While watching Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film, Fanny and Alexander, I came across a very powerful scene about grief. I keep thinking about it. I suspect I will think about it for a long time because it articulates (and, in a way, resolves) several things that I struggle with when it comes to grief and loss.
In the scene, Helena Ekdahl is speaking to the ghost of her dead son, Oscar. She talks about what grief has done to her life and to her sense of reality. Helena used to be an actress, and that’s what she’s alluding to when she mentions playing a role.
This shattering of reality is central to my own life. I often use the word “shattered” to describe what it was like to lose my father when I was 16 years old. Something happened when he died, something happened when I was told that he was dead. This wound was created and started to form. Reality was shattered, broken. I have lived with that brokenness ever since, and I have struggled to articulate it, to find words for it.
I am also overwhelmed by the inability to make sense of things. I’m not sure how to explain this to you. I’m not sure many people understand it. Nothing makes sense anymore, nothing has made sense since he died. The way I thought the world was, what I thought my life was, what I thought reality was–all of it was destroyed. It’s why I’m drawn to non-linear, non-narrative forms of art. It’s why I myself write in fragments. His death, and all the other loss and trauma I have suffered in the intervening years, pulverized me, reduced me to ruins. That’s how I write. I write bits and pieces, I write word shards. I write all the fragments that remain of my shattered life and soul. I can’t make sense of anything. I can’t find or create meaning. I can’t do it.
What I find fascinating about this scene is Helena’s acceptance of her shatteredness, her embracing of senselessness, her belief that it makes reality more real, that it is the natural state of life. She has no desire to heal the wound, to repair the brokenness, to make any sense out of the chaos. I think, for so long, I have resisted the senselessness. I’ve thought that I needed to overcome it, or maybe I thought that it would change, that some miraculous moment would arrive when everything finally made sense again. That isn’t going to happen. I know that now.
He’s been dead over a decade. It’s never going to feel real. It’s never going to stop killing me. It’s never going to be acceptable that he isn’t alive. I cannot heal (“I’m so completely unhealable, baby”). I cannot move past it. I cannot bear it. Reality is broken. It will always be broken. All I can do is create a space for engaging with what is broken, what is lost, what is unbearable. I do that through writing. Writing helps me to survive the senselessness of this world. It helps me live in this broken reality that often defies language and makes words impossible. How do you write when you can’t make sense of anything, when your reality is cracked in pieces? How do you write a scream?
There’s another powerful scene in Fanny and Alexander. It’s just after Oscar’s death. His body is laid out in a room in the house. His two children–the title characters–are awakened in the night by the sound of their mother’s screams. Emilie Ekdahl is pacing the room that holds Oscar’s body. She is releasing the primal shrieks of grief. No language can be found. She cannot speak. She can only wail. It’s one of the most visceral and honest scenes about grief that I’ve ever witnessed. Helena speaks about the breaking of reality, and Emilie enacts it through her body, through her guttural and raw shrieking that gives voice to the depths of her unspeakable anguish.
I think that’s what I want my writing to be–the articulation of a scream.
I’ve been thinking about Jean Vigo’s underwater scenes in Taris and L’atalante. Of all the scenes in his films, I come back to those. I think it’s because water itself holds such meaning in my life.
For Vigo, water seems to function in various ways. It’s a site where the body can be free, liberated, and sensual. Think of swimmer Jean Taris, barely clothed, playing underwater, bubbles streaming from his mouth, a gorgeous smile on his face.
In L’atalante, water represents a connection to the beloved. The new groom jumps into the water because he was told that if you open your eyes underwater, you can see the one you love. His wife has run away. He wants to see her again. So he goes underwater to reconnect with her. The water creates access, a portal to the one who is lost, a way of reaching her.
There’s a ghostliness about these scenes even though the actors in them were alive. The way water reduces bodies to light and shadow and the ethereal.
When I was a kid, I loved swimming. It was the only time I was truly free, my body no longer weighed down. I could do flips and handstands and laps. I could sink to the bottom and hold my breath as long as possible. I could float on top and feel the sun on my skin. It was a magical place–just as it is in Vigo’s films. A place of possibilities, a place of dreams.
I’ve never swam in the ocean. I rarely even got to swim as a child. Because it was a rare experience, I think I cherished it all the more. There was a local public pool that I sometimes went to. A family friend worked at a hotel and we got to use the pool occasionally during the summer. I’d always take goggles so that I could go to the bottom of the pool and then look up and see the sunlight streaming through the surface. I felt suspended in time, fossilized in beauty. The sunlight would make these tessellations on the bottom of the pool. I was mesmerized. I didn’t want to leave the water ever. I hated having to return to the real world. I always wished I had a camera to capture what I saw, what that watery world looked like.
