Episode 78: Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life (2011)

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In this episode, I talk about Carol Morley’s haunting 2011 documentary, “Dreams of a Life,” which tells the tragic story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died in 2003 but whose body wasn’t discovered in her apartment until 2006. No one reported her missing or noticed she was gone. Joyce was beautiful, talented, and had lovers and friends throughout her life. How had this woman been completely forgotten? Morley spent years searching for answers. Her film includes interviews with people who knew Joyce and re-enactments that imagine what she was like. In the end, Morley constructs a portrait of a complicated, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable woman, and she also probes important themes such as loneliness, disconnection, and the breakdown of community.

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Episode 77: Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009)

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In this episode, I talk about Jessica Hausner’s 2009 film, “Lourdes.” It tells the story of Christine, a young woman in a wheelchair who goes to the famous Catholic holy site of Lourdes in France where she and other pilgrims hope for healing and possibly a miraculous cure. I talk about loneliness, disability, and my own struggle with religion.

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On Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970)

Note: This piece originally appeared on Burning House Press November 28, 2016

 

Barbara Loden is Wanda, as they say in the movies. Her inspiration for the screenplay was a newspaper story she had read about a woman convicted of robbing a bank; her accomplice was dead and she appeared in court alone. Sentenced to twenty years in prison, she thanked the judge. Interviewed when the film came out, after it had been awarded the International Critics Award at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, Barbara would say how deeply affected she had been by the story of this woman—what pain, what hopelessness could make a person desire to be put away? How could imprisonment be relief?

–Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden

From an early age, I knew I wouldn’t make it in this world. So I connected with women who, in my mind, shared that feeling. Plath and Woolf with their suicides speaking of a deep pain. Barbara Loden and her film Wanda in which the title character wanders alone and unloved.

Wanda is poor and she is voiceless and she is invisible. I understand the not-thereness of her.

 

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Nathalie Léger felt a connection to Wanda as well. Tasked with writing an encyclopedia entry about actress Barbara Loden, she quickly became obsessed and expanded her inquiry, writing Suite For Barbara Loden, a gorgeous and dizzying investigation and excavation. Léger delves into Loden’s life, at times embellishing and inventing, and analyzes every layer of Loden’s only film, Wanda.  The book is fact and fiction and memoir and film criticism; it is a love letter to Loden and the singular film she created.

I still remember when I first watched Wanda. It was a year ago. Autumn 2015. I watched it in my house–my childhood home–that is no longer mine. A place I was deeply connected to that was taken away. No real home anymore. I’m as lost as Wanda. I always was. When I saw her, I instantly recognized myself.

Of Wanda, Léger writes “She has no money, or almost none, she is on her own, she has nothing and is good for nothing.”

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She’s a woman drowning, a woman swallowed by landscape and time and the world’s indifference to her and her own indifference to herself.

Wanda leaves her husband and kids and ends up meeting a criminal and helping him rob a bank. She’s supposed to be the getaway driver, but, on the way to the bank to retrieve the man, she becomes lost. The man dies in a shootout with police. The story is based on a true story. Loden took another woman’s story and mixed it with her own. Wanda is a hybrid of its source material and of Loden herself. It’s infused with her own feelings, experiences, and subjectivity.

Loden created one film and died. She was robbed of the time to create more. But at least she did one great thing.

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I remember, also, Elia Kazan taking credit for Wanda, trying to silence and dismiss Loden as an artist in her own right. He must have been intimidated, must have recognized the film’s greatness. Otherwise, why try to claim it as his own?

I return to the character of Wanda. I know her well, this cinematic reflection of my insides. I’m like Wanda—not good at anything, going from job to job, not good enough, not really here, not really alive. Drifting, sleepwalking, waiting—for what? For it all to end.

I don’t care about film theory. I don’t care about academia or psychoanalysis or writing smart, profound things about movies. I care about the experience of the film, the relationship between myself and the story. I feel films. I intuit them. I can’t really write about them. Besides, Wanda is beyond language. She is flesh and blood to me.

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Léger writes about Wanda well and her writing testifies to how a film lives even after it ends. Or maybe it never ends. Léger’s project is a seance. At its core, cinema is a raising of the dead, a mixing of the living with the dead. Cinema inspires obsession. These images get inside our heads and we can’t erase them. Léger won’t let go of Wanda or Loden.

A woman makes a movie about another woman. A woman watches that movie and writes a book about the woman director and the woman subject of the film. A woman–myself–reads that book and feels transformed by all these women who gave voice to the things she struggles to write.

You either understand Wanda or you don’t. You either see yourself in her or she repulses you. The helplessness, the oddness, the obliviousness. How could she leave her kids? How could she stay with a man and help him commit a crime? How could she let herself be demeaned?

Wanda never had freedom. Maybe that’s why prison is a relief. Life holds nothing for her.

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Is Léger’s book a form of literary stalking? Léger follows Loden through the decades but is never able to pin her down. Loden remains a mystery, an unknowable woman.

Just as I can’t write about films, I also can’t write about books. What a lousy writer I am. I feel so many things and decided that words were the only way I could express some of them, but I fail at it. I fail at everything, like Wanda, who failed as a wife and a mother and a worker and a woman and a criminal. She failed spectacularly. She failed so much that failing was her only talent. I guess it’s my talent, too.

I want people to read Suite for Barbara Loden and feel what I felt, but you need a life of pain and failure to understand Wanda. You need to have blank eyes and a not-thereness and I don’t wish that on anyone. You need to be a little bit wounded and broken and unable to heal. Wanda does not triumph. Wanda is crawling on her knees in the dirt. She is what we pretend not to see. The woman we don’t want to become. But I’ve already become her.

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I’m so passive. Wanda is passive. At age sixteen, when I took a driver’s education class and we were at the point where we drove in the car, I kept saying “sorry” for everything, for every mistake I made. Annoyed, the teacher blurted out to me one day, “Stop saying sorry.” I’m still terrified of driving. Maybe I’m scared of freedom, of independence, of being an active participant in life.

Things happen to me. Things happen to Wanda. She doesn’t do much to change it, she isn’t capable, she keeps taking it. I keep taking it.

After the teacher demanded that I stop saying sorry, I said “sorry.”

I always feel like I have to apologize for my existence, like there’s no reason for my life or for me being here.

For ten years, I haven’t wanted to be here. My father died, and I stopped wanting to be alive. Maybe Wanda lost someone. Maybe something traumatic and unspeakable happened to her. She carries untold damage. She’s a reminder that so many of us can’t cope, so many of us can’t make it in this world.

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Léger writes something similar about Wanda: “We will never know the source of the wound that condemns Wanda to this loneliness. We will never know what ancient betrayal or long distant neglect plunged her into this state of constant and absolute distress. We will never know what loss, what absence she cannot get over. We accept her the way we accept ourselves, in blind ignorance, unable to put a name to the grief of existing. Her face, Wanda’s face, inscrutable, sad, obstinate.”

Some of us will leave this world without a trace. Some of us are so small and slight and transparent that our exit won’t register, our absence will have no presence. We were never here. We were never here.

On Chantal Akerman’s South (1999)

Note: This piece originally appeared on Burning House Press on August 8, 2016

 

How does the southern silence become so heavy and so menacing so suddenly? How do the trees and the whole natural environment evoke so intensely death, blood, and the weight of history? How does the present call up the past? And how does this past, with a mere gesture or a simple regard, haunt and torment you as you wander along an empty cotton field, or a dusty country road?

Chantal Akerman

In his seminal book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body–it is heritage.” The 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. confirms Coates’s words. Byrd was attacked by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. They beat him, urinated on him, and then tied his body to the back of their truck and dragged him several miles down an isolated road. Over the course of the drive, Byrd’s body was literally torn apart; pieces of flesh and body parts, including Byrd’s head and arm, were strewn along the road. The three men finally dumped what was left of Byrd’s body at a black church. The murder sparked national outrage and condemnation. All three killers were convicted. Two of the perpetrators remain alive, while one was executed in 2011.

