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 working class and identify as a feminist. So, at times, I do address issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender.
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, depression, agoraphobia, and suicidal thoughts. 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.
My Most Popular Episode
Episode 64: Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher
This is my most downloaded episode 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.
The end of each year inevitably brings a deluge of top 10 lists. Of course, many of them include the same films. For 2018, we expect that Cold War, Burning, Roma, and Shoplifters will be on most lists. I wanted to do something a bit different and create a top 10 that highlighted films that probably won’t end up on all those best-of lists, but not because they aren’t great or they don’t matter. Instead, they’re films that flew under-the-radar or made a bigger impact in other countries or, for whatever reason, didn’t find an audience to champion them. So, I’m championing them.
These are films that moved me in some way because they focused on a singer I love or examined a problem or went deeper into a topic that interests me. Not all the films are technically from 2018, there are also a few from 2017 and even 2016. I am often behind on new releases and some films released a year or so ago haven’t been available until now. So, I’m just including all of them together. I hope the list can expose you to a few films you might not know about and inspire you to seek them out!
Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar have worked on many films together. I even covered one of those films–Le stade de Wimbledon–for the podcast. Over the years, Amalric has proven to be both a brilliant actor and talented auteur. I love his films because they’re often very idiosyncratic and different. In his latest film, Amalric plays Yves Zand, a director obsessed with the French singer, Barbara (born Monique Andrée Serf) who captivated audiences with her poetic and confessional songs. Balibar plays Brigitte, an actress playing Barbara in a biopic. While Brigitte can fluidly go in and out of character– one moment inhabiting Barbara, the next just being herself–Zand struggles to separate reality and fiction because of his intense connection to Barbara’s music. Amalric incorporates actual footage of Barbara into the film, leaving the audience unsure, at times, if we are seeing Balibar or Barbara–the two women almost merge, and the resemblance between them is startling. Ultimately, the film raises questions about the nature of biopics, the mystery of acting, and the deep devotion we feel for certain singers and artists.
Few films have haunted me this year more than God Knows Where I Am. I first saw it on PBS where there was also a discussion with the filmmakers, Jedd and Todd Wider. The documentary is about Linda Bishop, a woman who starved to death in an unattended house in New Hampshire after she was released from a mental health facility without her family being notified. Bishop struggled with bipolar disorder with psychosis and often refused treatment. She was really hiding in the house and no one knew she was there. She kept diaries and purposely starved herself, only eating apples and surviving off snow until she died. Excerpts of Bishop’s diaries are read in voice-over in the film and there are interviews with her loved ones. More than anything, this documentary exposes the major cracks and dysfunction in the mental health system in the United States.
In the opening scene of Xavier Legrand’s Custody, Miriam and Antoine Besson are meeting with a judge to discuss who will have custody of their young son, Julien. Miriam claims that Antoine is violent toward Julien and their older daughter, Josephine, but Antoine denies it and, along with his lawyer, paints Miriam as a liar. The audience is immediately unsure of who to believe, and the film maintains that tension until the very end in a final scene that is one of the most shocking and intense I’ve ever witnessed. It’s best not to say too much more, and I recommend avoiding reviews until you’ve seen the film for yourself.
Charlotte Rampling continues to construct a body of work that is filled with quietly powerful performances. Hannah is another triumph in her career. She received the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for playing Hannah, a woman whose husband is put in prison for sex crimes, leaving her alone, adrift, and isolated from both her family and the outside world because of how she remains by his side. Hannah is directed by Andrea Pallaoro, and he created the role specifically for Rampling, allowing her to bring all of her formidable powers to a film that is slow, subtle, and concerned with a woman’s agonizing diminishment. Hannah rarely speaks and hardly interacts with people. She is deeply coiled within herself, but Rampling conveys the interiority of Hannah through small gestures and quiet moments, like when Hannah sees a beached whale or sits alone on a subway. The silence and slowness of the film suggest great depths and brought to mind a film called Everything Else, which also focuses on a woman gradually receding from the world.
When Donald Hall died in 2018, the world lost a truly important poet. For decades, Hall wrote poetry that bore witness to life and loss in all its complexity. His wife, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, died in 1995, and he wrote many books about her death. He never got over losing her and, it seemed, turned to poetry and language as a way to mourn, celebrate, and survive. Quiet Hours is a short film directed by Paul Szynol that captures Hall in the last years of his life. It shows him at his home in New Hampshire. He talks about Jane. He talks about writing. We even see the women who help him in his daily chores. In his late 80s, he has a gravity and presence that remind me of Walt Whitman. Maybe it’s the beard. I’m grateful for this film and grateful for the contributions of Hall and Kenyon, two poets who have deeply affected my life.
Amanda is a simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking film. Visually, it is dreamy and sun-soaked. Thematically, it is devastating. Vincente Lacoste plays David, a young man whose sister is killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. David must face this terrible loss and also take care of his sister’s young daughter, Amanda, who is grief-stricken and lost without her mother. David and Amanda were already close, but their bond deepens as they turn to each other for love and support. Every day on the news, we hear about horrific acts of violence, but we rarely get a sense of how these events impact the lives of the survivors, how the loss of a loved one changes them forever. Amanda goes beyond the headlines. It even questions the ability of the news to convey the real life of the victims when, in one scene, David tries to talk to a journalist about his sister and abruptly ends the interview because he can’t find the words. How can he explain who she was? How can he make people understand? Amanda shows that perhaps fiction is, at times, a better medium for telling these stories and for conveying the rich and complex life of a person and how their death can affect the loved ones they leave behind.
