I will be heading to Cork International Film Festival in Ireland to present “Film About a Father Who” with 10 short films as part of their AEMI artist focus on my work. Honored to share four collaborative film poems: “Longings” made with filmmaker Moira Sweeney (who will be there with us!); “A Month of Single Frames” made with Barbara Hammer; “Girl is Presence” made with Anne Lesley Selcer; and, “Starfish Aorta Colossus” made with Paolo Javier.
Making work since the 1980s Lynne Sachs’ films have incorporated a cross-pollination of forms that extend to the essay film, documentary, collage, performance, and poetry. Deeply reflexive, Sachs’ films to date have outlined a rich interplay between the personal and the socio-political. aemi is delighted to present this overview of selected short works by Lynne Sachs at Cork International Film Festival, many of which are screening in Ireland for the first time.
In addition to this shorts programme Lynne will also be in attendance at the festival for the Irish premiere of her celebrated feature Film About a Father Who.
CAROLEE, BARBARA & GUNVOR Lynne Sachs From 2015 to 2017, Lynne visited with Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer and Gunvor Nelson, three artists who embraced the moving image throughout their lives.
STILL LIFE WITH WOMEN AND FOUR OBJECTS Lynne Sachs A portrait that falls somewhere between a painting and a poem, a look at a woman’s daily routines and thoughts via an exploration of her as a ‘character’.
DRAWN AND QUARTERED Lynne Sachs Optically printed images of a man and a woman fragmented by a film frame that is divided into four distinct sections.
THE HOUSE OF SCIENCE: A MUSEUM OF FALSE FACTS Lynne Sachs A girl’s difficult coming-of-age rituals are recast into a potent web for affirmation and growth.
GIRL IS PRESENCE Lynne Sachs and Anne Lesley Selcer Against the uncertain and anxious pandemic atmosphere, inside domestic space, a ‘girl’ arranges and rearranges a collection of small and mysterious things.
LONGINGS Lynne Sachs and Moira Sweeney A collaboration exploring the resonances and ruptures between image and language.
DRIFT AND BOUGH Lynne Sachs Lynne Sachs spends a winter morning in Central Park shooting film in the snow. Holding her Super 8mm camera, she takes note of graphic explosions of dark and light and an occasional skyscraper.
STARFISH AORTA COLOSSUS Lynne Sachs Poetry watches film. Film reads poetry. Paolo Javier’s text is a catalyst for digital sculpting of an 8mm Kodachrome canvas.
MAYA AT 24 Lynne Sachs Lynne Sachs films her daughter Maya at 6, 16 and 24.
A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES Lynne Sachs with and for Barbara Hammer In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had an artist residency in a shack without running water or electricity. She shot film and kept a journal. In 2018 Hammer, facing her own imminent death, gave her material to Lynne and invited her to make a film.
The Irish premiere of Lynne Sachs’ celebrated feature Film About a Father Who screens here alongside the world premiere of Myrid Carten’s short film Sorrow had a baby. Both artists will be in attendance for a discussion of their work following the screening.
Both Film About a Father Who and Sorrow had a baby deal, in very different ways, with familial legacy incorporating personal archives and pushing against the traditional boundaries of documentary practice. Myrid Carten’s film Sorrow had a baby is also the first film produced through aemi’s annual film commissioning programme, supported by Arts Council of Ireland.
Myrid Carten, Sorrow had a baby,2021, Ireland, 16 minutesaemi Film Commission 2021
‘I absorbed the women in my life as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face.’ – Vivan Gornick
Sorrow had a baby explores the mother-daughter relationship through multiple lenses: memory, beauty, inheritance. Who writes the stories in a family? Who can change them?
Lynne Sachs, Film About a Father Who, 2020, USA, 74 minutesOver a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, filmmaker Lynne Sachs shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, Utah. Film About a Father Who is her attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration of her father offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. In the process, Sachs allows herself and her audience inside to see beyond the surface of the skin, the projected reality. As the startling facts mount, Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal.
An exhibiting filmmaker’s thoughts on the recent online festival, Prismatic Ground.
It began, as so many things do these days, with a tweet: in October 2020, Inney Prakash, programmer of the Maysles Cinema’s “After Civilization” series, put out a call for experimental documentary films. The resulting festival, Prismatic Ground, debuted in early April with a diverse line-up of new and repertory non-fiction films that ran the gamut of genres, styles, and techniques. Imagine: a programmer directly engaging with his community of filmmakers with an open-hearted all-points-bulletin was the antithesis of conventional festival gatekeeping. The refreshing prospect was a beacon to filmmakers struggling to create and exhibit work during a traumatic and hostile time.
Prakash’s call for submissions caught my attention on that fateful October night: for once, my endless Twitter scrolling put me in the right place at the right time. For the last four years, I’d been dutifully at work on a narrative feature concerning Julian of Norwich, an obscure 14th-century woman mystic. With development and production on indefinite hold, I resolved to keep in “fighting shape” by making whatever I could—however I could—about Julian’s ecstatic religious experience. I had originally set out to make a companion piece, a sort of altar to this long-overlooked religious icon. What began as a few standalone tableaux eventually turned into The Sixteen Showings of Julian of Norwich, a bricolage of stop-motion animation, back-projection, and collage.
I was very fortunate to have a job for most of last year, but working well beyond the customary 40 hours a week in these new circumstances was disastrous for my mental health and creative practice. For the first few months of this solitary arrangement, I was lucky if I ended each day with just enough energy to bathe and feed myself. Readers, no doubt, will recognize this feeling immediately—a pervasive fogginess, a dearth of initiative, contained on all sides by fear, dread, and exhaustion. The immediate reaction for many of us possessing an artistic temperament is to heal through the work, to create from a place of self-preservation as a therapeutic exercise (because, to be perfectly honest, very few working artists can afford traditional talk therapy).
After a nights-and-weekends work schedule, I finished a short film in my little office consisting of whatever I had on hand. It’s a wild departure from my usual narrative practice of snappy dialogue and meticulously-designed sets, edging my practice into a heretofore unexplored aesthetic and style.
Sixteen Showings was my first attempt to make a film without in-person collaborations: Tessa Strain’s narration, Matt Macfarlane’s original score, and Eliana Zebrow’s rich sound mix were directed entirely over email. The film was tangential to my would-be narrative feature, but very much apiece with my overarching vision. Finishing this solo effort was a balm—somehow I had made something new despite… well, you know, everything. But what now? Surveying the fruits of this months-long process, I struggled to conceive of a suitable afterlife beyond the customary Vimeo upload. Where could I screen this? What context could there possibly be for a theological exploration of isolation, plague, and revolt? Calling it a “shut-in watercolor movie,” or “moving altar,” while elegiac, didn’t quite fit the bill.
Enter Inney Prakash’s well-timed tweet and timely festival. Emboldened by his transparency and programmatic voice, I steeled myself for yet another humbly-toned inquiry. When Sixteen Showings was selected, I was shocked, ecstatic and, in a way, relieved: if there was an audience for this film, surely I would find it at Prismatic Ground. Having never enjoyed a virtual premiere, I went into the experience as a total neophyte. But for every gripe there was praise in equal measure: the pleasure of connecting with an otherwise distant viewership, public recognition for work made under great duress. Prismatic Ground helped me recontextualize what felt like a moving target. More than a descriptor or genre, “experimental documentary” affords artists a wide berth to do just that: experiment with cinematic and journalistic techniques within a nonfiction framework. To that end, I began to understand the dual significance of Sixteen Showings as a documentary about Julian of Norwich’s life and, by extension, my own.
In a festival space laid low by last year’s pandemic, Prakash saw an opportunity to challenge “the toxic or tedious norms governing festival culture, and to emphasize inclusivity and access.” Where the year’s higher-profile festivals sought to replicate the exclusivity of their in-person events with geo-blocked premiers and Zoom happy hours, Prismatic Ground promised viewers a deliberate antithesis. Its programming, ethos, and even web presence were tailor-made for the online space, prioritizing widespread access and a filmmaker-centered focus on screenings and Q&As. Prakash’s curation was mission-driven: “It was important to me to strike a balance,” he said, “between early career and established filmmakers, palatable and challenging work, passion and polish.” The line-up generously gave equal weight to artists at every stage of their process. Instead of single-film, time-sensitive screenings, audiences enjoyed free reign to explore and engage of their own accord, a heretofore unheard of format—online and off.
Organized in a series of “waves,” Prismatic Ground was structured around four separate collections touching on simultaneously personal and societal themes. It was reassuring to screen Sixteen Showings alongside equally intimate works, each with a different visual and philosophical approach. I was, and still am, grateful to Prakash for including my film. Despite being a newcomer to experimental filmmaking and documentary, I never once felt like an impostor. That feeling carried over to my experience as a viewer as well: these were films unlike any I’d seen, whether due to their newness or, in the case of repertory titles, my own lack of access. I am grateful to the festival for offering an avenue through which to engage with the work of other like-minded artists.
I was eager to hear from my fellow filmmakers about their road to the festival and experience as participants in this bold experiment in public exhibition. While we all arrived through different avenues, I immediately noticed a shared resonance. A wide net-approach to programming naturally attracted filmmakers reeling from the exclusionary nature of the mainstream festival circuit. Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Max (Two Sons and a River of Blood, 2021) was quick to note how “Inney was able to really access all of the different layers of what the piece was doing.” For director Sarah Friedland (Drills, 2020) it was the fervor of how Prakash had “created the festival he wanted to exist, instead of trying to reform an established festival” that drew her to the event.
For filmmakers navigating constraints brought on by the pandemic, and its ongoing economic aftermath, social media provided the sense of community missing from in-person festivals. Elias ZX (You Deserve The Best, 2018) was already familiar with Prakash’s programming work on “After Civilization” when they submitted their film. “We became friends through Twitter, [and] he told me about his plan to make an experimental documentary festival.” Screening online “gave my film space to breathe in a way that is really uncommon for festivals. Every viewer was allowed to have a completely unique experience with the film.” Virginia-based filmmaker Lydia Moyer (The Well-Prepared Citizen’s Solution, 2020) saw the festival as a chance to broaden and strengthen these seemingly disparate filmmaking communities. “As a person who lives in a rural place, it’s great that so much interesting work has been available this year to anyone who’s got enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively).” Moyer said. “The way this is set up is for online viewing, not just trying to transfer an in-person experience online.”
