Murdering Cinema: Marguerite Duras’s Green Eyes

Marguerite Duras is one of my favorite writers. She was both a prolific writer and director. I have no desire to undertake a full review of Green Eyes, a book published in 1990 and translated by Carol Barko that collects Duras’s thoughts on cinema, including essays, reviews, and interviews.  I think Duras’s words can speak for themselves. So what I’m doing in this post is curating a collection of quotations and scanned images from the book that I find personally meaningful and that I think are important and would provide insight to any Duras fan. In Green Eyes, she talks about her own films, her relationship to cinema, and even shares what directors and films she loves (and hates!). If you love Duras, I think this book is a must-read.

 

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Marguerite Duras as a child

 

 

When I’m writing I’m not dying. — from The Letter

 

I tell you, too, we think we can’t survive knowing those abominable facts of the hopeless separation between people. Now, it isn’t true. You survive it. You can. You can do it your own way. — from I Wanted To Tell You

 

But you see, you don’t matter anymore to me now either. One cannot live off the dead. — from You, the Other, In Our Separation

 

There are films that stay with you, others that vanish in the immediate hours right after you’ve seen them. That’s how I know whether or not I’ve gone to the movies: what, the morning after, has become of the film I saw the night before. The way it looks the next day is what I’ve seen. Sometimes films become clear two months later. The majority of films are lost. — from Overnight Movies

 

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Edouard Boubat

 

Bresson is a very great director, one of the greatest who has ever lived. Pickpocket, Au hasard Balthazar all by themselves could stand for cinema in its entirety. — from Renoir, Bresson, Cocteau. Tati.

 

Bresson moves me to pain. Tati to joy. But probably Tati wrings fewer things from me than Bresson, he’s less wrenching. We ought to institute this kind of criticism: not to talk about film without a concern for things of this world but from the self relating to the film. When I see The Night of the Hunter, Ordet, City Lights, for the fifth time, it’s as if I were renewed every time in the presence of these films, and at the same time amazed at being the same me through the years of my life. — from Renoir. Bresson. Cocteau. Tati.

 

Bresson is tremendous. He’s the inaugurator of all of cinema. When you go to see a film by Bresson you have the feeling you’ve never been to the movies. — from In the Gardens of Israel, It Was Never Night

 

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Delphine Seyrig

 

I’m going to tell you the people I ought to have liked whom I didn’t like. There’s nothing I can do about it. There is Rene Clair, that sweet, nice side I cannot bear. I’ve never liked Guitry either. I know now he’s become fashionable. I don’t like Bergman. I like Dreyer but I saw Gertrud again and I was terribly disappointed. Cocteau, I don’t like much, no. Renoir, yes, I love. He’s probably my favorite among the ones who are dead. Le Fleuve (The River) is superb. That child with the snake, the pictures of the Ganges. I like Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Chaplin, and Tati. There’s a filmmaker I’ve just discovered, it’s Rouch. What he does I find brilliant. — from In the Gardens of Israel, It Was Never Night

 

You have to go through this journey with the book you are giving birth to, this hard labor, the whole time of its writing. One acquires a taste for this wonderful misery. — from Solitude

 

When I’m making movies, I’m writing, I’m writing about the image, about what it should represent, about my doubts concerning its nature. I’m writing about the meaning it ought to have. The choice of the image which is then made is a result of this writing. The writing of the film–for me–is cinema. — from Solitude

 

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A leaf I used as a bookmark while reading Green Eyes

 

 

My relationship with cinema is one of murder. I began to make movies in order to read the creative mastery which allows the destruction of the text. Now it’s the image that I want to affect, to diminish. — from Solitude

 

One thinks up writing on one’s own. Everywhere. In no matter what case. Cinema, no. Films do not call. they do not await like the written work, that great rush into the book. When no one makes films, films do not exist, have never existed. When no one writes, the written work still exists, it has always existed. When everything is over, on the dying world. the gray planet, it will still exist everywhere, in the air of time, on the sea. — from Cinema, No

 

To write is to go looking outside of oneself for what is already inside oneself. — from The Written Image

 

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Barbara Loden in her film Wanda (1970)

 

I think there is a miracle in Wanda. Usually there is a distance between the visual representation and the text, as well as the subject and the action. Here this distance is completely nullified; there is an instant and permanent continuity between Barbara Loden and Wanda. — from The Tremulous Man

 

