An Interview with Mirko Stopar

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.

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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.

I wish 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.

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Behind the scenes of Nitrate Flames

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?

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Behind the scenes of Nitrate Flames

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.

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Behind the scenes of Nitrate Flames

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.

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Behind the scenes of Nitrate Flames

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.

 

You can watch Nitrate Flames at Vimeo.com

On Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970)

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

 

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

–Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Chantal Akerman’s South (1999)

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

 

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

Chantal Akerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staring Back: On Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983)

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On The Cinematic Beauty of Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

Review: À Cran (Solange Martin, 1994)

I love films about two strangers who meet and feel a connection to one another and take the time to explore that connection. Solange Martin’s À cran (released in English as On the Edge) is one such film. It’s about Clara, a woman who goes to pick up her husband at the airport, but he isn’t there.  She phones the hotel where he is staying and finds out that he is with another woman. She is shattered. This is a story told countless times in film: a woman discovers she’s being cheated on and either stays with the man or leaves him. However, À cran takes a unique approach. Clara decides to engage in her own infidelity not as a way to “get back” at her husband but to feel an authentic bond with another person and reconnect with her sexuality.

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At the airport, Clara meets a young man named Robert, and the two of them immediately feel an attraction. The movie is brilliant in how it prolongs that attraction and withholds sexual consummation until the very end. Most of the film centers around Clara and Robert driving around the streets of Paris, stopping at bars, and interacting with the immigrants who make up the working class of the city. Martin provides a sensitive and humane portrait of these immigrants. A gas station attendant gives them tea and flowers. A hotel clerk sings along to a film in his language. This is a chance for Clara to leave the confines of her upper class, comfortable life, and have a more authentic experience of Paris. Robert himself is working class, a rugby player who got injured and now works at the airport.

The movie is very playful, which makes it a delight to watch. At one bar, Clara tries to tell a joke, but it bombs. Later, they run around the streets like teenagers and Robert hurts his hand, forcing them to stop by the hospital. There is a freedom that they feel in each other’s presence, the freedom to be silly or to tell bad jokes, even to cry and be sad, as Clara is when she talks about her husband and the pain she feels over his betrayal. Being together makes them happy.

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While Clara and Robert are attracted to each other, the majority of the film focuses not on sex but on conversation. It’s a profoundly romantic movie in that regard because it’s interested in looking at how two people make a connection, how they build trust and intimacy. When they finally do make love at a hotel, it’s all the more intense due to that emotional connection they have nurtured. They luxuriate in one another’s bodies, making the scene more erotic than purely sexual. Afterwards, Clara says that she’s never made love like that, implying that she has no real connection with her husband. She declares that she is born on the day she and Robert made love. For her, sex with Robert is like an awakening, a kind of salvation because she has found a man to whom she can give all of herself, both body and soul.

But the morning comes and Clara has to return to her children and her home. She’s so different when she enters the domestic sphere of her apartment. Gone is the Clara of the night before with her laugh and her playfulness, her confidence and wildness. This Clara is prim in her cardigan, her hair immaculate. She returns to her roles as wife and mother, but Robert isn’t prepared to let her go. He shows up and makes a declaration of love. He wants them to be together. They’ve known each other only a few hours, but what they’ve felt and what they’ve revealed has sparked a deep and powerful passion. Like Clara, he feels reborn by their love.

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It’s a happy ending. The film gives the impression that Clara will leave her husband to be with Robert, that she will make the courageous choice to escape a loveless marriage in order to plunge into a new relationship that holds the promise of true and lasting love. In this way, I see À cran as a feminist film that centers female pleasure and agency. I felt so much pleasure myself watching this movie because I think many women want to hear the words that Robert says, they want to be loved without conditions, they want a passionate connection.

I love the idea that one night can change your life, that meeting one person can transform you, that it’s never too late to find love, that when you feel broken and shattered you can find hope, you can be saved. I don’t always feel these things in my real life, but when I see them in a film, I believe in them for a little while, I believe in the possibilities of life again.

Fragments: Nuit et Jour (Chantal Akerman, 1991)

A young couple living in Paris in the 1990s. He drives a cab at night. She wanders the streets until he comes home at dawn. His name is Jack. Her name is Julie.

What is more romantic than Paris in the summertime?

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This recurring idea in the film of sleep being a kind of death. They want to be awake, alive. I remember being young and not wanting to go to sleep at night because I wanted to write and read and listen to music and watch old black and white films. I wanted to live and I never wanted the morning to come.

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She sings to herself. She is in love. Exuberant. I’ve never felt this way. This film makes me long to feel that way.