After my father died, the only reprieve I felt from the grief was when I got to swim in the pool at a local hotel. My mom and I scrounged some money from somewhere and went for a few days. I still remember swimming in that pool, floating on top of the water, my arms and legs stretched out. I felt released, reborn. The grief was still there, it’s always there, it’s still there even now, but the water held me and soothed me and gave me a few days of peace. I know I’m not writing it properly. I know you can’t feel what it was like to be inside my body underneath the water, just like you can’t feel the grief that throbbed in my veins and that lives inside me still.
I’m drawn to water and to the lives lost to it. Woolf with the rocks in her pockets in the River Ouse, forcing herself to drown when she could swim, forcing herself into death. Ophelia with her flowers and her soaked skirts, babbling about her dead father, maybe searching for a way to get back to him. Water as life force, water as death force.
And I remember my father in the water, a picture of him on a float, basking in the summer sunshine, so alive and so real. Pictures of me and him at pools or lakes, now only together in photos, forever separated.
I wish I could open my eyes underwater and see him again. I wish he was there, emerging from the depths, surfacing back into life.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
I’m reminded of a scene in Kieslowski’s 1979 film, Camera Buff. The 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a podcast created by me, Caitlin. I am a writer, and I have a deep passion not just for cinema but also for literature and art in all its forms. I am a very dreamy, sensitive, and lonely soul who grew up (and still lives) in the rural South. I am a self-taught cinephile with no academic background in cinema. However, I do have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature, and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Her Head in Films is an unconventional film podcast that centers my emotional, personal, and subjective experience of cinema. The title comes from an email I sent a friend during a time of intense film-watching. I wrote, “My head isn’t in the clouds. My head is in films.” It seemed like the perfect way to convey how I am always thinking about cinema and how embedded it is in my life. On the podcast, I often tell stories about my life, and it’s always important to me to connect a film to my own feelings. The subjects that I explore on the podcast include grief, loss, trauma, poverty, mental illness, loneliness, atheism, ugliness, disability, misogyny, injustice, and alienation. I also like to include literature and poetry into my discussions of cinema when I can. I am a working class feminist. So, at times, I do address issues of race, class, sexuality, and women’s experiences.
Not every single episode revolves around my life, and I do try to provide details about the making of the film or other information when I come across it. I do intense research and try to track down filmmaker interviews, director’s commentary, and other things and then include them in my discussion. It just depends on the film itself. Some films are more emotional for me than others. I try to find a balance between my personal reaction and the larger issues that the film might address. I seek a marriage of the emotional and the intellectual.
This is not a totally feel-good podcast. It can be heavy at times, but I share my personal experiences with the hope that it makes someone else feel less alone and maybe comforts them. I repeatedly address the death of my father because it’s something that haunts me. He died in 2006, when I was 16 years old. I turned to cinema to help me cope with my grief, and I continue to seek comfort and solace in films.
I launched Her Head in Films in December 2016 with few resources and little idea of what it would become. I used my Chromebook microphone and knew nothing about podcasting. I just wanted to talk about the films I loved. Since launching, the podcast has grown and become more than I ever imagined. Over time, I enhanced the quality by adding an actual microphone and original artwork (by the great Dhiyanah Hassan) and music! It’s still a small, niche podcast, but I have a fan base and more people have listened than I ever thought would! I’m grateful for this outlet.
More About My Life
Because the podcast is centered around my life, I think I should go into more detail about my own biography. In each episode, I am, in many ways, narrating my own story. I am not trying to educate you about cinema. I’m not providing every detail of historical context to help you understand everything about the film. What I am trying to do is communicate my personal experience of the film, what it made me feel, what memories it conjured for me, why certain scenes resonate, why the film haunts me or moves me, why I loved it and think it matters. I only go by my own subjective judgment and can in no way guarantee that you will love a particular film that I talk about. I don’t think of myself as a critic but a guide, leading you to films that might also move and affect you.
My life has not been easy to say the least. My father died in 2006 when I was 16 years old. A year later, my maternal grandmother died. In 2009, my maternal uncle died. Within three years, I attended the funerals of three people who were part of my life. My father’s death alone was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced. It shattered me, and I have never recovered from it. Since I was a child, I’ve struggled with intense anxiety and depression. His death exacerbated those issues to the point where I was suicidal and agoraphobic for many years.