The miracle for me isn’t in the acting. It’s that she seems even more herself in the movie, so it seems to me–I didn’t know her–than she must have been in life. She’s even more real in the movie than in life; it’s completely miraculous. — from The Tremulous Man

 

I was very moved by her being herself in her movie. It’s as if she had found a way in the movie to make sacred what she wants to portray as a demoralization, which I find to be an achievement, a very, very powerful achievement, very violent and profound. That’s the way I see it. — from The Tremulous Man

 

There is a public for Wanda. Perhaps America is uncivilized in a way that I’m not familiar with, that I haven’t explored. But what I do know is that there is a public for this movie. It’s simply a matter of finding it, of letting it know that this film exists. — from The Tremulous Man

 

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Barbara Loden in her film Wanda (1970)

 

Directors and Films Duras Liked

  • Jean-Luc Godard
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • City Lights by Charlie Chaplin
  • American Graffiti by George Lucas
  • The River by Jean Renoir
  • Robert Bresson
  • Pickpocket by Robert Bresson
  • Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson
  • Jacques Tati
  • Playtime by Jacques Tati
  • The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton
  • Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • Jean Renoir
  • Yasujiro Ozu
  • Satyajit Ray
  • Fritz Lang
  • John Ford
  • Jean Rouch
  • Codex by Stuart Pound
  • Wanda by Barbara Loden
  • America, America by Elia Kazan
  • Wild River by Elia Kazan
  • Le Destin de Juliette by Aline Isserman

Directors Duras Disliked

  • Woody Allen
  • Ingmar Bergman
  • Jean Cocteau
  • Rene Clair
  • Sacha Guitry

Documentaries About Feminism and Women’s History To Watch in 2020

The year 2020 marks the centenary of the 19th amendment. This constitutional amendment, passed in 1920, gave women in the United States the right to vote. For decades, suffragists had fought for this right. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the women’s rights movement officially launched in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two women who were also abolitionists but were marginalized in anti-slavery spaces because of sexism. This inspired them to organize around the issue of women’s rights.

Stanton and other suffragists were by no means perfect, and racism  was present  in the mainstream suffrage movement that cannot be ignored. Many black women created their own suffrage groups, and their contributions are too often overlooked. For all the importance of this anniversary, the 19th amendment did not erase the discrimination that black women faced at the voting polls. It took the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate things like poll taxes and literacy tests that prevented so many African Americans from voting.

Since the birth of the women’s rights movement, women have made important strides, but the struggle for liberation continues. I’ve compiled a list of documentaries that focus on the achievements of feminism as a whole and the important work done by individual women through activism and the arts. I wanted to emphasize the diversity of the female experience and how women of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds have made vital contributions to feminism and to the world.

All these documentaries are available to stream in the United States. Beside each film, in parentheses, you’ll see where you can watch the film. I’ve focused on accessible streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. And I’ve included free sites like Tubi TV and PBS. I hope this list serves as a helpful resource and inspires others to explore the rich, complicated, and fascinating history of feminism. I’ve grouped the films into distinct categories, beginning with First Wave feminism, and I will add films as I discover them.

First Wave

Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (Amazon Prime)

Courage in Corsets (PBS)

Women on the March (National Film Board of Canada)

The Story of Women and Power (Amazon Prime)

A History of Women’s Achievement in America (Amazon Prime)

Second Wave

Rise Up: Songs of the Women’s Movement (PBS Passport)

Feminists: What Were They Thinking? (Netflix)

We’ll Meet Again: The Fight For Women’s Rights (PBS Passport)

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (Amazon Prime)

Gloria: In Her Own Words (HBO)

Some American Feminists (National Film Board of Canada)

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Writers

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ (PBS and Amazon Prime)

Paris Was a Woman (Tubi TV)

Bronte Country: The Life and Times of Three Famous Sisters (Tubi TV)

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (PBS Passport)

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (Netflix)

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/ Feeling Heart (PBS Passport)

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Hulu)

Margaret Atwood: Once in August (National Film Board of Canada)

Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word is Power (Hulu)

Voices & Visions: Elizabeth Bishop

Voices & Visions: Emily Dickinson

Voices & Visions: Marianne Moore

Voices & Visions: Sylvia Plath

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (Netflix)

American Experience: Rachel Carson (Amazon Prime)

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Directors

The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blache (National Film Board of Canada)

Artists

Eva Hesse (PBS Passport)