They lay in bed, naked. They only want to be together.

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Joseph comes along. He is also a cab driver.

Julie and Joseph walk the streets of Paris while Jack works at night. Her solitary walks now have a companion.

A lovely scene of Joseph listing what he loves about Paris. Perhaps this is the moment Julie falls in love with him. Julie and Joseph make love that night and she returns to Jack in the morning.

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This film is like a love letter to Paris.

When Jack is at work, he thinks of Julie. Julie thinks of him. They hate that they must be apart at all. They want their time consumed by one another, by love and sex. Real life intervenes, the need for money in order to survive. We see how these outside forces structure our lives.

How the economy separates people, takes us away from who and what we love. This aspect of work is rarely mentioned. We’re supposed to find dignity in working, but what about loss of time and loss of emotional connection to the people in our lives?

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They spend the day in each other’s arms, but then dusk wrenches them apart.

Julie wanders Paris with a book in her hand.

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I love the light of dusk, how it saturates the film, how it hits buildings, transforms the streets. I’d like to be in Paris at dusk. I imagine the light would be soft, otherworldly. The most beautiful light comes just before darkness.

One night, she falls asleep with Joseph and gets home to Jack late, close to dawn. This shakes her up, the sense that her world might not be perfect, that it could fall apart.

Joseph struggles. He loves only Julie but Julie loves both him and Jack. Love is so simple and complicated at the same time.

Just as it is hard for her to separate from Jack when the night comes, so is it hard for her to separate from Joseph when the morning comes. She does not want to leave either one, but there is only one of her, torn between two men.

One night, while driving his cab, Jack sees her walking the streets. He watches her. She seems “elsewhere” as the narrator puts it. He sees a side of her that is new to him. We are so unknowable to each other.

Jack starts to feel dread. Things change between them. Perhaps he has some sense that she is with someone else but he can’t articulate it. Seeing her from afar, knowing that she is a person separate from him with her own thoughts and secrets, sparks a change in him and their relationship.

 

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Jack asks her to accompany him in his cab. She goes. I wonder if this is an attempt to control her? To keep her away from the streets where she is free to roam and wander without him.

She finally tells Jack about her affair with Joseph

She takes a suitcase and leaves both Jack and Joseph. If she can’t love both, she’ll love neither.

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Cinema as a Living Dream

Lately, I’ve been watching films about films. The connecting thread throughout all of them has been Martin Scorsese. I could listen to him talk about movies all day. Scorsese is a tireless advocate for cinema and he speaks about the art form in a way that is both personal and technical. He can talk about a feeling evoked by a film and then discuss how exactly that feeling was generated through framing, pacing, lighting, and the other tools that directors use.

In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Scorsese muses on the meticulous and masterful scenes created by Alfred Hitchcock. In A Letter to Elia, he reminisces about the power of Elia Kazan’s films and how they sparked Scorsese’s own desire to be a director. He shares memories of being a child and watching movies for the first time and what the movie theater meant to him, how it was a place of refuge and protection. Scorsese’s reverence for cinema is moving and it reminds me of my own passion for the art form.

My passion began in high school in 2004 when I took a film appreciation class. The class was held in the school theater where the teacher set up a projector and screen. I still remember sitting in that theater in the darkness, surrounded by a few of my peers (it was a small class with maybe a dozen students) and watching classic films. We watched Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho, Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. We watched The Wizard of OzSingin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon. We learned about the birth of cinema, the popularity of silent films, the rise of talkies. I loved watching the films. I found a pleasure that, until that moment, I’d never known. Films were entertainment. They were something I watched and then forgot. But this class made me realize that cinema was an art form, that it could make me feel things, that it could show me things that I’d never seen.

I was reminded of all this recently when I watched another film about film: Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies. It’s about the intersection of cinema and art, specifically the effect that film had on Cubism, which was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. As you’d expect, Martin Scorsese is in the documentary. He talks about how, when you watch a film, you’re really “living a dream.” I think, more than any other art form, cinema is about dreaming, it’s about entering a dreamlike state. When I remember those days of watching films in the high school theater and when I watch them now, I’m in love with the dream that film creates.