On the news, we hear about the plight of refugees around the world, but, often, they remain nameless faces on a television or cellphone screen. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France takes us directly into the lives of a father and his children as they seek asylum in France after leaving their home in Africa. Eriq Ebouaney gives a powerful performance as Abbas Mahadjir, a man trying to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of immigration law and provide for his family but, at every turn, he faces daunting obstacles and systemic barriers. He falls in love with Carole Blaszak, played by the always-wondrous Sandrine Bonnaire. Blaszak had her own immigration issues because of her Polish background. So, she symapthizes with Mahadjir and tries to help him, but all his appeals for asylum are rejected. Who will take him and his family in? Where will they go? How will they survive? Through one story, Haroun makes us think about the larger experience of migrants and refugees, how precarious their lives are, how traumatic it is to leave their homes and to be unwanted in every country they enter, the inhumanity and dehumanization they face just for trying to survive. I think this period will go down as one of the most shameful times in human history when millions of people fled war, violence, and environmental collapse and so many countries closed their borders and showed no decency. Often, the countries closing their borders are the ones that helped create the very conditions that refugees are trying to escape. A Season in Hell is vital and important and forces us to stare that shame directly in the face.
The single most important film I watched this year was Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema. Some films are catalysts leading us in new and unexpected directions that change our lives forever. For me, this is that film. Tavernier takes us on a personal and in-depth journey through the French films that he loves. He talks about directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carné, and many more. Because of this documentary, I decided that I want to go even deeper into French cinema, that I want to watch as many classic French films as I possibly can, and learn all I can about the history of French cinema. I went on to watch other French films, including Melville’s Army of Shadows, Carné’s Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise, and Duvivier’s Un Carnet de Bal, and I’m not stopping there. I look forward to watching many more, and I have Tavernier to thank!
Discovering the poetry of Sylvia Plath when I was around 16 years old was one of the single most important events of my life. I was immediately electrified by her art, and my love for her has only grown over the years. I’ve devoured her poetry, her journals, The Bell Jar, her short stories, and biographies about her. However, I’ve always been baffled by the lack of documentaries about her life and work. There was one made shortly after her death that features interviews with people who knew her and even her mother, but, other than that, few films have come to fruition. This makes me all the more grateful for the BBC documentary Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar, directed by Teresa Griffiths, which takes a look at her life, specifically the period of her internship at Mademoiselle in the 1950s. The events would inspire her to write The Bell Jar. The documentary includes interviews with the other women who were also interns with Plath, childhood friends, and Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Scholars also provide important historical context, discussing the struggle many women faced in the 1950s, how limited their lives were, how Plath resisted that and struggled to create the life she wanted at a time when women had few options. I found myself in tears by the end of the film because Plath felt so real to me. It also brought home to me what a ferocious woman she was. We talk too often about Plath’s suicide. It looms so large. What gets lost is Plath’s life. What gets lost is how vivacious and funny and beautiful and ambitious she was, how she endured horrendous depression and even worse treatment by mental health professionals but despite it all she wrote poems and a novel that stand the test of time and continue to astonish, inspire, and influence countless writers to this day. Her life was extraordinary. She was extraordinary, and this documentary reminds us of that.
I love film scores. I listen to film music on a regular basis. One album that has stayed with me for years is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant. It’s a stunning work of art that Sakamoto actually composed while he had cancer. The documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda takes us into the life of a talented and fascinating composer who seems deeply connected to the world around him. In the film, we go all over the world with Sakamoto, from the wasteland of Fukushima to the icy landscape of the Arctic. We hear stories of Sakamoto’s life, including the day he was in New York City on 9/11 and why he loves Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. Sakamoto takes inspiration from a variety of sources-from history, cinema, the sound of rain, nature, human and environmental disasters, and his own personal struggles. I was in awe of this documentary. It inspired me to seek out more of Sakamoto’s work and to pay more attention to the world around me.
Letter from Masanjia – a Chinese prisoner at a labor camp smuggles an SOS letter into a box of Halloween decorations, and the letter is found by a woman in Oregon, triggering a haunting series of events
Drift – a meditative and contemplative film that incorporates the beauty and rhythms of the ocean
Before Summer Ends – After several years of living in France, a young man must return to Iran, but takes one last trip with his friends
For me, everything begins with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s my favorite film. It’s the film that made me fall in love with cinema. It’s not often that you can point to a specific work of art and say that it made you who you are, but that’s the case for me. Central to the film is what I (and many other cinephiles) consider the greatest acting performance of all time by Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Her face stripped of make-up, her hair cut off, Falconetti is raw and anguished. Dreyer’s film does not show the triumphant Joan of Arc, the girl-warrior galloping into battle. He shows her captured, interrogated, weeping. He shows not the mythic Joan but the human Joan, and, for me, that is Falconetti’s greatest gift–her ability to make Joan alive to us, to convey her suffering but also her mystical transcendence.
In February of 2018, I did an episode on the podcast about The Passion of Joan of Arc. I wanted to revisit it. I wanted to try to communicate what the film meant to me. A little while after the episode aired, a listener contacted me and told me about Mirko Stopar’s Nitrate Flames, a documentary on Falconetti’s life. When I watched the film, I was blown away by its mesmerizing re-enactments, meticulous attention to historical detail, and the wealth of information it provided about Falconetti, how she grew up in poverty in Paris and eventually died an early death in Argentina. She lived a fascinating, unconventional, and tragic life. Just as Dreyer showed the human side of Joan, so too does Stopar show the humanity of Falconetti while dissolving none of the mystery that still surrounds her. Stopar was kind enough to speak with me by email. In our conversation, we discuss Falconetti’s life, the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc, the way Nitrate Flames mixes documentary and fiction, and much more.
Her Head in Films: Thanks so much for talking with me, Mirko. Looking online, I don’t see a lot of information about you. Before we delve into Nitrate Flames, can you tell me more about yourself, your background, and how you got started in film?
Mirko Stopar: I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and from a young age I got interested in film. My father was a cinephile, and I was exposed to classic cinema since my childhood, watching films with him on television or at the cinematheque in Buenos Aires. There was an 8mm camera at home that was used for making home movies that often had a narrative and experimental touch. I decided pretty early that I wanted a career in film and did my first short movie at the age of 17. I went to film school for three years and, since my early twenties, I’ve worked steadily in TV and advertising, making the odd short film on the side. I started to pursue a film career more seriously once I moved to Oslo, Norway, both as a writer and a director, alternating between fiction and documentary works. In the last few years, I’ve become more interested in exploring a more hybrid kind of form that can combine fiction and documentary, especially an archive-based one.