Our City Dreams (Tubi TV)

Women Art Revolution (Tubi TV)

What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (Tubi TV)

Klee Wyck (National Film Board of Canada)

Bone Wind Fire (National Film Board of Canada)

Kusama: Infinity (Hulu)

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Activists

The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen (Ovid)

Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (Ovid and Amazon Prime)

Rigoberta Menchu: Daughter of the Maya (Tubi TV)

Medicine Woman (PBS)

American Experience: Emma Goldman (PBS)

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1985

Jane Fonda in Five Acts (Hulu and HBO)

Dolores (PBS Passport)

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (Tubi TV)

Anita (Tubi TV)

RBG (Hulu)

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Musicians

Holly Near: Singing For Our Lives (PBS Passport)

The Girls in the Band (Tubi TV)

What Happened Miss Simone? (Netflix)

Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amazon Prime)

Science and Technology

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Netflix and PBS Passport)

 

Spirituality

Goddess Remembered (National Film Board of Canada)

The Burning Times (National Film Board of Canada)

 

Sports

American Masters: Billie Jean King (Amazon Prime)

American Masters: Althea (Amazon Prime)

 

 

On Surviving a Pandemic

The room where I write is flooded with light. Everything is sun-touched and golden. It’s a moment I am writing down so as to keep it, remember it, come back to it. All this light cascading around me and on to me. A room of light. Outside these walls, the world falls apart. A pandemic rages while I read poetry and watch films. People die alone. Their loved ones receive the shattering news on the phone. They cannot touch the dead. They cannot gather to mourn, to talk, to hold one another. The anonymous are buried in unmarked graves. What happens to their names and belongings?

(My mind flashes back over a decade ago to the hospital room where my father lies dead. Light fills the room, it washes over every surface, cleaning away the death. Light is life. The light touches him, but he does not move. I stand beside his bed, speechless, broken, disbelieving. Years later and the light remains most memorable. The light that brought life into a room of death, a room I have never left.)

Cinema is its own kind of light, usually projected in a dark theater of people. Now, the light emanates from a laptop screen in my bedroom. During this pandemic, I turn to films. One after another. Documentaries, art house, true crime, classic Hollywood musicals. I live in the movies because I cannot live in my life as the bodies pile up and the government fails us. I look at the horror, and I look away from it. The looking away guarantees my survival. Before you can bear witness, you must first bear your life.

Often, I think about the before and after of my life. I split my life this way: Before my father’s death, after it; before the pandemic, after it. But there is a part I always forget: the during. That’s the part that does the most damage. It’s the time of pain, of unraveling, of breaking. We are in the during. I live for the after, and I ache for the before when I didn’t know this fear of every surface and of what is in the air.

I think of Carol White in the 1995 Todd Haynes film, Safe. She is a housewife who becomes mysteriously ill and isolates herself because, when you don’t know what’s wrong with you, everything is dangerous. By the end of the film, she’s retreated to a New Age complex and lives in a solitary bunker where she is “safe” from the outside world, but she can never escape herself or her body. She can’t change what’s already inside her: the disease she cannot name or speak, its origins unknown. The bunker offers the enticing promise of protection that comes with its own dehumanization. Carol touches no one, has no contact and no connection. To stay alive, she must give up the very things we live for: love, contact, intimacy, affection. Many of the same things that we have given up to survive this pandemic. To be human is to be frightfully vulnerable, your body so defenseless against disease, accident, violence. There is little protection. Not even a concrete fortress is enough. 

We are all vulnerable, but we are not “in this together.” America is a deeply stratified and unequal country. My family and I are experiencing Covid-19 differently as working class people in the rural South with health issues and no health insurance than a celebrity or someone who works in a corporate position at Google. This virus disproportionately harms minority communities, showing how life in this country is often shaped by race, disability, gender, and class. Even with my struggles, I’m fortunate to have food, a job, a home, and my family.

Will our society meaningfully change after we’ve survived the collective trauma of this pandemic? There are tributes to the heroic working class people on the front-lines, but will their lives be transformed in the aftermath? Will voters decide to give those people a living wage and health care? I hear all the talk of kindness, but I don’t want this pandemic to make us more kind. I want it to radicalize us and transform our ideas about what kind of country we want to be. I want us to be more humane. I want this pandemic to sensitize us to the suffering of others and galvanize us to eliminate that suffering by guaranteeing health care, affordable housing, better wages, and a clean environment for all. That would be a good start.

