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Figure and Wound: The Human Body in Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers. In 1983, when feminist scholar […]

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers.

In 1983, when feminist scholar Donna Haraway began writing “A Cyborg Manifesto,” her landmark essay that would come to redefine forms of gender classification and the conditions of what it is to be human, she speculated upon describing the limits of physicality. “Why should our bodies end at the skin?” Haraway’s question was not an attempt to create a definition but an extension. Rather than articulate a body’s limit, this was a provocation to imagine an array of new possibilities—possibilities that would dilate the idea of the body beyond the purely descriptive notion of flesh and bone, and reposition physicality within a discussion of power and identity. Three decades on, her provocation remains integral to considering how one’s most absolute form—one’s own body—is presently described through culture and aesthetics, subjected to law, and conditioned by access to and use of technology.

Reflecting upon what the “ideal body” might look like in the 21st century, artist Shahryar Nashat’s new Walker Moving Image Commission, Present Sore (2016), engages Haraway’s question by constructing a moving image of a human form whose mobility, physicality, and sensuality are comprehensively mediated by a series of objects and technologies that Nashat loosely groups under the term “prosthetics.” Clothes, exfoliants, lubricants, artificial limbs, money, medication—these are contemporary industrially made objects that are displayed upon, attached to, or ingested into the body on a metabolic level. Akin to the ways in which classical painting would seek to augment the persona of a human figure with attributes, emblems, or allegorical objects, the human form in Present Sore is so completely embedded (and occasionally obscured) within this array of objects that it surfaces only through its interaction with the synthetic; the artificial is ingested into or presented as an extension of the human form.

sn present sore 2

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

“I don’t think Greco-Roman, muscular, or athletic qualities represents the body that is in any way ideal, but rather the body that demonstrates itself through its dependencies and vulnerabilities,” says Nashat of the work. “I’m interested in how expressions of injury, difficulty, and dependency expose certain qualities and values of contemporary life.” Present Sore thus seeks to articulate elements that might constitute a body’s “aliveness.” It supposes that the body can never be fully described in perfect isolation, but rather through a composite of objects that signify discomfort and pleasure, as well as attempts to control such experiences. Starting at the feet and ending at the head, the human figure in Present Sore is, in the artist’s words, “gentrified”—an active participant in the replacement and displacement of values within a given site, which is, in this case, the cultural body.

“We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do,” write theoreticians Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their 1980 essay “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible.” “What its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.” Here, the composition of the human figure is not a container of an individual’s agency, but rather something externally constructed and enabled. Capacity is thus determined from the outside; the body is governed by the force of others, their violence or tenderness, and by rules about what it can be or should do.

It is significant that Nashat’s video was commissioned in response to the ongoing legacies of Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976). Throughout his work, Broodthaers’s repeatedly used the term “figure” (which he commonly abbreviated “fig.”) to indicate the double role of an object, calling attention to the difference of an object observed and an object as an image.

Marcel Broodthaers 'Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes de Charles Baudelaire', 1973

Marcel Broodthaers, Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes de Charles Baudelaire, 1973

He would often deploy his own adaptations of friend and artist René Magritte’s notorious painting The Treachery of Images (1928–1929) and its depiction of a pipe next to the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Broodthaers was not so much interested in an expression of lack between meaning and symbol but rather sought to foreground the infidelity of and impossibility of embodied meaning. Curator and art historian Dirk Snauwaert’s definition of “figure” provides a useful parallel to thinking about Present Sore’s representation of the contemporary human body—its resistances to interpretation, as well as its vulnerabilities. Snauwaert describes “figure” as:

the stage of observation when things are on the point of being named, when the object is about to be connected with a concept. Figure thus implies seeing, observing, but not yet explaining. Unlike the symbol, which is recognized and defined within a discourse, the figure is open and unconstructed. In this respect it corresponds to a work of art, which is open and ambiguous as well, and operates by evading definition. Figure cannot be reduced to a single meaning.

Where Broodthaers assembled a sophisticated rebus of a practice constituted through poetry, graphics and film—one engaged in exposing the indiscriminate and varied attachment of meaning to images and words—Nashat’s relationship to image-making calls attention to the similarly promiscuous and often queer relations between the desire for a body and desire for the image of a body. The latter’s art presents an often contrarian space, where sensuality is both performed and interrupted, displayed, and redacted. In its complex editorial structure, for example, Present Sore’s rapidly switching screen wipes and composite images of the human body paradoxically pushes the eye away from the subject it seeks to comprehend. The combination of the lingering camera and the restless cut work to simultaneously animate and suppress visual cognition of the figure. No longer caressing the body with a subjective gaze, even the viewer’s eye is reduced to the mechanism of scan, running into the black margins of the image. Thus the represented body remains plural and inexplicably embedded within objects and moving parts.

Incorporating mediums of sculpture, photography, installation and moving image, Nashat’s work of the past decade has singularly committed itself to looking at the human body, asking: what are the cultural trappings that make a body desirable, heroic, pornographic, or vulnerable? What are the modes of access, regulation, conditioning between an eye and the body it comprehends? In his later videos especially, Nashat’s camera probes forms both organic and man-made for attributes that could be described as hominal—the texture that might resemble skin, the bend and flex of a substance that appears animate, a gesture that appears human and is not or, inversely, a human gesture that appears mechanical.

Frequently, his works use representations of visual pleasure as a substitute for the other senses of the body. Short video works like One More Time With James (2009) depict two men in a high-end perfumery performing a transaction that is, in essence, denied to the viewer (purchasing a fragrance) but rendered instead as a glassy dreamscape, while Hustle in the Hand (2014) comprises the theatrical presentation of a grazed arm to the camera, where the act of injury is suppressed in favor of a fixation on the aesthetics of a human wound. In each of Nashat’s works, physical theater is uneasily presented as high artifice, consciously and sometimes painfully aware of how its sensuality is fetishized for the camera. Diegetic sounds of human action are eliminated to make way for the feigned authenticity of foley effects, while human movement is exaggerated to the point that chance gestures are repeatedly looped to appear premeditated or inevitable, recalling the abstracted advertising imagery of conceptual artist and filmmaker Peter Roehr (1944–1968).

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Present Sore is the most aggressively constituted image of Nashat’s work to date. It is a conglomeration of hard wipes, a dissonant database of sounds, and a forensic image of a single body that has in fact been rendered from many individuals (including stunt men, actors, sex workers) whose different skin tones and ethnic heritages appear graded into a uniform median color. “Organic, digital, mediated, injured, veteran,” lists Nashat, “any kind of body is now available for representation.”

Even intimacy is shown as an effect produced via camera. What might in isolation be considered archetypal expressions of emotional closeness in film—a close-up of the body, discreet hand gestures and touching, over-the-shoulder camera positions—are mechanized through loops and discordant foley. And on a structural level, physical intimacy with the viewer is fabricated through the 90-degree rotation of the widescreen aspect ratio into 9:16, a format most commonly experienced through hand-held mobile devices. Not simply the primary portrait format of the 21st century, Present Sore’s aspect ratio is a frame optimized for holding the image in proximity to one’s own body. It is the ubiquitous yet private “user” view for most moving images today.

Despite these aggressive technological interventions upon the human body, at the very center of Present Sore lies not an archetype or composite, but a found object: Paul Thek’s 1965 sculpture, Hippopotamus from Technological Reliquaries, which is housed in the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection. Presented as an interlude from the juddering mechanics of the composite body, this dream sequence imagines an interior altogether different from the body scenes that bookend it. The symbolism of this dream space escapes contemporary mechanisms, and imports a different time into Present Sore—the period of the Thek work itself, one that is notably pre-AIDS but concurrent with another humanitarian crisis: the Vietnam War.

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Thek’s Hippopotamus consists of a lump of flesh placed within the sanitizing and museological conditions of a transparent vitrine. Made in direct response to the political campaigns that supported American military intervention in Vietnam, Thek noted of the work:

I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene—where the name of the game seemed to be “how cool you can be” and “how refined.” Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it.

With Nashat’s highly selective camera positions and macro shots of Hippopotamus, this “interior” scene is not an escape from the pressures exerted upon the contemporary body, but an indication of the wound beneath. The negative and unseen space that Thek rendered in order to provoke the unspoken horror of war is here shown to persist within the contemporary body. This is an atrophied cultural wound that, like the term of the “figure,” remains open and unreconstructed—the present sore.