Programming the work of early career filmmakers alongside more established artists was more than a canny curatorial choice. The variety presented across these four waves expanded the audience’s access to repertory titles, while simultaneously reiterating the connection between both older and more recent offerings. Prismatic Ground’s streaming platform and presentation stood out for director Chris Harris (Reckless Eyeballing, 2004), who “had some streaming experiences that weren’t so happy in terms of the technical aspects.” The festival’s creative exhibition format was especially taken by “the mix of programming, special live events, and the flexibility of accommodating filmmakers with the option of live and recorded Q&As.” For prolific filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Prismatic Ground represented “an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous, compassionate approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema,” emphasizing that the festival itself was “beyond anything I have ever seen in my life.”
Among the filmmakers I spoke with, Prismatic Ground’s liberal approach to exhibition belied a tremendous sense of potential for artists navigating a post-COVID festival ecosystem. Harris noticed an “[increasing] festival bandwidth for underseen/emerging Black experimental filmmakers,” a tendency that he “[hopes] to see continue after COVID.” In lieu of a return to in-person only screenings, the general consensus saw streaming as a fixture in future festivals. “I don’t think it is going to be possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube here,” noted Zx, emphasizing that “more access will be good for filmmakers… and will challenge programmers to be more competitive, to release more obscure films that are harder to find.”
Prakash’s groundbreaking work has already heeded the call, citing critic Abby Sun’s Berlin Critics’ Week essay “On Criticism” as a guiding principle. “Festivals aren’t merely reacting to social conditions,” Sun writes. “They are often the primary creators of them.” Prismatic Ground’s focus on diverse curation and access reaches well beyond the artistic ramifications. Prakash’s end goal is emboldening, a manifesto of sorts: “Enough of premiere politics, prohibitive pricing, playing only the same handful of films at every festival. Let’s create better conditions. There is a moral imperative to keep doing virtual screenings now that we know we can and how.”
Prismatic Ground is a new film festival centered on experimental documentary. The inaugural edition of the festival, founded by Inney Prakash, will be hosted virtually in partnership with Maysles Documentary Center and Screen Slate. Catch the ‘Opening Night,’ ‘Centerpiece,’ and ‘Closing Night’ events live via Screen Slate’s Twitch channel. The rest of the films, split into four loosely themed sections or ‘waves’, will be available for the festival’s duration at prismaticground.com and through maysles.org. On April 10, at 4PM ET, Prismatic Ground will present the inaugural Ground Glass Award for outstanding contribution in the field of experimental media to Lynne Sachs. Other live engagements TBA.
1. How did Prismatic Ground get on your radar, and what drew you to the festival?
I met Prismatic Ground Film Festival director Inney Prakash about a year ago when I was teaching my very first virtual film and poetry workshop at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem where Inney works as a programmer. Of course, the workshop was supposed to be a face-to-face experience, but it was May of 2020 and there was no way that was going to happen! We were living in the beginning of a global pandemic! Inney was a critical part of our pivot to an online experience that could nourish participants from anywhere in the world. To our surprise, it worked extraordinarily well and 17 participants from the US, Ireland and Uruguay collaborated on making a series of fantastic video poems. From that point on, I have a feeling that Inney started to think that anything was possible in terms of making and viewing non-commercial, experimental documentaries. A few months later, he wrote to me to ask me if I would accept the first ever Ground Glass Award from his new founded Prismatic Ground Film Festival. I love the name of the award and thoroughly understand the meaning of the term “ground glass” since I have been making 16mm films since the mid 1980s! By the way, “ground glass” is the frosted glass surface in a film camera that allows the light projected from the lens to bounce off of a mirror and then be recorded as an image on the film surface.
2. What has your experience been with virtual premieres and screenings? And how has Prismatic Ground been different, if at all?
I had four films circulating in 2020 and 2021, “A
Month of Single Frames” (14 min) and “Film About a Father Who” (74 min.), “Girl
is Presence” (4 min.), and “Epistolary: Letter to Jean Vigo” (5 min.), plus career
retrospectives at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and at the
Sheffield Doc/ Fest in the UK. I was also on the jury for the Ann Arbor Film
Festival and the FestCurtas Belo Horizante Film Festival in Brazil. It’s been a
daunting but exciting year. Everything was virtual, but somehow it worked. I
loved these experiences and felt that they successfully brought filmmakers from
all over the world together. The “in real life” experience can often be quite
elitist just because air travel and hotel accommodations are so extraordinarily
Ground embraced an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous yet compassionate
approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema, beyond anything I have
never seen in my life. Inney presented
such an astonishing array of FREE work, never privileging a feature film over a
shorter work, or a more accessible film over a more challenging one. His Q and A’s were informed, respectful and
want to say something about the festival website design and graphics which
subtly forced all of us as audience to watch the films with focus and
commitment. You could not scroll through
a film or go backward or forward. While you were allowed to pause, you could
not be a dilettante and hop around from one film to another without losing your
place in a movie. This created the
closest experience to the one we have in a theater that I have ever witnessed
online. In addition, the aesthetics of the website allowed Inney to frame each
film on a page in relationship to others in the same “wave” which meant that
you were always aware of his curating and the intricate relationships and
themes he wanted you to recognize between the films.
Do you have a dream vision for a post-COVID festival ecosystem? Can be as broad
as “more digital screenings,” or as specific as “curated
specifically for underseen/experimental artists,” anything at all.
I think that the virtual is here to stay, but I also am praying for a return to being in a space with other people, with all the breaths, whispers, laughs, weeping, and shuffling of our bodies. We must accept that the virtual is vital. It allows homebound, less affluent audiences to access work outside mainstream, commercially driven movie culture. It can also put less emphasis on box office revenue which means experimental, underground, alternative cinema can travel on the magic carpet of the internet. I have noticed that more and more people throughout the world are becoming interested in the history of avant-garde film. They are discovering the work of artists like Jonas Mekas, Chick Strand, William Greaves, Carolee Schneemann Fernando Solanas and others, not just in museums or in classrooms, but at home. This is a revolution of the mind, the eye and the ear!
4. How has the last year of relative isolation influenced your work, if at all?
Despite the annus horribilis of 2020 (and
beyond), I have actually met really interesting, dynamic, risk-taking people in
the filmmaking community, all through the virtual portal of Zoom. For example,
I was incredibly sad not to be able to attend the retrospective of my work at
the Sheffield Doc/ Fest and at Prismatic Ground, but I was still able to meet
Trinidadian essay filmmaker Che Applewhaite through our shared screenings at both
festivals. Over the last few months, we have corresponded a great deal and recently
even managed to meet in person here in NYC.
As I mentioned, I was on the jury for the 2020
Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Belo Horizante International Short Film
Festival in Brazil. While I was not able to talk, face-to-face, or hang out in
local bars with my fellow jury members after the screenings, we did develop
quite profound relationships that allowed us to share our aesthetic passions
and our personal pandemic struggles.
artist, I was able to make several short films that reflected my thinking
during these troubling times. One of my most lasting discoveries has been that
you can actually make collaborative work with artists from anywhere on the
globe, and that this interactive experience can be revelatory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this
could be possible. Over the course of the last year, I found creative and
intellectual comrades with whom I could work on such a surprising and
generative level. Who knew?
Prismatic Ground is a new film festival centered on experimental documentary. The inaugural edition of the festival, founded by Inney Prakash, will be hosted virtually in partnership with Maysles Documentary Center and Screen Slate. Catch the ‘Opening Night,’ ‘Centerpiece,’ and ‘Closing Night’ events live via Screen Slate’s Twitch channel. The rest of the films, split into four loosely themed sections or ‘waves’, will be available for the festival’s duration at prismaticground.com and through maysles.org. On April 10, at 4PM ET, Prismatic Ground will present the inaugural Ground Glass Award for outstanding contribution in the field of experimental media to Lynne Sachs. Other live engagements TBA.
Logo: Kelsey Kaptur
Opening Night: Thursday, April 8th at 8PM ET on twitch.tv/screenslate
The Films of Anita Thacher
Co-presented by Microscope Gallery. Film critic Amy Taubin in conversation.
Centerpiece: Thursday, April 15th at 8PM ET on twitch.tv/screenslate
Newsreels of the Distant Now, a special presentation by Creative Agitation (Erin and Travis Wilkerson)
Filmmakers in conversation.
Closing Night: Sunday, April 18th at 8PM ET on twitch.tv/screenslate
Second Star to the Right and Straight on ‘Til Morning (dir. Bill and Turner Ross) + Dadli (dir. Shabier Kirchner, 2018, 14 min.) Filmmakers in conversation.
Ground Glass Award Prismatic Ground will present the inaugural Ground Glass award for outstanding contribution in the field of experimental media to filmmaker Lynne Sachs on April 10, 2021 at 4PM ET. A selection of Sachs’ work curated by Craig Baldwin will be available for the festival’s duration, courtesy of Baldwin, Sachs, and Canyon Cinema:
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min., 1986) Sermons and Sacred Pictures (29 min., 1989) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (30 min., 1991) Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (made with Dana Sachs) (33 min., 1994) A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer) (14 min., 2019) Investigation of a Flame (45 min., 2001) And Then We Marched (4 min., 2017) The Washing Society (co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) (44 min., 2018)
Drawn & Quartered will also be streaming in the program- wave 4: through the flowering fields of the sea
Home in the Woods (dir. Brandon Wilson, 2020, 96 min.) Bodes In Dissent (dir. Ufuoma Essi, 2021, 6 min.) Make Sure the Sea Is Still There (dir. Gloria Chung, 2021, 8 min.) The Aquarium (dir. Paweł Wojtasik, 2006, 22 min.) hold — fuel — when — burning (dir. dd. chu, 2020, 11 min.) Depths (dir. Ryan Marino, 2020, 5 min.) Look Then Below (dir. Ben Rivers, 2019, 22 min.) Drawn & Quartered (dir. Lynne Sachs, 1986, 4 min.) End of the Season (dir. Jason Evans, 2020, 13 min.) Learning About Flowers and Their Seeds (dir. Emily Apter and Annie Horner, 2021, 4 min.) A Slight Wrinkle in the Strata (dir. Ryan Clancy, 2021, 30 min.) Back Yard (dir. Arlin Golden, 2020, 7 min.) In Our Nature (dir. Sara Leavitt, 2019, 3 min.) By Way of Canarsie (dir. Lesley Steele and Emily Packer, 2019, 14 min.)
