Tag Archives: The Last Happy Day

Ubiquarian: The Process is the Practice

Ubiquarian 
The Process is the Practice
By Tara Judah
June 21, 2020
http://ubiquarian.net/2020/06/the-process-is-the-practice/

Prolific and poetic, experimental and documentary filmmaker, Lynne Sachs, lights up this year’s online edition of Sheffield Doc|Fest with a mini-retrospective, annotated lecture and her new feature, Film About a Father Who (2020).

Tara Judah

It happened less than ten years ago, when she was working on Your Day is My Night (2013): Lynne Sachs located the performance within her process and set out to challenge/change it. The idea was to gain participation, collaboration. Instead of turning a camera on her subjects – when they would perform instead of reveal – she decided to include them in the construction and craft of her filmmaking; when you point a camera at a subject, you can’t capture, you command. And power, though useful for its authoritative and therefore convincing tone, is also deeply problematic. In a way, what Sachs is doing is quietly radical. Not just because it is an attempt to remove the hierarchy inherent in documentary since Robert Flaherty started its discourse (Sachs is also a Flaherty Seminar alumnus) but, also, because it is an admission and undermining of her own intrinsic and pervasive authorial voice. It’s ambitious, but that’s also where a kind of freedom resides. The ambition is so substantial that it alone is enough; it doesn’t matter if she succeeds. In this way, Sachs’ later work, from Your Day is My Night onwards, is less about subjects and more about process.

Film still from “Your Day is My Night” (2013) by Lynne Sachs. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

She’s been making films for more than thirty years, but the mini retrospective screening as part of this year’s online edition of Doc/Fest selects moments from the last decade to fit a through-line about Ghosts and Apparitions. I’m not interested in these, as they could be found almost anywhere, and in anyone’s work. In Sachs’ work all I find – and all I want to find – is respectful practice. There is more than just an artist at work, here, there is a generous exploration at play.

Before Sachs experienced her epiphany, she made Which Way is East? (1994), an arresting, painterly exploration of Vietnam. As one of the first American filmmakers granted permission to shoot in Vietnam, Sachs had the weight of responsibility and expectation on her shoulders. Despite this, the film has a sense of lightness and freedom, especially in its aesthetic and aural approach: it begins with a stilted photographic trajectory, literally rendering the moving image as a series of broad brush strokes, while the almost endlessness of the cicadas’ chirrup pitch moves the image along, though not necessarily forward. It is a sensory introduction, rather than a history lesson, and here Sachs’ work is at its most successful, inviting us, as viewers and listeners to be in this depiction of Vietnam, not to look at or hear a presentation of it. Eventually, Sachs and her camera will arrive somewhere static, she will then switch to a show and tell mode, which is informative but less awesome. She flits between the two with relative ease for the remainder of the film, letting her observations and those of her sister, Dana, interpolate the experience. It is as much about making her own memories as it is the chasing of those left behind by others. Her sister’s remarks are among the most revelatory, “I hate the camera,” she muses, “The world feels too wide for the lens and if I try to frame it, I only cut it up.” Holding a camera and being a filmmaker are not one and the same, “Lynne sees it through the eyes of its lens,” she continues, “It’s as if she understands Vietnam better when she looks at it through the lens of her camera.” For Sachs, the practice has always been the pursuit. She instinctively knew, even before it occurred to her laterally, to share the filmmaking in order to make it more accessible, more honest and more like the world it hopes to offer. It may have taken her another almost twenty years to fully understand and break with the idea of documentary as an act or approach, but there is a silver lining of melancholia inside Which Way is East? It makes me wonder if 1) she already knew and 2) if the practice, though expressive and creative as an outlet is also overwhelming, as there is some sadness here.

Film still from “Which Way is East?” (1994) by Lynne Sachs. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

Looking at historical resonance while also pursuing the interplay between the personal and political, Sachs can’t help but put her heart into her films. The Last Happy Day (2009) stars her own children and uses family, performance, narration, interviews and archive to construct a story about stories. For some, it’s a story about Sachs’ relative, Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian Jew who fled to Rome and later Brazil, where he translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Lenard spoke thirteen different languages, and no one knew he was Jewish, so the film is also about what we do and do not know, and how we might go about trying to unpick the constructions and obstructions therein. To demonstrate the difficulty to (re)telling history, Sachs has whole through-lines about bones, with several stunning superimposed images that offer the fragments and the palimpsest at once. She even has one interviewee straight up tell us, “I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s fantasy,” perhaps even a little too direct for a doc, but ironically true nonetheless, “I am not sure of the truth.”