Moving Image Commissions #2: Marcel Broodthaers

Marcel Broodthaers, Pipe et Formes Academiques, 1969–70 The second installment of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions launch February 17 with premieres of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore and  Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering in the Walker Cinema. Both works will be presented on the Walker Channel February 18 through March 18, 2016.  “I am not a filmmaker,” Marcel […]

Marcel Broodthaers, Pipe et Formes Academiques,1969-70

Marcel Broodthaers, Pipe et Formes Academiques, 1969–70

The second installment of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions launch February 17 with premieres of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore and  Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering in the Walker Cinema. Both works will be presented on the Walker Channel February 18 through March 18, 2016. 

“I am not a filmmaker,” Marcel Broodthaers once declared. “For me, film is simply an extension of language. I began with poetry, moved on to three-dimensional works, finally to film, which combines several artistic elements. That is, it is writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film). The great difficulty lies, of course, in finding a harmony among these three elements.”

With works that span the mediums of installation, text, sculpture and 16mm film, the practice of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976) is willfully resistant to singular categorization. Descriptions of his work demand either complete specificity to materials (one can refer to his assemblages of eggshells and mussels) or inconclusive platitudes (he is variously described as a “conceptual artist,” “assemblagist,” and “collagist,” though none of them seem to quite fit). So maybe it’s more useful to think of his work, as Broodthaers suggests, simply in terms of language—its translations, opacities, and symbolic power.

Acutely aware that the matter and the meaning of language were completely different, Broodthaers sought to expose the false affinities between the ways in which words attach to images. His work destabilized its sources through punning substitutions and witty redactions in order to reveal the contingencies and structures through which meaning is produced.

Broodthaers didn’t claim to be an artist until he was 40 years old, but throughout his twelve-year career as an artist he repeatedly used of the term “figure.” A word that can also casually stand in for “knowing” or “thinking” (“go figure”), he would often abbreviate the word into “fig.,” the indexical trope of user manuals, encyclopedias, and other forms of informational printed matter. Aware that “fig.” was a traditional means of exemplifying knowledge, he repurposed the term to call attention to the double role of an object—to show the difference of an object observed and an object as an image.

Marcel Broodthaers, Bateau Tableau, 1973

Marcel Broodthaers, Bateau Tableau, 1973. T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1997

Broodthaers was not interested expressing the lack between meaning and symbol, but rather he sought to foreground the infidelity of and impossibility of embodied meaning. He would often deploy his own adaptations of friend and artist René Magritte’s notorious painting The Treachery of Images (1928–29) and its depiction of a pipe next to the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). His works, and his films especially, are exercises in reading—not just reading carefully but becoming aware of the conditions under which one believes themselves able to read at all. As the artist said of his work, it is “something you have to want to figure out.”

Despite an artistic career that lasted just over a decade, the impact of Broodthaers’s complex and diverse legacy is still being figured out, not least in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective. His examination of the social and economic conditions under which art is (or isn’t) constituted and valued has produced a rich cultural inheritance for contemporary artists working in the 21st century, especially those for whom the repurposing and transactions between language and object is key.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Last year, the Walker Art Center’s Moving Image department invited two artists to consider Broodthaers’ conceptual legacy: Shahryar Nashat (b. 1975) and Uri Aran (b. 1977). Like Broodthaers, both work across mediums of installation, sculpture, photography, and moving image. Their work is invested in exploring modes of translation through found and repurposed objects, images and sound. But while Nashat’s work has examined how the human body interacts with and is represented through material culture­—using stand-in figures, prosthetic technologies, and appropriated objects to expose the dependencies of the contemporary body—Aran’s work explores the discord and substitutions that occur between meaning and memory. The latter’s meticulous and intimate assemblages—which often include repurposed objects, appropriated narratives, and customized display structures—lay bare the idiosyncratic systems of personal and cultural knowledge.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Nashat and Aran were commissioned to make moving image works that would premiere at the Walker Cinema before streaming online for free over one month, starting February 18, 2016. Part of the ongoing series of Walker Moving Image Commissions—launched last year with artists Moyra Davey and James Richards considering the inspirations of British filmmaker Derek Jarman—Nashat and Aran have produced works that operate less out of an explicit legacy of Broodthaers and more within the spirit of his cultural influence on today’s aesthetics.

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes) is a composite portrait of the 21st-century body—a synthetic form whose sensuality is both constituted and mediated by inorganic substances: clothes, prosthetic technologies, pharmaceuticals, and money. Recalling Broodthaers’s notion of “figure” as something that might expose the contingencies between symbol and object, Nashat’s video combines rapid editing techniques, a discordant soundtrack composed of myriad digitized sources, and a video presented in 9:16 format—the now ubiquitous portrait format for all handheld devices.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Meanwhile, Uri Aran’s new work, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), draws from the artists’ previous productions. Working with his own recent performance documentation as if it were found footage, Aran manipulates his large cache of video material to create a new technical vocabulary replete with recursive loops, an operatic score, and improvised “outtakes.” Teetering between melancholia and slapstick comedy, Aran’s cyclical video echoes Broodthaers’ short films, particularly the black and white 1969 film La Pluie (Projet Pour Un Texte), where Broodthaers attempts to write with an ink pen in the rain. Two Things About Suffering is an absurdist and occasionally nihilistic attempt to perform the moment before language.

Marcel Broodthaers, La Pluie (Projet Pour Un Texte), 1969

Marcel Broodthaers, La Pluie (Projet Pour Un Texte), 1969. Walker Ruben/Benston Moving Image Collection

On Acid and Death: The Psychedelic Love Story of Ram Dass and Timothy Leary

Nearly two decades in the making, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began with a single conversation. After Leary announced, in the mid-1990s, that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, filmmaker Gay Dillingham organized a reunion between the writer and ’60s cultural icon and Ram Dass, author of the New Age […]

Gay Dillingham’s Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary. 2014 ©Dying to Know

Nearly two decades in the making, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began with a single conversation. After Leary announced, in the mid-1990s, that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, filmmaker Gay Dillingham organized a reunion between the writer and ’60s cultural icon and Ram Dass, author of the New Age spiritual tome Be Here Now (and Leary’s one-time partner), in a pioneering set of Harvard experiments on the psychological benefits of LSD. Dillingham filmed the ensuing conversation, which served as a platform for the two men to share the lessons of their disparate life journeys and discuss what awaited Leary at the end of his own. Following Leary’s death in 1996, Dillingham spent much of the subsequent 18 years researching and crafting a documentary that simultaneously serves as comprehensive biography and a bifurcated manifesto for two leading voices of the 20th century counterculture.

Dillingham spoke with us about  liminal states, her inspiration in conceiving the film, and the dichotomous quality of Ram Dass and Leary’s ideas. Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary will screen in the Walker Cinema at 2 pm on Saturday, February 13, as part of the Walker’s Winter of Love celebration.

Filming for what would become Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began in 1995, yet the project wasn’t completed until nearly 20 years later. Did you have any idea the form the film would take when you organized that initial conversation between Ram Dass and Leary?

I had no idea I would spend 20 years of my life marinating on this story that covers 80 years of footage. Some things we begin with enthusiasm, but they don’t hold our interest, and some things/stories will not let us go. This project literally haunted me over time until I finished it. I knew these two characters were seminal figures in history and I was interested in their perspective on expanded consciousness and death. My original instinct as a director was guided by their idea of “set and setting.” I wanted to create an atmosphere for two old friends and psychedelic warriors to get together in a relaxed, loving setting to reminisce on the past and contemplate the eternal future, as Leary was facing the end of his life, shedding the mortal coil as his spacesuit wore out.

What made this story one that you would return to over such a long period of time?

It kept drawing me back because it spoke to the bigger questions I consistently ponder and has contemporary relevance. Deeper conversations about taboos like death and drugs interest me. Death has been an important doorway to me since I lost my bother when I was 17. I began to see how upside down we were as a culture and that it has been our undoing. Spending time in cultures that see themselves in the cycle of nature and hold life preciously because it has an end, I felt [they] did a better job at caring for each other and the earth.

Gay Dillingham’s Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary 2014 ©Dying to Know

Gay Dillingham’s Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary. 2014 ©Dying to Know

How familiar were you with Ram Dass and Leary prior to beginning this film? In what ways has your understanding of these men and their ideas changed over the course of the project?