About Prismatic Ground Prismatic Ground is a New York festival centered on experimental documentary. Hosted by Maysles Documentary Center and online NYC film resource Screen Slate, the festival will be primarily virtual for its first year barring a timely end to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
We seek work that pushes the formal boundaries of non-fiction in the spirit and tradition of experimental filmmaking. This “spirit” is somewhat amorphous, undefinable, and open to interpretation, but refers to work that engages with its own materiality, and that privileges a heightened artistic experience over clear meaning.
For a better sense of what we’re looking for, here are some filmmakers that inspire us: Chris Marker, Lynne Sachs, Kevin Jerome Everson, The Otolith Group, Black Audio Film Collective, Pat O’Neill, Cecilia Condit, Edward Owens, Chick Strand, Barbara Hammer, Khalik Allah, Michael Snow, Janie Geiser, Isaac Julien, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Sky Hopinka, Fern Silva, Akosua Adoma Owusu…
http://www.kinorebelde.com/lynne-sachs-complete-filmography/ Kino Rebelde has created a retrospective that traces a delicate line connecting intimacy, power relations, violence, memory, migration, desire, love, and war in Lynne’s films. By looking at each of these works, we can see a director facing her own fears and contradictions, as well as her sense of friendship and motherhood. Moving from idea to emotion and back again, our retrospective takes us on a journey through Sachs’ life as a filmmaker, beginning in 1986 and moving all the way to the present.
With the intention of allowing her work to cross boundaries, to interpret and to inquire into her distinctive mode of engaging with the camera as an apparatus for expression, we are delighted to present 37 films that comprise the complete filmmography, so far, of Lynne Sachs as visual artist and filmmaker. Regardless of the passage of time, these works continue to be extremely contemporary, coherent and radical in their artistic conception.
About Kino Rebelde
Kino Rebelde is a Sales and Festival Distribution Agency created by María Vera in early 2017. Its exclusively dedicated to promotion of non-fiction cinema, hybrid narratives and experimental.
Based on the creative distribution of few titles by year, Kino Rebelde established itself as a “boutique agency”, working on a specialized strategy for each film, within its own characteristics, market potential, niches and formal and alternative windows.
This company supports short, medium and long feature films, from any country, with linear or non-linear narratives. They can be in development or WIP, preferably in the editing stage.
The focus: author point of view, pulse of stories, chaos, risk, more questions, less answers, aesthetic and politic transgression, empathy, identities, desires and memory.
Kino Rebelde was born in Madrid, but as its films, this is a nomadic project. In the last years María has been living in Lisbon, Belgrade and Hanoi and she’ll keep moving around.
About María Vera
Festival Distributor and Sales Agent born in Argentina. Founder of Kino Rebelde, a company focused on creative distribution of non-fiction, experimental and hybrid narratives.
Her films have been selected and awarded in festivals as Berlinale, IFFR Rotterdam, IDFA, Visions Du Réel, New York FF, Hot Docs, Jeonju IFF, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sarajevo FF, Doclisboa and Viennale, among others.
María has a background as producer of socio-political and human rights contents as well as a film curator.Envelope
Lynne Sachs (1961) is an American filmmaker and poet living in Brooklyn, New York. Her moving image work ranges from documentaries, to essay films, to experimental shorts, to hybrid live performances.
Working from a feminist perspective, Lynne weaves together social criticism with personal subjectivity. Her films embrace a radical use of archives, performance and intricate sound work. Between 2013 and 2020, she collaborated with renowned musician and sound artist Stephen Vitiello on five films.
Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in each new project.
Between 1994 and 2009, Lynne directed five essay films that took her to Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel, Italy and Germany – sites affected by international war – where she looked at the space between a community’s collective memory and her own perception.
Over the course of her career, she has worked closely with film artists Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Ernie Gehr, Barbara Hammer, Chris Marker, Gunvor Nelson, and Trinh T. Min-ha.
“For more than thirty years, artist Lynne Sachs has constructed short, bold mid-length, and feature films incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, and observational documentary. Her highly self-reflexive films have variously explored the relations between the body, camera, and the materiality of film itself; histories of personal, social, and political trauma; marginalized communities and their labor; and her own family life, slipping seamlessly between modes, from documentary essays to diaristic shorts.” (Edo Choi, Assistant Curator of Film, Museum of the Moving Image)
Program 1: Early Dissections In her first three films, Sachs performs an exuberant autopsy of the medium itself, reveling in the investigation of its formal possibilities and cultural implications: the disjunctive layering of visual and verbal phrases in Still Life with Woman and Four Objects; un-split regular 8mm film as a metaphorical body and site of intercourse in the optically printed Drawn and Quartered; the scopophilic and gendered intentions of the camera’s gaze in Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning. These experiments anticipate the range of the artist’s mature work, beginning with her first essayistic collage The House of Science: a museum of false facts. Itself an autopsy, this mid-length film exposes the anatomy of western rationalism as a framework for sexual subjugation via a finely stitched patchwork of sounds and images from artistic renderings to archival films, home movies to staged performances.
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986, 4 mins.) –New HD transfer Drawn and Quartered (1987, 4 mins.) – new HD transfer Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (1987, 9 mins.) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991, 30 mins.) – new HD transfer
Program 2: Family Travels One of Lynne Sachs’s most sheerly beautiful films, Which Way Is East is a simultaneously intoxicating and politically sobering diary of encounters with the sights, sounds, and people of Vietnam, as Sachs pays a visit to her sister Dana and the two set off north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The film is paired here with a very different kind of family journey The Last Happy Day, recounting the life of Sachs’s distant cousin Sandor Lenard, a Jewish Hungarian doctor who survived the Second World War and was ultimately hired to reassemble the bones of dead American soldiers. Here Sachs journeys through time as opposed to space, as she assembles a typically colorful array of documentary and performative elements, including Sandor’s letters, a children’s performance, and highly abstracted war footage, to bring us closer to a man who bore witness to terrible things. This program also features The Last Happy Day’s brief predecessor, The Small Ones. Program running time: 73 mins.
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994, 33 mins.) – new HD transfer The Small Ones (2007, 3 mins.) The Last Happy Day (2009, 37 mins.)
Program 3: Time Passes Twenty years unspool over nine short films: portraits of Lynne Sachs’s children; visits with her mother, brother, niece and nephew; a tribute to the city where she lives; and scenes of sociopolitical trauma and protest. Nearly all shot on super 8mm or 16mm, and often silent, each work is at once a preservation of a moment and a record of change, seamlessly weaving together the candid and the performed gesture, the public and the private memory, in a simultaneously objective and subjective posture toward the passing of time. Program running time: 51 mins.
Photograph of Wind (2001, 4 mins.) Tornado (2002, 4 mins.) Noa, Noa (2006, 8 mins.) Georgic for a Forgotten Planet (2008, 11 mins.) Same Stream Twice (2012, 4 mins.) Viva and Felix Growing Up (2015, 10 mins.) Day Residue (2016, 3 mins.) And Then We Marched (2017, 3 mins.) Maya at 24 (2021, 4 mins.)
Program 4: Your Day Is My Night 2013, 64 mins. “This bed doesn’t necessarily belong to any one person,” someone says early in Your Day Is My Night. It could be the metaphorical thesis of this film, perhaps Lynne Sachs’s most self-effacing and meditative work. A seamless blend of closely observed verité footage, interpretive performance, and confessional monologues and interviews, the film doesn’t document so much as create a space to accommodate the stories and experiences of seven Chinese immigrants from ages 58 to 78 who live together in a “shift-bed” apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Sachs’s quilted sense of form achieves a new level of refinement and delicacy in collaboration with her cameraman Sean Hanley and her editor Amanda Katz, as she works with the participants to exhume a collective history of migration and struggle.
Program 5: Tip of My Tongue 2017, 80 mins. Sachs’s richly generative Tip of My Tongue finds the filmmaker responding to her 50th birthday by gathering twelve members of her generational cohort—friends and peers all born between 1958 and 1964, and originating as far as Cuba, Iran, and Australia—to participate in the creation of a choral work about the convergent and divergent effects history leaves upon those who live it. From the Kennedy assassination to Occupy Wall Street, the participants reveal their memories of, and reflections upon, the transformative experiences of their lives. Set to an ecstatic, pulsing score by Stephen Vitiello, the film interweaves these personal confessions with impressionistic images of contemporary New York, obscured glimpses of archival footage, and graphically rendered fragments of text to create a radiant prism of collective memory. Preceded by Sachs’s frantic record of accumulated daily to-do lists, A Year in Notes and Numbers (2018, 4 mins.).
Fresh from her early 2021 retrospective at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image, filmmaker Lynne Sachs returns to San Francisco where she lived and went to school (SFSU & SFAI) between 1985 and ‘95. It was here that Lynne really immersed herself in our city’s experimental and documentary community, working closely with local artists Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Barbara Hammer, Gunvor Nelson and Trinh T. Minh-ha and spending time at the Film Arts Foundation (RIP), Canyon Cinema, SF Cinematheque, and Other Cinema.
“For more than thirty years, artist Lynne Sachs has constructed short, bold mid-length, and feature films incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, and observational documentary. Her highly self-reflexive films have variously explored the relations between the body, camera, and the materiality of film itself; histories of personal, social, and political conflict; marginalized communities and their labor; and her own family life, slipping seamlessly between modes, from documentary essays to diaristic shorts.” – Edo Choi, Assistant Curator of Film, Museum of the Moving Image.
Accompanying our Bay Area premiere of Sachs’s Film About a Father Who, the Roxie offers two accompanying shorts sidebars programmed by filmmaker and Other Cinema curator Craig Baldwin.
Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, filmmaker Lynne Sachs shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, Utah. Film About a Father Who is her attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration of her father offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. In the process, Sachs allows herself and her audience inside to see beyond the surface of the skin, the projected reality. As the startling facts mount, Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal. (74 min., 2020, A Cinema Guild Release)
Critic’s Pick! “[A] brisk, prismatic and richly psychodramatic family portrait.” – Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times
“Sachs achieves a poetic resignation about unknowability inside families, and the hidden roots never explained from looking at a family tree.” – Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times
“Formidable in its candor and ambition.” – Jonathan Romney, Screen International
Tickets for FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO will be available on February 12
SACHS SHORTS SIDEBARS
Sidebar 1: INQUIRIES INTO SELF AND OTHER
Still from “The House of Science: a museum of false facts”
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min., 1986) Sermons and Sacred Pictures (29 min., 1989) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (30 min., 1991) Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (made with Dana Sachs) (33 min., 1994)
“As sidebar to her fresh Father feature, here is the first of two shorts programs, showcasing the astonishing cinematic artistry of Lynne Sachs…all made during her san fran years and recently digitally restored. Her ‘89 Sermons offers an early glimmer of her sensitivity to both marginalized communities and their archives, as she gracefully threads ultra-rare ‘30s & ’40s footage from Rev. LO Taylor into a tapestry of visibility and respect for Memphis’ Black community. Her facility for celluloid extrapolation is demonstrated in even more creative ways in House of Science, a personal essay on female identity, told through found footage, poetic text, and playful experimental technique. Which Way is East raises its eyes to engagements in international waters, and to insightful exchanges with her expat sister Dana, towards new understandings of and in the oh-so-historically charged Republic of Vietnam. Opening is Lynne’s first ever 16mm, Still Life.” – CB
TRT: 96 min.
Tickets for Sidebar 1: INQUIRIES INTO SELF AND OTHER will be available on February 12
Sidebar 2: PROFILES IN COURAGE
A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer) (14 min., 2019) Investigation of a Flame (45 min., 2001) And Then We Marched (4 min., 2017) The Washing Society (co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) (44 min., 2018)
“Characteristically, Sachs speaks in first person to cultural difference and dissent, here particularly valorizing acts of resistance and struggles for justice. Her collaboration with the recently deceased lesbian maker Barbara Hammer keynotes this ‘Solidarity’ set, with Lynne literally framing/finishing her mentor’s last project. Younger allies are also acknowledged in Sachs’ inspiring 2017 celebration of women’s political power on contested Washington, DC turf. The 2001 Investigation is a tribute to the courage and conscience of the epochal Berrigan-led burning of Baltimore draft records, made while Sachs was teaching in that town. And the local debut of The Washing Society, produced with playwright Lizzie Olesker, stakes their support of NYC’s low-paid laundry workers—mostly women of color—in even another radiant illumination of the little-seen truths of contemporary race/class inequity.” – CB
TRT: 107 min.
Tickets for Sidebar 2: PROFILES IN COURAGE will be available on February 12
Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression
January 13–31, 2021
For more than thirty years, artist Lynne Sachs has constructed short, bold mid-length, and feature films incorporating elements of the essay film, collage, performance, and observational documentary. Her highly self-reflexive films have variously explored the relations between the body, camera, and the materiality of film itself; histories of personal, social, and political trauma; marginalized communities and their labor; and her own family life, slipping seamlessly between modes, from documentary essays to diaristic shorts. On the occasion of her latest feature, Film About a Father Who, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the artist’s maddeningly mercurial father, the Museum is pleased to present a career-ranging survey of Sachs’s work, including new HD presentations of Drawn and Quartered, The House of Science: a museum of false facts, and Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam, as well as the premiere of Maya at 24, the third edition of Sach’s temporal portrait of her daughter.
Organized by Assistant Curator of Film Edo Choi. Special thanks to Canyon Cinema and Cinema Guild for their support in organizing this program.
All films will be presented in MoMI’s Virtual Cinema, including a new video interview between Lynne Sachs and Edo Choi, which will be available exclusively to ticket holders.
Tickets: An all-series pass (including Film About a Father Who) is available for $30 ($26 MoMI members). A pass for just the repertory portion is $20 ($16 members) / individual program tickets are $5. Tickets for Film About a Father Who are $12 ($10 members).
All films are directed by Lynne Sachs.
Program 1: Early Dissections
In her first three films, Sachs performs an exuberant autopsy of the medium itself, reveling in the investigation of its formal possibilities and cultural implications: the disjunctive layering of visual and verbal phrases in Still Life with Woman and Four Objects; un-split regular 8mm film as a metaphorical body and site of intercourse in the optically printed Drawn and Quartered; the scopophilic and gendered intentions of the camera’s gaze in Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning. These experiments anticipate the range of the artist’s mature work, beginning with her first essayistic collage The House of Science: a museum of false facts. Itself an autopsy, this mid-length film exposes the anatomy of western rationalism as a framework for sexual subjugation via a finely stitched patchwork of sounds and images from artistic renderings to archival films, home movies to staged performances.
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986, 4 mins.) Drawn and Quartered (1987, 4 mins. New HD presentation) Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (1987, 9 mins.) The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991, 30 mins. New HD presentation)
Program 2: Family Travels
One of Lynne Sachs’s most sheerly beautiful films, Which Way Is East is a simultaneously intoxicating and politically sobering diary of encounters with the sights, sounds, and people of Vietnam, as Sachs pays a visit to her sister Dana and the two set off north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The film is paired here with a very different kind of family journey The Last Happy Day, recounting the life of Sachs’s distant cousin Sandor Lenard, a Jewish Hungarian doctor who survived the Second World War and was ultimately hired to reassemble the bones of dead American soldiers. Here Sachs journeys through time as opposed to space, as she assembles a typically colorful array of documentary and performative elements, including Sandor’s letters, a children’s performance, and highly abstracted war footage, to bring us closer to a man who bore witness to terrible things. This program also features The Last Happy Day’s brief predecessor, The Small Ones. Program running time: 73 mins.
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994, 33 mins. New HD presentation) The Small Ones (2007, 3 mins.) The Last Happy Day (2009, 37 mins.)
Program 3: Time Passes
Twenty years unspool over nine short films: portraits of Lynne Sachs’s children; visits with her mother, brother, niece and nephew; a tribute to the city where she lives; and scenes of sociopolitical trauma and protest. Nearly all shot on super 8mm or 16mm, and often silent, each work is at once a preservation of a moment and a record of change, seamlessly weaving together the candid and the performed gesture, the public and the private memory, in a simultaneously objective and subjective posture toward the passing of time. Program running time: 51 mins.
Photograph of Wind (2001, 4 mins.) Tornado (2002, 4 mins.) Noa, Noa (2006, 8 mins.) Georgic for a Forgotten Planet (2008, 11 mins.) Same Stream Twice (2012, 4 mins.) Viva and Felix Growing Up (2015, 10 mins.) Day Residue (2016, 3 mins.) And Then We Marched (2017, 3 mins.) Maya at 24 (2021, 4 mins. World premiere)
Program 4: Your Day Is My Night
2013, 64 mins. “This bed doesn’t necessarily belong to any one person,” someone says early in Your Day Is My Night. It could be the metaphorical thesis of this film, perhaps Lynne Sachs’s most self-effacing and meditative work. A seamless blend of closely observed verité footage, interpretive performance, and confessional monologues and interviews, the film doesn’t document so much as create a space to accommodate the stories and experiences of seven Chinese immigrants from ages 58 to 78 who live together in a “shift-bed” apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Sachs’s quilted sense of form achieves a new level of refinement and delicacy in collaboration with her cameraman Sean Hanley and her editor Amanda Katz, as she works with the participants to exhume a collective history of migration and struggle.
Program 5: Tip of My Tongue
2017, 80 mins. Sachs’s richly generative Tip of My Tongue finds the filmmaker responding to her 50th birthday by gathering twelve members of her generational cohort—friends and peers all born between 1958 and 1964, and originating as far as Cuba, Iran, and Australia—to participate in the creation of a choral work about the convergent and divergent effects history leaves upon those who live it. From the Kennedy assassination to Occupy Wall Street, the participants reveal their memories of, and reflections upon, the transformative experiences of their lives. Set to an ecstatic, pulsing score by Stephen Vitiello, the film interweaves these personal confessions with impressionistic images of contemporary New York, obscured glimpses of archival footage, and graphically rendered fragments of text to create a radiant prism of collective memory. Preceded by Sachs’s frantic record of accumulated daily to-do lists, A Year in Notes and Numbers (2018, 4 mins.).
When Lynne Sachs agreed to meet me on Skype, I was equally excited and nervous: excited, because I had just seen several of her movies, which left me feeling like I had entered a whole new world of visual and verbal language. Nervous, because her knowledge and experience in experimental/essay/documentary cinema were vast compared to mine. Nevertheless, we agreed on a meeting and it was one of the most honest and inspiring conversations I have had on film. I began the conversation by briefly introducing myself. I am a PhD student in a biology lab, where I often conduct experiments. Perhaps that is why I’m so drawn to experimental film, especially Lynne’s work.
Lynne Sachs: What you do in your lab – which is to dive into the unknown by using materials you understand, without knowing what will happen when they come together, without a script for what the results will be – shares something with experimental filmmaking. Although, as you might already know, Jonas Mekas didn’t like the term experimental. It is kind of like saying you’re an atheist, meaning you define yourself by what you’re not, so I understand, he just says: “I make films”.
Tijana Perović: Do you feel ok with the term experimental?
I personally do. I think it turns the noun into a verb because it says that the entity itself is devolving and can’t be made from a template. I like it and I think it’s liberating.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I definitely didn’t grow up watching personal art films, made by women. I hardly knew that women were making movies. But I always have written poetry and I always did a lot of art. In university, I pursued something that you might call more academic. I was a history major, but I did a lot of studio art. So in that time, when I was at university, I took a year, I went to Paris and I discovered Chantal Akerman and Marguerite Duras. This changed me. I realized that you can make films from this place of experience, or you can bring your attention to the small things in life. You could also bring in some politics or a change for women, etc.
In a sense, I got a chance to see that a film could be a vessel and that you could throw whatever you want into it and make your own recipe or idea. That was really exciting to me and a revelation. After college, I moved to New York and I started taking classes in Super 8 and video. I ended up going to graduate school in San Francisco. That was such a transformative experience, because there were so many people there.
You know Gunvor Nelson’s films? Gunvor was a teacher of mine. In fact, Carolee Schneeman, Gunvor Nelson and Barbara Hammer were all living in San Francisco at the time. Such powerful women. Powerful in a poetic way. Do you know George Kuchar’s films? They are very rowdy and irreverent. Craig Baldwin was also there. He is a filmmaker, quite renowned, almost all of his work is made from found footage. But he also has a small, still existent, screening space, called Other Cinema. It is just like a store front. And I spent almost every Saturday there, from 1987 to 1994, and that’s actually where my husband Mark Street and I met. It was a scene and that’s how I educated myself on film. I was not the kind of person who stayed up watching all the famous fiction films on TV until midnight. I hadn’t even seen Citizen Kane until I was in my mid-twenties. Now I am interested in all of film history, but that is not what brought me to this kind of filmmaking.
Funny that you mention that, because I just watched Jeanne Dielman 10 days ago.
I actually was thinking about Chantal Akerman, two days ago, because of our quarantine. Have you seen her film Là-bas (2006)? She went to Tel Aviv, to do some teaching there. It was during a very heightened period of violence, in Israel/Palestine, so she made the whole film from her window. To me, it’s very timely to think about the window as a frame in its relationship to the film frame. The thing about long films like Jeanne Dielman is their stature. You need to spend almost four hours with her film. But think about a book. When you read a book, you need to spend two weeks with it! Four hours really shouldn’t be a big thing.
What is really interesting for me in your movies is that in each one of them there is an idea, but it flowers, it grows. In your experience, how does this idea change during the process of actual moviemaking and in editing?
Sometimes when I make a film, it starts with the material. Is there any particular film on your mind?
Then I’ll talk about The House of Science. That actually started with the collages which are in the movie. It started with the idea that I felt alienated from my own body. And I probably felt that way for most of my life, maybe until I had a baby. I wanted to move through the world almost invisibly. I don’t think that if I were 30 today, I’d make the same film. But in 1991, I felt frustrated with how my culture was constructing me. Not with the feminism, 1st wave, 2nd wave – rather as I moved through the culture and I felt this alienation from the world of science. But then it became an equal distaste for art, while I was making it. So, that was a film where I said, any idea that comes to my head will go into the film. I called it a yes film. That film is a film essay. What defines a film essay is that you are at ease with including your doubt.
So you have this idea, and it is kind of a manifesto, but it isn’t really a manifesto because you are always second guessing yourself. In a sense, you have to have more confidence in what you say by including your doubt. If you didn’t, then it would be dogma or didactic. That film really came out of an idea. Did you see And Then We Marched? It is a super short film I made after the women’s march. I didn’t have a particular idea. I had collected Super 8 film from the 2017 Women’s March, and I wanted to do something with it. I didn’t want to just document it because I thought a lot of people are already doing that. I thought I needed to shake up my understanding of what that march was, and the only way I could do that was to talk to a child. That’s been common in a lot of my work. I struggled to make The Last Happy Day for years and years, until I started to work with some children.
Also Wind in Our Hair, the film I made in Argentina. Sometimes working with kids doesn’t infantalize the situation, but it allows you to experiment more and listen to the materials more and to be surprised. Maybe it’s because I had two daughters and I brought them along. But I am also very intrigued by what children bring to it perceptually. So to take something as large as the Women’s March of 2017, and to think about it from that perspective was very invigorating and turned it into something more immediate. In the end, the Women’s March sadly did not have that much impact. It was like a plaintiff call, so it did connect all of us, but it didn’t bring structural change. It brought bonding amongst kindred spirits. When I’m making a film, I often have to figure out how can an idea that I had years ago can resonate today.
Last night, at 3:30 in the morning, I woke up. We’re not as active these days during the quarantine so sleeping is strange. I got up and I took a bath. But then I had this idea for a film I have been working on for many years. It is called The Company We Keep. It comes from an English expression, often you are judged by the people your are around, “the company that you keep.” Some people use this expression in a rather judgemental way. Over many years, I’ve collected business cards, so I have about 500 of them. I’ve scanned most of them. I want to make this film kind of like an animated film where we go through them. The purpose of a business (calling) card is to be a mnemonic device. Surprisingly, I can remember a little bit about almost all of those people. I am playing with the idea of how these cards trigger something, not just what I remember, but how I understand myself in relationship to them. When you look at the cards, you remember who you were when you connected with that person, but also something about them.
Last night, I wrote myself a note. Most of the people whose business cards I have kept are in a group of people I will probably never know. But in the present, there is another group of people I will never know. These are the people whom I’m hearing about who died from the coronavirus. Recently, a friend of my daughter’s told us about two African American men in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. They were quite old, already retired. For years, they would sit on the stairs (what we call here the stoop) and talk to everybody on the block. Both of them died. Then another man I know lost a brother who was autistic. As you hear those stories, you imagine those people, you imagine them almost like a cut-out, paper-doll. You imagine their shape but they are gone. I wanted to weave that into this short film, because it makes it more vital to me now.
What is your definition of feminist filmmaking?
Many years ago, when I was in grad school, we would take turns shooting each other’s movies. A woman asked me to shoot her film, which I was excited about. We were on her set but I didn’t think that what she was espousing my concept of feminism. Even though I was very honored to be her cinematographer, I could not accept the imagery that she was creating and wanted me to co-create. I have been hesitant to shoot other people’s films ever since. This was the time when I realized that we talk about feminism in terms of holding the camera in addition to how the images of women’s bodies are constructed. I don’t cheer just because a woman gets an Academy Award. I am not actually even necessarily happy that Joe Biden has already announced that he will choose a woman. I feel like he did that as a political ploy. I am happy that he is going to choose a woman, but is that why he chose this woman? I think that a feminist approach to filmmaking takes the responsibility for the representation of women, but for me it must be broader than that. It has sensitivity to other categories of identification, whether you are talking about gender identity, etc.
I loved your talk for the Ann Arbor Festival. I especially agreed when you said that Godard has challenged the film world in many ways, but never in terms of the representation of women. So, who were your favorite feminist filmmakers and your inspirations?
Definitely all three of the women in my film Carolee, Barbara, Gunvor. Each one for different reasons. I would say that they run the gamut of different approaches within the sector of personal filmmaking. I think Barbara Hammer and Carolee Schneemann were particularly at ease with their own bodies. Carolee challenged feminism in a profound way, because she was interested in sensuality, too. I think that’s very current, but she was criticized in other periods of feminism; for showing her own body, for exuding a kind of sensuality/sexuality. Barbara also showed her own body, but in a different way: it was more about strength, strength in the bareness and nudity. Gunvor Nelson made this film called Schmeerguntz. It is so wild, and it’s about motherhood, having babies, all the mess, the shit, the body, letting it all hang out. That’s kind of her take on it. They really run – to me – the gamut. I mentioned Chantal Akerman and loving her work, and her study of women’s bodies. But it’s not just about bodies, of course.
Have you heard about the Bechdel Test? Yes.
I think it’s pretty interesting for mainstream filmmaking. It’s a handy rubric for deciding what the presence of – let’s talk about narrative film – what the presence of a protagonist does or whether a character is able to speak. I think those are interesting things. They’re not the kind of films I’m making, but I do watch them, and I think that plenty of women who make it very high up in the industry, instead of trying to change that structure, actually think that the best way to get into the business is to replicate what already exists, and that’s a shame.
We had two movies at Berlinale this year that were pretty mainstream and feminist – The Assistant –
Oh I saw that! I really liked it. It’s controversial.
At her press conference, the director said that it was hard for her to get funding because she was criticizing the industry. Sometimes these norms are really hard to break. The other one was Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
I wanted to see that. It came out, and then [lockdown happened]. Now it’s online. The other movie that came out in the mainstream, like The Assistant, on the same topic – workplace dynamics – was a film called Bombshell. Did you see that?
No, but I heard about it.
Well…I did not like that movie at all. One of the reasons was, they were talking about the abusive power in the workplace, by men who had financial or other kinds of control in the workplace. But the people who were playing the women actually were bombshells. Do you know this expression? It’s old fashioned. A bombshell is an incredibly beautiful woman.
The movie’s called Bombshell because it’s about these women who are television anchors on broadcast news, who have to be bombshells to get those jobs, but then the story is that they also have to sleep with the boss. But the film, in its texture and representation, never breaks the mould. The women who play the parts are always presenting themselves with the best bodies and make-up, etc. Whereas in The Assistant, everything becomes much more austere and cerebral, and you think about the protagonist – who she is at her desk. I thought it was much more effective.
Another filmmaker who has had a very big influence on me is the Argentine director Lucretia Martel. I study her films, to help me figure out things, around editing. I’ve really been affected by her work.
Did you have a plan for your career? How did you find your direction?
The lucky part was that I found this way of working, and relationship to the media, that I loved. I think that’s been a setback for plenty of good friends of mine: they didn’t necessarily find something they were passionate about doing. I just continue to be excited about it. I had to find ways to make that work for me. The most practical thing I did when I moved to San Francisco, was that I enrolled in a program at a public university that also had a whole cinema studies component. I had a lot to catch up on, in terms of developing a foundation for the understanding of cinema. But the degree was a Master’s degree, and then there was an art school there at the time – The San Francisco Art Institute.
They offered a Master’s of Fine Arts – which in the States is considered a terminal degree, not just the first step. I ended up doing both programs because I was thinking ‘I might want to teach’ and I have been teaching pretty consistently for all these years, but I never aspired to a tenure track job. I’ve taught at probably 15 different art schools or universities, but I wasn’t trying to raise myself up in academia. So that was the most practical thing I did. The other part was that depending on where you teach, it could be hard to have time to do your work, e.g. if they have 7 classes a year. It depends on what is expected. I have had good relationships with places where I was teaching where they gave me funding for a project. Here, we have all different kinds of grants: we have grants from the government (which are not that big), or grants from private foundations, like the Guggenheim foundation.
How did you develop your aesthetic? Did you look back at your earlier works and think ‘oh I could have done this better’ or are you happy with each step?
No, not necessarily happy. Oh my God, sometimes I look at the credits and think ‘oh why did I do that? Why did I have so many names?’ I’m actually in the midst of doing some preservation work on some of my older films. I’m doing part of it with the Museum of Modern Art, they’re working on my film Which Way Is East. It’s been interesting because I’ve had to look at it very carefully, and they are very fastidious. They said, ‘when we make a new 4K scan, you can’t push us to try to make it look like you made this in 2020, because you made it in 1994’. You think about the film stocks and things like that.
NYU has a preservation program, and they are studying the preservation of one of my very first short films, it’s called Still Life with Woman and Four Objects. We’re working on that. They just transferred it to 4K.
That movie actually made me think of Chantal Akerman a lot.
Thank you for saying that. I was also very affected by Yvonne Rainer. I had seen Akerman for sure by that time, because I’d seen her in France, but I don’t know if I’d seen Yvonne Rainer’s [work].
My newest film is called Film About a Father Who. There’s a famous film that Yvonne Rainer made, called Film About a Woman Who… – from the ’70s. I have definitely been very influenced by Yvonne Rainer, but then I would say her films are more austere than mine are.
