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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Episode 93: Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2002)

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In this episode, I explore Todd Haynes’s 2002 film, “Far From Heaven.” It’s an homage to 1950s melodramas and stars Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, a Connecticut housewife who develops a deep connection to her African American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while her marriage starts to crumble when her husband (Dennis Quaid) starts struggling with his repressed homosexuality. I talk about melodrama, woman’s films, Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, how the film looks at race, sexuality, and gender, and much more! Spoilers are in this episode.

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Episode 92: Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995)

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In this episode, I talk about Todd Haynes’s 1995 film, “Safe.” It stars Julianne Moore in her first collaboration with Haynes. Moore plays Carol White, a California housewife who comes down with a mysterious illness that could be a result of the chemicals and toxins in the environment. When her doctor and mainstream medicine offer her no help, she seeks relief and answers at a New Age treatment center called Wrenwood that espouses individualist self-help ideas. I talk about my own struggle with chronic health issues, how women are often not believed by doctors, why the film remains so relevant to the modern world we live in, and I also critique self-help messages.

 

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Two Films Chart the Rise of Mechanization

Alain Resnais’s 1959 short film, Le chant du Styrène, was commissioned by Society Pechiney and filmed in various French factories that made plastic products. We live in the age of consumerism. We can go into any store and walk down aisles filled with goods, many of which are made of plastic. It’s fair to say that Le chant du Styrène was the original “How It’s Made.” The film follows the process of how plastic products are created from molds inside massive machines. It also goes even further back, giving us a look at how the polystyrene itself is produced.

Resnais has a sharp eye, and he consistently discovers the striking, abstract art within the industrial setting of the factory. He captures how these plastic products have a strange and disturbing beauty when many of them are assembled together, how they almost look natural rather than man-made. Even the industrial landscape where the polystyrene is extracted holds an unusual allure; as the pipes snake across the sky, they resemble a superhighway.

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As I watched Le chant du Styrène, I was reminded of Bert Haanstra’s Oscar-winning 1958 short film, Glas. Created a year before Resnais’s film, Glas is set in the Netherlands and juxtaposes two ways of making glass: by hand and by machine. Haanstra is interested in both the industrial and the human, specifically in how the rise of mechanization impacts people, their livelihoods, and the production of certain kinds of vocational arts, like glass-blowing.

The first part of Glas focuses on the glass-blowers. The soundtrack features lively jazz music as we watch the men grab molten orange glass on the end of their poles and then blow to create the shapes that will become vases and champagne glasses. Their cheeks puff out, their hands twist the pole quickly. It’s mesmerizing to watch the birth of the glass sculpture. You get an idea of the intense labor that goes into making these glass objects, not to mention what an art form it truly is to be able to create these structures.

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In contrast, the second half of the film shows glass as it is made by a machine. It’s very repetitive and the machine does mostly everything. A few men are present in case a bottle breaks or the equipment malfunctions. Instead of jazz music, a more industrial soundtrack plays.

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Like Le chant du Styrène, Glas documents a rapidly changing world. Glass-blowers are replaced by machines. Then, glass itself is replaced by plastics. Many items once made of glass–like milk bottles and cups–are now made out of plastic. Both documentaries force us to think about industrialization, mechanization, and consumerism. They make us look at the relationship between humanity and machines.

As I watched the films I also thought about the people working in the factories and how hard those environments can be, how they are physically demanding and require one to perform repetitive work that is mind-numbing and exhausting. Neither documentary is overly concerned with the conditions under which workers labor, but it’s an important thing to think about. What is the toll to human beings in order for us to have all these products on the shelves of our stores? What’s the toll on the environment, on our health, on our way of life?

Cinematic Shadows: Fragments on Two Films by Bill Morrison

This post originally appeared at Burning House Press January 1, 2018

 

The Mesmerist (2003)

I used to think that art was eternal, that being an artist made you immortal. But I’ve come to realize that who and what gets remembered is often haphazard. Books are forgotten. Film reels are destroyed. So little survives.

James Young directed a 1926 silent film called The Bells, starring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff. In 2003, Bill Morrison reconstructed a surviving nitrate print of the movie into a new short film, adding a soundtrack by Bill Frisell. The print is damaged, creating a fascinating distortion of the images. Faces blur. Splotches dominate many of the scenes, though there is still a story that you can follow. Morrison calls his film a “revision” of Young’s original.