Her Head in Films: What inspired you to make Nitrate Flames?
Mirko Stopar: I first saw The Passion of Joan of Arc when I was 15 or 16 and, although I didn’t like the film so much, I was completely mesmerized by Falconetti’s face and performance, which I found powerful and unforgettable. A few years after, I learned that she had lived in my home town of Buenos Aires and that she had died there, which felt very odd. And when I moved to Oslo I found out about Dreyer’s print appearing there, in a mental hospital of all places. I felt that there was a story there, very connected to my geography to begin with, but also a cinephile story full of connecting elements as well, tying the fires of the stake of Joan of Arc with the fires Dreyer’s film went through, also with madness as a recurring issue, and interesting links between Falconetti’s and Dreyer’s careers as well.
Anyway, I sensed that those strange connections to my geography were an indication that perhaps that story had to be told by me. The fact that there was almost no information available about Falconetti’s life and very little knowledge about the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc was also a good motivation to investigate and make the film.
HHIF: It’s so interesting to me that you didn’t like The Passion of Joan of Arc when you first saw it. For me, I have such intense memories of seeing it for the first time, and it literally changed my life and awakened me to the transcendent power of cinema. The film really made me a cinephile.
Iwish I’d known about your documentary before I recorded my own episode about The Passion of Joan of Arc. As I was researching Falconetti, I struggled to find information about her. At the time, I wondered, How can this woman who gave one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema still remain so mysterious to us? Why aren’t there more books and more information about her? That’s why I love your film so much. It filled in a lot of gaps for me and was so enlightening.
I’m wondering how you went about researching Falconetti’s life and what sources you used to find out more about her. I know that you included an interview with her daughter, Hélène . I’m curious if she specifically spoke to you for the film or if that was a previously taped interview that she did with someone else.
MS: First I investigated in Buenos Aires and found a couple of people that knew Falconetti firsthand and still had memories of her. They were children during the 1940s who took French classes with her. Then, I continued in Oslo, where I met the people who were directly connected to the finding of the original print of the film in the early 1980s. But the greatest part of the research took place in Denmark and, of course, in France. In Denmark, I met very helpful people in the Film Institute that allowed me to research Dreyer’s personal papers, including his shooting script of The Passion of Joan of Arc, with his written notes on it. That was really precious. In Denmark, I also found many written accounts about the shooting of Dreyer’s film written by technicians, Dreyer scholars and journalists. Luckily, if you speak Norwegian, you can read and understand Danish, and that helped a lot.
In France, I got a little scholarship to develop the screenplay at La Fémis film school of Paris, which allowed me to spend some time there and research a lot. One of the first things I got was the book written by Hélène Falconetti in the 1980s. It’s a very strange book. It reveals some things about Falconetti, especially of her early theatre career, but not as much as you would expect. Hélène had a very complicated relationship with her mother, who had her as a single mother and left her to be raised by her grandmother. When Hélène turned 17, she got her share of the fortune left by her father and emancipated herself and barely saw her mother again. Eventually, she became a lawyer and had a son who also became an actor, Gérard Falconetti, who acted in a couple of Rohmer films and in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He was diagnosed with AIDS and committed suicide at the age of 35. So, his death was the real reason behind Hélène’s book, rather than her mother’s life. Yet it’s quite shocking to see the analogies between Falconetti and her grandson’s life. Be that as it may, after reading the book I decided I would leave all the stories concerning Falconetti’s children out of the film (she had a second child sixteen years after Hélène and also as a single mother). It was simply too much.
But, while in Paris, I found out that Hélène was still alive. She was 95 at the time. My producer contacted her by phone and arranged a rendezvous for me. She didn’t show up. We tried a second time, and the same thing happened. Then, I called her myself, and she told me she did go to the appointment, but I didn’t show. I tried to ask her stuff about Falconetti on the phone, but she only wanted to speak about Gerard. I knew it was no use to keep trying, so I gave up on her. But luckily two things happened then. I managed to get the audio interview with Hélène made by a Danish director in the 1990s for a documentary he did about Dreyer. And a close friend of Hélène, named Yves, found a box for me with Falconetti’s private stuff, which included letters, photographs, theater programs and her passport. It was very touching to see the passport because it was an object she had with her when fleeing Europe during WWII, through Brazil and finally to Argentina, where she arrived penniless in 1943. The passport included information about where she embarked, where she landed, how much money she had with her, which vaccination and so on. I guess I’m lucky that because of this film I had in my hands Dreyer’s shooting script and Falconetti’s passport. I can’t see any better way you could be more intimate with those two characters.
Anyway, the research for the project took almost four years, and it wasn’t very organized. Suddenly, I found a bit of information connecting Falconetti with a person, and went on to do a new investigation on that person, to see if I could find new leads. That happened with Nobel prize winner Gabriela Mistral, who I learned was a friend of Falconetti during her stay in Rio. So I went through her letters and telegrams kept in Chile’s National Library and found interesting information about the Brazil chapter. Also with Vinicius de Moraes, who mentioned in his memories that he met Falconetti and Orson Welles together in Rio. So, every new bit of information was incorporated into my notes and slowly the form, structure and style of the film began to take shape. I had plenty of information, but it needed to be channeled in an interesting cinematic way, and that was perhaps the biggest challenge.
HHIF: It’s stunning to read about the intense journey you went on to create this film, all the sources you found, all the paths you went down even if they led to dead ends. It sounds like you were deeply dedicated to this project. Falconetti’s life was short, but it spanned across continents, from France to Argentina, and, similarly, your film traverses that physical distance as well but, for me, you also close the emotional distance between the viewer and Falconetti. You always make Falconetti a real person to us. You situate her within her time period and convey what a fascinating and unconventional woman she was. For instance, how she had two children on her own and didn’t believe in marriage, and also her interest in avant-garde theater and even her more method-style acting. She was ahead of her time in many ways.
