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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They are both lost and not lost. Time has almost destroyed the film but not entirely. Their ghosts, their shadows, survive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
In this episode, I talk about Nancy Savoca’s beautiful 1991 coming-of-age film, “Dogfight.” It stars River Phoenix and Lili Taylor as Eddie Birdlace and Rose Fenny, two teens who connect in 1963 in San Francisco, just before the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam War. It’s the night before Eddie is to be sent over to Vietnam and he and his marine buddies are holding a dogfight, which is a party where men invite the ugliest women they can find and the one with the most unattractive date wins a cash reward. Eddie invites Rose, but, although their initial meeting doesn’t go well, over the course of the film these two very different people gradually develop a profound connection. In my discussion, I talk about the politics of ugliness and beauty standards, the damage of toxic masculinity, and provide information on the making of the film. This episode contains spoilers.
In this episode, I interview director Leon Lee on his latest documentary, “Letter from Masanjia.” In 2012, a story in The Oregonion went viral. A woman named Julie Keith had opened a box of Halloween decorations from KMart and discovered an SOS letter written by Sun Yi, a man imprisoned and tortured in a Chinese labor camp for engaging in the spiritual practice of Falun Gong. Keith publicized the letter, and the international attention eventually led to the abolishment of these labor camps and freed many people in the process. I talk to Lee about Sun Yi’s story, how the documentary was made, and the larger issues it raises about the source of cheap goods, the persecution of minorities, and the power of small actions. Go to http://www.letterfrommasanjia.com for more information on the film and the steps you can take to make a difference.
I’m lying in bed, listening to the rain outside and watching the blades of my ceiling fan go round and round. White blades against a white ceiling–a monochrome that swallows me. It’s late at night. The house is silent. I can’t read or concentrate. I put classical piano music on. I want to cry. I think of looking at pictures of my father. His death, when I was a teenager, is the terrible seed of the present. I don’t take out the pictures. I keep lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and the fan and listening to the piano music.
Hovering over everything is this old and festering grief. My shame at how it persists. My longing to escape it. If only the past were manageable and not so messy; if only it didn’t spill into the present. Grief is ordinary, banal. It’s there in the room, radiating and throbbing. I think about all the lost moments, the ones that were so quiet the mind decided not to remember them–all the words, the touches, the drives in the car. I want them all back.
I think about Lina Rodríguez‘s 2016 film This Time Tomorrow and how it shows a family–a teenage girl, her mother, and her father–in all its ordinary splendor and then cuts that family down to just the girl and one parent. That’s exactly what happened to my life. The loss comes in the middle of the film, like a line that bifurcates their lives into Before and After.
The teenage girl is Adelaida. We see her lying in bed with her mother and father. We see them folding laundry, arguing, eating ice cream, celebrating the mother’s birthday. Them just being together is central; it’s the point. The fact that they do nothing important is also the point. Our lives are made up of a whole lot of nothing important that becomes our everything–cooking dinner, commuting, watching television. These are the rhythms that we live by. Through these mundane tasks and experiences, we come to know ourselves, and doing them with family and friends is how we form bonds.
Death fractures the ordinary. No more folding laundry together. No more fights. No more footsteps in the hallway or the whiff of his cologne when he enters the room, no more lip print on your skin after she kisses your cheek. No more together, now only apart. The ordinary becomes harder, marred by the phantom of the dead, the memory of what once was and can no longer be. Wholeness is now impossible.
Adelaida acts out in the second half of the film, loses herself. In the Before, she was carefree and happy. In the After, she’s sullen and spends little time with her remaining parent, who is always gone anyways. They are each isolated in their own pain. Everything is still the same–their home, the places they went together, the rooms–but now they must live as two instead of three. And how can they do it? Who are they now? Life goes on, always. Only we are altered, awakened to absence. God, the aching.
Adelaida lies in bed, stares into space. Her dead parent appears at the door, a comforting mirage. And I’m in my bed, depressed, looking at the ceiling and the fan, wondering how to move, how to live. No ghost materializes. He isn’t coming back. I want us to watch television and go out to eat and tell each other good night, I love you. I want it all back–all the nothing that is everything, all that was once my life, all the glorious Before when I didn’t know there would be an After.