In Morrison’s film, Lionel Barrymore plays a character who, on Christmas,  kills a Jewish man for his money. Boris Karloff is a mesmerist who tries to get Barrymore to confess his grisly crime. Morrison destabilizes the narrative by editing Young’s original scenes together in a way that suggests that much of what we are seeing is a dream. By the end of the film, we don’t know what is real and what is not.

The early silent films have a unique beauty about them. It’s still shocking to see a person from 100 years ago so alive. Death seems impossible. Here are Barrymore and Karloff moving right before us. We can almost touch them. They can’t be dead. Film has preserved them, made them immortal.

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But, as we watch the film and see the reels degrade, the men seem to be in the process of dissolving. The damage to the nitrate creates distortions in the film, almost giving it a watery quality. The actors merge together into a mass of liquid light. At times, they disappear entirely. Film preserves nothing. Film saves nothing. Barrymore and Karloff are still dead. All that remains are the cinematic shadows left behind after their bodies have vanished.

The imperfections of the nitrate are what make the film beautiful. What has partially destroyed the film has also made it captivating.

I watch the film on my laptop, pausing when I want. I control the experience completely, and I think about how that almost creates a third film. I take screenshots by pausing certain scenes. Every time I pause the film, I capture a different frozen frame, each unique and unrepeatable. The screenshots I take will most likely differ from the screenshots taken by another person. We create our own set of images that we use to navigate the film and our memory of it.

The film itself seems to mimic memory–the blurring, the distortion, the incompleteness, the gaps, the gradual degradation, the loss of whole scenes.

The opening scenes are of a crowd gathered at a fair to see Karloff as the mesmerist. All their heads blur into one sepia smear.

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Some of the scenes are perfectly intact with few blemishes. Time is indiscriminate, leaving certain parts untouched.

Has someone already said that cinema is an art of ghosts? Watching early silent films, I think it is.

The murder scene is shown in flashback. Barrymore gets drunk with the Jewish man and sees a belt he’s wearing that is filled with gold. We know this won’t end well.

As the Jewish man is leaving, Barrymore seems so concerned about him, buttoning up his fur coat like a mother bundling up her child. Of course, it’s all a charade. He’s probably planning the murder in his mind the whole time.

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The crime itself is committed outside during a snow storm. The scenes are tinted blue. At times, the screen is engulfed by snow. Barrymore attacks the man. Then, we see blood drops falling on the snow. Such a simple but poetic image.

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Barrymore drags the body to an incinerator. A shot of smoke and flames that resembles the earlier shots of the actors’ faces blurring. This is what the body is reduced to–blood on the snow, smoke in the air, a smear on celluloid.

The camera lingers on those flames, on the horror of them. It makes me think of all the early films lost to fire, how film is as fragile as flesh.

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A stunning cut from Barrymore covering his hands in the snow storm after the murder to him covering his hands as the mesmerist’s spell wears off.

The blue of the murder scene is the blue of memory.

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Barrymore visits a fortune teller, and the damage to the film intensifies. More distortion, more blemishes, the actors disappear.

It becomes a fire film. The reels seem to be combusting, erupting into flames. It’s not a film, it’s a conflagration.

Another scene where Barrymore is haunted by the man he murdered. His ghost appears and then melts away. The distortion takes over again, resembling the flames to which the dead man’s body was fed.

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I’m reminded of Yves Klein’s Fire Paintings, how he put fire directly onto the canvas, usually as a woman laid on it.

An art of burning bodies.

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Yves Klein
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Yves Klein

Light is Calling (2004)

A year later, in 2004, Morrison re-purposed another scene from The Bells to create a short film called Light is Calling. The nitrate print is even more degraded, but bits and pieces emerge from the distortions.

The pleasure and challenge of the film is catching the brief, recognizable parts that surface–a horse and buggy, a woman, a man.

I think of my own memories and how a face or an image will suddenly and momentarily rise out of the darkness. Gone before I can hold it.

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The viewer constructs the narrative with what they find. We are creating the film for ourselves.

