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.

Review: Scary Mother (Ana Urushadze, 2017)

As I write it I do not know myself, I forget myself. The I who appears in this book is not I. It is not autobiographical, you all know nothing of me. I never have told you and never shall tell you who I am. I am all of yourselves.

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I feel within me a subterranean violence, a violence that only comes to the surface during the act of writing.

–Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life

 

Writing scares me. I’m scared of what might come out of me, and I’m scared of what can’t come out, what is forever trapped in my own mind. It’s cliché to say it, but, for me, writing is bleeding. When I write, I open a wound. I’m not a creative writer. I’m not all that imaginative. Instead, I want to write my insides. I want to write unspeakable things. My life is my subject, my muse. Everything that I feel must be translated into words.

Does writing make a woman a monster? By that, I mean the kind of woman who,  like me, blatantly writes about her own life, who uses her family and friends as subjects and inspiration? I asked myself this question as I watched Ana Urushadze’s debut feature film, Scary Mother. It’s about Manana, a woman obsessed with writing. Each day, she locks herself away from her husband and three children and writes her book. She’s so consumed by writing that she scrawls words all over her arms; her body becomes a kind of page covered in language.

No one appreciates Manana’s writing. When she gathers the courage to read it aloud to her husband and children, they are horrified by what they hear. The protagonist of Manana’s book hates her family and has sex with the  neighbor. Manana’s family cannot separate her from her creation. The woman is and is not Manana, just as Esther Greenwood is and is not Sylvia Plath. The work of women writers is all too often reduced to autobiography. The woman’s life determines how the work of art is received and interpreted. All writers borrow from their real lives. The great writers take that personal source material and transform it into a work of art.

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The only person who thinks Manana has created art is Nukri, the owner of the local stationery shop. To him, Manana is a genius. In his stationery shop, Nukri creates a room for Manana; it’s a room of her own, bathed in red light. The space resembles a womb or a wound. When Manana leaves her family for this room, she defies the expectations of a mother and a wife. Instead of cooking dinner and washing clothes, she walks around the city and writes on her arms. Her scariness lies in her intensity, her strangeness, and her subversion of gender norms. She is an outsider, haunted by childhood trauma and an absent parent.

Does writing make a woman monstrous? It makes Manana selfish, obsessed, absent. Manana prioritizes her creative vision. Words consume her. As I watched Manana scribble all over her arms, I recalled learning about a disorder–it’s called hypergraphia–that causes sufferers to obsessively write. I either read an article or saw a news segment about the disorder. I remember that one of the sufferers even wrote on the walls of their shower. In Scary Mother, there’s a scene of Manana showering with her arm hanging outside the curtain; she doesn’t want the water to wash away her words. In another scene, Manana sees shapes in the shower tiles, imagining stories about them. Her husband thinks she is going mad and even threatens to commit her. One woman refuses to publish Manana’s book because she thinks Manana is a psychopath.

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Is Manana writing or is she bleeding? Do her words make sense beyond the page of her own skin? How do you make the world understand writing that speaks the unspeakable, that articulates troubling emotions? Is Manana a bad writer or are people not able to comprehend what she has written? Manana is not a monster. She lives  in a world that prefers a silent woman to a writing woman, a world with no place for a woman who writes on her arms and explores disturbing desires, a woman who, at times, prefers writing to mothering and will never stop being punished for it.

Manana’s family is supportive of her work to a point, but when they disapprove of her book they burn it. They tolerate her writing as long as they can dictate what she expresses, denying her the right to her own creative vision. Manana is nothing like me. She isn’t scared of what comes out of her. She is ready to capture it on the page or on her skin. She writes even when nobody will publish her unconventional text. She writes even when her family denigrates her work. She is fearless and maybe that’s what makes her scariest of all. She won’t stop writing no matter what.