I still struggle with anxiety and depression. My father’s death also plunged my mother and me into poverty for a long time. At times in my life, I have been without much food and nearly homeless. After I graduated high school, I went to work at a factory to help support my mother. It was a grueling experience that altered my health forever. So, I also have health issues on top of my emotional traumas. All these experiences have made me a very sensitive and empathetic person who cares about the plight of other people. I am fiercely anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and I would align my political beliefs with Democratic Socialism.
In 2015, I lost my house that I’d lived in my entire life–26 years, up to that point–and went through several moves to multiple states, completely destabilizing me. Losing my house was also very devastating because I lost most of my belongings in the process, including hundreds of books I’d accumulated and things that were owned by my father. At this time, my life is more stable, but years of hardship, fear, uncertainty, and trauma have taken a profound toll on my mind and body. I have somehow survived. At times, I’m not sure how, but I know that books and films and art and writing and my mother’s love have been essential.
When I talk about films, I do so from a place of deep appreciation for the power they have to keep us going, to keep us connected to life, to give us access to other worlds and stories. Cinema makes life worth living. I’m in a kind of love affair with films because I believe they’ve helped to keep me alive. After my father died, my mom and I went to a local movie theater often. It was cheap and would show films months after they were released. In that darkened theater, I was able to escape my pain and reconnect with life. It was my salvation.
My Taste in Film
The first time I realized that film was an art form was when I took a film appreciation class in high school. This was in 2004. We watched all kinds of classics, including Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Great Dictator. Up to that point, I had watched films on Turner Classic Movies, and I enjoyed movies very much, but this class showed me what cinema was and that it was an art, not just a form of entertainment. My eyes were opened, and I fell in love with film and started to collect DVDs when I could (this was before the internet really) and watch more classics on TCM. I distinctly remember seeing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc on TCM one night and this was a big revelation for me. It was the first time I felt a sense of transcendence while watching a film. I’d never been so moved as I was by Renée Falconetti’s face. I was never the same. But because I did not have regular internet access, I was limited by how much I could explore cinema. I would watch TCM and even record films on blank VHS tapes. I also bought used DVDs at Blockbuster when they had sales. Being in a rural area, I didn’t have an art house theater and my local library did not have an extensive collection of great films.
In 2011, my life really changed again when I got more interested in European art house cinema. I saw Chris Marker’s La Jetée , and I was entranced by it. I started to watch many of the art house masters, like Kieslowski, Varda, Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, Truffaut, Kiarostami, Bergman, Tarkovsky, and more. Before this time, I had mostly seen classic American cinema on television and my access to the internet had been limited to trips to my local library. Now, I was in college and I had regular internet access and could more fully explore art house cinema on various streaming sites, like Netflix and Hulu, which both had more robust offerings of art house at the time. Since then, I’ve expanded beyond just Europe and become interested in more non-western cinema by directors like Ozu and Satyajit Ray.
My cinematic interests are diverse and idiosyncratic. I love contemporary world cinema. I also love both modern and classic French cinema. I’m drawn to documentaries about social justice issues, history, genocide, the Holocaust, fascinating people, and women writers and artists. It’s important to me to spotlight under-appreciated, even obscure, films and women directors. I also love the Criterion Collection and classic art house cinema. I am all over the place! The podcast is not exclusively about art house cinema, though that is my primary focus. I’ve covered films from my childhood, made-for-tv movies, television series, and historical dramas. What matters to me is the EFFECT a film has on me personally, not whether it is considered a classic or important film. It’s about what it means to me.
My favorite directors include: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrea Arnold, Agnès Varda, Jane Campion, Larisa Shepitko, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Vigo, Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, Alice Guy-Blaché, Lee Chang-dong, Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke, Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach, and many more.
My favorite films are: The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Double Life of Veronique, The Tree of Life, Wanda, The Apu Trilogy, The Three Colors Trilogy, Dekalog, Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, Late Spring, The Piano, The Mirror, L’avventura, Birth, L’atalante, The Ascent, Come and See, many of Ingmar Bergman’s films, Port of Shadows, Children of Paradise, and on and on I could go.
