with the unspeakable, how tired I am of words. I’ve filled notebooks with thousands of words and still I haven’t really written anything. What do I want to say? Do I have anything to say?

I write from need. I write from pain. I write from my body and my grief and my despair and my mad aching.

The director Su Friedrich said something interesting in an interview and I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. She’s talking about her film I Cannot Tell You How I Feel.

Marchini Camia: So there was a therapeutic aspect to making this film?

Friedrich: No, because this isn’t art therapy. Art therapy is something very particular: People have troubles and they go to an art therapist. They aren’t artists; they’re people with problems who use a paint brush. I’m a person with problems who also is an artist. I don’t disrespect art therapy, but it’s not at all the same thing. If I start thinking about working on a film because the subject has deep emotional resonance for me, I know it’s going to be really hard and that I’m going to have to go to places in my mind that I don’t want to. But it’s also going to be hard because I’ll have to get good footage, good sound, I’ll have to write good texts, and then I’ll have to edit so that it all makes sense and works well. There is a huge, huge, huge amount of craft and thought and planning and consciousness in the process that completely takes over from the emotional stuff.

Also I think the goal of art therapy is that you understand how you’re feeling and you get better. That never happens when you’re making a film!

 

Friedrich is talking about that age-old question of what makes art art. She makes a distinction between art as a form of therapy and art as a craft and a kind of intellectual process. She seems to suggest that people who create purely from a need for therapeutic release or who engage in a more automatic process are not legitimate artists.

I don’t think I agree. I think my idea of art is more expansive than that. Perhaps because my writing process is much more connected with the therapeutic, automatic, instinctual, and cathartic.

Grief blew me apart. Profound loss and mental illness have forever changed me and also changed how I write and why I write. There is a deep silence in me. There is so much that lives inside of me that I cannot articulate. I wonder if I will ever find a language for it, if a language is even possible. If I can’t find that language, have I failed as a writer? Am I a legitimate writer at all? Am I just, in Friedrich’s words, a person with problems who uses a pen? Could what I write ever have meaning beyond myself and my own personal issues? Is art that which transcends the artist and takes on a life inside other people?

Back to Urszula, naked and speaking her grief. Her act of speaking is so interesting to me because she does it on her own terms and in her own language, not in the British man’s. She’s not concerned with being understood. There is something in the act of saying the words. It doesn’t matter if the audience comprehends them.

When you write, you must be prepared to be misunderstood or ignored. You may create a language that few understand, but it is your own.

I also disagree with Friedrich that art therapy eases the pain and makes the practitioner feel better. I don’t write to cure my pain but to bear it.

I find it touching that Urszula is attracted to the British man because his hands remind her of her dead husband’s hands. We perpetually seek out the dead in the living, we watch as they are resurrected in everything, from songs to other people’s body parts. There is no easy way to bear grief when the dead can never be laid to rest, when they haunt us to no end.

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Episode 94: Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and To Have (2002)

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In this episode, I talk about Nicolas Philibert’s 2002 documentary, “To Be and To Have.” It focuses on a small school in rural France where the kind and patient teacher, Georges Lopez, instills a sense of worth in all of his students and connects with them one-on-one. The film shows the dynamics between the students who range in age, from kindergartners to teenagers and also looks at some of their struggles. I talk about childhood, separation, nostalgia, the importance of school in my own life, and the impact that various teachers had on me.

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