But you asked about aesthetics. I can’t impose any one aesthetic that I might’ve discovered on the next project, because the idea is the boss. The idea drives the aesthetic, mostly. Sometimes I just shoot, and it’s like I re-find my own material. Did you see this short film I made called Starfish Aorta Colossus?
The whole film is shot with a regular 8mm camera that you wind-up. It’s collaboration between myself and poet Paolo Javier. That material I had shot over decades, and then he asked me if I would make a poem in honor of his book being published. I thought it was a good excuse to go back and look at all this old footage. It wasn’t like I created the footage for his poem, but I put it together in response to his poem.
What was it like to have Bruce Conner as your mentor?
I had kind of like a short-term boyfriend, and he introduced me to Bruce. I was just getting involved in filmmaking, so I had negative skills. But we got along well. Some people thought he was a bit of a curmudgeon, but he wasn’t to me at all. I would just go to his house – I was supposed to be helping him splice his films, but he would look at my splicing ability and think it was so terrible that he ended up doing it himself.
I went once a week and he would tell me stories the whole time. We would just talk and talk. He had a long-term kidney problem. He actually lived for twenty more years, but he would always have to take a rest so I would hang out with his wife. Over the years, when both my children were born, he gave them lovely drawings and we stayed in contact. His found-footage work is profound. The ideas that happen between every shot in A Movie are so fantastic. Nothing is about ‘the archive being precious’ – [instead] the archive is about a way of finding irreverence, or irony, or poetry or politics. He was interested in the clash, rather than the archive being an illustration of a moment in history.
Does your approach change — and if so, how — when working with digital versus celluloid?
It takes a lot more for me to be excited about images that are shot on digital.
[She shows me a work in progress, from which the following still was taken.]
I like the unpredictability of film – the fact that as she circles around, you go into these dark areas. It can happen in video too, but I like the way it works on film, especially in black and white: the background that’s black becomes one kind of canvas, versus another kind of canvas. I also like that it’s not perfectly sharp, because I think that in television there’s too much attention on the face. The less you show, the more interesting the face is. The precision of digital and its ability to replicate reality makes it less compelling to me. Sometimes I shoot digital work I really do like. But in digital, people tend to overshoot: hours and hours. With film, I only shot three minutes of my daughter [running in cirlces], so I have to work with that.
It’s interesting how the film shapes what you make. I watched the XY ChromosomeProject. [Made in collaboration with her husband Mark Street.]
That’s also the name of our – we sort of have a film company. It doesn’t really mean a company, but… you know. I’m glad you watched that.
How was it to collaborate? Did you plan it together and then shoot separately? Or did you shoot separately and then come together?
We made that during a period when our daughters, who are 23 and 25, were younger. We initially made it for this performance space here in New York that was also a restaurant, called Monkeytown. They’ve moved all over the world. There’s one person who runs it and sometimes I hear he’s in Australia, sometimes in Berlin. He had this restaurant (with delicious food), where everybody sat on the floor. They had projectors, so you could project on all four walls of the room. We thought it was Cartesian, so we had an X and a Y. But we also thought about XY as in Chromosomes, so that’s where we got the name.
We’ve made quite a few films together. More than films, we created projection evenings, and things like that. We did something at the Microscope Gallery, for example, here in Brooklyn. Anyway, in this particular case, Mark and I had each shot some of our own material, and we said we had to edit the film together: he would edit a shot, and I would come in on the same computer and edit the next one, like a Surrealist Exquisite Corpse. We constructed it that way, so it was not pre-planned.
How does language that you use mediate or affect your creative process? Language is so interesting in your movies. It’s very rare to find somebody who is so visual and lingual at the same time. Somehow people tend to choose one or the other.
That’s really true. And I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t necessarily identify with certain kinds of ‘purist’ wordless experimental films – but then I also really don’t identify with traditional documentaries that aren’t as playful with the image.
The thing is, that poetry is very close to experimental films. If you think about it, poetry breaks all the rules of grammar, a line break is like a cut between the shots. It makes sense that you don’t have to say ‘cine-poem’, but that poetry is in conversation with not just a love of a language, but a heightened love of language that would work with a heightened love of the film frame. Instead of it being one or the other. But for many people it is one or the other. I’m just excited about both.
It’s really nice. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching mostly male experimental cinema for the longest time. I suddenly switched and thought maybe it’s just because women are more verbal.
That definitely could be. It’s interesting because Barbara Hammer and Carolee Scheemann both did a lot of writing. I would say in Carolee’s films, the words weren’t that important, but she wrote many books, and she was very engaged with text.
A Year in Notes and Numbers (2017) is a 4 minute silent digital video work by the American experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs, which consists of close-up shots of a few words from to-do lists and notes to self, mostly written on yellow ruled paper, with names, errands and artistic intentions written in various coloured inks, circled, crossed out, stained, creased, blotted: “Write Mom / to thank!”; “Vitamin D”; “FROGS”; “Make 2 shelves / Build 2 shelves”; “lightbulbs”. These lists are occasionally overlaid with medical terms and measurements: “Sodium / 138”; “Globulin / 2.6”; “eGFR / 86”. At one point a section from the production notes of what is probably one of Sachs’ other films is shown: “She observes herself / and others // learning”. The next shot: “Camera as extension of her body.” The next shot: “Fun of research.” We see the minutiae of a year in a life, the endless small tasks that demand to be completed, correspondence that needs to be written, plans and ideas for projects that might or might not be realised; we also see the medical quantification of the body which performs these tasks. There are personal reminders: “Write Barbara H” (Barbara Hammer, presumably); there are political reminders: “Get out the vote”. It ends with the word “Mom”, then the figure “125 LBS”, then a few seconds of swirling reds, yellows and greys.
A Year in Notes and Numbers relates to a strand in Sachs’ earlier work, which goes right back to one of her earliest films, Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986). These pieces are distinct from, but related to, the experimental documentaries about political history which Sachs has also made, and focus more closely on everyday life and its reproduction. In Still Life with Woman and Four Objects—a tribute to the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman—a woman puts on a coat, peels and pits an avocado, suspends the stone above a glass of water to sprout it, eats a meal, and reads aloud a letter of Goldman’s. Food preparation, small acts of gardening, eating and anarcha-feminism all sit on the same level. This strand of Sachs’s work is perhaps best represented in a piece like Window Work (2000), a 9 minute sound video comprising of a single uninterrupted shot of a kitchen window in Baltimore, in which a women washes the windowpane, makes and drinks some tea, reads the newspaper. Two small frames within the larger image show miniature home-movies, which gesture towards personal memory and earlier media technologies: Super 8 film as the precursor to videotape. Window Work could be read as a kind of Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman, 1975) in miniature; though where Chantal Akerman shows the drudgery and tedium of housework with an unflinching clarity, in Sachs’ film the accoutrements of domesticity are shown in shadow and used to evoke a dream-like atmosphere which encourages fantasy and reverie on the viewer’s part. Jeanne Dielman tries to make housework visible, or at least questions to what extent labour can be made visible through cinema, and in doing so, demands work from the viewer, who must pay attention, sitting through its lengthy run-time and long, slow takes. Sachs’ Window Work, on the other hand, is more playful with the concept of work—does the “work” in the title refer to the work of cleaning the window, in a fairly desultory fashion, or to the artwork we are watching? Is the work of this film a dreamwork?
In contrast to these earlier explorations of the everyday and domestic in Sachs’ oeuvre, A Year in Notes and Numbers is mundane on a different level. By showing names, tasks, numbers and stray thoughts completely devoid of any context, with no date or other clue as to what they mean, a year is condensed to a flurry of seemingly meaningless activity, combined with the equally decontextualised and slightly ominous medical statistics that appear intermittently on screen. Calcium: 9.6. Is this good or bad? Sinister or reassuring? What about Bilirubin 0.7? (According to Google, both of these figures are within the average range.) By reducing the representation of a body to written memoranda and biological measurements, this recent work by Sachs is somehow both more personal and more alienating than her earlier work dealing with similar topics. The body is reduced to a quantum of figures, abstracted into data, but not at the expensive of the person who that body is, who has family and friends to write to, lightbulbs to buy, DVDs to watch, interviews to listen to, films to make.
Unending Lightning (2015–ongoing) is a six-plus hour three-channel video installation by the Spanish artist Cristina Lucas which documents every aerial bombing over civilians since the development of manned flight. It visualises a database gathered by a large number of researchers and organisations, building on research begun in 2011, on the 75th anniversary of Guernica, arguably—thanks to Picasso—the most famous aerial bombing of civilians. Manned flight was made possible in 1903. By 1909, two people could fly in one aircraft. Aerial bombing began only two years later, in the 1911 Italo-Turkish war, a war over colonial control of Libya. Unending Lightning is an ongoing work, because it will only be complete when aerial bombing over civilians, including drone strikes, is a military strategy that has been abandoned. The central screen shows a map of the world with the locations of the bombings and the number of civilian casualties marked; the left screen shows the respective military forces responsible for dropping the bomb, the type of bomb dropped, the city bombed and the known number of casualties; the right screen shows archive and documentary videos and photography from the aftermath of the bombings. I saw it at Manifesta 12 in Palermo, where it was shown in the Casa del Mutilato, a hospital for wounded soldiers designed by the Rationalist (i.e. Fascist) architect Guiseppe Spatrisano in 1936: a large temple to fascism erected in honour of the Italian annexation of Ethiopia in the same year—a conflict which saw Italy using poison gas bombs on Red Cross hospitals. As Sven Lindqvist argued in A History of Bombing, in its first years aerial bombing was seen as a convenient and exciting answer to the question of how exactly European powers could exterminate entire populations without having to get their hands quite so dirty. The origin of this technology lies in colonial violence.
Unending Lightning is a magisterial work, one requiring a collaborative team of researchers and software engineers, the accumulation and maintenance of large amounts of historical data; it is open-ended and so almost unwatchable as a single piece, with a runtime which grows with each new drone strike in Afghanistan (almost 40 per day in September 2019 alone, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism). The visual aesthetics of Unending Lightning resemble nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation: bullet-pointed information presented in Helvetica on grey-blue backgrounds, grainy historical photographs gradually improving in quality as the work moves closer to recent bombings and the video and photography technologies which captured the aftermaths develop. While watching it, the viewer sees the unceasing global conflicts which have unfolded over the last century and more. Near the beginning of the film there are a few moments where days go by in which no aerial bombings take place, but soon it is every day, all over the globe, often accompanied by the phrase “unknown numbers of civilians killed”. Even with the enormous amount of research undertaken for the work, we will never be able to truly know through quantification the amount of death unleashed on the world by the advent of bombing from the air.
What does Unending Lightning have to do with Lynne Sachs? At first glance perhaps very little. But they operate at different ends of the same recent aesthetic tendency, exploring quantification and its limitations. In Lucas’ work, we watch something unfold which feels like an unending depiction of death and destruction, mostly of women and children; what necessarily gets left out of the work, and as such is brought concertedly to mind when we view the piece, are the actual everyday lives of the people who were killed by these bombs dropped from the air. In Sachs’ recent work, on the other hand, the abstraction of a life from a record of its daily activities asks the viewer to fill in the gaps, to imagine or project something into the space that is left open between the unfinished errands and the medical figures we are presented with. In very different ways both artists are concerned with the everyday, the way that developments in technology can start to feel familiar, natural, normal, until all of a sudden they don’t, and they erupt into the sphere of domesticity, whether that’s through the collection and retention of biological data by private healthcare companies, or the firing of a missile from a remote-controlled drone.
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+ Also: I recently appeared on a podcast, PRISMS,
in Oslo, talking about the film diary, my thinking behind it, why I do it, how
I feel about it, etc. You can listen to that here if you’re interested. +
terminal usa, life in frogner, oedipus rex, mission: impossible –
fallout, vampyr, after hours
May 11. Wednesday. I have been
having stomach issues for the last few days that show no sign of abating. I’ll spare you the details,
gentle reader. I haven’t
been eating very much and I have been avoiding caffeine and alcohol, those
usual stalwarts, and I feel exhausted and run-down and fairly miserable. I
worked from home yesterday but think I need to show my face in the office
today, so I go in and have a few meetings, trying to ignore the waves of pain.
I send some emails. I look at a lot of documents. After a few hours of this I
decide I have been visible enough and I go home, where I immediately fall
asleep for an hour. I wake up feeling a little better. In the evening I have an
online safeguarding and boundaries training session, which is fine. After it’s over, Kate, Catherine and
Tara come over for Film Club. L returns from work just after they arrive. It’s my choice of viewing. Earlier
I spent some time trying to pick something but felt overwhelmed by both the
endless choice of films available and by my sense of cinematic fatigue, which
is still with me. I am not capable of watching a lengthy film this evening, so
I end up choosing Terminal USA (dir. Jon
Moritsugu, 1993).This is a
sixty minute made-for-TV schlockfest that was a focal point of one of the semi-regular
right-wing protests against taxpayer’s
money being used to fund public television in the US: conservatives were
disgusted that their constituents’
hard earned bucks were being spaffed away on garbage like this, which
was funded by PBS. In fact, when the film was submitted to PBS for
distribution, only two thirds of stations agreed to show it, because so many
programmers and audiences found it beyond the pale. Of course, all this only
adds to its allure for me, and I am delighted by Terminal
USA, which is an accomplished work of 90s slacker black humour, a
wholesale attack on the nuclear family and the idea of Asian-Americans as a
model minority. It’s
a combination of John Waters, Gregg Araki (who is thanked in the credits) and
Dennis Cooper, exploring and revelling in a wide array of social bugaboos: drug
abuse, male impotence, religious apocalypticism, teen pregnancy, pre-marital
sex, unseemly voyeurism from pimply pizza delivery boys, queer erotic fantasies
about musclar fascist skinheads stomping on your face, disrespect for the elder
generations, sexually ambiguous bleach-blond perverts dressed as vicars and
toting firearms, and the violation of the moral sanctity of cheerleaders. It is
cheap and gross and stupid and sloppily made, it looks and sounds kind of
half-assed and rushed, and the acting is so off-tempo and stoned that it feels
like everyone present inhabits their own separate universe. It unravels into a
complete shit-show, ending with the deus ex machina of a character being beamed
up to an alien spaceship. At one point some skinheads (one of whom is played by
Gregg Turkington) erect a burning cross in a family’s front yard, soundtracked by
classic DC hardcore band Void. It’s
a highly kitsch and camp punk film, which surely would have only been a source
of frustration, bafflement and disgust for the majority of people who happened
to catch it on TV in 1993. I really enjoy it. I’ve not seen anything else by
Jon Moritsugu, but I’m
very keen to check out more of his work, which includes delightful titles like Mod Fuck Explosion, Pig Death
Machine, Sleazy Rider and,
most winningly of all, Mommy Mommy Where’s
My Brain, a short which is described as half AC/DC, half Derrida. Terminal USA is a joy: totally uproarious
garbage. Well worth going out of your way to find a copy (I didn’t watch it there, but
apparently it’s now
available on the Criterion Collection, so you don’t even have to look too hard).
May 17. Tuesday. A warm day
which I mostly spend indoors. My new schedule dictates that I should normally
be at work today but, for reasons too boring to type out, I’m not. I have nothing pressing
to do, and so I spend the day mostly in a state of anxious uncertain tension,
trying to decide what to do with myself. I send some emails. I look out the window.
I don’t really
manage to concentrate on anything and feel the old muddy worry about
squandering my life start to bubble away. At midday, I walk to the bank down
the road and hand them the letter addressed to them which I found lying in the
street yesterday. My good deed done, I scurry back inside. I eat some asparagus
and a poached egg for lunch. L is marking. Mike sends me a link to the podcast about this diary that
we recorded yesterday; I’m not in the right state of mind to listen to myself
talk so I text Catherine and ask her to listen to it for me — she assures me
that I come across well in it: ‘thoughtful’. Good enough for me. I’ve been trying to avoid social
media recently because it’s
been making me depressed, or compounding my recent spell of depression, or
both, more so than usual anyway, but I sign in to share a link to the podcast,
and then I get sucked into a few more hours of dreary procrastination. It
clouds over outside and I feel a little better about being inside.
Mid-afternoon, I decide that I’ve
had enough of this state of mind and want to get on with something useful. I
watchLife in Frogner (dir. Anne
Haugsgjerd, 1986), which Mike has commissioned me to write about for PRISMS. This turns out to be perfectly suited to today’s mood of distraction and
despondency, and it makes me feel a little less isolated in my procrastination,
which is nice. It’s
a short film, 22 minutes or so, about Anne Haugsgjerd’s efforts to sit down and write
a script for a film about Frogner, the district of Oslo in which she lives. She
sits at a typewriter, drinks some coffee, smokes, gets up, tidies her desk,
sits back down, gets up again, cleans her windows, watches a woman sunbathing across
the street, watches some people walking dogs on the street, sits back down,
starts typing, stops typing, puts her head in her hands. This, I read, is
Haugsgjerd’s first film,
and I find this information very pleasing, satisfying in the familiar note of
understanding it strikes. What better way to announce your arrival as an artist
than by expressing your incapacity to create art? The doubts, the distractions,
the lack of focus and the false starts, the blinding whiteness of the blank
page, the struggle to just sit down and actually get on with it: surely the
universal experience of the artist-manqué. Obviously, I’m
sympathetic to this strategy of defeating the block by embracing the block,
partly because I used it to get my own first novel written, and it seems to
have worked well enough there. But Haugsgjerd’s exploration of her failure to move forwards in her
work also speaks to the aesthetic strategies I’ve employed in writing this
diary, and I feel gratified to have this part of myself reflected back at me. I
am always reluctant to describe things as ‘relatable’
— doing so is cheap and easy and doesn’t
say anything meaningful or interesting about the work, often merely serving to
express the critic’s
own narcissism — but I find Life in Frogner very
relatable, narcissist that I am. There are a few stylistic elements that remind
me of other films, of course — a couple of shots that make me think of Lynne
Sachs, a little hint of Varda in some of the meta-textual
humour of the film — but
the style feels very assured and clear, particularly considering it’s a debut. The tension explored
in the film between the observation of life and participation in it, the
impossibility of simply being a spectator, and the anxieties and regrets that
emerge from trying to mediate your whole life through an artistic practice: all
of these feel particularly sharp for me, and I am impressed with the openness
and vulnerability with which Haugsgjerd explores them.“Life is
everywhere, life is outside your window. Life is pulsating there as you’re trying to write about life. … You
should have lived that life instead of making film at all.” There’s a kind of wry, amusing edge
to the film, a playfulness which stops it from feeling too heavy-handed or
self-serious, which demonstrates an awareness that the writer struggling in
front of their typewriter is, ultimately, a comic figure. And this tone makes
the closing sentiment of the film, an expression of optimism in the face of
artistic doubt, even more resonant for me: “I am both shy and an
exhibitionist at the same time. That’s
the conflict in me, but I think it’s
about exposing yourself. I think if you do that you will always find someone
out there that will understand.” It’s
a risk, but there’ll
be someone who gets it. Comforting words. You can find Life
in Frogner on Vimeo. A
really lovely little film.
Afterwards, I write the above entry. L goes to Lincoln. It starts
raining. I engage in the shameful form of active time-wasting which has
recently absorbed my life: playing The Legend of
Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Switch that I’ve borrowed from Catherine.
This is partly to blame for the last week or so of my not really watching any
films, compounding the previous feeling of burnt out apathy. I haven’t played video games for a long
time, other than fairly infrequent occasional grubby bursts of Civilisation V,
which I think I’m
now well and truly done with. Immediately with Zelda I feel fully
immersed back into the atmosphere of sweaty compulsion and addiction. It is
kind of horrendous how effective it is at sucking up time: two, three hours can
pass without any sense of accomplishment or even pleasure. It’s weird and I feel very
ambivalent about it. Tonight I manage to restrain myself to playing for 90
minutes. Then I pull myself together and watch Oedipus
Rex(dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967). I’ve not seen it before and I
watch it partly out of a stirring of the completionist urge towards PPP. I feel
like this is one of the few Pasolini films which I very rarely see anyone
saying very much about. Out of his other works it’s unsurprisingly closest to Medea in terms of style, employing a similar
visual salmagundi of elements lifted from various exoticised and appropriated
national folk cultures: like Medea, Oedipus Rex takes place in a past which can
actually be located both nowhere and nowhen, which is appropriate for a
reworking of a Greek myth which sits at the foundation of Western culture. That
said, the beginning and ending of the film are very clearly located in Italy:
the film begins with the birth of a child to a bourgeois woman who is having an
affair with a soldier in 1920s fascist Italy, and it ends with the child,
Oedipus, blind and destitute, being led around the industrialised post-war
Italian landscape, with a bunch of shots that feel more like Antonioni than
anything else I can remember seeing in Pasolini. It’s the middle section, the bulk
of the film, which takes up the riot of colour and costume and various musical
borrowings from cultural ethnographies that we also see in Medea. I think I like it a fair amount but probably
not as much as I like Medea. It’s actually quite a challenging
and uneven film and I feel more ambivalence about it than I usually do with
Pasolini, who, in all honesty, I am usually pretty uncritically positive about.