When I first learned about the early days of cinema, I was enchanted by the short silent films that were made, like The Kiss and Le Voyage Dans La Lune. They still delight me. Filmmakers were experimenting with the camera, pushing the boundaries, constructing a cinematic language to tell stories. The image that most enthralled me was the Danse Serpentine. Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies spotlights the dancer, Loie Fuller, who created the dance. Fuller was an American dancer who became a sensation in France in the 1890s. She had no formal dance training at all, but she beguiled audiences with her choreography. The Metropolitan Museum of Art writes:

Manipulating with bamboo sticks an immense skirt made of over a hundred yards of translucent, iridescent silk, the dancer evoked organic forms –butterflies, flowers, and flames–in perpetual metamorphosis through a play of colored lights. Loie Fuller’s innovative lighting effects, some of which she patented, transformed her dances into enthralling syntheses of movement, color, and music, in which the dancer herself all but vanished.

Fuller’s dance was copied throughout the world and many filmmakers captured other dancers performing it. To reproduce the light effect, the film was tinted with different colors. Watching videos of it, you feel as though you are in a dream. The voluminous folds of the dancer’s clothing curve and swirl in the air. I’ll never forget the impact of this imagery. It was so striking, to see a woman dance with abandon and throw her arms around and lose herself in the movement itself.

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When I found out that they tinted the films by hand, I used to think about a person going through each frame and drawing the color on. It seemed so laborious but playful, a form of experimentation. Today’s films simply can’t compete with those early works when it comes to evoking a dream world. Those first pioneers and innovators were birthing cinema, they were bringing it to life, they were dreaming it as they created it.

Around 1900, Samuel Joshua Beckett captured striking photos of Loie Fuller dancing. Fuller may not have been formally trained, but perhaps this is what gave her such guts and imagination. She transcends dance. She transforms the human body into other shapes. She gives herself wings and looks like she could take flight. It’s no wonder that Picasso was fascinated by her, or that all of the world was mesmerized by her movements.

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My journey with cinema is only beginning. There’s still so much I don’t know and so many films I haven’t seen. Scorsese is a kind of guide. I don’t necessarily have the language and the theory to talk about cinema, but I have the passion and the curiosity and the love and so I will always write from a place of tenderness and awe. I think cinema is for the dreamers. I think cinema keeps our dreams alive.

Fragments: Vers Mathilde (Claire Denis, 2005)

Whenever you make an incursion into a space, that space is altered. I like this idea of leaving a scratch because that space is altered by that scratch after. It’s like a piece of paper that has a mark on it and is no longer blank[…] In other words, the memory leaves a mark. The mark is always there. And the memory […] So this mark leaves a mark on the body. On mine, in any case.

–Mathilde Monnier

Vers Mathilde is a documentary directed by Claire Denis about French choreographer Mathilde Monnier as she rehearses for a production of “Déroutes.”

Dance fascinates me, as it centers the body but also seems to transcend it. I have always wanted to escape my body.

A body writhing on a hardwood floor, the shadow of a hand.

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The connection and camaraderie of dance rehearsals. The social aspect of dance, bodies coming into contact (makes me think of my own failed attempt at dance, my own physical isolation.)

You can visibly see how a dance production is put together, unlike, for instance, how a book is put together, since it exists only in the mind of the writer.

We’re so alone in our bodies, but dance seems to be a way for us to share our bodies, to convey the inside through the outside.

Mathilde dancing spasmodically to PJ Harvey’s “A Place Called Home” and other songs on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. I go to youtube and watch the music video. PJ in a glittery dress, her own body moving to the rhythms of the song. This is something I like about watching movies on my laptop–I can pause, go explore, make associations and connections.

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One day
I know
We’ll find
A place of hope
Just hold on to me
Just hold on to me

I end up saving the album on spotify to listen to later. I find a documentary about Mathilde on Medici TV, but it’s only available to subscribers. I end up registering on the site even though I don’t subscribe.

I’ve become gloriously side-tracked, pulled into the magic vortex of the internet.

A scene of dancers rehearsing. A man and woman intertwined, arms wrapped around each other, legs entangled, hands making indentations in flesh. I think about touch often, how my life is defined by a lack of touch, a distance from people, how unloved and undesired I feel. Dance is so intimate, particularly when you are dancing with a partner. I don’t know what that’s like.

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The delicacy and violence of touch, the act of invading a body, colliding with it, like the scratch Mathilde mentions at the beginning of the movie, how we leave marks on one another.

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The only other documentary I’ve seen about a choreographer is Wim Wenders’s Pina, a tribute to Pina Bausch. Denis’s film is not an homage. It’s a documentation of a living artist’s creative process.

The labor of dance, the physical exertion of it. The labor of art. We don’t talk enough about that–how the body works and toils to create.

I respect dancers in the same way I respect actors, how they use their bodies and faces to convey abstract emotions. Dancers are free of words completely, free of language. They bypass it. They seem more pure, alive inside of rhythms.