I also had the sense as I watched the film that she was a woman who struggled, who drifted. She didn’t have a strong relationship with her children obviously. She didn’t seem to have a lot of lifelong friends. For a woman who looms so large in the imaginations of cinephiles–who is so famous–her life was surprisingly tragic. Were there any really surprising things you learned about her? Is there an aspect of her life or her personality that stays with you? I’m also interested in how making the film personally affected you.
MS: Oh, I learned plenty of surprising things about her for sure. Many ugly and tragic ones too, which I deliberately kept out of the film. I needed to find the real woman behind the myth, but I also wanted to keep her mysterious because she is mysterious, and it’s good to keep her that way. I always said that Nitrate Flames, rather than an anthology of Falconetti’s life, is a “haunthology”, that it’s more a ghost story than biopic. So, finding that balance was crucial. Showing her bright side alongside the dark. And I needed to take some distance as well. I didn’t want the film to be a love letter. I saw many portraits of film divas done that way, just hate them.
I can’t say I know Falconetti more than I knew her when I started. The film opens with a quote by her own daughter who says “I didn’t know my mother.” Her own daughter says that. And I definitely can’t say that I like Falconetti more after making the film than before. She was a complex woman, and that had to come forth. One important aspect is that I never idealised her. I went through the whole process with an open mind and didn’t shy away from showing dark aspects of her life. The important thing was to build a believable character one could relate to. Fortunately, she was such a “modern” woman for her times that it didn’t take a lot of work to achieve that. There was no gap, her life didn’t feel “dated” in the least.
I guess the aspect of her personality that stays the most with me is her eagerness to keep going in spite the self-boycotting and self-destructiveness, the energy and drive she had to cross Europe during a dangerous time and move to the far side of the world with no money or project. She never gave up, even if whenever she had a chance to start out again she spoiled the chance almost deliberately. I’m very attracted to these kinds of characters. I think chess player Bobby Fisher was also a bit like that.
Making the film affected me a lot, because it was a fascinating process but also a painful and hard one that took almost 6 years of my life. I found a way to work the life of historical characters in a hybrid manner between documentary and fiction that I’ll definitely keep pursuing further in other projects. Nitrate Flames wasn’t an easy film to make. When I started, I imagined that, due to its subject, I could finance the film in France and Denmark, but at the end it was made with money from Norway and Argentina, and the film was several times on the verge of falling apart due to lack of funds. But you could not expect to make a film about Falconetti and The Passion of Joan of Arc without suffering, right?
HHIF: It’s moving to hear about how dedicated you were to making the film. I’m also impressed with your ability to not glorify Falconetti or turn her into a saint. She was very complicated. I think her complexity is important to show because we all have those layers and those contradictions. Something that I wanted to touch on was the fact that Falconetti herself didn’t seem to care for The Passion of Joan of Arc, that perhaps she felt like she lived in the shadow of it. I’m haunted by the scene in the documentary where Hélène talks about going to see The Passion of Joan of Arc with Falconetti. Hélène is sitting there watching Falconetti watch herself on the screen, and there’s no reaction. She seemed estranged from the film, most likely because of the difficult conditions under which it was made, as you show in your film. Can you talk more about the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Falconetti’s relationship to the film over the course of her life?
MS: The Passion of Joan of Arc was an unusual film in many respects, narratively, technically, and also in the way Dreyer handled the performance of his main actress. Falconetti was a very adventurous woman who had very limited previous film experience. She was basically a theatre actress, and although she tried herself as a tragedienne for La Comedie Francaise, her speciality was light comedies. That those two, Dreyer and Falconetti, came together was a very unusual thing.
Dreyer was very interested in the landscape of the human face and saw something in Falconetti, “some scars of a suffering past”, as he put it, that he thought he could channel into her performance of Joan. So, he prepared a very unique atmosphere on that set for Falconetti to inhabit the character and immerse herself in the performance. It took time. She wasn’t taking it very seriously at the start. As a theatre actress, she was used to a completely different way of working, and Dreyer’s direction didn’t resemble any directing method she was used to. Together, they tried different ways of approaching the performance, which included watching the rushes over and over after the working day was over and repeat and repeat again the following day to find the right emotion for each of the close-ups. As the days went on, Falconetti got more and more isolated from the rest of the cast, and slowly she started to be Joan. How she achieved that is not easy to answer, what role Dreyer played in it, or whether Falconetti informed the suffering of Joan with her own (she had a difficult childhood, living in poverty with an abusive father). Be that as it may, something clicked and the result is that one-of-a-kind performance, completely hypnotic even for our modern standards.
Why the film is so unique is due to a combination of factors: Dreyer and Falconetti at the top of their creative powers, the effervescence of Paris in 1927, a technical crew and cast that included superlative talents like Artaud, Maté, Valentine Hugo, etc, and everybody’s awareness that silent cinema was a dying form and that they were sort of making the last silent film. Apparently, Falconetti didn’t like the film that much when she saw it completed because, in her opinion, everything in it was Dreyer’s and not hers (Funnily, Lubitsch disliked the film for exactly the opposite reasons, that there was too much Falconetti in it). That’s perhaps why she didn’t make more films, because she was used to theatre acting and, in the theatre, it was she who was in command.
It’s true that she had suffered during the making of The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was a long shoot that took 9 months, and the process was very exhausting, but it wasn’t because of this that she didn’t make another film. She just took that job as yet another adventure. She loved to take risks and try new things and provoke and puzzle fans and critics. Once she was done with it, she moved on to another thing. What she didn’t imagine was the effect the performance would have on her public figure, that she would forever be associated with that role. She hated that. She spent the rest of her life escaping Joan of Arc and strangely, Joan of Arc kept coming and coming back to her life. The daughter says in the film that she also had to live her life as “the daughter of Joan of Arc” and she hated that, too. There’s that magic moment in which both mother and daughter go to the cinema to watch Dreyer’s film in the early 1930s and, while Falconetti sits emotionless watching herself on the screen, her daughter watches her mother watching herself.
So, I guess the film ended up becoming a turning point in Falconetti’s life, and the same applies to Dreyer’s, because his career was never the same after making that film. Distances apart, The Passion of Joan of Arc was like Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles spent the rest of his life escaping Kane but still everything he did was Kane. I was really surprised to learn that Falconetti and Welles did meet in real life, and in Rio de Janeiro during a film screening, for lack of a more convenient setting, and that they were introduced to each other as “Joan of Arc, meet Citizen Kane”. It was too good to be true, but for some reason, it made perfect sense.