I don’t know if this
is really a success or not, but it’s
still worth watching. I think of a few other films while I’m watching it, neither of which
is very similar at all to Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, but which perhaps can help situate my
experience of the film in a kind of Venn diagram: it’s somewhere between Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert and Piavoli’s Nostos:
The Return, maybe. I’m
very interested these days in reworkings and modernisations of Greek myth,
thanks to my efforts to work on The Bacchae, and I feel like
there is a lot here I find useful for that purpose. I don’t feel entirely satisfied when
it’s over, but I
think the problems I had with it — which, to be frank, have kind of dimmed in
the few days between watching it and writing this — are actually generative in
some way. One thing I particularly enjoy is the film’s total lack of interest in
continuity: when Oedipus is still a baby he is depicted by at least four
different children, who barely look alike at all, sometimes switched half-way
through a scene. I love this. Who cares what the baby looks like, that isn’t the point of this film, a
baby is a baby is a baby, this is a story of the universal psychological
conflict which affects everyone whether they want to accept it or not. I feel
like I should have more to say about Oedipus Rex,
maybe something which takes advantage of the very ready-to-hand psychoanalytic
engagements available to me, but I’m
going to stop there. If you’ve
read Freud and then you watch this it all feels pretty familiar and clear
anyway. I’m glad to have
gotten to it, but I don’t
know if I’ll be rushing
to watch it again any time soon.
May 21. Saturday. Will is
visiting. Last night we went to the Rutland, where we met Kate, Catherine and
L, who left us to go and watch Everything Everywhere
All At Once. Will and I did not go to see it, but kept drinking and
ended up having a long conversation with one of my ex-colleagues from the care
home who I ran into by chance. Afterwards, L, Will and I stay up until 2:30
watching music videos on YouTube. Today we are not moving very quickly. We go
get some croissants and coffee and sit outside for a bit. We go to Kollective
for lunch with Kate and Catherine, and then go for a drink at the Dorothy Pax,
next to the canal. Then we walk up the canal in the sun to Attercliffe, where
we go to St Mars of the Desert; a new experience for everyone. It’s nice. The weather is
pleasant. We spend the afternoon drinking and then get a taxi home. Kate and
Catherine rejoin us after a brief hiatus, and we order pizza from Napoli Centro
and then watch Mission: Impossible – Fallout (dir.
Christophere McQuarrie, 2018). L and I saw this in the cinema when
it came out; a 10am Sunday screening at Duke’s at Komedia in Brighton with a hangover, and it was
a really excellent experience. We choose to watch this I guess partly because
we’ve all seen
Tom Cruise’s recent
comments at Cannes being shared over and over: when asked why he feels the need
to do all the stunts that he does, he replies, smugly, that nobody asked Gene
Kelly why he danced. An incredible answer. I perhaps don’t really explore the depths of
my feelings about Tom Cruise very often, but I really am starting to believe
that he’s among the
greatest actors alive. He’s
not very versatile and he’s
certainly never complex, but he has heroically embraced his limitations and
understood his skills completely, and he’s never boring to watch, never mediocre or
half-assed. Tom Cruise is always giving everything to his work, and I always
enjoy watching him. The whole Scientology is whatever; I feel like we can move
past that — we all know about it, and it’s fucked up, but he’s still a completely eccentric genius, whose
strangeness only gets more intense the more actively he pretends that he’s in any way a remotely normal
person. The Mission: Impossible franchise
is some of his greatest work, and Fallout is
a hugely entertaining piece of cinematic exuberance. Henry Cavill, who I
generally think is hugely dull and tedious to watch, is perfectly cast here as
a bland evil CIA agent who becomes Cruise’s antagonist. In the big climactic helicopter chase
with which the film ends there are some great shots of Cavill just sitting
staring blankly into space as Cruise tries to crash another chopper into him:
the lack of any spark of intelligence or engagement with the world behind
Cavill’s eyes, the
deadened glaze of an animatronic plank of wood, are some of the funniest
moments in a film which is filled with hilarity. Another great moment is right
after Tom Cruise’s
emotional reconnection with his ex-wife, when we get to see Tom sprinting away
in the background, both arms pumping at full velocity. I would prefer if Simon
Pegg wasn’t in this film
but it’s quite useful
to have such an easy target for any irritation I feel with the film: all blame
for any lack in Mission: Impossible – Fallout can
be placed at Pegg’s
feet and then be forgotten about. It’s
a riot. Everyone in the room is shrieking and yelling, we’re all having a nice time, it’s genuinely thrilling and
exciting even though we’ve
all seen it before. Tom Cruise is a genius. I think I’ve got a long-read about him
bubbling away, so if anyone wants to commission that for a publication please
let me know and I can give you 20,000 words of hagiography in less than a week.
May 22. Sunday. Will is still
here. We go get a sausage sandwich from the café in Endcliffe Park and then walk to the coffee van in Bingham Park.
Will and I eat some cannoli on a bench. We come home and L and Will play video
games for a little while. Then we walk into town and go to Showroom, where we
see Vampyr (dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer,
1932). None of us have seen it before. I’m pretty sure I’ve not seen Dreyer’s Joan
of Arc but something in the back of my mind is telling me that
I watched it in a depressive funk in either 2017 or 2018, before I started the
diary. Which would make sense, and perhaps having seen it and then forgotten
everything about it is further justification for continuing this project, so I
can keep track of what I watch in my various fugue states. Anyway, I have high
hopes for Vampyr, although perhaps with a
slight wariness: I am aware that I often find 1930s films, even the greatest
films of the period, a bit of a tiresome slog, and I prepare myself to be a
little bored. And maybe I fade in and out of attention a little but for the
most part I’m pretty absorbed
by Vampyr, which is much stranger and more
uncanny than I’d
anticipated. As Will points out afterwards, we’ve all seen the vampire myth
explored on film a bajillion times, and there isn’t a huge amount here in terms
of plot that isn’t
very familiar, but with that taken for granted the viewer can focus their
attention elsewhere: the extremely intense and odd visual style. This is a
dream film, an unpleasant and jarring nightmare where images don’t always make sense in the way
you would expect. There are a fair amount of visual effects which, despite
being 90 years old don’t
actually feel dated or overly familiar but really add to the feeling of uncanny
nausea permeating the film. There are some shots filmed outside in a very very
soft focus which are extremely grainy and quite challenging to make out any
detail of the image and, rather than feeling like a kind of technical mishap,
these feel like the kind of half-remembered half-recognised experiences that
are otherwise only experienced in dreams. The use of doubling is particularly
weird and disconcerting. The influence of these elements is absolutely
transparent, particularly in the obvious surreal filmmakers like Buñuel and Lynch. Vampyr is not scary, exactly, but it is unnerving
and confusing and unpleasant; the plot, freely adapted from a Sheridan Le Fanu
text, is really just a canvas on which Dreyer and his cinematographers can
create some very striking visual compositions. It’s an odd film. I suppose I feel
a very clear divide during it between my deep and intense aesthetic enjoyment
in the style and the cultivated boredom I feel about watching a 1930s horror
film. But it’s good to see
it, particularly in a cinema. At home I wouldn’t give it the attention it
merits. I’m a little
relieved when it’s
over, and I probably would have liked it even more if I’d have a coffee before, but it
feels like a very worthwhile experience: getting to see what horror was like
before everyone had figured out what the genre should feel like. Apparently
there was a riot when it first screened, with the audience demanding their
money back because of how impenetrable it felt: clearly a sign of its
After Vampyr we go for a
beer at the Industry Tap and then walk home. I sit down and try to rattle off
as much of this diary as I can in one hour. Then I cook an asparagus risotto.
Afterwards we watch After Hours(dir. Martin Scorsese,
1985), which is a feel-bad yuppie nightmare film about a man
having a very unpleasant evening in New York. It’s really good, in many ways a
very uncharacteristic Scorsese picture, a mixture of noir, screwball comedy,
psychosexual thriller and existential horror film. There are clear homages to
throughout and there’s
also a really excellent moment that cites Kafka’s Before
the Law, recast as a struggle to gain admittance to a nightclub
playing Bad Brains. I read in Scorsese on Scorsese that
the both the ending of After Hours, in
which our bedraggled hero just ends up back at work the next morning, and the
Kafka allusions were ideas that came directly from Michael Powell’s response to a preview
screening at which the ending was fudged and unclear, and that Powell’s account of Kafka’s work really resonated with
Scorsese because he had recently had a frustrating bureaucratic experience
trying to get funding for The Last Temptation of
Christ. Which is exactly the kind of coincidental and relatively
meaningless trivia that I love. There’s
also a great moment where the protagonist spends a while looking at some
graffiti on a bathroom wall of a shark biting a man’s erection. It’s
a film about emasculation and sexual neuroses, but it’s also a film about the intense
lengths someone might go to in the hopes of encountering some kind of
spontaneity and novelty in their drab life. Really one of the great New York
films in the interplay we see between the unending potential of the city and
the almost inevitable frustration and disappointment that results in the
majority of the encounters we watch. It also feels a bit like a cocaine-addled downtown
remake of The Exterminating Angel, another
film about members of the bourgeoisie who just can’t quite make it home. It’s a fun watch; at times it
feels as though it’s
running the risk of getting bogged down and a little tiresome, but it has
enough jubilant variety that it stays interesting and strange, equal parts
hilarious and infuriating. Griffin Dunne, who I don’t really recognise from
anything else, is a surprisingly good lead, perfect for an increasingly sweaty
and abject man at the end of his tether. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to drink a
regrettable cup of terrible filter coffee at 2am, or, at least for me, is the
kind of film that — despite the horrible time everyone seems to be having —
makes me wish I lived somewhere with multiple all-night venues and an
atmosphere of there being an endless possibility for new forms of suffering
available to nocturnal wanderers. I don’t really know why I haven’t seen this before; in many
ways it’s an outlier
in the Scorsese back catalogue, but a genuine miserable pleasure regardless.
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