Right now, things feel apocalyptic, full of death and sorrow, but we must imagine a better world. I think of Carol in her bunker. I think of us all right now in our separate bunkers, and I await the day when we leave them and start the work of repair, of healing. I have known loss. I’ve known the destruction of my life and myself, but I’ve also known the essential work of rebuilding–how your life can deepen and expand in the wounded places, how your grief can connect you to other human beings who are also grieving and hurting. This is not the end of time. This is not the end of the world. But it’s not a beginning either. It’s something in between, in the making. It’s the space between the caterpillar and the butterfly. We don’t yet know what we will become. I hope we are better. For now, my hope must be enough.

Websites Where You Can Watch Films For Free

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion in movie streaming sites. Many of them are at least $5 per month and, if you are subscribed to a lot of them, that money can add up quickly.

However, there is a way to watch quality art house, classic, and independent films for free. Below is a list of all the free sites that I know of. I wanted to compile this list in case it’s helpful to other people. I’ve used most of them myself, and I provide some recommendations in case you’re wondering where to start.

Happy streaming!

 

PBS

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a nonprofit channel in the United States that is free to the public. Each state has its own local PBS station that airs both national and local programs. PBS airs many shows, including American Masters, American Experience, Nova, Independent Lens, POV, and more. Right now, shows air live on television and are available to stream for free on the PBS website and app, usually for around 30 days. PBS has introduced the Passport service that is similar to an additional paid subscription that gives you exclusive access to the vast PBS catalog. You have to donate around $60 per year to get Passport. You can even break that up into monthly $5 payments.

My recommendations: The Independent Lens and POV programs are my favorites, often airing documentaries that address urgent social issues, like mass incarceration, racism, and sexism

 

TUBI TV

Tubi TV is a site that offers a huge array of films. It’s an ad-supported site. So, commercials do play during the videos. You’ll find everything on here, from television movies to art house cinema. It’s one of my favorite sites because of that diversity.

My recommendations: Check out the documentary LIGHT YEARS, which is about the making of Lucrecia Martel’s ZAMA or explore Sarah Polley’s  STORIES WE TELL or watch Jessica Hausner’s  AMOUR FOU. Give the foreign language category a good look. You might also like Dick Cavett’s interviews with famous directors, including Ingmar Bergman. You’ll find those interviews in Season 12. You also shouldn’t miss Hou Hsiao-hsien’s MILLENNIUM MAMBO.

 

LE CINEMA CLUB 

Le Cinema Club has one film available to stream for free for one week. The site spotlights both short and feature films, and primarily focuses on art house.

 

MOSFILM ON YOUTUBE

Mosfilm is a legendary Russian film studio that’s been around since 1920! Many of its films are available on its Youtube channel and do include English subtitles.

 

RVISION ON YOUTUBE

This is a great resource for lovers of old Russian and Soviet cinema. Many of the films have English subtitles.

 

KOREAN FILM ARCHIVE ON YOUTUBE

With Bong Joon-ho’s recent wins at the Oscars, people are even more interested in Korean cinema. The Korean Film Archive has made over 100 films available for free on YouTube, and many of them have English subtitles.

 

FESTIVAL SCOPE

Festival Scope is a site that offers access to film festivals online. Often, the films are free and available for a set period of time.

 

VUDU

Vudu is a video on demand site created by Wal-Mart. Films are available for purchase and rent. In addition, they have a section of free films that you can stream with commercials.

My Recommendations: Check out two films I’ve covered on the podcast: Nancy Savoca’s DOGFIGHT and Jonathan Glazer’s BIRTH. Or check out Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF and Ray Lawrence’s LANTANA.

 

IMDB TV

IMDB TV is a service provided by the popular Internet Database website. All the films are free with ads. You can also search for the titles on Amazon Prime and add them to your wishlist there, or you can create an IMDB account to watch the films. They change the films each month, and also offer television shows. The films tend to be more commercial and mainstream, but you never know what you might find.

My recommendation: Check out Niki Caro’s WHALE RIDER

 

THE ROKU CHANNEL

You don’t have to use the Roku app in order to watch the films and shows on The Roku Channel. It’s a stand-alone website that allows you to stream things for free with commercials.

My recommendations: Check out Ang Lee’s EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN or Agnieszka Holland’s THE SECRET GARDEN.