HHIF: I wanted to touch briefly on something you talked about throughout the interview, and that is the hybridity of fiction and documentary. It fascinated me while watching the film and was most apparent during the re-enactments. At times, I couldn’t tell what was archive and what was re-enactment. You do a great job of re-creating certain scenes, and I thought the period detail was meticulous. I’m wondering if you’d like to talk more about that hybridity in the film and how it was achieved? You also mentioned pursuing that type of hybridity in future projects. So, lastly, I’d love to know if you are working on anything right now or what your next project might be!
MS: If I’d had the means, I would have made this story as a fiction because the material was so rich. The challenge was to make a documentary that the audience could feel like a fiction. For me, it was crucial to avoid the TV documentary clichés, like the use of talking heads. For that same reason, I considered not using voice over, but decided to do it at the end, shaping it into a film noir narration because there was a noir component in the material connected to the idea of an unsolved mystery. So, I felt like why not try a nasal voice that for the cinephile could remit to Double Indemnity or such films. To reinforce the “noir” concept, we used many film excerpts of Argentinean noir films from the 1940s to illustrate some of the situations.
That the film was conceived as a fiction shows also in the screenplay approach. The film was written word by word, image by image, on paper beforehand, which is not the way you usually work with documentaries. In documentaries you gather hours and hours of material and find the film at the editing table. In fiction, a screenplay page equals a minute of film. We had a 63-page screenplay and the film is 63 minutes long. So, that part of the process was very precise. Same with the score. Our wonderful composer made 35 different themes and motives for the film, which is kind of crazy. There’s music all the time. That’s not typical of a documentary. Another decision was to use voices all through the film, voices that you don’t necessary identify, but, if you immerse yourself in the illusion the film proposes, you let yourself be carried by them all the way through. You just stop questioning who’s talking, if the woman we’re seeing on screen is Falconetti or not, if the image is real archive or a re-enactment.
Right from the start the film tells the audience that there is no material left and that we’ll be dealing with pieces of an unfinished puzzle. So, the film creates the illusion that there is material, and probably only 10% of what you see on screen is real. The information is real, but most of the material we use to put that information on the screen isn’t. The lack of material forced me to invent the storytelling devices, the witnesses, the tapes, journals, articles, newsreels, and also a good part of the archive, to create my own archive. In that respect, the material suited this need because this is a story about representation, about a character that “acted natural on the stage and theatrical in real life”, as the daughter says. I never saw the re-enactments as re-enactments but part of the concept of the film. I hate re-enactments in documentaries in fact. The re-enactments were done in two different aesthetics, the “nitrate” aesthetic, and the “Dreyer” aesthetic. And for both we used sets, costumes, extras–again, the fiction approach. It’s good if you couldn’t tell what was archive or re-enactment because that was the idea.
Since Nitrate Flames, I’ve been developing two or three other projects that follow the same hybrid approach, but, for each of them, I find a different concept and a different storytelling. For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a film also about a historical character: the guy that killed the most whales in history. It’s like a Norwegian Captain Ahab, a very challenging project, with a completely different sensibility than Nitrate Flames but also with a lot of things in common in the way we use archive and film excerpts and voices and convey the illusion of seeing the character on screen when, in fact, there’s almost no material left of him. This way of making films is hard and takes many years and the films are seldom seen outside film festivals, but the good part is that you’re very free to play with the form and it is very fun making them.
Barbara Loden is Wanda, as they say in the movies. Her inspiration for the screenplay was a newspaper story she had read about a woman convicted of robbing a bank; her accomplice was dead and she appeared in court alone. Sentenced to twenty years in prison, she thanked the judge. Interviewed when the film came out, after it had been awarded the International Critics Award at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, Barbara would say how deeply affected she had been by the story of this woman—what pain, what hopelessness could make a person desire to be put away? How could imprisonment be relief?
From an early age, I knew I wouldn’t make it in this world. So I connected with women who, in my mind, shared that feeling. Plath and Woolf with their suicides speaking of a deep pain. Barbara Loden and her film Wanda in which the title character wanders alone and unloved.
Wanda is poor and she is voiceless and she is invisible. I understand the not-thereness of her.
Nathalie Léger felt a connection to Wanda as well. Tasked with writing an encyclopedia entry about actress Barbara Loden, she quickly became obsessed and expanded her inquiry, writing Suite For Barbara Loden, a gorgeous and dizzying investigation and excavation. Léger delves into Loden’s life, at times embellishing and inventing, and analyzes every layer of Loden’s only film, Wanda. The book is fact and fiction and memoir and film criticism; it is a love letter to Loden and the singular film she created.
I still remember when I first watched Wanda. It was a year ago. Autumn 2015. I watched it in my house–my childhood home–that is no longer mine. A place I was deeply connected to that was taken away. No real home anymore. I’m as lost as Wanda. I always was. When I saw her, I instantly recognized myself.
Of Wanda, Léger writes “She has no money, or almost none, she is on her own, she has nothing and is good for nothing.”
She’s a woman drowning, a woman swallowed by landscape and time and the world’s indifference to her and her own indifference to herself.
Wanda leaves her husband and kids and ends up meeting a criminal and helping him rob a bank. She’s supposed to be the getaway driver, but, on the way to the bank to retrieve the man, she becomes lost. The man dies in a shootout with police. The story is based on a true story. Loden took another woman’s story and mixed it with her own. Wanda is a hybrid of its source material and of Loden herself. It’s infused with her own feelings, experiences, and subjectivity.
Loden created one film and died. She was robbed of the time to create more. But at least she did one great thing.
I remember, also, Elia Kazan taking credit for Wanda, trying to silence and dismiss Loden as an artist in her own right.He must have been intimidated, must have recognized the film’s greatness. Otherwise, why try to claim it as his own?