I’d seen Leary in the ’80s on his lecture circuit in his cyber-tech manifestation, promoting LSD (Leary Software Design). I was not all that impressed at the time, as I experienced Leary, the showman, not the man. I also remembered my brother, whom I adored, getting in trouble for driving 2 hours to the City one school night in 1978 to see a guy named Timothy Leary. I would later realize why he took that risk. In college, like many others, I had read Be Here Now, the so-called hippie bible written by Ram Dass.

Like most of us, I knew these men as caricatures that my media culture had fed me. So this film was largely a process of my reconciling those caricatures with the truly interesting, intelligent, humorous, loving men I met: Leary on his deathbed and Ram Dass, who is alive today, and, I’m grateful to say, my friend and teacher. Diving into all the archival footage, interviewing people about him, and knowing him personally for 20 years, I’ve witnessed the remarkable arch of his life. As John Perry Barlow says in the film, Ram Dass “is a truly wise man.” After a lifetime of practice, I witness him resting in a place of unconditional love.

In 1964, Leary, Ram Dass (then known as Richard Alpert), and Ralph Metzner published The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an informative guide to psychedelic drug use based on Tibetan religious beliefs about the passage from one incarnation to the next. What parallels did Leary and Ram Dass see between tripping and the death process?

This is one of the main reasons I was attracted to these men. Their book and their work was meant to help people practice ego death or rather to sense that we are more than our bodies, which helps relieve much of the anxiety around death.

You have described the film as an “archetypal conversation” between the heart and the mind (as epitomized by Ram Dass and Leary, respectively). While their relationship is clearly a loving one, their conversation seems to at times border on argument. Do you understand the two men’s ideas to be at odds or complementary?

I have to say both, which is why I chose the symbol of the yin yang. It’s used to describe two primal, opposing, but complementary, forces found in all things in the universe. As complementary, interdependent opposites, neither man could have impacted the culture as profoundly without the other. Each can transform into the other, and contains a seed of the other within it—hence Ram Dass has a keen mind and Leary had a big heart. I’ve experienced that life happens in relationship and we tend to forget that in the Age of the Individual. Neither of these men were as interesting to me individually as they were together. Yin and yang consume and support each other. I think that will make more sense after someone has watched the film.

“A Minimalism of the Frame”: Filming the Female Face in Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015)

In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a […]

Todd Haynes’s Carol 2015 Photo: courtesy The Weinstein Company

Todd Haynes’s Carol, 2015 Photo: Weinstein Company

In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a table for two, where a blonde woman whose face we can see looks intently at a brunette whose back is turned to us. “Therese!” calls Jack, and the brunette (Rooney Mara) turns to the camera. “I thought that was you!” Jack bellows good-naturedly, and he approaches the two women. Once he arrives, the camera descends to the eye level of the seated women, and during the ensuing dialogue the camera is trained exclusively on their faces. Jack babbles away, animated and oblivious, but his face literally does not make the cut. We can see his body up to his mouth, but no higher. We hear his speech, but our attention is directed by the camera’s gaze to the women’s faces. There, we witness a play of emotions, one often at odds with Jack’s cheery tone. Therese looks startled and disoriented, Carol (Cate Blanchett) intent and melancholy. Jack, by contrast, is so bold, so confident in his own goodwill and that of the world, so sure that it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt these women at their meal, which has obviously been tense and intimate.

Everything about Jack is wrong for this scene, and so Haynes removes him from it as much as possible. The audience needs nothing of Jack save his dialogue. He is irrelevant to the proceedings except as a stimulus for the tacit drama he does not notice in Therese’s eyes and Carol’s passive-aggression. This all transpires less then three minutes into the film, and the audience has scarcely been introduced to these women when already we find ourselves wanting to be alone with them, disgruntled at his intrusion, thinking: Jack, just go away. It’s important to make special note of two facts here. First, the POV shot where Jack glimpses Therese across the restaurant is the only shot from a male character’s perspective in the entire film. Second, this same scene is repeated again near the end of Carol, and when it is, Jack’s POV shot is replaced with a close-up of Therese at the moment he calls her name.

In the Carol clip shown during this winter’s Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Series: Todd Haynes: 20 Years of Killer Films, you’ll notice that as the director cuts between over-the-shoulder shots of Therese and Carol, the waiter is, like Jack in that first scene, cropped at the upper lip. Except for the essential bits of dialogue and the hands that deliver the martinis and creamed spinach, the waiter is for all other intents and purposes not there. Later, Therese fights with her would-be fiancé, Richard (Jake Lacy) over the course of one long roving shot, and Haynes’s camera tracks them through her apartment in such a manner that Richard’s face is almost never visible—and, when it is, it’s out of focus. In fact, Haynes goes to great lengths to avoid featuring men’s faces directly in Carol. Dialogues between men and women visually favor the women, and men are sometimes refused reaction shots altogether, an editing bias that amounts to a major disruption of standard cinematic grammar. The only reason this isn’t immediately jarring for the viewer is the fact that there are plenty of conventionally edited dialogues in Carol – it’s just that those scenes, by and large, consist of women speaking with women.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company

These decisions are, of course, not accidents. In the Walker Dialogue, Haynes discusses his early fascination with what he terms a “minimalism of the frame” in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), mentioning in particular a remarkable shot from that film’s graduation party episode. As Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock moves distractedly through his own party, Nichols keeps the camera trained tightly on his face. Hands reach from out of frame to pinch his cheeks; faces pulls themselves in to kiss Benjamin; conversations are had with people outside of or just within the camera’s field of vision. Nichols uses the shot to effectively communicate Benjamin’s feelings of social isolation and emotional claustrophobia, demonstrating that visual exclusion has emotional and narrative consequences. Haynes’s filmography evinces a second lesson: to tell a story on film, all one really needs to show is a human face.

Haynes says in the Walker Dialogue that “the spectator has these extraordinary powers of desire to enter the story, and fill it in emotionally, and to make it come alive. … All of the emotion that we think the movie is giving us, we’re giving the movie.” In his work, the human face is the site of this special cinematic identification. Sometimes, he admits, he has “interrupted that process [and] set up boundaries to identifying with a character,” as in 1995’s Safe, where Julianne Moore’s Carol is constantly situated at the dead center of the frame and yet remains chillingly vacant, “hard to find, locate.” However, Safe’s extreme efforts to subvert the audience-character relationship only belies its centrality to Haynes’s instincts and ethos as a filmmaker. Safe also reminds us that Haynes’s Nichols-esque “minimalism of the frame” is no mere directorial tenet. Rather, it is a principle of collaboration between actor and director. Haynes states that his actors are a major reason for his career’s longevity, and this is evident in Safe, whose success depends on Moore’s uncanny performance as much as the director’s compositional genius.

Carol is the positive to Safe’s negative (coincidentally, their major characters share a name). It likewise puts immense pressure on the faces of its female stars, but unlike the passive Carol of Safe, who is overwhelmed and eventually consumed pathogenically, visually, and narratively by her own environment, Carol’s protagonists make themselves exceptionally available to the audience. Haynes’s camera colludes with Mara and Blanchett to ensure that the audience is dependent on this opening-up, this invitation to connection. We look to their prominently displayed faces over and over so that we can know how to understand what’s going on. Haynes’s compositions admit men only insofar as they are relevant to that story, and the definitive interpretation of events always falls to Therese or Carol (or, in one scene, Sarah Paulson’s Abby). Carol is a housewife subject to legal coercion and intimidation by her husband, and Therese is only 19, and in one memorable double entendre claims she doesn’t “even know what to order for lunch.” They are not necessarily prepared for these narrative responsibilities, but they learn on the go, in order to resist mounting pressure from the men around them to tell a particular story in a particular way.