Denis records private whisperings, moments of Mathildes’s doubts and insecurities.

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It’s astounding how open the dancer is to scrutiny and criticism, how they conform themselves to the choreographer’s vision. They lose themselves, must discard their ego. They are the choreographer’s creation.

The strangeness of dancing, how we move our bodies in odd ways. It’s liberating to dance alone and not care how strange you look, only needing the music to engulf you. Mathilde dances alone, doing arm exercises. She looks manic and possessed, the way I imagine Lucia Joyce or Zelda Fitzgerald danced.

I pause the film and start reading about Lucia and Zelda. Both were overshadowed by the more famous male writers in their lives. Lucia’s father was James Joyce; she also dated Samuel Beckett at one time. Zelda married F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even now, the men preoccupy us while the women fade into the background. Biographies try to remedy this injustice. In The New Yorker, I find a review of the biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss. I read this part with interest:

When Lucia was fifteen, she began taking dance lessons, mostly of the new, anti-balletic, “aesthetic” variety, and this became her main interest during her teens and early twenties. She started at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, then moved on to study with the toga-clad Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s older brother. Eventually, she hooked up with a commune of young women who performed now and then, in Paris and elsewhere, as Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. However briefly, Lucia was a professional dancer. She is said to have excelled in sauvage roles. But eventually she left this group, as she left every group. (I count nine dance schools in seven years.) In part, that may have been due to lack of encouragement from her family. Nora reportedly nagged Lucia to give up dancing. According to members of the family, she was jealous of the attention the girl received. As for Joyce, Brenda Maddox says he felt “it was unseemly for women to get on the stage and wave their arms about.”

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Dance, for women especially, can be a way to access freedom that is denied them in other parts of their lives. Perhaps Lucia found something liberating in movement. She was forced to move often in her youth to many different countries. She was never settled until, of course, she ended up at a mental institution for the last thirty years of her life. Maybe dancing gave her an outlet for the rage, the emotion, the strangeness of her self.

I go on reading and come across this:

Finally, after seven years’ training in the left wing of dance, Lucia bolted to the right wing, and embarked on a backbreaking course of ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg. This was a terrible idea. Professional ballet dancers begin their training at around the age of eight. Lucia was twenty-two. She worked six hours a day, but of course she couldn’t catch up, and, in her discouragement, she concluded that she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind—a decision, Joyce wrote to a friend, that cost her “a month’s tears.”

A story all too similar to Zelda Fitzgerald, who also took up ballet in her 20s and relentlessly pushed her body to become a world-class dancer that it could not be. On a PBS website, I find this paragraph:

In 1928, she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a professional ballerina, and began taking lessons in Paris from a famous dancer. At the late age of 27, three years of intense ballet work (eight hours a day) damaged her health, and prompted her first mental breakdown, diagnosed as “nervous exhaustion”, in 1930. Zelda was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, and would reside in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life.

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It’s easy to focus on the tragedy of Lucia and Zelda but maybe what’s more important is to realize that both women tried to pursue their passions. They flung themselves into dance with all their obsession and manic energy and, at rare moments, they must have felt a deep, overwhelming transcendence, that sense of losing and finding the self all at once within art.

Denis often focuses on the hands of Mathilde and the dancers.

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At one point, a girl violently dances. Her bare feet pound the floor. It’s glorious, this controlled frenzy. I wonder what it’s like to be that girl, to feel that kind of power in my own body, to be so raw and strong and intense. She crosses some unseen boundary where the dancing dissolves and there is only life. Life as it is revealed by art.

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Fragments: Nathalie Granger (Marguerite Duras, 1972)

 

I wanted to render silence. A rich, living silence. Like something you might have been able to hear.

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In my films I don’t gloss over or suppress those things that aren’t functional or organic to the expressive unity of the fiction—they are made up of a material that’s lacerated, superimposed, offset in time; there are gaps and breaks—that whole imaginary that’s meant to render the heterogeneity and irreducibility of life.

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As for Jeanne, since the time of Moderato Cantabile I’ve been aware of the extraordinary intelligence in her eyes, the seriousness with which she entered into her roles.

Marguerite Duras, The Suspended Passion: Interviews

 

This is my first real review for the website. The essays before this one were conceived for other reasons, before I thought of creating herheadinfilms.com, before I envisioned a space specifically for my film reviews.

How do I want to write about film? I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time. Films are not separate from my life; they are deeply embedded in it. I want to convey that embeddedness, the way cinema is intertwined with every aspect of my existence. I’m not sure how to do this. I’m learning as I go, creating a language that is my own and that makes room for the subjective, the emotional, the elusive.