I return to the character of Wanda. I know her well, this cinematic reflection of my insides. I’m like Wanda—not good at anything, going from job to job, not good enough, not really here, not really alive. Drifting, sleepwalking, waiting—for what? For it all to end.
I don’t care about film theory. I don’t care about academia or psychoanalysis or writing smart, profound things about movies. I care about the experience of the film, the relationship between myself and the story. I feel films. I intuit them. I can’t really write about them. Besides, Wanda is beyond language. She is flesh and blood to me.
Léger writes about Wanda well and her writing testifies to how a film lives even after it ends. Or maybe it never ends. Léger’s project is a seance. At its core, cinema is a raising of the dead, a mixing of the living with the dead. Cinema inspires obsession. These images get inside our heads and we can’t erase them. Léger won’t let go of Wanda or Loden.
A woman makes a movie about another woman. A woman watches that movie and writes a book about the woman director and the woman subject of the film. A woman–myself–reads that book and feels transformed by all these women who gave voice to the things she struggles to write.
You either understand Wanda or you don’t. You either see yourself in her or she repulses you. The helplessness, the oddness, the obliviousness. How could she leave her kids? How could she stay with a man and help him commit a crime? How could she let herself be demeaned?
Wanda never had freedom. Maybe that’s why prison is a relief. Life holds nothing for her.
Is Léger’s book a form of literary stalking? Léger follows Loden through the decades but is never able to pin her down. Loden remains a mystery, an unknowable woman.
Just as I can’t write about films, I also can’t write about books. What a lousy writer I am. I feel so many things and decided that words were the only way I could express some of them, but I fail at it. I fail at everything, like Wanda, who failed as a wife and a mother and a worker and a woman and a criminal. She failed spectacularly. She failed so much that failing was her only talent. I guess it’s my talent, too.
I want people to read Suite for Barbara Loden and feel what I felt, but you need a life of pain and failure to understand Wanda. You need to have blank eyes and a not-thereness and I don’t wish that on anyone. You need to be a little bit wounded and broken and unable to heal. Wanda does not triumph. Wanda is crawling on her knees in the dirt. She is what we pretend not to see. The woman we don’t want to become. But I’ve already become her.
I’m so passive. Wanda is passive. At age sixteen, when I took a driver’s education class and we were at the point where we drove in the car, I kept saying “sorry” for everything, for every mistake I made. Annoyed, the teacher blurted out to me one day, “Stop saying sorry.” I’m still terrified of driving. Maybe I’m scared of freedom, of independence, of being an active participant in life.
Things happen to me. Things happen to Wanda. She doesn’t do much to change it, she isn’t capable, she keeps taking it. I keep taking it.
After the teacher demanded that I stop saying sorry, I said “sorry.”
I always feel like I have to apologize for my existence, like there’s no reason for my life or for me being here.
For ten years, I haven’t wanted to be here. My father died, and I stopped wanting to be alive. Maybe Wanda lost someone. Maybe something traumatic and unspeakable happened to her. She carries untold damage. She’s a reminder that so many of us can’t cope, so many of us can’t make it in this world.
Léger writes something similar about Wanda: “We will never know the source of the wound that condemns Wanda to this loneliness. We will never know what ancient betrayal or long distant neglect plunged her into this state of constant and absolute distress. We will never know what loss, what absence she cannot get over. We accept her the way we accept ourselves, in blind ignorance, unable to put a name to the grief of existing. Her face, Wanda’s face, inscrutable, sad, obstinate.”
Some of us will leave this world without a trace. Some of us are so small and slight and transparent that our exit won’t register, our absence will have no presence. We were never here. We were never here.
How does the southern silence become so heavy and so menacing so suddenly? How do the trees and the whole natural environment evoke so intensely death, blood, and the weight of history? How does the present call up the past? And how does this past, with a mere gesture or a simple regard, haunt and torment you as you wander along an empty cotton field, or a dusty country road?
In his seminal book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body–it is heritage.” The 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. confirms Coates’s words. Byrd was attacked by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. They beat him, urinated on him, and then tied his body to the back of their truck and dragged him several miles down an isolated road. Over the course of the drive, Byrd’s body was literally torn apart; pieces of flesh and body parts, including Byrd’s head and arm, were strewn along the road. The three men finally dumped what was left of Byrd’s body at a black church. The murder sparked national outrage and condemnation. All three killers were convicted. Two of the perpetrators remain alive, while one was executed in 2011.
Around the time of the murder, Chantal Akerman planned to make a documentary about the American South. She admired the work of William Faulkner and wanted to explore the region. However, when Byrd was murdered, her attention immediately shifted and she chose to focus on his death. The subsequent documentary she made was called Sud (South).
Two aspects of Akerman’s philosophy as a filmmaker are crucial to understanding and appreciating South. First, in I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, which is a documentary made about her before she died in 2015, she talks at length about her intentions as a director. Akerman states that she wants viewers to feel time unfolding as they watch her films, to experience time rather than barely noticing as it passes. To this end, many of her films feature long takes and are filled with natural sound.
Second, Akerman believes that the Holocaust–an atrocity that her own mother survived–represented a kind of dividing point for cinema; it generated the idea that some things are so unimaginable, so horrific, that they cannot be shown. In keeping with this belief, Akerman’s cinema suggests, implies, and evokes. While a contemporary documentary or fiction film might use actors to recreate Byrd’s harrowing ordeal, Akerman withholds grisly simulations and refuses to reduce violence to a spectacle.
I am a Southerner. I was born and raised in North Carolina. I’ve made detours to the Northeast, but I am pulled back to the South because it is my home. And yet, to live here, is to perpetually grapple with the open wound of racism. There is racism across the United States, but the South has a unique relationship with it because of slavery and The Civil War. Since the botched Reconstruction, the South has struggled to deal with racism. That doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made–there has been significant change due to the courageous actions of activists and everyday citizens–but inequality, injustice, and oppression persist.