CAROL

Todd Haynes with Cate Blanchett on the set of Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company

Therese is trying to become a photographer, so we get numerous shots of Therese taking photographs, many of them of Carol, and sometimes we see from the perspective of Therese’s camera itself. To underscore the metaphorical implication—Therese as filmmaker, discovering her vision, sexuality, and agency all at once—Haynes also includes, as he points out in the interview, “all of these shots … through glass, and reflections, and windows, where the act, and it’s almost the lens itself, the act of looking is foregrounded, because it’s all about desire and who’s on what side of that looking.” It for this reason that the man who poses the greatest direct threat to Therese and Carol as they embark on their westward road trip is not Carol’s domineering husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) but the private detective Harge hires to track them, Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith). Tommy’s glasses and tape recorder also figure him as a filmmaker, positioning him as someone with the power to combat or even eliminate Therese and Carol’s agency as women. When she discovers Tommy, Carol aims a revolver at him, and in this moment only Haynes brutally crops her out of the image, so that all we can see of her is that arm and hand holding the weapon. We cannot see her face, and the narrative slips out of her control in this moment. “There’s nothing you can do,” Tommy says within this same shot, and it’s true. The gun is unloaded. The Iowa town where this confrontation takes place is called Waterloo. “Isn’t that awful?” Carol says, and it is.

It could be said that Carol is, on one level at least, a film about men trying to get the last word. Richard tells Therese repeatedly that he loves her, though she never reciprocates, and talks incessantly about a trip to Paris to which she has not agreed, as though he could speak their romance into reality. Harge more literally attempts to have the final say by suing for custody of Carol’s young daughter. As Abby cuttingly observes, he’s “spent the last ten years trying to make sure [Carol’s] only point of reference is himself.” But most films are about men trying to get the last word, and most of the time, they’re successful; in fact, they’re successful here, since Harge does win his custody suit. However, despite this, and despite the film’s conventional surface appearances, it remains the work of a founder of the 1990s’ New Queer Cinema whose films have never been anything short of socially and formally challenging: here, Haynes mobilizes Nichols’s “minimalism of the frame” to undo Harge’s success, to “speak … separately or parallel to” that other story (as he says in a different context). In Carol, a visual work in ethos as well as form, images trump words, even the coveted last word. Demonstrating his trademark trust in his cast’s artistry, Haynes zeroes in once more on the female face as the locus of emotive communication between movie and moviegoer. “May I speak?” asks Carol caustically in the climactic showdown with Harge and his lawyers. Although the men technically oblige, they persist in interrupting her, shouting over her, and even suggesting that her testimony be stricken from the court record. That’s all right, because Haynes and Blanchett give Carol something better than the opportunity tell her story: she has the power to show it.

So it is that Carol concludes with Therese and Carol looking at one another, not speaking, a series of emotions flickering across each of their faces. The crowd of men with whom Carol is dining chatter away inaudibly. It’s a fitting summary of the film’s quiet rebellion.

Todd Haynes’s Carol screens January 19 as part of the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards Screenings.

 

2015: The Year According to Tala Hadid

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh to designer Na Kim, playwright Sibyl Kempson to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to     […]

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To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh to designer Na Kim, playwright Sibyl Kempson to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                 .

“I’m a London-born, US-educated woman of Moroccan and Iraqi descent,” says Tala Hadid. “Sometimes I feel that I have a foot in both/all worlds. This hybrid existence, though sometimes complicated, is also a space of freedom that allows a particular way of seeing—to belong to all, and yet to none.” A filmmaker and photographer who trained as a painter, Hadid is the director of several award-winning short films including Your Dark Hair Ihsan (Tes Cheveux Noirs Ihsan) (2004) as well as the feature-length film Narrow Frame of Midnight (2014). In 2010/2011  she worked on an independent project entitled Heterotopia, a series of photographs documenting life a New York City brothel. Her most recent work, House in the Fields, a documentary film project depicting rural life in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, was screened at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival; it won a Final Cut Award at the Venice Film Market.

2015-01

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Judith Butler

A return to the work of Judith Butler this year has brought with it a wiser view on the difficult and dangerous world in which we live and the spaces that we share. Two works in particular have been profoundly enlightening: Frames of War and Precarious Life. In her words, a speech given at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm:

We live together because we have no choice, and yet we must struggle to affirm the ultimate value of that unchosen social world, and that struggle makes itself known and felt precisely when we exercise freedom in a way that is necessarily committed to the equal value of lives. We can be alive or dead to the suffering of others, – they can dead or alive to us, depending on how they appear, and whether they appear at all; but only when we understand that what happens there also happens here, and that “here” is already an elsewhere, and necessarily so, that we stand a chance of grasping the difficult and shifting global connections in which we live.

2015-02

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Marrakech

I’ve spent this past year in Marrakech, returning with joy to this glorious city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in between travels across the world for screenings of my last film. It is a city of enormous energy, An African City, Berber and Arab, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, under a strong sun and lit by the most beautiful and lucid of light, where the line between private and public space is constantly shifting, a city of the global South, of artisans and musicians, of young people and old, a mix of different classes and peoples living in close proximity in that fine balance of what can be called peaceful co-habitation.

2015-03

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Stephen F. Cohen

I’ve been listening  this past year to a weekly conversation on a podcast, between Stephen F. Cohen, a scholar of Russian and Soviet political history since 1917, Professor of Russian Studies and History Emeritus at NYU, and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University, and John Batchelor, who hosts the radio news magazine The John Batchelor Show. It has been, and continues to be, a highly informative and intelligent conversation and analysis of world events and relations with Russia.

2015-04

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Archipelago Books

This year has been another important one exploring the beautiful books and translations from Brooklyn based not-for-profit press Archipelago Books.

2015-05

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New Directions

In the words of Roberto Bolaño: the cowardly don’t publish the brave. Long live New Directions.

2015-06

Bouchra Ouizgen

I was lucky to have been introduced to the Moroccan choreographer, Bouchra Ouizgen, and to her wonderful work and her troupe of dancers and collaborators. Here is dance filled with the élan of life, a fusion of the best of Moroccan tradition and a modernity that transcends easy labeling.
Full video of the last show at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris here.

2015-07

At the Bayamo suburb of órgano Manzanillo, Cuba,1963. Photograph: Agnès Varda

At the Bayamo suburb of órgano Manzanillo, Cuba,1963. Photograph: Agnès Varda

Agnes Varda/Cuba

In 1963, filmmaker Agnes Varda took thousands of photographs of Cuba. She hid them in a box and now, years later, they have been uncovered and are on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris until early next year. A joy to discover!

2015-08

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The Wind in High Places

One word for The Wind in High Places by John Luther Adams: sublime. Listen and you can feel the cold bite of the air, the breath of wind on the skin, the vastness of  the open sky and of nature unfolding eternally.

2015-09

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The Third Man

Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man was lovingly and rigorously restored and re-released this year. A joy to behold.

2015-10

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Paris Climate Agreement

On December 12, at 12:00 pm, more than 10,000 people took over Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris to unfurl long red lines to honor the victims of climate disasters and show their commitment to keep up the fight for climate justice. This year has ended, among other things, with the historic Paris Climate accord.

In the words of Bill McKibben:

Every government seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry. This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.

And lastly, in memoriam: Chantal Akerman.

 

 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Gentle Assault on the Senses

Five years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with the surreal Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), transporting us across time and reality. Instead of displacing the viewer through special effects, quick camera movements, and cuts, Weerasethakul takes a simpler approach: confusing the real and the dream […]

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor 2015 Photo courtesy The Match Factory

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, 2015. Photo courtesy The Match Factory

Five years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with the surreal Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), transporting us across time and reality. Instead of displacing the viewer through special effects, quick camera movements, and cuts, Weerasethakul takes a simpler approach: confusing the real and the dream with a passive camera. The compositions in his film are more often than not distant, still, and slow. As viewers of a media abundant world this stillness is arresting—allowing us to fully perceive each shot and contemplate each interaction. Cemetery of Splendor is a meditation on the fluidity of history, memory, identity, and relationships.

Weerasethakul spoke with us about the making of the film, his use of subtlety and minimal use of flashy film techniques, Thai culture, and censorship. Cemetery of Splendor will screen at Walker cinema on October 30–November 1.

What inspired Cemetery of Splendor—Rak Ti Khon Kaen?

The film is a search for old spirits I knew as a child: the school, the hospital, the cinema. The film is a merging of these places. I haven’t lived in my home town for almost 20 years. The city has changed so much, but when I went back I only saw old memories on top of the new buildings. One of my favorite spots, the Khon Kaen lake, remains the same.

In Cemetery of Splendor, the past haunts the present: there are layers of history in a single place. What about this layering is significant for you?

That’s how we operate—with layers of history and memory. I feel, as a Thai, that my identity is still shifting from different information—historical research, propaganda machine, myths, and tales. At times it is confusing to search for “reality.”

Illness, death, and medical centers have emerged in more than one of your films. Is this a recurrent entry point into the surreal or dream world?