Where To Start
This is a kind of greatest hits of my episodes, the ones that I think are my best and that are a good introduction to me as a person and my cinematic interests. Please keep in mind that I did not start out with a lot of money and resources for the podcast. In the first year, the audio is not great, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It’s only as I kept doing episodes and got positive feedback from people that I started to believe more in myself and find my voice. It took time! The very early episodes from 2016 and 2017 are a bit rougher. I was not able to add music until Episode 64. I started a Patreon and that has given me the ability to improve the quality of the podcast tremendously.
Also, I go into all aspects of a film when I select it for an episode. There are always spoilers. I suggest watching the films before you listen to one of my episodes or else the plot twists will be revealed to you. It’s important that I go deeply into the films that I love. Episodes can often be very long, almost two hours sometimes. That’s just how I am. I talk and sometimes I can’t shut up! I just have to be true to who I am and discuss a film the way that feels right for me.
One of My Most Popular Episodes
Episode 64: Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher
This is one of my most downloaded episodes and has been very popular with listeners. I talked about this film because I was astonished by Isabelle Huppert’s performance. I suspect the widespread love for her might be why the episode is so popular! Huppert plays a masochistic piano teacher who becomes involved with one of her students. She gives what I consider to be one of the greatest performances of all time.
My Most Personal Episode
Episode 66: Jonathan Glazer’s Birth
I first saw Birth when I was a teenager, and it immediately obsessed me. It’s the kind of film that is in my blood cells at this point. In this episode, I talk about the death of my father and why I identify with the main character of the film–Anna–who loses her husband and is destroyed by grief.
My Favorite Episode
Episode 33: Barbara Loden’s Wanda
I put so much time, research, and heart into my episode on Wanda. It’s a film that I’ve championed for years now, well before many people even knew about it. I see myself in Wanda as she struggles to cope with life and to make her way through the world.
The Episode I’m Most Proud of
Episode 83: Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours
For a long time, the podcast was about me. Then, in 2018, I branched out and started to add guests. My discussion with Carolyn Petit about Museum Hours was truly revelatory, and so much of what we talked about has stayed with me. We explored art, history, human connection, and so much more. I’m so proud of our conversation.
The Episode That Explains My Passion For Cinema
Episode 52: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc
I trace my cinephilia back to the moment I saw Renée Falconetti’s face in The Passion of Joan of Arc. She’s haunted me ever since. Watching this film was the first time I realized that cinema was an art form that had the power to move me. It was my awakening, and I’ve never been the same. In this episode, I talk about my love for the film, and I also give some background on the life of Joan of Arc.
Episodes Specifically About My Life and My Struggles
Episode 31: Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog
Sometimes, I talk about films because they give me a way to explore my own experiences and to give voice to my trauma. House of Sand and Fog provided a space for me to discuss the loss of my home and the way that it destabilized me. I also touched on why I think the film is so important, especially in the way it looked at the animosity and violence toward immigrants, a subject that resonates now more than ever.
Episode 24: Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake
So many people today live with financial precarity. My experience with poverty, having to use government assistance, and struggling with the shame of all that is not unique. I, Daniel Blake was a way for me to talk about being working class, but it also let me give voice to some of what happened to my father when he became disabled and had to endure the dehumanizing welfare bureaucracy in the years before his death.
Episode 61: Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth
After my father died, I sought comfort in a cheap local theater that got new releases many months after they came out. The theater even had the occasional foreign film. I have vivid memories of seeing Pan’s Labyrinth around that time, and this episode is about those memories and how cinema helped me cope with grief.
Episodes About Films That Will Forever Haunt Me
Episode 55: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura
I didn’t immediately like Antonioni’s groundbreaking L’avventura. It took time for it to sink in, but, over the years, its mystery has utterly consumed me. I loved recording this episode because I was finally able to articulate why it made such an impression on me. Monica Vitti’s face looms large in my life, just like Falconetti’s.
Episode 84: François Ozon’s Under the Sand
Like Birth, Ozon’s Under the Sand looks at a woman grappling with the loss of her husband. Charlotte Rampling is at her best and this film made me fall in love with her and realize what a gifted actress she is. There is an intangible, ineffable quality about this film. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to talk about it on the podcast.
Episode 48: Larisa Shepitko’s Wings and The Ascent
I’ve said for years that Larisa Shepitko is one of the greatest directors and yet so few people know her name. The Ascent is widely regarded as her masterpiece, but Wings is also exquisite. Both films deal with the Second World War, though focus on different aspects of it. It was an honor to explore Shepikto’s life and art for this episode and hopefully get my listeners interested in her work.
Episode 108: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
Episode 101: Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy
Episode 97: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue