Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression
A new retrospective of the filmmaker Lynne Sachs examines her deeply personal work and how it connects to the world around us.
Someone introduced themselves to me at a film festival where one of Lynne Sachs’s films was screening. I introduced myself in return, and their eyes lit up. “Are you Lynne Sachs?” they asked, having apparently heard only my last name.
No, I am not Lynne Sachs (obviously), nor am I related to her. But I enjoy relaying this anecdote, in part because it’s so flattering to have been momentarily mistaken for the experimental filmmaker, writer, and artist whose work I greatly admire. While I have no direct connection to Sachs, after recently watching so many of her films in such a brief period of time—on the occasion of the Museum of the Moving Image’s inspired retrospective, “Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression,” organized by assistant curator Edo Choi and available to stream online here between January 13 – 31, 2021—I do feel as though I know her.
At the center of Sachs’s work is often Sachs herself: her body, her voice, her words. And with those come the subjects that preoccupy her: family, feminism, language, place, and being. Over 30 years of making films, collage and installation art, writing prose and poetry, and orchestrating performances, often in conjunction with her moving-image work, Sachs has centered herself insomuch as she’s looking out at the world that encircles her, viewing it thoughtfully yet from a studied distance.
Throughout the retrospective’s five programs (as well as in her latest, Film About a Father Who, a documentary about her charmingly lubricious father that’s been decades in the making and is also available to rent through MoMI), Sachs never seems to intimate that her perspective is universal but, rather, that having a perspective is.
Program 1: Early Dissections
Sachs’s first three films reflect her distinctly feminist viewpoint, conveyed through cerebral experimentations with form; she employs such avant-garde structures to impart a female perspective, thereby challenging the omniscient male gaze. In Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986), Sachs assays the daily goings-on and considerations of a woman by positing her as a character in the de facto narrative. The foundation of Sachs’s practice is established here as she melds different filmic modes and intersects the representational and the confessional; poetry and narrative; and fiction and history, the latter through her inclusion of an image of anarchist Emma Goldman and a woman in voiceover reading and reflecting on Goldman’s letters. Sachs’s second film, Drawn and Quartered (1987), literally separates the female image from that of the male. Shot using her uncle’s Regular 8 Filmo camera, it presents four frames, two on each side of the screen. On the left is Sachs’s then-boyfriend, nude; on the right, Sachs herself, also nude—figurative delineations of separation between the sexes rendered literal. She notes in an essay on the making of the film that she originally extracted all images of her face from it, later splicing them back in as a way of claiming what’s being shown. Another recondite evocation of the cinematic gaze, Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (1987) connects an unseen female protagonist’s observation of a man to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies of movement. The dispassionate examination implicitly calls into question the reverse—the more typical obsession with the female figure by men. The trajectory of Sachs’s first three works culminates in The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991), in which the director begins to merge a collage-like technique with essayistic qualities, resulting in a willful sort-of disparateness that considers womanhood as chastened by men (specifically doctors and scientists) and as experienced by women.
Program 2: Family Travels
Sachs’s family plays a central role in her work; one need only watch the end credits of any of her films to see that her siblings, spouse (filmmaker Mark Street), and their children are often listed as crew members or thanked for their involvement. In collaboration with her younger sister, writer Dana Sachs, she made the artfully evocative Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994), in which she and Dana, who’d then been living in Vietnam, take a trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. Cinematic brushstrokes—blurry images of the country’s verdant landscape—punctuate this uncommon travelogue, throughout which both sisters relay their experiences in the country. In one sequence Dana remarks on a photograph of an elderly Vietnamese woman, revealed to be the irascible grandmother of one of her friends: “Once the photo lost its anonymity, it lost its meaning,” she says. “It wasn’t the long-suffering face of Vietnam anymore, the trophy face a tourist loves to capture. It was just [my friend’s] crabby grandmother.” Here the sisters contend with the legacy of the Vietnam war, a scrim against the backdrop of their childhood memories. Exploring similar themes, The Last Happy Day (2009) is about Sachs’s distant cousin, Sandor Lenard, a Hungarian doctor who was hired by the U.S. Army to reconstruct the bones of dead soldiers and who would later translate A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Sachs combines Lenard’s personal correspondence, interviews with his family, and guileless interpretations of Lenard’s story by her two daughters and their friends to construct a personal reckoning with the effects of war. Both short documentaries explore this theme—in Sachs’s life and in the world at large—each utilizing cryptic proverbs to make sense of difficult truths. Included in this program is The Small Ones (2007), described by Sachs as being a “short anti-war cine-poem” that originates the concept more fully explored in The Last Happy Day.
Program 3: Time Passes
One feels the weight of time, from seconds to decades, in Sachs’s output as each work seems to represent a culmination of the director’s life to date. Composed of films made over 20 years—and mostly shot on either super 8mm or 16mm, and largely silent—this program elucidates a prominent motif in Sachs’s oeuvre, that of fleeting moments crystallized through the creative process. Three works especially exhibit this: Photograph of Wind (2001), Same Stream Twice (2012), and Maya at 24 (2021), which feature Sachs’s daughter Maya at ages 6, 16, and 24, respectively. In each, Sachs records her running in a circle, thereby capturing the illusion of apogees in time. Along these lines, Noa, Noa (2006) depicts Sachs’s younger daughter, Noa, over three years between ages 5 to 8, a period of resourcefulness and ingenuity. Likewise, Viva and Felix Growing Up (2015) features her niece and nephew (the children of her brother, filmmaker Ira Sachs); Day Residue (2016) was shot during some time spent with her mother and stepfather in her childhood home in Memphis, Tennessee. Place figures most prominently in Georgic for a Forgotten Planet (2008), which is less a love letter to New York City (where Sachs currently resides) and more a poem about its natural and not-so-natural wonders, somewhat in line with the work that inspired it, Virgil’s Georgics. Tornado (2002) and And Then We Marched (2017) center on events—September 11 and the Women’s March in D.C., respectively—the former an appropriately melancholy commemoration and the latter a rousing paean. Collectively these films and videos create a portrait of an artist and emblematize the passing of time.
Above: Your Day Is My Night (2013)
Program 4: Your Day Is My Night
With this expressive 2013 non-fiction hybrid, Sachs melds her interests in documentary and performance art with her penchant for prose and poetry; all four modes combine into a beguiling narrative around the phenomena of shift-bed housing, the practice of multiple people sharing the same bed, in New York City’s Chinatown. Having first learned about “hot-bed” houses from her uncle—and expanding her knowledge on the subject by way of 19th-century photographer Jacob Riis’s book How the Other Half Lives—Sachs worked with several older Chinese immigrants who were intimately familiar with the custom, meeting with them on a weekly basis for a year and a half to flesh out their stories. What might seem like a relatively straightforward documentary is actually a blend of fact (the participants’ stories about life in China and the United States) and fiction (the quasi-dramatization of conversations and scenarios in which these experiences are conveyed). Throughout Sachs deploys stylized footage of the participants appearing in abstract live performances that involve beds; if that seems an overly simplistic description, it’s because the concept, the bed as a stage, “as an extension of the earth,” as Sachs has said, is so metaphorically apt. The cinematography in these sections is breathtaking—close-ups add further visual texture to the performers and the unlikely setting for their displays. Sachs and her collaborators also staged performances around New York City while making the film; this tactic extends the film outside of itself and back into the physical realm in which it originated.
Program 5: Tip of My Tongue
On the occasion of turning 50, Sachs gathered a dozen similarly aged friends and acquaintances, then spent a weekend making this documentary, in which participants recount memories and experiences from the five-plus decades they’ve been alive. (In conjunction with this effort, Sachs wrote fifty poems, one for each year of her life, and published them in the 2019 collection Year By Year.) The film is, like life itself, an amalgam of methods that aid in the processing and contextualizing of one’s experience of it. One woman tells the story of how she swam around Manhattan Island while she sits in a bathtub; a man, standing agape in the middle of a room, describes what it was like to realize that Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead. Some reminiscences are personal, while others broach sociopolitical events that defined their eras, from the aforementioned assassination to the moon landing, as experienced by many of those involved in the film from their respective locations around the world (Iran, Cuba, and Australia, among others). Some of the remembrances are even more location-specific, as when a woman from Iran talks about being a child during the Revolution of 1979 and a man from the U.S. talks about his family prospering under Reagan. Sachs intersperses nimbly assembled archival footage and audio clips between the recollections, adding further weight to the participants’ memories. Her artful scribbling (present also in Year By Year) often adorns the images, and Sachs and the participants write on various objects the years between 1961 (when Sachs was born) to 2011 (when she turned 50). Tip of my Tongue is an ideal synthesis of Sachs’s preferred modes: documentary, performance, essay, and poetry. The brilliant sound design adds additional layers to the material—subtle footnotes to the cinematic treatise. She notes in Year By Year that she was inspired by this line from Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet: “Everything that surrounds us becomes part of us.” Again, at the root of Sachs’s practice is a beguiling simplicity, which feels organic but reveals itself to be methodical under analysis. Her latest, Film About a Father Who, is a natural continuation of all this. “It seeps into us with every experience of the flesh and of life and…,” Pessoa continues, “binds us subtly to what is near, ensnares us in a fragile cradle of slow death, where we lie rocking in the wind.”
A conversation between Lynne Sachs and assistant curator Edo Choi will be available along with the retrospective programs. Additionally, Sachs, her brother Ira, and cinematographer and filmmaker Kirsten Johnson will participate in a live online event on Tuesday, January 19, at 7 PM.