My parents were doctors, and we lived in one of the hospital housing units. Growing up I was always interested in sickness. Living in Thailand for the past decade has been like one continuous sickness.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor 2015 Photo courtesy The Match Factory

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, 2015. Photo courtesy The Match Factory

The vast majority of camera shots in Cemetery of Splendor are long and still, allowing the viewer time to meditate on the composition. Can you talk a bit about your use of duration and stillness? Is this a narrative structure you use to confuse reality and surrealism, or is your aim to introduce the past into the present?

I try not to impose on the audience’s freedom to look and to listen. It feels almost rude to cut when the characters are in conversation, for example. The same can be said about the treatment of surrealism. I want this film to be a gentle assault on the senses, rather than load it with special effects.

The first camera movement we see is the pan over the escalator that fades out as the hospital ward fades in, why did you opt for this moment in particular to introduce movement?

I think this is the proper time to synchronize the audience with the character Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas). It’s an excursion to town and to the mind. For me, it is when she merges with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) and the audience.

Itt mentions to Jen his desire to quit the army then suddenly falls asleep. Is the sleeping soldier a metaphor?

Can be.

In the past you’ve run into censorship issues with the Thai Censorship Board. What is the current landscape of Thai cinema and censorship? Do you see Cemetery of Splendor as provocative of censorship by the board?

It’s tricky because the censorship law is used arbitrarily. A silly comedy can be banned if some elements are not in tune with the authorities. The elements don’t even have to be in the film. For example, if you are independent, not pro-army, etc., these traits can play a role in how the board treats you.

Early on in the film we see signs of western culture: a soldier requests minced meat, bamboo shoot soup, and a Coke for dinner. Do you embrace the fluidity of culture, or are you more critical of the potential loss or diluting of eastern culture?

Minced meat and bamboo shoot are very local northeastern dishes. We tried to not have subtitles that would be too confusing for foreign audiences. Anyway, Thai culture is mainly about appropriating other cultures. I am happy with this fluidity.

What is on the horizon for you? Are you working on another film or project?

I am planning something about ancient healing, maybe in South America. But I want to approach it from a scientific angle. I hope that there will be more elements of science fiction than the previous films.

For more: In October 2012, Apichatapong Weerasethakul made Cactus River (Khong Lang Nam) for the Walker’s first online commission. He was also featured in the Walker Dialogue New Language From Thailand with Chuck Stephens in 2004.

Melodrama Askew: Tom Gunning and the Films of Jean Epstein

Tom Gunning developed the influential concept of “the cinema of attractions” and is Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Art History, and Cinema and Media Studies, at the University of Chicago. He recently visited the Walker to present the film Coeur Fidele, part of the continuing series, Jean Epstein: The Intelligence Cinema. What first drew you to the work […]

 Jean Epstein, Coeur Fidele, 1923

Jean Epstein, Coeur Fidele, 1923

Tom Gunning developed the influential concept of “the cinema of attractions” and is Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Art History, and Cinema and Media Studies, at the University of Chicago. He recently visited the Walker to present the film Coeur Fidele, part of the continuing series, Jean Epstein: The Intelligence Cinema.

What first drew you to the work of Jean Epstein?

Well, I went to NYU for my graduate degree in Film Studies in the ’70s, and there was a moment there that passed where Epstein was getting a lot of attention. There was this very exciting theater—in fact, it’s still there but in a new location—called Anthology Film Archives. It was dedicated to more avant-garde films, and in my first or second year in graduate school they had a retrospective of Epstein, with films from the Cinémathèque Française. I had already seen all of The Fall of the House of Usher, and I knew that he was interesting… but then, seeing more than a dozen films was very exciting, and I was sold.

Did any one film in particular leave an impression on you?

Well certainly the one I’ve gone back to most is Les Chutes de Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). That’s the one that I’m continuously amazed by. Coeur Fidele, also fascinates me, along with his next to last film, La Tempestaire—it’s a sound film.

You say in your introduction to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations that, despite being written almost a century ago, Epstein’s film theory has the potential to revolutionize current American media studies. In what ways do you think this emerging scholarship on Epstein might have an impact?

There’s a certain way that when a medium is new—and when Epstein was writing in the 1920s cinema was still very new—that all types of possibilities emerge in an almost utopian kind of way. But as cinema became more mainstream and a greater part of everyday life, it got commercialized and industrialized and so on, and these things in effect get shut down. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many interesting films being made after Epstein, but the idea that this is an experimental genre becomes limited, and more limited to the sort of avant-garde artists that reach very small audiences. I feel that particularly in the contemporary era when so many new media are being brought to the table of everyday life, that many of his ideas about how cinema interacts with the brain are quite relevant to people who are dealing with computers, video imagery, and the recombination. In that way it’s kind of like he had a vision that was very revolutionary but got shut down, and it’s now more relevant than ever.

Epstein wrote about Couer Fidele that “the turns of sleight-of-hand of the fête foraine (carousel) have very much unbalanced the way I would wish that the film be understood. If this abstract cinema enchants some, let them buy a kaleidoscope, a toy for a second childhood, in which a very simple device can give a speed of rotation, regular and variable at will. As for me, I believe that the age of the cinema-kaleidoscope has passed.” How would you read the famous carousel scene in this film, given what Epstein says here?

Well, the ideas of the kaleidoscope and of motion were particularly important to Epstein, so I think he’s partially being ironic here. He felt like a lot of other film makers and film critics and so on had picked up on these ideas and that they’d become sort of cliché. One of the things about Coeur Fidele is that there’s a narrative that he’s really trying to get at, there’s emotions he’s trying to get at, and there’s dramatic situations.

There’s also a kind of tension in Epstein that I think is very productive; the visual stimulus that the cinematograph made possible. It’s really interesting to me that he really wasn’t interested purely in abstraction; he felt in some way that film was about the world and although it had this abstract element, to focus on that alone would be somewhat infantile, just looking at pretty shapes.

In the tone there he’s aware of how much he’s already advocated for the cinema as a kaleidoscope or a kind of mobile vision, and that’s the irony.

Wasn’t the carousel a common motif in films of this era?

Primarily I think the films that have carousels are partly seeing an affinity between it and the cinema. It’s a machine that gives you a sensation, a kind of vertigo, a kind of excitement, and also transforms your type of vision. You get it not only here, in 1923, but also in 1929 in The Man with the Movie Camera, in which Vertov has a long sequence with a carousel. I think it’s usually a positive image, but in the narrative of Coeur Fidele it’s ambivalent. I remember a friend of mine seeing it and saying, “When you’re on a carousel it’s uplifting, and yet here they are looking so depressed.” He’s using it against the grain, but I don’t think he’s using it exactly as a negative image because he’s very excited about the idea of the carnival. At the time one of the main claims about cinema, usually a negative one, was that it was a fairground attraction. In European fairgrounds, and in France in particular, it really took as an attraction because they did not have the nickelodeons that they had in the United States. The first generation that went to the movies probably saw them in fairgrounds. It was an idea with many filmmakers to get away from that, but Epstein I think wanted to keep that energy, and I’ve always felt that is a reflection in the fairground sequence here; there’s an ambivalence in the story but because he thinks it’s vital. It’s the wheel of fortune.

Do you see any major difference between Epstein’s melodramas and other films in the genre made by his contemporaries?

There are a lot of different things that his contemporaries were doing and most of the group that’s called the French Impressionists, the experimental filmmakers of the 1920s, saw themselves as a kind of mainstream of cinema, and the way that they would articulate that is that the mainstream films were basically filmed theater.

Certainly, one of the main genres in the theater was melodrama. But, there’s a 19th century form of melodrama, particularly in France, which is very filled with blood and thunder and sensations. It was very popular and, again, carnivalesque. And part of what Epstein felt was that there was something there to be tapped in to; he felt that the sort of boulevard theater pieces were watered down, and at the same time in melodrama there’s a theme of triumph of virtue over vice and a clear confrontation between villains and heroes. He plays with that them but he totally obscures it so that you can’t read it in that way. I think he returned to this more popular form, but could not restore the simplicity of morality. If we think of the melodrama as the exaggeration of emotion, he was interested in that, even though at points in Coeur Fidele you have these very unemotional moments; you would think you know what they’re feeling and yet they’re not quite expressing it. It’s melodrama askew.

What are some traces that Jean Epstein has left on the films of today?

 That would be hard to say, because I’m not sure there are many contemporary filmmakers that are aware of him. I can’t immediately think of more than a couple. The avant-garde filmmakers at places like Anthology Film Archives—where as I mentioned, I first saw Epstein—gathered and viewed films, so they were aware of him but in a more general way than they were aware of the Soviet filmmakers, Vertov and Eisenstein. With Guy Maddin, who often references and has even made some silent films, there’s something in his work that really seems to recall the fluidity of Epstein. But for the most part I think that, apart from filmmakers who areunconsciously pursuing some of the same ideas, my feeling is still that this is an undiscovered country. Epstein is a major resource that hopefully people will become more and more aware of

 

Jean and Marie Epstein: The Materiality of Cinema

I met with filmmaker James Schneider to discuss his use of materials from the Cinémathèque Française’s Epstein archives in his documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which recently screened at the Walker Art Center as part of the current series The Intelligence of Cinema: The Films of Jean Epstein In addition to talking about […]

Marie Epstein plays the role of a crippled woman in her melodramatic script for Jean Epstein's Couer Fidele.

Marie Epstein plays the role of a crippled woman in her melodramatic script for Jean Epstein’s Faithful Heart, 1923.

I met with filmmaker James Schneider to discuss his use of materials from the Cinémathèque Française’s Epstein archives in his documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which recently screened at the Walker Art Center as part of the current series The Intelligence of Cinema: The Films of Jean Epstein

In addition to talking about the archives we spoke at length about Marie Epstein, Jean’s sister and collaborator, whose work has preserved Epstein’s legacy. As part of The Intelligence of Cinema, The Walker has screened two films with scripts written by Marie Epstein, Faithful Heart and Double Love.

You have made films across a wide range of genres, everything from sci-fi to documentary and experimental films. What are some common themes that tie Young Oceans of Cinema into your body of work?

One thing that is consistent throughout my works is that, whether it be a documentary or fiction, any of the work I’ve done I always approach from a standpoint of what is intrinsic to the material (or the place, or the atmosphere) and try to work from the inside out of whatever it is. This is something that has always been important to me; to zero in on some essence and then bring it forth. I was particularly interested years ago in the work of Tatlin, for example, who has very simple statements on material and material possibilities. I’m really interested in this process of going through large amounts of stuff and letting it filter itself out—which is also what editing is—but I think what interests me in particular is really having each part speak on its own.

In your documentary you use several clips from an interview with Marie Epstein. She is constantly speaking for Jean Epstein and his estate, both in this documentary and in what I have seen elsewhere. This is very interesting to me because she was a filmmaker and writer herself, but she doesn’t get much credit for her own work. What do you think Jean would have said about her and her work?

Not much work has been done on Marie Epstein, unfortunately, although she wrote maybe a dozen of his movies…They’re actually fantastic Rocambolesque scripts; L’auberge rouge, L’Affiche, and Le lion des Mogols.

Jean and Marie were more than just brother and sister, they were collaborators, and they were self-sufficient in a lot of ways because neither of them had any significant other, at least that I know of, and they were also both completely dedicated completely to Epstein’s cinema.

Whenever there’s a mention of her role in his films she would not only deny it, she would say she didn’t go with him, she didn’t help him, even though there’s photos of her on the set with a notepad. She really did everything she could to elevate him and his work.

She was also involved in the founding of the Cinémathèque Française, and created most of the archives on Epstein. It’s thanks to her organization that I had materials to work with, for example. Numerous people have worked with and been inspired by these archives. Many scholarly works done by students and others. I know personally that having this archive was like having a mentor in a way. I’d never worked with any filmmaker as to any great degree under any sort of mentorship, but I then realized while making this film that Epstein had become my mentor. Because I had spent so much time at the archives, and they’re so well organized so that you can get a really thorough picture of his working process and thinking process…but not a lot about his personal life. According to some people that knew her personally, before Marie came in a lot of that material was completely trashed. I have no idea what that might have been there before.

Marie Epstein worked with a number of other filmmakers, Benoit-Lévy and others. She was prolific, intelligent, well spoken, and pretty much had memorized Epstein’s quotes. She knew Epstein’s sayings way better than he did. If you look at the draft of the biography that she was working on it very quickly degrades into a series of quotations. So she was definitely working from her brother’s knowledge to a great degree, but she on her own was an incredible force in cinema. A lot of the things named after Jean Epstein should be Jean and Mary Epstein, the theatre at the Cinémathèque and things like that. It would probably be more appropriate, but I think she would have rejected that.

How did the materials from archive tie in to your film? Were there any immaterial but still essential aspects of his filmmaking that you used in your work?

Well, I felt particularly drawn to Epstein’s work to begin with because I was interested in a lot of things that he had explored and thought about, and obviously meditated on immensely. It nourished my thinking of the film. So going into this project having read a certain amount of Epstein, but not as much as I would read in the process, I knew that in my approach I wouldn’t be making a film about my filmmaking, I would be making a film about Epstein’s filmmaking. So how would I do that? Well, first of all I had to choose a somewhat stately approach to camerawork where I’m not competing with his approach to camerawork. So I’m doing more of these tableau-type takes that I let his stuff pop out more. So it was more that I was reacting to his work than being inspired by it. I wasn’t going to make a film that was based on his theories, it was more of a film that was based on exploring his theories and trying to erase, in a way, my presence as a filmmaker. I guess that sort of parallels Marie. I wanted to let his thoughts rise to the surface, by using scans that were of the actual writing that he did, or the correspondence, or the films.  Whatever the material may be. With the idea that you would feel these things coming out of the film. There’s a lot of me in there but it’s not up front or what comes to the surface.

To come back to the material presence, I literally scanned things in newspapers and wanted to use the thing itself because I think there’s a time, and a place, and a perspective, that are important that are in the actual physical materials themselves, like the shroud of Turin or whatever it might be. It’s a mysterious concept that’s not easily quantifiable, but I think that by even just believing in it already does something.

You can in a way give an object its own perspective. Each thing has its own thing that it wants to say.

 

Ousmane Sembene: Film by Any Means Necessary

Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often regarded as the “father of African cinema,” changed the terms of filmmaking in Africa: to tell the stories of Africa from the African perspective. His work challenged numerous social and cultural issues from colonization and slavery, corrupt politicians, to female genital mutilation. However eight years after his death, Sembene has largely […]

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene!, 2015. Photo courtesy artist.

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene!, 2015. Photo courtesy artist.

Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often regarded as the “father of African cinema,” changed the terms of filmmaking in Africa: to tell the stories of Africa from the African perspective. His work challenged numerous social and cultural issues from colonization and slavery, corrupt politicians, to female genital mutilation. However eight years after his death, Sembene has largely been forgotten. During the opening scenes of the documentary Sembene! (2015), which screened at Walker October 16–18, we see co-director Samba Gadjigo enter the dilapidated Gallo Ceddo—Sembene’s house. Rust and unstable celluloid threaten the future of Sembene’s life work.

Gadjigo, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and co-director Jason Silverman set out to tell the story of Sembene and restore his legacy. What they achieved is a deeply intimate yet honest portrait of the man who sought to change Africa. In an interview with Gadjigo and Silverman, we asked about the making of the documentary, Sembene’s approach to filmmaking, and the current state of African cinema.

What were your goals when you set out to create Sembene!?

First of all, we wanted to pay tribute to one of the most important but unknown artists of our century; a filmmaker, novelist, and storyteller who had a deep understanding of the organic relation between culture and politics. Ousmane Sembene spent 50 years using his pen and his camera to try and rescue Africa from the colonizing elements that were drowning it. Through Sembene! we aim to inspire young artists around the world and challenge them to get involved in major issues that face their societies. And equally important, we wanted to tell a story that could entertain anyone, young and old. That was Sembene’s goal with his work.

How did the two of you meet and collaborate on this documentary?

We were each (and still are) working along those lines—Jason as a writer and film programmer and I as a scholar and teacher. Almost all my scholarly work has been devoted to advancing an understanding of African culture around the world and, as an American cultural worker, Jason aims at reflecting the diversity of world cultures in the films he selects for his American audience. We first met when he called me for an article on Sembene and he discovered Sembene’s work. After Sembene passed in 2007, we decided to join our passions, resources, and expertise to work together on this film.

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene! 2015 Photo courtesy artist

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene! 2015. Photo courtesy the artists.

What was the biggest challenge in realizing this documentary? How did you decide when you had successfully portrayed Sembene’s legacy?

Everything was a challenge. Only very few film experts know of Sembene in the US, and very few Americans can point to the world map and locate an African country. Thus, a film project about an obscure African film director is a hard sell. The other major challenge is our own lack of experience in filmmaking. Although Jason already had produced two films and has a deep knowledge of the film culture and film industry, he had never directed a film. I am a college professor who only wrote books and produced a 20 minute behind-the-scenes documentary about Sembene’s final film Moolaade. We were like a one-eyed man walking down the road with a blind man. But with time and persistence, water erodes the hardest rock.

Filmmaking is like any other form of storytelling; its goal should be to entertain and to educate by touching emotions. It was difficult to find the right tone to convey our message in the most artistic way. With the experience, political and artistic sensibility of our editor, Ricardo Acosta, we think we have accomplished a work we can be proud of and which does justice to Sembene and to all those who believed in us and supported us during the years that it took to make the film.

What progress has been made in communicating Africa’s stories since Sembene’s last film, Moolaade, in 2004?

A lot of progress has been made. With the availability of digital cameras and online editing, the cost of making a film has gone way down. Yes, with social media, African stories are being told by Africans, in real time. This is so important that it has altered our political and social landscape. We no longer need to rely on CNN, BBC, or TV5 Monde to show us what is happening on our continent.

Is Africa successfully working toward preserving its cultures and languages?

In light of the centuries of systemic and deliberate “silencing” Africa has gone through, we are progressing inch by inch, but the progress is irreversible. What other societies accomplished in centuries, we are accomplishing in decades. Thanks to social media and media activism, the youth of Burkina Faso, a “tiny” country in East Africa, was able to rid itself of a three-decade-long dictatorship! Cultural and political liberation go hand in hand.

With twenty years of research to pull from, how did you narrow down the most important aspects of Sembene’s story into an 86-minute documentary?

The goal was to tell a story that could resonate across cultures. Our first few cuts of the film were filled with historical and political context, along with talking heads that were conveying interesting information, but weren’t telling stories from the heart. Ultimately, we chose to include only the people who knew him best and the facts that helped contextualize Sembene as a human, rather than Sembene, the legend.

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene! 2015 Photo courtesy artist

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene! 2015 Photo courtesy artist

Can you speak on Sembene’s filmmaking process and how this oeuvre came to define the “birth” of African cinema?

All of Sembene’s films are based on real-life events; his films are not about escapism. Sembene made films rooted in and reflecting the actual African experience, thus ushering in an authentic African cinema that mirrors Africa’s past and its present and projects its future, from an African perspective. He made films by any means necessary, and even coined a phrase: megotage, as opposed to montage. A “megot” is the stub of a cigarette, the leftover that’s discarded. Sembene used leftover materials, or whatever he could find, to get his films made.

Samba, in your biography on Sembene, you mention Sembene’s connection to the land, how did this connection form and how does this connection manifest in his film work?

Sembene was born in Casamance, in the south of Senegal; his father was a fisherman also working the land to feed his family. Sembene was very attached to the land and to bodies of water. He was expelled from school at an early age, and became a fisherman, a mason, a soldier, and a dockworker. He worked outside and worked with his hands. Sembene was not only connected to the land; he was a man of the people. Note that in his own resume he wrote in 1993, in the section about profession, he wrote mason and dockworker. Moreover, all of Sembene’s works are reflective of his homeland, even those written in exile, between 1956 and 1960, including his untranslated 1957 novel O pay, mon beau peuple (O, my country, my Beautiful People).

Is there today an ecole du soir (night school), where Africans’ can engage in non-colonialist education?

Not nearly as much as we really need. The movie theaters have disappeared, and those that have survived are playing mostly American films. There are some bright spots: some young filmmakers in Dakar, for example, organize regular neighborhood screenings (festivals de quartier) attended by a large audience and aspiring filmmakers.

Are there differences in narrative structure between Sembene’s written and moving image work? Why did Sembene begin working with moving image?

Most of Sembene’s films are inspired by or adapted from his literary works. But literature and cinema have different aesthetic requirements. Cinema puts more constraints and limitations to the artist’s imagination. Sembene’s own preference is literature but, as he explained in many interviews, in the conditions of Africa, cinema is the best medium to reach a vast public that needs to be addressed in hundreds of different languages. With the moving image, Sembene stated, “People see with their ears and hear with their eyes.”

Several of Sembene’s film feature strong female and/or mother characters. Why did he want to tell their stories in particular?

In a nutshell: women are the most silenced element of society, but also a major potential force that needs to reckoned with.

Do the two of you plan to co-direct any future projects together?

The first plan: to make sure this first film makes it in the world! Africa can really use this story, and Sembene’s films, and that’s true of many marginalized communities throughout the world.

For more: watch post-screening discussions from the 2010 Walker series Ousmane Sembene: African Stories

Corporeality and the Prosthetic Being: Christophe Wall-Romana on the Cinema of Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein (1897–1953) helped to rein in a new era of filmmaking in the 1920s. Breaking from the typical theatrical narrative arc, Epstein introduced new filmic techniques and concepts such as photogenie that employ time and movement in an effort to disturb the viewer. Professor Christophe Wall-Romana, from the Department of French and Italian at the University of […]

Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae, 1928 Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archive

Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae, 1928. Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archive

Jean Epstein (1897–1953) helped to rein in a new era of filmmaking in the 1920s. Breaking from the typical theatrical narrative arc, Epstein introduced new filmic techniques and concepts such as photogenie that employ time and movement in an effort to disturb the viewer. Professor Christophe Wall-Romana, from the Department of French and Italian at the University of Minnesota, suggests that Epstein’s cinema is a corporeal cinema: one that is felt physically in the spectator’s body. “Epstein is very interested in the cinema as a kind of robot,” Wall-Romana states, “a kind of prosthetic being, and that kind of view seems very close to digital ways of thinking about virtual reality and alternate realities, SIMS, and whatnot.”

Photogenie originates from the “prosthetic” nature of the camera: it is an “artificial eye” that can perceive what ours cannot. Epstein’s interest in the perceptual mechanics of the camera is also connected to filmic time: its ability, as Epstein describes it, to “free us of terrestrial–that is, solar–time, from whose rhythm, it seemed, nothing would ever dislodge us. We feel introduced to a new universe, to another continuum…”.Epstein’s cinema disrupts our understanding of the world, making us see anew, and reminds us of our corporeality.

During an interview with Wall-Romana, guest speaker at several of the screenings in our Jean Epstein: Intelligence of Cinema series and author of Jean Epstein (Manchester, 2012), we discussed Epstein’s approach to filmmaking and his relevance today.

What are Jean Epstein’s greatest contributions to filmmaking and film studies? What is his relevance today?

He was a key member of what is called the first French avant-garde from the early ’20s that came right after World War I, and it contrasts with the second avant-garde which is Dada, Surrealists, and later Cubists and geometric filmmaking. What characterizes the group that he belongs to with directors like Abel Gance, Jacques Feyder, Marcel L’Herbier, and Germaine Dulac is that they’re committed to narration, as opposed to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who love to chop any narrative expectation to shock the viewer. Since Epstein and these directors are still working within the structures of commercial filmmaking, they have to work obliquely and sort of smuggle avant-garde techniques within an overall narrative structure.

As for the relevance of Epstein and his friends to the history of cinema, it’s probably technical innovations and their main idea that cinema is about rhythm and music: seeing the unfolding of the film through the narrative as a certain form of rhythmic perception or metaphoric music. Some of the directors composed sequences by timing shots in a musical way. They used a lot of super-impressions, composite shots, close-ups, and odd angles and compositions, and Epstein was the leader of that group. They expanded the technical register of cinema. That is one of the main ways of thinking about his work.