Around the time of the murder, Chantal Akerman planned to make a documentary about the American South. She admired the work of William Faulkner and wanted to explore the region. However, when Byrd was murdered, her attention immediately shifted and she chose to focus on his death. The subsequent documentary she made was called Sud (South).

Two aspects of Akerman’s philosophy as a filmmaker are crucial to understanding and appreciating South. First, in I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, which is a documentary made about her before she died in 2015, she talks at length about her intentions as a director. Akerman states that she wants viewers to feel time unfolding as they watch her films, to experience time rather than barely noticing as it passes. To this end, many of her films feature long takes and are filled with natural sound.

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Second, Akerman believes that the Holocaust–an atrocity that her own mother survived–represented a kind of dividing point for cinema; it generated the idea that some things are so unimaginable, so horrific, that they cannot be shown. In keeping with this belief, Akerman’s cinema suggests, implies, and evokes. While a contemporary documentary or fiction film might use actors to recreate Byrd’s harrowing ordeal, Akerman withholds grisly simulations and refuses to reduce violence to a spectacle.

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I am a Southerner. I was born and raised in North Carolina. I’ve made detours to the Northeast, but I am pulled back to the South because it is my home. And yet, to live here, is to perpetually grapple with the open wound of racism. There is racism across the United States, but the South has a unique relationship with it because of slavery and The Civil War. Since the botched Reconstruction, the South has struggled to deal with racism. That doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made–there has been significant change due to the courageous actions of activists and everyday citizens–but inequality, injustice, and oppression persist.

On film, the South is often portrayed in a one-dimensional way that denies the region’s complexity and diversity. Akerman resists simplicity in her documentary. The long takes authentically immerse us in the world of the South. The film begins with a black man mowing the lawn of a Church, underscoring how important Protestant Christianity is to the region as a whole and to the black community in particular. From there, scenes appear–a black woman sitting on her porch on a sunny day, people walking down a street, long shots of verdant countryside and dilapidated trailers. Akerman captures the kudzu-covered forests, the crickets chirping at dusk, the low thrum of a train. These extended shots are crucial to submerging the viewer in a world where beauty and horror continually coexist, a world where a man could be dragged to his death by three white supremacists down an idyllic country road.

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Interspersed throughout the film are interviews with various people, including citizens of Jasper, Texas. Their names do not appear on the screen. A black woman sits on a porch with her grandchildren and talks about how things have changed since she was a child. A black man, who lived on the road where Byrd was killed, recounts seeing bits of Byrd’s flesh on the street. A white journalist at the local newspaper details Byrd’s murder with little emotion. A white police chief or sheriff insists that much of Jasper’s problems are economic, not racial.

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The documentary reaches a more personal depth as Akerman films parts of Byrd’s funeral at a church. The viewer sees the impact of Byrd’s death and learns more about him. Community leaders use the church pulpit to call for racial justice and unity. A black woman sings a powerful gospel song. In a poem, Byrd’s sister talks about who Byrd was as a person–how he loved music and had a good sense of humor. Another speaker says that Byrd visited the elderly and counselled young people. Byrd was a valued member of his community. His killers murdered him precisely in order to strike fear within that community. Byrd’s funeral is a time for gathering and grieving, but it’s also a time to show that black residents will not live in fear.

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Finally, the end of South directly addresses Byrd’s murder. In a scene that lasts around eight minutes, Akerman points her camera at the road where Byrd died, taking the route that was followed as his body disintegrated, as he was literally destroyed. It’s one of the most unsettling and emotional scenes I’ve ever watched. The scene forces us to imagine for ourselves what that ride was like for Byrd. We are compelled to imagine the pain and terror he must have been feeling. We see the forests and houses that pass, we hear the crickets, we can almost reach out our hand and touch the evening air, so close and yet so far from understanding. How can we ever fathom such horror?