It’s an unwatchable film that I can’t stop watching.

The actors are ghostly, ethereal. It’s like they’re in another dimension.

The film feels like a dream. I feel like I am dreaming it, or that it can only be a dream.

It was filmed with actors, but it looks more like an animated movie.

The swirling images remind me of the beautiful paintings that production designer Tyrus Wong created for Bambi. In his paintings, the animals are almost completely consumed by their blurry, dream-like environments.

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Tyrus Wong
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Tyrus Wong
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Tyrus Wong

When I glimpse an actor, I feel like I’m seeing a photograph rather than a film. They seem frozen, immovable, fossilized, suspended in amber. It’s a miracle that their faces have survived at all, that they haven’t completely disappeared from the film.

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My experience of watching the film reminds me of how we always want to make order out of chaos. I want to find the human beings that live inside this disintegrating, unwatchable film. I search for them in the storm of splotches and scars.

In one scene, the man and woman are together. He has her arm. Is he forcing her to go with him? Is he kidnapping her? It’s impossible to tell.

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They are both lost and not lost. Time has almost destroyed the film but not entirely. Their ghosts, their shadows, survive.

Episode 91: Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993)

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In this episode, I talk about the mysterious power and beauty of Jane Campion’s 1993 film, “The Piano.” It stars Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath, a Scottish woman who goes to New Zealand with her daughter, Flora, for an arranged marriage to Alisdair Stewart. Their marriage is troubled from the start, and Ada ends up falling for George Baines. I share my memories of watching the film for the first time and talk about themes of muteness, violence against women, and the complicated relationship between Ada and Baines.

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Episode 90: Maïwenn’s My King (2015)

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In this episode, I talk about Maïwenn’s “My King,” a raw and intense film that stars Emmanuelle Bercot as a woman struggling to heal her body and mind in the wake of a toxic and destructive relationship. I discuss how the film looks at emotional abuse, shows a woman reconstructing herself, and questions culturally-held beliefs about love. At the beginning of the episode, I also talk about how Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, “Stalker,” recently helped me through a difficult time.

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Episode 89: Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)

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In this episode, I talk about Peter Webber’s 2003 film “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” It’s an adaptation of the 1999 Tracy Chevalier novel by the same name, which imagines how Johannes Vermeer’s 17th century painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” came to be. It’s 1665 in Delft, Holland and a young girl named Griet goes to work at the home of the Vermeers to provide for her family after her father is injured at work. She enters a home rocked by domestic and financial instability. When Vermeer starts to paint Griet to appease his lecherous patron, more drama ensues as Vermeer’s wife becomes jealous and the attraction between Vermeer and Griet intensifies. I discuss the profound impact that both the book and the film had on my life because it sparked my deeper engagement with art. For this episode, I talk about Johannes Vermeer’s life and art, and I explain why I think the film is so powerful in the way that it centers the life of a teenage girl who is a maid, explores the difficulties of women’s lives in the 17th century, and shows the power of art to expand and enrich our minds.

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Episode 88: Pete Travis’s The Go-Between (2015)

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In this episode, I talk about Pete Travis’s dreamy 2015 film, “The Go-Between,” produced by the BBC, based on the classic L.P. Hartley novel of the same name, and starring Jim Broadbent, Vanessa Redgrave, and Lesley Manville. It focuses on a 12-year-old boy named Leo Colston who, in the summer of 1900 in England, goes to stay at the opulent estate of his friend, Marcus Maudsley. During his time there, Leo becomes the messenger, or go-between, for Marcus’s sister, Marian, and her secret lover, Ted Burgess. After the summer, none of their lives will ever be the same and Leo will be forever haunted by what he experienced. I talk about class, nostalgia, loss of innocence, and the devastating wounds of childhood. At the beginning of the episode, I also discuss how cinema has helped me cope with trauma. This episode contains spoilers.

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Episode 87: Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves (2002)

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In this episode, I talk about Patricia Cardoso’s feminist coming-of-age classic, “Real Women Have Curves” (2002). I discuss body image, factory work, the exploitation of immigrant labor, and the profoundly political and radical messages in the film. At the beginning of the episode, I also talk about recently re-watching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique” (1991).

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