I’d prefer for my reviews to be conceived in the afterglow of seeing a film. I’d like them to be personal, impressionistic, a blur of thoughts and emotions. I want to write intuitively, from the heart and in the moment. They might be rough around the edges, not so polished or perfect, but that’s okay. Often, I don’t know what I want to say before I start writing. I find my words as I write them. I discover my thoughts and feelings as they appear in the act of writing.

I wish I could write about every film I watch, but time won’t allow me to do that. However, I’ll write about as many films as I can, and, in the process, I hope to capture memories and parts of my life in these words so that I don’t forget them.

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I watched Nathalie Granger on a Saturday. It was a particularly difficult day. I’d been crying so much that my eyes were burning. I wanted my eyes to do more than cry. I wanted to watch my first Marguerite Duras film. I’ve read many of Duras’s books: The Lover, The Ravishing of Lol Stein, her script for Hiroshima Mon Amour, her war diaries, several of her interviews. Duras is a crucial figure in my life, and her fragmented writing style is one that I admire and that I am inspired by. It seemed only natural to start exploring her cinema.

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Nathalie Granger feels like a Marguerite Duras creation. It has the fragmented and non-linear narrative that characterizes her novels. I could tell that she directed this film. Her touch is all over it. It’s like her writing has come to life on the screen.

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Nathalie Granger is a little girl who is so violent that she needs to be put into a different school. We’re not told much about Nathalie’s violent tendencies, only that she is aggressive towards other children her age and acts out. We never see her violence. In fact, she is rarely in the film. The film is really about Nathalie’s mother, Isabelle, (Lucia Bosé) and her close friend, an unnamed woman played by Jeanne Moreau.

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Like Duras, Moreau is an important figure in my life. She was present in many of the first art house films I ever watched. There was her vivacity in Jules et Jim, her sensuality in The Lovers, her yearning in Elevator to the Gallows, her addiction in Bay of Angels. In those films, she was glamorous and always defined by her relationship to men, whether it was the male directors who were in love with her or the male co-stars who fawned over her. In Nathalie Granger, she is just herself, wearing simple shirts and slightly-flared jeans. The style is more casual and natural. The two women are not sexualized or objectified by Duras’s camera. They are allowed to just be.

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I rented this film through Netflix’s DVD service. As I held the DVD, I thought about the other people who had laid it beside their beds and then picked it up and watched it. I was touching something they had touched, and someone, one day, would receive the DVD I had touched and we would be connected in some small but unknown way. All these people watching one Marguerite Duras film.

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Nathalie Granger is almost a silent film. The dialogue must have covered only a few pages of the original script. There are few words. Instead, there are looks and empty rooms. Much of the story takes place in one house. We see windows and couches and cats. We watch two women move through this domestic space. They clear the table after lunch and wash the dishes. They look out of windows, their faces and bodies are reflected in mirrors. Their day is punctuated by a radio broadcast that updates listeners on two teenage killers who have been caught by the police. Perhaps a reminder of what Nathalie could become one day if her violence escalates. Within this calm domestic realm, violence strikes in subtle ways–through the radio and the information about Nathalie’s outbursts. Nathalie’s mother, Isabelle, conveys a quiet turmoil; you can tell she is grappling with her daughter’s violence. She packs Nathalie’s clothes into a suitcase in preparation for the move to the new school, but, at the last minute, she refuses to let Nathalie leave. Nathalie’s fate is unresolved by the end of the film, perhaps implying that there are no easy solutions when it comes to dealing with a violent child, that the problem of violence itself is never easily solved.

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This film is only 1 hour and 20 minutes, but it took me hours to watch it. This always happens to me. I constantly pause films, maybe I want to prolong them. This film is slow and silent, the kind of film many people don’t like watching. They need action and plot, and I need those things sometimes, too, but I’ve increasingly opened myself to the beauty of meandering, meditative films that are more about immersing the viewer in a cinematic world that is slower and closer to everyday life. Nathalie Granger is populated by ordinary tasks performed by ordinary women who feel more than they can speak. Their silence is infused with meaning.

I didn’t mind spending a little over an hour in their world, watching them dry the dishes and look out of windows and play the piano. My mind drifted at times, but that’s okay. I think these films create a space for thinking; they inspire the mind to wander. The film isn’t trying to do anything or say anything; it simply is. It exists. It pulls us in without telling us what to think or how to interpret it. We make the film our own. I think what will stay with me most are those quiet moments that suggest the rich interior life of the women in the film.