Remembrance is also brought into question via the presence of doctored documents; literal erasure of a name lets us reflect on the ethics and truths that we can never know as so many were removed from our future before they could even make their mark. What struck me most, however, was the role of the central, yet arguably flippant, text. I wonder how the characters are in translation. Sachs’ band of performers – here, her children and their friends – act out scenes and discuss the meaning behind some of the plot points. Inevitably, they end up discussing the death drive when they get to talking about depression and Eeyore. I’ve always hated Winne the Pooh, because I thought he and many of his mates – Tigger, Rabbit, Owl and maybe even Piglet in his cowardice – were bullies, unkind to Eeyore, to whom my heart always went out. If I were Eeyore and had to live in their world, I might also desire death as an end to my depression. Even Christopher Robin didn’t seem to do anything to help, and he was a (white) human, surely the one with all the power. Could be that I remember it wrong, unsure what’s real and what’s fantasy, but in my remembrance, it is a horrible story filled with horrible characters. It’s lack of compassion makes me sad, still.

Film still from “The Last Happy Day” (2009) by Lynne Sachs. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

But the film itself failed to move me. It was clever and fits a bunch of paradigms that I’d call smart documentary filmmaking. I even think it’s the most obvious fit for that Ghosts and Apparitions programme title. Perhaps that is why it didn’t move me at all. It’s all a bit too neat, well thought out. Nothing incidental or imperfect. No rough edges. But then I watched The Washing Society (2017, co-directed with Lizzie Olesker) and everything changed.

Thanks to Sachs’ newfound process of inclusive filmmaking, with her subjects, The Washing Society feels like a story from, not about New York City laundromats. Visiting over fifty laundries, Sachs tells us, “Sometimes they told us to stop, other times no one notices.” This is how her filmmaking has fundamentally changed: it’s not a process of requesting permission and setting up a tripod to stage an interview, it’s being in the space, with the people, and finding out what the story is as it unravels. Owing to this shift, the performative set pieces within the film – be it actors reading lines, narrated poetic interventions, or even Sachs’ fascination and lingering look at the way light dances around her subject(s) – are seamlessly integrated into an otherwise seemingly observatory mode. What I liked most was that it felt personal, private, public and political at once; the invisible labour of laundry workers is made visible, while the objects we wear to cover and conceal are laid bare, tossing and turning in machines after their toil, until they are, eventually, ready to perform their duty once more. Clothes are the ultimate in public and private markers; from the hours and loads of labour used to make, market and sell them before they even become hours and loads of labour to clean, fold and return to their often-oblivious wearers. I watched, at home, folding my own laundry, mostly that of my almost one-year-old son, painfully aware as I am that domestic labour (performed here whilst undertaking professional labour) is almost always unseen and almost never remunerated. I loved this film not because it struck a chord, but because it could; its poetry sparing and its humanity, honesty and openness laid out with generosity and as a gesture to the many faces that have served and are fast disappearing from NY’s many regenerated neighbourhoods as an app and its collection truck counterpart take over the (barely) visible nature of the business.

Film still from “The Washing Society” (2017) by Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|Fest

It’s an important reminder, from Sachs, to think about what is not seen, whenever we reflect on what we have seen. Your Day is My Night (2013) is not just a film; it has had live stage performances and it is alive in the lives of those it features. Beds and stages and monologues and movement and projection are all elements of this docu-dramatic staged record of what it means to be more than how we are recognised. Spanning the deep economic issues of the US, and the failed reality of the outwardly boastful American Dream, all the way to micro-communities and what ‘home’ might ever mean, Your Day is My Night doesn’t show but does reveal the alienation inherent in both Chinese and American society. In making this film, and the live performances that span its production life, Sachs really got to know her collaborators – well, as well as she could with the bridge of a translator. Language can be a powerful separator, and Sachs hints at this in the film by bringing in an actress (Veraalba Santa, who also features in The Washing Society) to play the part of a Puerto Rican immigrant. It’s not Sachs, but her questioning and unease is represented in Santa’s performative role.

In her lecture, My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, Sachs admits that she is still grappling with the extent to which she should express herself, and the subject. Her body may not be present in this film (it features heavily in many of her earlier, more experimental and material works), but exposing herself has served as a form of generosity, especially where she is asking an actress to expose themselves bare, as in The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991).