On film, the South is often portrayed in a one-dimensional way that denies the region’s complexity and diversity. Akerman resists simplicity in her documentary. The long takes authentically immerse us in the world of the South. The film begins with a black man mowing the lawn of a Church, underscoring how important Protestant Christianity is to the region as a whole and to the black community in particular. From there, scenes appear–a black woman sitting on her porch on a sunny day, people walking down a street, long shots of verdant countryside and dilapidated trailers. Akerman captures the kudzu-covered forests, the crickets chirping at dusk, the low thrum of a train. These extended shots are crucial to submerging the viewer in a world where beauty and horror continually coexist, a world where a man could be dragged to his death by three white supremacists down an idyllic country road.
Interspersed throughout the film are interviews with various people, including citizens of Jasper, Texas. Their names do not appear on the screen. A black woman sits on a porch with her grandchildren and talks about how things have changed since she was a child. A black man, who lived on the road where Byrd was killed, recounts seeing bits of Byrd’s flesh on the street. A white journalist at the local newspaper details Byrd’s murder with little emotion. A white police chief or sheriff insists that much of Jasper’s problems are economic, not racial.
The documentary reaches a more personal depth as Akerman films parts of Byrd’s funeral at a church. The viewer sees the impact of Byrd’s death and learns more about him. Community leaders use the church pulpit to call for racial justice and unity. A black woman sings a powerful gospel song. In a poem, Byrd’s sister talks about who Byrd was as a person–how he loved music and had a good sense of humor. Another speaker says that Byrd visited the elderly and counselled young people. Byrd was a valued member of his community. His killers murdered him precisely in order to strike fear within that community. Byrd’s funeral is a time for gathering and grieving, but it’s also a time to show that black residents will not live in fear.
Finally, the end of South directly addresses Byrd’s murder. In a scene that lasts around eight minutes, Akerman points her camera at the road where Byrd died, taking the route that was followed as his body disintegrated, as he was literally destroyed. It’s one of the most unsettling and emotional scenes I’ve ever watched. The scene forces us to imagine for ourselves what that ride was like for Byrd. We are compelled to imagine the pain and terror he must have been feeling. We see the forests and houses that pass, we hear the crickets, we can almost reach out our hand and touch the evening air, so close and yet so far from understanding. How can we ever fathom such horror?
The filming of the road reminds me of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Lanzmann didn’t use archival footage–like many directors tend to do–in his documentary about the Holocaust. Rather, he filmed the death camps as they looked decades later, lush with grass, hardly any traces left to indicate the atrocities that transpired. The last scene of South is similar. We see the road as it is in the aftermath; the only evidence that anything happened is the presence of the circles drawn on the pavement to mark where pieces of Byrd’s body were found. At one point, the circles become numerous, one after another, suggesting the rapid disintegration of Byrd’s body. Akerman does not attempt to recreate the atrocity. Instead, she films the remnants that say more than any reenactment ever could.
South is a challenging but essential film. Its difficulty lies in what it withholds and what it forces us to contemplate: the hate at the heart of humanity and what that hate can do to actual human beings. James Byrd Jr. was an ordinary man, a good man, a man who should be alive today. Racism killed him. The belief that it is acceptable to destroy the black body, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, is deeply embedded in the United States. We see it in the recent killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and countless others. Racist violence persists despite efforts to eradicate prejudice. As tragic as Akerman’s film is, what makes it even more difficult to watch is the fact that, 17 years after it was made, it remains painfully relevant.
The early 1980s. New York at night. Lurid neon lights. Rain-soaked streets. The clog of people and cars. In the middle of this tumult stands the flashing sign of Variety, a porn theater where Christine sells tickets. One regular patron, Louie, strikes up a conversation with Christine, buying her a coke and inviting her to a baseball game where he abruptly leaves without any explanation. She starts following him, overcome by a desire to know what he’s hiding.
Bette Gordon’s 1983 film Variety is concerned with many things–desire, surveillance, voyeurism, pornography–but what compels me most is how it shows a woman looking, gazing, watching, following. A woman who dares to stare back at the men who stare at her. To watch Variety is to enter a cinematic world that centers a woman’s gaze and affirms a woman’s subjectivity under patriarchy.
At every turn, Variety subverts our expectations. Christine works at a porn theater, but the audience is rarely afforded a glimpse of the explicit films that play inside its walls–only brief flashes of faces and body parts are shown. Instead, we experience the pornography through sound. We don’t see the films, but, like Christine on her various smoke breaks, we hear them–the simulated moaning and screaming of sex, the graphic language spoken by men to women. Throughout the film, Christine also describes to her love interest what she sees and the fantasies she has, but he can’t handle a woman expressing sexual desire.
Christine constantly destabilizes and disturbs men. She trespasses in their spaces. In one scene, she enters a porn shop where men stand around looking at images of naked women. Ironically, this is a space where women are both omnipresent and unwelcome. Women are allowed so long as they are two-dimensional photos, passive and silent, existing for the pleasure of men. Men want to look, but they don’t want the object of their gaze to look back. They don’t want to be seen in the act of looking. Christine sees them. Her presence threatens them because she is a living woman who dares to look back, to find power in her own gaze. Similarly, she explores other masculine spaces, including a baseball game and a fish market. All of these spaces are a reminder of women’s vulnerability and how hostile the male-dominated world often is to us. When Christine appears in the magazine shop or the fish market, she is immediately visible, watched, and, at the same time, unwanted. She has no business being there. Men don’t want her there.
The film provides a counterbalance to these masculine places by including spaces more dominated by women, like the gym Christine swims at in the opening scene and the bar where her friend Nan, played by the legendary photographer, Nan Goldin, works. The women in these spaces talk to each other and share their struggles under patriarchy, like when one woman–a sex worker–talks about being arrested by cops. Women are not victims in Variety, but they are subject to misogyny and they’re not afraid to openly and honestly talk about it.
Christine goes so far as to challenge the gendered power dynamic between men and women. In interviews, Gordon has spoken about the influence of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking 1973 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that explored how cinema centers the male gaze. Films often show women as men see them. In Gordon’s words, “Mulvey establishes that film is a voyeuristic medium, its appeal lying in its visibility, its quality of being there to be looked at. Film plays on the voyeuristic fantasies of the viewer, who is constructed as a male.”