The filming of the road reminds me of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Lanzmann didn’t use archival footage–like many directors tend to do–in his documentary about the Holocaust. Rather, he filmed the death camps as they looked decades later, lush with grass, hardly any traces left to indicate the atrocities that transpired. The last scene of South is similar. We see the road as it is in the aftermath; the only evidence that anything happened is the presence of the circles drawn on the pavement to mark where pieces of Byrd’s body were found. At one point, the circles become numerous, one after another, suggesting the rapid disintegration of Byrd’s body. Akerman does not attempt to recreate the atrocity. Instead, she films the remnants that say more than any reenactment ever could.

South is a challenging but essential film. Its difficulty lies in what it withholds and what it forces us to contemplate: the hate at the heart of humanity and what that hate can do to actual human beings. James Byrd Jr. was an ordinary man, a good man, a man who should be alive today. Racism killed him. The belief that it is acceptable to destroy the black body, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, is deeply embedded in the United States. We see it in the recent killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and countless others. Racist  violence persists despite efforts to eradicate prejudice. As tragic as Akerman’s film is, what makes it even more difficult to watch is the fact that, 17 years after it was made, it remains painfully relevant.

Episode 76: Sharp Objects Recap – Ep 7 and 8

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In this episode, I provide my concluding thoughts on the final two episodes of “Sharp Objects.” I discuss episode 7 (“Falling”) and episode 8 (“Milk”). I discuss female violence, my conflicting emotions about the ending, why this is one of the most important shows I’ve ever seen, and much more.

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Episode 75: Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000)

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In this episode, I talk about Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film, “In the Mood for Love,” which follows two people–Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan–in 1960s Hong Kong whose spouses are cheating on them with each other. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow spend more and more time together, imagining how their spouses met and started their affair, but they start to fall in love. Intent on not acting like their spouses, they resist temptation. In my exploration of the film, I emphasize the themes of longing, loneliness, desire, memory, and nostalgia.

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Original artwork by Dhiyanah Hassan

 

Episode 74: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945)

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In this episode, I talk about David Lean’s 1945 film, “Brief Encounter.” Set in 1938, in pre-WWII England, it’s about Laura and Alec, two strangers who fall in love despite being married to other people. I talk about how the film centers a woman’s tormented inner life and why it’s such a romantic classic.

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Episode 73: Sharp Objects Recap – Ep 5 and 6

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In this episode, I recap episodes 5 (“Closer”) and 6 (“Cherry”) of the HBO limited series, “Sharp Objects.” I talk about how the relationship between Camille and Adora is getting darker and how the show continues to explore trauma and memory in an evocative way. I share some of my own personal memories and struggles when it comes to grief and loss. Warning for discussion of self-harm, sexuality, and rape.

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Episode 72: James Ivory’s Maurice (1987)

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In this episode, I talk about James Ivory’s 1987 film, “Maurice.” It’s based on the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster. It’s set in 1910 and tells the story of Maurice Hall, a young man who attends Cambridge University and falls in love with Clive Durham. The film follows them over several years, tracing the turmoil of their relationship. Clive eventually marries, and Maurice finds love with Alec Scudder, a man who works on Clive’s estate. Made and released in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, “Maurice” is a film that celebrates and affirms queer love. It features brilliant performances by James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves, who all were deeply committed to their roles. For this episode, I talk about E.M. Forster, Merchant Ivory Productions, the filming of “Maurice,” and I explain why this dreamy and romantic film continues to enchant me.

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Episode 71: Sharp Objects Recap – Ep 3 and 4

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In this episode, I recap episodes 3 and 4 of the HBO limited series, “Sharp Objects.” I discuss the importance of more women having a role in films and television, my current obsession with woman-centric crime fiction, the show’s representation of female sexuality and mother/daughter relationships, and much more.

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