Bodies exist but so do thoughts and feelings. And suicide is genuinely considered as an option when old age sets in for those who have no real ‘home’ to go to – neither a citizen of the US or China, there is a unique and pugilistic purgatory for some. Every round is a beating, but fight is what you came to do. I kept thinking of Charles Yu’s fantastic new book, Interior Chinatown (2020) as I watched it. Yu’s book is so many things – maybe everything – a documentary as a book, certainly. A uniquely crafted satire of Hollywood, racism in the United States, and the slippage between screenwriting and prose, Yu’s book looks at the stereotypes of ‘Generic Asian Man’, ‘Background Oriental Male’, ‘Kung Fu Guy’ and more. The people in Sachs’ film feel like characters, at times. Maybe because their lives, like the characters in Yu’s book, are enmeshed with the performance of their parameters – Chinatown in NYC, stuck in a stereotyped nightmare, “I was very aware of the narrow spectrum of representation of the denizens of New York City’s Chinatown,” Sachs tells Paolo Javier in an interview for BOMB Magazine, “Those kinds of Hollywood  images haunted me really. In fact, when I first chose the seven people who are featured in my film, I realized that most of them had already worked as extras for the movie industry at some point in their lives.” Fictions and realities reside, side by side, sometimes even in the same bed, sleeping in shifts.

Film still from Lynne Sachs’s “A Month of Single Frames” (2019) Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|fest

Sachs can’t, shouldn’t and thankfully doesn’t separate these two elements in her films. She works with them. And, now, in her more recent work, she allows the process to become the practice. In her most recent film screening in the programme focus at Doc|Fest, A Month of Single Frames(2019), a work pulling together various pieces of Barbara Hammer’s personal archive – 16mm film footage, journal entries and recorded stories – Sachs lets decisions leak into the final edit, allows us to understand how images move as time lapses. For Hammer as for Sachs as for an audience, frame rates and time passing is only relevant insofar as it is a part of the process that makes up such a thing as a filmmaking practice. It is not important when it occurs, only that it does. In that way, the film is not an archive or an object to be examined or understood. It is the act of holding those things, that person, their feelings, their being.

In this way, Film About a Father Who (2020) is her greatest achievement yet. Digging into far more than the family archive, Sachs takes footage and feelings that span her entire life to create a portrait, not of her father, but of “complicit ignorance” and how pervasive lies of omission might permeate both films and lives, through their intrinsic and insidious power dynamic. Her father is many things, among them a philanderer. Much was uncovered, but he withheld more. This is the role of structure and authority, the act of patriarchy and the act of whomsoever holds power. In this film, it is clear that her father is not the only one with power to play with – his mother, Maw-Maw, is just as commanding, especially as the puller of purse-strings, whose judgement has the ability to grant or take away knowledge, access, identity; family, truth and more. This is what Sachs has been working on all her life because it is the process of uncovering her power and confronting herself. Her aim to frame truth and authenticity will always be compromised by the reality of the moment that the camera is turned on, be it for family or strangers. In Film About a Father Who, Sachs admits that she is filming as a way of finding transparency. It is the ultimate in searching for cinematic veracity. She finds something beautiful and deeply moving, here. Speaking about the differences between her parents, she uses grammar as a metaphor. By extension, her own practice can be understood as a process of grammatic excellence; each thought, memory, scene, time and space given pause and punctuated by still more dancing light.

Film still from Lynne Sachs’s “Film About a Father Who” (2020) Courtesy of Sheffield Doc|fest

Reflecting on the impact of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and his ground-breaking film Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Sachs understands her practice as the unification of art and life, “As a mom and an artist, I was extremely inspired by the way that he integrated his family into his daily practice as an artist. If you separate the two, both suffer.” On her own website, she further imagines “a list of possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screening of this film [Window Water Baby Moving]. I offer them to you as a vehicle by which to ponder the last forty years of American cultural history.” There are twenty-three. I won’t list them, here. But they did get me thinking about possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screenings of Sachs’ films. Here’s five of my suggestions.

Confronting Performativity
In Defense of Poetry
The Collaborative Moment
Towards an Understanding of Dancing Light
The Camera as Pencil; Drawing in the Margins

Lynne Sachs Focus at Sheffield Doc/ Fest

June 1 2020
Announcing 2020 filmmakers’ spotlights and our retrospective

Today Sheffield Doc/Fest begins its festival with the international premiere of my feature Film About a Father Who along with a “spotlight” on six of my films.
“Two filmmakers have inspired a special focus: Simplice Ganou and Lynne Sachs” From very different regions of the globe (Burkina Faso and USA), with very different ways of filming and telling stories, both are filmmakers obsessed with the possibility of encountering the other, of building bonds with other humans through their camera, and translating that into cinematic beauty.”

“Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.”