 

CRACKLE

Crackle has been around for a while. It offers both movies and television shows, many of which are mainstream, Hollywood hits. The selection usually changes every month.

My recommendations: Check out Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s BIG NIGHT or Penny Marshall’s AWAKENINGS.

 

NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA

Many films on the website of The National Film Board of Canada are available to residents in the United States. I urge anyone to take advantage of this and explore the NFB’s vast catalog of documentaries, feature films, and shorts. NFB also has the films on its YouTube channel.

My recommendations: Check out THE LOST GARDEN: THE LIFE AND CINEMA OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE or  MARGARET ATWOOD: ONCE IN AUGUST

 

POPCORN FLIX

Popcorn Flix has a selection of films and shows that you can watch for free with commercials. The content is not always the highest quality but occasionally you can find some hidden gems.

My recommendations: Check out Thomas Vinterberg’s THE HUNT or Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH or Gilles Bourdos’s RENOIR

 

SNAG FILMS

Snag Films has a large catalog. Many of the films tend to be documentaries that focus on social issues and people’s lives around the world. I think if you like documentaries, this is an excellent site for you to explore.

My recommendation: Heddy Honigmann’s FOREVER

 

ARTE IN ENGLISH

I’d give anything for the regular Arte channel to be available here in the United States. They do offer a version of it in English with some free programs. There isn’t a huge selection and many of the items are short, but it’s worth a look.

 

INTERNET ARCHIVE

Most people know about the Internet Archive. It’s been around for a long time. You can often find films on there that are in the public domain.

My recommendations: Check out Charlie Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT or watch Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL.

 

UBU WEB

If experimental film is more your thing, Ubu Web has a good variety of short films and documentaries, often focusing on artists and writers.

My recommendations: Check out Bas Jan Ader’s Selected Works or Hiroshi Teshigahara’s ANTONIO GAUDI or some short films by Agnes Varda as well as her interview with Susan Sontag.

 

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ON YOUTUBE

The Library of Congress has a YouTube channel where you can find some old films, including many short silent films.

My recommendations: Check out this playlistof selections from the National Film Registry or these early Thomas Edison films.

 

MIDNIGHT PULP

Midnight Pulp has both a free and paid version. Look for “Pulp+” in the top left corner of the thumbnails to know which films you have to subscribe to see. The site has a surprisingly good selection of art house movies.

My recommendations: Check out Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE or a documentary on Jean Genet or Ermanno Olmi’s THE LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRINKER.

 

ASIAN CRUSH

Asian Crush is very similar to Midnight Pulp. They share an almost identical website design, but obviously Asian Crush focuses on films from across Asia. There are free films on the site while others can only be accessed by purchasing a subscription. There is an “A+” in the top left corner of a film’s thumbnail to indicate that it’s only for subscribers. The films include English subtitles.

My recommendations: Check out MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER or the documentary about New Taiwanese Cinema FLOWERS OF TAIPEI. There is also Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s HAPPY HOUR and Anthony Chen’s ILO ILO, as well as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE TIME TO LIVE AND THE TIME TO DIE and DUST IN THE WIND.

 

YUYU TV

YuYu TV has a similar layout as Asian Crush and Midnight Pulp. It too has films for subscribers and films that are free. The “YY+” in the top left hand corner indicates which films are exclusively for subscribers.

My recommendations: Check out Maïwenn’s MY KING or Ann Hui’s A SIMPLE LIFE. There is also a collection of Francois Ozon’s early short films.

 

KINET

Kinet is a website that offers free access to experimental and avant-garde cinema. Filmmakers can also submit their films to the site.

 

 

Disclaimer: The catalogs on these websites are subject to change. Many of them replenish and replace their offerings on a monthly basis. What is available today might expire tomorrow. I will recommend a film or two from each site, but by the time you read this post those films might not be available anymore. Also, I am located in the United States. I don’t know if these sites are free outside of my own country. Some of the sites require you to create an account using your email address, others do not. None of them require your credit card or any other financial information. Some of these sites do contain ads and commercials.

 

 

Have I left out a website? Let me know in the comments.

 

You Don’t Have To Care About The Oscars

I’m a broken record about my story. I have to say it over and over so that I can accept it. When I was 16, my father died. That’s the sentence I write to explain myself. You can’t understand me if you don’t know this part. Nothing about me makes sense unless I tell you that, when I was just a teenager, something deeply catastrophic happened to me. Ever since the moment of his death, I’ve struggled to live, to speak, to write, to survive. Only a few things have carried me from that moment to this one: my mother, books, music, art, and cinema. Those are what I clung to in the dark aftermath of his death and they are what I hold on to still.