We also see men pursuing women, but rarely do we see the reverse. Variety gives us a woman pursuing a man as Christine follows Louie, the patron of the porn theater. She checks into a motel where he’s staying, goes through his room, and even steals one of his porn magazines. Another scene shows Christine walking behind him on the street. He has no idea that he is being followed, that the power is in Christine’s hands. In this way, Variety looks at looking and makes us think about what it means for a woman to watch, to follow.
Christine’s stalking of Louie reminds me of Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne. Calle picked a random man on the street and followed him around Venice, Italy without his knowledge. She took photographs, wrote notes of his movements, and recorded her own thoughts. Like Christine, Calle challenged the idea that only a man can watch, that only a man can be the voyeur and take pleasure in looking. Women can also pursue. Women also have the desire to gaze and to follow.
Over the course of the film, Christine gradually changes. Variety explores Christine’s burgeoning and unsatiated desire. She dares to describe the porn films and her own fantasies to her boyfriend who only runs away. Louie never initiates sexual contact. Near the end of the film, Christine dresses up in lingerie and puts on make-up, transforming into one of the women she’s probably seen in the porn films and magazines. She looks at herself in the mirror. She seems to take pleasure in seeing herself this way, or maybe she’s trying to understand who she is in relation to those images.
At a time when porn is easily accessible, more and more women are comparing themselves against the films and photos they see and trying to figure out what they want in a world that rarely asks what a woman desires. In the lingerie, Christine is no longer looking at a woman on a screen or a magazine page. Now, she is looking at herself. She is turning her gaze on her own face and body. And not a man is in sight. She is centering her own pleasure, and that might be Variety‘s most radical contribution–a woman seeing herself outside the gaze of men, a woman watching instead of always being watched, a woman asserting her right to be subject rather than object.
Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.
–Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks
This year, 2018, Deutsche Grammophon released a 15th anniversary edition of Max Richter’s album, The Blue Notebooks. I want to use the release as an opportunity to write about what the album means to me and how it changed my life. I also want to explore the cinematic quality of the music. What follows is a fragmentary excavation of the way this album is part of my inner life and my memories.
I recently made a major move. It’s the third move I’ve gone through in three years. I put The Blue Notebooks on as I organized my bookshelves in my new home. It was the middle of the night. I listened to the album and held my books in my hands, trying to feel a sense of hope that this is a new beginning, that I’ve found some peace for myself after so long. But can there ever be a new beginning? Isn’t everything an ending? I’m so tired of endings.
Most of the time, I don’t feel human. I am song or word or film. I am more than what can be seen or known.
I first fell in love with The Blue Notebooks in 2012. When I check my last.fm history, I see that I listened to it over 300 times. I was possessed, enraptured. After hearing the album, I also read Franz Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks, a collection of fragments and aphorisms, some of which are quoted in several songs on the album. I lost the book in a move. I remember a few phrases from it but have forgotten most of it. I long for that book. I have so many other books, but I only think about the one that is missing. That’s how I am: I only see loss, absence.
This album was the first time I realized that music could be cinematic, even literary, that you could take the songs and create a film in your mind. I felt the presence of a woman, as though she were writing the album or the album was writing her life. I created a story about her. I could see Tilda Swinton (the actress who supplies the voice narration throughout the album) at her typewriter. Tilda was a translator living in a small apartment in Europe. I imagined her working on a translation of some experimental text by an important writer. I saw the blueness of the dawn outside the window of her apartment, heard the hardwood floors that creaked under her feet, and smelled the stacks of ink-smeared paper beside a half-empty coffee cup. A woman thinking and dreaming. A woman writing. A woman alone and so alive. The woman I wanted to be.
Tilda the chameleon, sliding into skins that she sheds with ease. A multi-faceted woman, one minute filming John Berger, the next sleeping in a box as part of a museum exhibition. I’ve always wanted to be her. I remember her most from Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, a film that is so sensual and dreamy that I still think of it at random moments, like on hot days or when summer is close. I remember close-ups of Tilda’s face, the way the camera lingered on her skin and lips.
For a while, I didn’t know it was Tilda’s voice. I found out later. I didn’t put the voice with her face. I also found out that she brought cinema to rural Scotland by driving a film truck around to different villages. I’m so in love with that idea. I want that. I’ve always imagined some girl watching a film, like the little girl in The Spirit of the Beehive, and being haunted by it for the rest of her life.
The Blue Notebooks becomes an inner film, a film we create in our own minds. My translator in her empty apartment. I wonder what films other people see through these songs? What stories have they created?
I think often about Franz Kafka’s sisters. He died before World War II, but his Jewish sisters–Gabriele, Valerie, and Ottilie–were murdered in the Holocaust. The sisters of the singular genius of the 20th century were completely obliterated. What would have happened to Kafka? How would he have faced such horror? How did anyone face it?
It’s a miracle that anyone survived the 20th century. The trenches, the gas chambers, the atomic bombs. Will anyone survive the 21st?
This album feels like an elegy for lost souls.
In fact, the album was composed just before the Iraq War in 2003. Richter states that The Blue Notebooks is “an attempt for music to comment on society and specifically it’s an anti-violence record. It’s a subtle and peaceful protest against political, social, and personal brutality. Sadly it’s still very current today.”
This music should stop everyone. The beauty of it should paralyze us and then shock us back to life, utterly transformed, like Wiesler hearing “Sonata for a Good Man” in the 2006 film The Lives of Others. The way he hears the music and reads Brecht and seems to become a better person. If only it were that simple. If only art really could change the world and reverse all the horror
Hearing this album was a revelation, like when I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc for the first time, or read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Once you taste this kind of transcendence, you’re always searching for it again and always thinking back to the rare moments when you experienced it. I will never again be like I was in my teens and early 20s, watching films and reading books with such hunger. I was so open, so tender. Everything sent an electrical charge through my body. Everything reached me, touched me like I can never be touched again.
As I get older, I want to keep my heart open to revelation. I must.
I can’t let go of certain songs and films and books. They explain me to myself.
Just give me a dark night and this album playing as I stare up at the stars.