Simplice Ganou, Sarah Maldoror, and Lynne Sachs

In the lead up to revealing our full official selection for 2020 on 8 June, we would like to announce:

  • the theme of our annual retrospective: Reimagining the Land, curated by Christopher Small.
  • and three special focuses: 
    • a screening in tribute to the late French West Indies film pioneer Sarah Maldoror;
    • a focus on American artist Lynne Sachs; 
    • a focus on Burkina Faso filmmaker Simplice Ganou.

Focus on Lynne Sachs

Lynne Sachs headshot
(Image: Lynne Sachs)

Drawing on her vast body of works from the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. This focus will be part of the online Ghosts & Apparitions film strand.

Five Lynne Sachs films ranging from 1994 – 2018 – mostly involving creative collaboration with others – will feature as part of our online programme from 10 June.

Her latest film, Film About a Father Who, offers a complex portrait of Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering businessman from Park City, shot over a period of 35 years, and will make its International Premiere in Sheffield in October, and following that, online, as part of Into The World Film Strand.

Together with the focus, we will present Sachs’ video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, a fascinating journey through her themes and work.

Lynne Sachs focus, in Ghosts & Apparitions online:
Drawing on her vast body of works from over the past 30 years, we will present a curated selection of films by Lynne Sachs, focusing on the notion of translation as a practice of encountering others and reshaping and reinterpreting filmic language. Tensions arise from the filmmaker’s memories of Vietnam as a tragic place of war in Which Way Is East…; The Last Happy Day is a portrait of a man who translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin and reconstructed the remains of American soldiers; Your Day Is My Night tells of places in New York inhabited by immigrant workers and shaped by their lives and stories; the translation of Barbara Hammer’s images and sounds on a deserted landscape become a poem for her deceased friend in A Month of Single Frames. If translation can be considered the job of filmmaking, these works become a poetic and political tool for widening our view of the world and touching on its complexity, rendering it intimate and available for thought. Between them – Theatre, performance, music and an extremely sensitive and tender camera – compose a body of work that becomes more relevant each day.

WHICH WAY IS EAST: NOTEBOOKS FROM VIETNAM
Lynne Sachs (in collaboration with Dana Sachs), USA, 1994, 33 min

“A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot.”

Two American sisters travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, followed by their own ghosts and those of local memories. On their way, they meet a country and its richness – strangers, translations, parables and stories, in a complex landscape. History is put into perspective, as each conversation becomes a true encounter: uncountable possible words to translate what we see and what we hear. The Vietnam they knew from TV is only a tiny part of this world to which they now decide to pay attention.

THE LAST HAPPY DAY
Lynne Sachs, USA, 2009, 37 min

A portrait of Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian medical doctor and a distant cousin of Sachs.  In 1938 Lenard, a writer with a Jewish background, fled the Nazis to Rome. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service hired him to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers.  Eventually he found himself in Brazil where he translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin, an eccentric task that catapulted him to brief world-wide fame.  Personal letters, abstracted war imagery, home movies, interviews, and a children’s performance create an intimate meditation on the destructive power of war.

YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT
Lynne Sachs, USA, 2013, 64 min

Since the early days of New York’s Lower East Side tenement houses, working class people have shared beds, making such spaces a fundamental part of immigrant life. A “shift-bed” is an actual bed that is shared by people who are neither in the same family nor in a relationship. It’s an economic necessity brought on by the challenges of urban existence. Such a bed can become a remarkable catalyst for storytelling as absolute strangers become de facto confidants. As the bed transforms into a stage, the film reveals the collective history of Chinese immigrants in the USA, a story not often documented.

THE WASHING SOCIETY
Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker, USA, 2018, 44 min

When you drop off a bag of dirty laundry, who’s doing the washing and folding? The Washing Society brings us into New York City laundromats and the experiences of the people who work there. With a title inspired by the 1881 organization of African-American laundresses, The Washing Society investigates the intersection of history, underpaid work, immigration, and the sheer math of doing laundry. Dirt, skin, lint, stains, money, and time are thematically interwoven into the very fabric of the film, through interviews and observational moments. With original music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello.

A MONTH OF SINGLE FRAMES
Lynne Sachs, made with and for Barbara Hammer, USA, 2019, 14 min

In 1998, filmmaker Barbara Hammer had a one-month artist residency in the C Scape Duneshak which is run by the Provincetown Community Compact in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. While there, she shot 16mm film with her Beaulieu camera, recorded sounds with her cassette recorder and kept a journal. In 2018, Barbara began her own process of dying by revisiting her personal archive. She gave all of her Duneshack images, sounds and writing to filmmaker Lynne Sachs and invited her to make a film with the material.