I exposed a lot just now. You thought you’d read a little story about the Oscars and here I am laying my heartache bare. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. This is how I am. I can’t beat around the bush. I can’t pretend or hold back. I overshare, and the internet rewards that kind of thing. Maybe we all overshare, hoping someone sees what we are sharing. Maybe we’re trying to share the burden of the pain and find others shouldering the same thing. What does any of this have to do with film? It has everything to do with it.

After my father died, I went to cinema like others go to religion. My church was a dark movie theater, often empty except for me and my mom. In my rural North Carolina town, there weren’t too many theaters. This was around 2006. But there was a one dollar theater (it’s now closed) that miraculously would play some art house cinema. It also played its fair share of schlock, but I watched that, too. In my grief, I didn’t care what was on the screen as long as it was a story, another world that sucked me out of the horror I was living. I went to that theater because I wanted to escape an empty, haunted house, a home that no longer existed because my father was dead. I didn’t want to feel it or think about it or live it. I wanted to be in that theater, away from my new, unbearable reality.

What does this have to do with the Oscars? The Oscars have commodified films. The show advertises itself as a celebration of movies, but it’s just a spectacle that has nothing to do with the emotional, transcendent beauty of cinema that I found in that theater all those years ago when I thought I might die of grief and maybe I am slowly dying of it, but the films saved me then and they save me now. For me, the Oscars has no relationship to what I feel when I watch a film. What I see in that ceremony with the beautiful dresses (I do love them) and the fancy food and the golden statues has no connection to the essence of cinema, this glorious art form of light that transports us into other lives.

The moment I know a film is a work of art is when I feel my burden lighten, when I feel in the presence of something that represents the loneliness inside me, when I feel the director is sharing something from his or her own soul that touches my soul, when I feel just for that interval of the film that I am not alone in this senseless, chaotic, and terrifying world. The films that have made me feel all of that often never got nominated for an Oscar. It doesn’t matter. The lack of an Oscar nomination or win doesn’t make those films any less valid or meaningful. I still love those films and will always love them because of what they’ve given me.

I understand why the Oscars matter to many people. I absolutely believe that representation matters, that we need diversity in film, that all kinds of stories should appear on the screen. I know that an Oscar nomination or win can transform someone’s life, give them access to new opportunities, jump-start a career. When people talk about the lack of diversity in nominations and wins, that’s important, and I’d never belittle the fight against the sexism and racism in the film industry. I think all of that goes without saying, but I wanted to make it clear. Outrage is justified when so few women have ever been nominated (let alone won) in the directing category. Outrage is justified when people of color are consistently overlooked.

I’m talking about the need on the part of many to see the Oscars validate their film taste. Because they loved a certain film, of course it should be nominated! They believe their favorites are worthy of recognition. What I’m asking is why do we need this outward validation? Why do we need this institution to acknowledge the films we like? I’ve let it go. I’ve given it up because I do not believe the Oscars represent the vast majority of cinephiles who live and breathe film and dedicate the vast majority of their lives to it. I’m watching films for spiritual sustenance. Cinema is that serious to me. It goes back to that dark theater over a decade ago. That’s what I trace this obsession, this cinemania, back to. But it’s not just obsession, it’s love. Overwhelming love. Maybe it’s unhealthy. It probably is, but as I’ve gone through more loss and more pain and more fear, I’ve turned even more to films.

I could care less if any of the movies I love are ever nominated. Would it be nice for them to be more widely known and for the filmmakers and producers to get recognition for their work? Absolutely. But, for me, the film is enough. The experience of the film. The feeling of the film. The moment of connection. The lessening of loneliness that it provides. The beauty. All of it is enough. It’s what I live for. Somehow, in all the Oscar predictions and bets and watch parties and think pieces, the true meaning of cinema gets lost and forgotten. What it’s really about is your emotional experience of that film, what you see in the images, how the film becomes part of you, how you think about it for days or even years, how scenes come back to you at random moments. That’s what matters to me. Not the red carpet. Not the media coverage. Not the name that’s read aloud after the envelope is opened. Just me and the film and the way we become one.

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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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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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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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.