Another way to think about Epstein’s filmmaking, and that’s more my own approach, is that it’s corporeal cinema: it’s about the body, the body of the perceiver—the spectator, but also the body of the director, and the body of the actors. It’s really about communication between bodies. A lot of cinema before that was literary cinema, adapting stories, adapting novels, being subaltern to literature. He sort of flipped that around and said, “No, the thing about cinema is that it’s about the world and about bodies and the machine in the middle.” That’s what cinema is about. So he changed the whole framework of how to think about cinema. He influenced very contemporary thinkers, like Gilles Deleuze and Jacque Rancière—one of Rancière’s main writings on cinema is an argument against Epstein in some ways, but with Epstein in other ways. Godard, even though he ignored Epstein, later recognized that Epstein had a strong influence. So he finds his way throughout the history of cinema as well. Even Hitchcock said that his idea of suspense had been developed seeing some of Epstein’s movies, even though it’s a very different version, the idea of time and temporality being sort of suspended, and you don’t know exactly why. He thought, “Hmm, I could use that as a sort of purely filmic device.”

What is Epstein’s concept of photogenie, and where is it at work in his films?

Photogenie is a very difficult concept. One way it was characterized in early film history, that is in the ’60s and ’70s, was that it was a kind of naïve belief in the magical power of the camera to disclose something that could not be seen otherwise. So it was a kind of animism or magical thinking, but I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I think for Epstein, photogenie is a certain way of communicating directly with the real, not in a magical way but in a concrete way. For example, he has shots that show a progressive close-up of a telephone. The telephone, which at the beginning is a purely narrative instrument, by the time you have the slow shots that close into and narrow around the phone, it becomes a strange object that has a personality. That’s one way that Epstein defines photogenie, as something that teases out the personality of objects and things in the world. So it’s a form of animism, yes, but it’s a way of rethinking things we take for granted, making them enigmatic again, and showing that we live in a world of affects, human and otherwise, not an inanimate world. So photogenie really means that cinema animates the world, literally.

How does photogenie affect the viewer’s experience of Epstein’s work?

Photogenie is a moment that is at a tangent from both the flow of the film and the narrative arc. Photogenie takes you out of the ease of flowing with the film, out of your expectation of what is going to happen because of the plot. Photogenie stops you and takes you to the side and says “look at this.” You don’t exactly know why, and the shots are made to suck you into a series of images that you cannot quite understand, so it’s a very disruptive device. I think what it makes the viewer do is really step out of the comfort zone of being taken on a journey, as people say, and to ask, “Why am I seeing this? What am I feeling?” Photogenie makes you feel something in your body, which is not necessarily comfortable. For example The Fall of the House of Usher is a very uncomfortable film to watch because it’s a lot of very slow movements—not just slow motion, but slow movements in addition to slow motion—of the protagonist, and you almost feel like, “Uh, why is it so slow, what is going on?” I tell my students always to feel the film in your body, as opposed to just forgetting your body, which is what Hollywood cinema makes you do, to forget who you are and suddenly the film is over and it’s like, “Oh, my God.” You never forget your body, you never forget that you’re embodied watching a film of Epstein’s, and that’s a big dimension of photogenie.

Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher, 1928 Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher, 1928. Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Where does Epstein fit within historical film theory? Do you see a resurgence of classical (pre-psychoanalytic/semiotic) film theory?

There’s a huge interest because we’ve gone through the movements of the film as text, the film as a conscious structure or collective unconscious, the film as revealing the way a society structures how we think. And now we’re going back to earlier filmmakers, and Epstein is one of them, but also people like Guy-Blaché, Balacs, Vertov, and Eisenstein, who are all part of this larger movement. It was a cinema that didn’t hesitate to tackle the world. It asked, “What is the world, how do we view it?” I think some of the concerns of film theory have felt very provincial, or very small, and there’s a certain thirst for cinema that can tell us, “What is the cosmos?” Epstein is very interested in the cinema as a kind of robot, a kind of prosthetic being, and that kind of view seems very close to digital ways of thinking about virtual reality and alternate realities, SIMS, and whatnot. I think for these guys this would have been a great way of thinking. The digital and the post-digital in some way connect to earlier film theory, whereas critical movements from the ’60s to the ’00s were involved mostly in social critique. You have to be careful because some of the critiques that have been made against earlier film theory were that it was apolitical, and that precisely semiotics, feminist readings, and Marxists readings have brought in a politics that wasn’t there before. I think that is a very bad and weak reading of those films. They are fantastically political; they are political in a different way. So Eisenstein is taken to be the first one to make a deeply political film, but I think Epstein and his friends made a lot of political work, but in a very different mode. For example, Finis Terrae, I think is an amazingly political film because it’s a film made by a collective: the filmmaker, a small crew, and a village of people who are supposed to be politically very conservative. The Britons, they’re deep Catholics, they historically hated the left. But Epstein wanted to break those ideas and work directly with people on what their life experience is, and they welcomed him. What’s more political than that?

So there’s new views on seeing the politics of early film theory, which makes it more interesting and again it resonates more with our period. Being political is no longer about big pronouncements or the revolution: it’s more about going somewhere and doing something with and for people who are otherwise disconnected, poor, underrepresented, etc. Also, Epstein was gay, briefly out of the closet and back in again in the early ’20s, and I think his cinema is political in the way he critiques heterosexual melodramas. It was very hard to weave in openly queer topics in cinema at the time because of censorship, but he managed to do that, using equivocations and concealment. For example, in Finis Terrae, it’s about two boys who are passionate friends: a queer eye would read through that, but the film has one of them meet his girlfriend at the end, so appearances are saved! Same in Double Love, where gambling is a cypher for homosexuality. In The Three-Sided Mirror, the story is about a man who’s supposedly in love with three women, but in fact he loves only his automobile and kills himself with it. We can’t really say Epstein was a queer activist, but in a way I think that’s exactly what he did.

How did you become interested in Epstein’s cinematic philosophy and film work?

It was purely by chance. I was working on a dissertation on poetry and philosophy, and I was not very happy with the way it was going. Also I was working on Georges Bataille, and there was a lot of work being done on him at the time. Then I just found this book in the library at Berkeley and it hadn’t been checked out for thirty years, and I thought this book is extraordinary (Today’s Poetry: A New Mindset, from 1921). I looked around and there was nothing written, zilch, on this book! I thought this is really weird and I started to look more into—and I didn’t know he was a filmmaker at the time—so I discovered him as a writer, then discovered his film work, which was very hard to get. There were only two films of his that were available, one VHS and DVD, this was in the early 2000s. So I went to the Cinemathèque Française in Paris and looked at all of his movies and thought, “This is incredible.” Little by little I wondered why he has been bypassed by all of film history. There are a number of reasons for that, and I thought that was worth thinking about. For instance he was half Jewish and gay, two strikes in the interwar period in France! In fact, I discovered he way gay when I was working in the archive in Paris, and I stumbled upon his unpublished manuscript on male homosexuality. That was another motivation for me, even though I wasn’t working in queer studies: to get his work and thinking out, show how he circumvented censorship. And I love his films, and I love his writing! He’s such a fresh, genuine, sometimes angry—but in a good way!—kind of guy, and he’s very idiosyncratic. He just builds stuff, he’s not at all a scholar, he’s not at all a film historian, he was a just a kind of crafter and maker of ideas and of artworks.

What remains the terra incognita of Epsteinian research?

It’s nice you use terra incognita on the day when Finis Terrae will be playing, so the end of the world versus the unknown lands. I went to a conference in Rennes a couple of years ago in Brittany on Epstein, and there were four or five PhD students working on Epstein. They were working on very specific things within his work, so now it’s becoming a field of study. Someone was looking at his conferences, his published conferences, and was trying to read the same scientific texts that he read for those conferences, to understand better his background. So there are a lot of micro studies coming out on Epstein, but I think the terra incognita is still his films, which for a filmmaker is a horrible thing to say! Some of them have just recently come out but he has about forty-five films and only about eighteen are available. So I think until there is a collected film edition of Epstein that is available so people can view his films, and discover them, and be blown by how contemporary he is in some ways, I think he will remain marginalized. His writings are now coming out in French, and I translated the first book of his into English (The Intelligence of a Machine, Univocal) so critically he’s becoming more studied, but he is still not shown enough compared to other films of the silent era. Although the silent era itself is sinking fast, but that’s another issue! The silent era is becoming itself a huge terra incognita in some ways even though many contemporary filmmakers who are doing interesting things are harkening back to silent cinema. People like Guy Maddin or Soderbergh, they know their silent cinema very well and exploit it as something that nobody has contact with anymore. So I’m really glad to see that the Walker is trying to change that, and show silent films as what they were: a different kind of cinema!

Footnote

1 Qtd in Remes, Justin. Motion[less] Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis. ed. John Belton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 81–82.

 

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