Review: Scarred Hearts (Radu Jude, 2016)

In 1928, Romanian writer, Max Blecher, was diagnosed with Pott’s disease–a type of tuberculosis that affects the spine. Over the next ten years, Blecher frequented sanitariums across Europe but was mainly bedridden. In his lifetime, Blecher was a well-respected writer, publishing novels and poems, corresponding with famous figures, like André Breton and André Gide. He died in 1938 at the age of 28. Before his death, he wrote a novel about his experience of illness and confinement. Entitled Scarred Hearts, it focuses on the patients of a sanitarium in France. In 2016, Romanian director, Radu Jude, adapted this novel into a film by the same name. It’s a film that is visually gorgeous but also unflinching in its depiction of physical suffering and disability. The coexistence of beauty and pain is part of the film’s strength, so too is the way in which it asks viewers to reflect on the precariousness of health and the vulnerability of the human body.

The film is set in 1937 and centers on a Blecher-like character named Emanuel who is also stricken with Pott’s disease and enters a sanitarium. This is a meticulously constructed period drama with cinematography so lush that scenes feel like vintage photographs come to life. The beautiful seaside location belies both the brutal content–sickness, death, the body’s disintegration–and the looming threat of the Second World War that will officially begin two years later. There are subtle allusions to the tension that permeates the region. Emanuel is Jewish and, in one scene, recalls a time when people shouted at him that Jews should die. During a party attended by the patients, one young man does a dramatic impersonation of Adolf Hitler, mimicking his exaggerated gestures and strident speaking voice. All the patients laugh, unaware of the horror that will be unleashed just a few years later.

The film is devoid of reverse shots or close-ups. Jude keeps us at a distance, eschewing the individual face for the glorious ocean vistas and richly colored interiors of the sanitarium. This distance allows us to look at the whole scene, not just at Emanuel himself but at how he is positioned within his environment, in the world around him.  It’s also a reminder that we can never know what it’s like to inhabit another person’s body, especially a body enduring pain. Emanuel’s entire torso is encased in a hard, white cast; he has pus extracted from his stomach; he is confined in bed almost all of the time. He leads a life of stasis and immobility, and the camera shots themselves are long, static, unmoving. The camera is confined, just as Emanuel is confined in his body, at the mercy of an illness that will claim his life, just as it claimed Blecher’s life.

Despite Emanuel’s immobility and pain, he lives as fully as he can. The patients at the hospital gather together at night and listen to music and make out. They crack jokes and recite poetry. Emanuel falls in love with a young woman named Solange. She wears a brace on her leg that makes it difficult to walk, but she isn’t bedridden like Emanuel. The two of them like to lie together and kiss. Emanuel’s cast is no impediment to love-making, and they force their bodies into positions that create pleasure and release. The patients at the sanitarium are not in need of pity. They are not one-dimensional, and they are not defined solely by their disability or their pain. They are raucous and well-rounded, seizing life while they still have it, always aware that death could be around the corner.

While the film is steadfast in showing the vitality of the patients, it also doesn’t shy away from pain and the limited medical options for alleviating it in the early 20th century. Emanuel has no privacy. He is a specimen to be looked at by doctors. For almost the entire film, Emanuel is horizontal, lying in his bed, encased in a cast that will not let him move. He cannot walk. He is dependent on nurses to wheel him around.  He cannot do anything for himself. The brief moments of joy do not cancel out the anguish of his loneliness and the excruciating torment of his condition. Throughout the film, quotes from Blecher’s own writings flash across the screen. They are short, poetic, and honest in their description of what it’s like to live such an isolated life, to confront the deterioration of the body, to cope with the reality of death at an early age.

As I watched the film, I thought about how vulnerable we really are, how illness happens to all of us eventually, how scary it is that, one day, our bodies can just stop working and there might be no cure for what ails us. One minute, we are healthy and the next we’re not. The membrane separating those two states of being–that of health and that of illness–is hauntingly thin. Blecher wrote from a place of pain and vulnerability, and Jude’s film takes us deeper into it, capturing the fear, the loneliness, and the unsettling truth of our own mortality.