International Premiere of Lynne Sachs’s latest film, as part of Into The World screenings in October:

Film About a Father Who by Lynne Sachs
(Image: Film About A Father Who by Lynne Sachs, 2020)

FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO

Lynne Sachs, USA, 2020, 74 min 

International Premiere

Over a period of 35 years, Sachs shot varied footage  of her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a bon vivant and pioneering Utah businessman. This is her attempt to understand the web that connects child to parent and sister to sibling. With a nod to the Cubist renderings of a face, Sachs’ cinematic exploration offers simultaneous, sometimes contradictory, views of one seemingly unknowable man who is publicly the uninhibited center of the frame yet privately ensconced in secrets. Sachs as a daughter discovers more about her father than she had ever hoped to reveal.

https://sheffdocfest.com/articles/840-announcing-2020-filmmakers-spotlights-and-our-retrospective?tag=homepage&fbclid=IwAR3byOZT2ucbjfASllCsBc1PdIK_nhRhJJA6Bzkdg5HfsnAEfdegnO21QtA

“Eye as Mediator” Essay by G. Cherichello on “The Last Happy Day” by Lynne Sachs

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The Last Happy Day by Lynne Sachs
Essay on film by Genna Cherichello
11/11/10
Topics in Rhetorical Theory: Visual Culture – Haverford College

In her experimental essay film The Last Happy Day, Lynne Sachs uses a variety of film types (super 8 home video, stock footage, still photographs), narrative content (interviews, letters, acted scenes) and other components to build her depiction of Sandor Lenard. A distant cousin of Sachs, Sandor was a medical doctor who worked for the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service, reconstructing skeletons out of the bones of dead American soldiers from World War II. After this position, he moved to Brazil where he lived reclusively and translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin. The concept of distance, made apparent by Sandor’s purposeful distancing from the realities of the Holocaust, is vital to the film. The various applications and iterations of distance shape the filmic language and afford the viewer an avenue of access to what the film says about war, the Holocaust, and how we see.
The eye as a mediator is only able to focus on one thing at a time, with everything around that point of focus being lost to obscurity; this forces a piecemeal understanding of one’s environment. The filmic eye in The Last Happy Day, too, is an obscuring and complicating force, which helps to form the film’s language. Sachs manipulates her camera very deliberately, employing the difference between sharp-focus and soft-focus. Her camera is dizzying. It sees through things: focuses on one and alters its focus to another, all within the same line of sight. The constant focus adjustments during the scenes of “Winnie the Pooh” rehearsal create a distance between the viewer and the subject, one maintained by the filmmaker’s hand. The camera sometimes focuses on objects in the periphery instead of the person in the shot, such as the scene where the purple flowers and candles are clear, and clearly disabling focused sight of the scene’s human subjects. Sachs manipulates the fluidity of the focus, often shifted in a choppy, unnatural way, reminiscent of being submitted to a prescription exam at the eye doctor. This, coupled with the tendency of heavy background light to darken heavily the foreground, add to the camera’s role in distancing the viewer from the filmic subjects.
Not only does Sachs’s particular camera technique create a distance within the film’s rhetoric, but Sandor’s intentional distancing from the war does so within the narrative.  Sandor distances himself emotionally and physically from the war, but he also denies his distancing.  The film separates the viewer from the reality of the mass grave by including abstracted, duo-toned stock footage of war with Sandor’s words about the bones. These words, even, were in a letter to someone who is neither the director nor the viewer, and the voice is obviously not Sandor’s. These are two additional layers of distance between perceiving what is presented and attempting to understand it.
Eventually, the film’s distancing procedures end up illuminating the narrative, perhaps more than if the story that develops through the experimental techniques was told in an actual narrative-style film. This is seen particularly strongly in the scene where the young girl who plays Christopher Robin is describing death after being introduced to the topic through Sandor’s Latin translation of “Winnie the Pooh.” His word choice was colored with sterile negativity, free of emotion and full of fact. It permitted the girl to explore and explain the concepts of depression, death, and the desire for death in a way that would perhaps be impossible without the mediating force of a dead language. The distancing tropes of film overall perform the same type action for the viewer, allowing access to understanding of the premise and the subjects that would have otherwise been impossible.

Blogcritic DVD Review: The Last Happy Day

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Link to Blogcritic review:  https://blogcritics.org/dvd-review-the-last-happy-day/

In an interview with Otherzine experimental filmmaker, Lynne Sachs talks about realizing “that there was a pattern emerging in my work, a rhythm between films that were open to changes brought by the times and films that followed a very clearly defined vision or concept. ” Later in the interview she relates what she is trying to do in her films to the avant garde poet, Gertrude Stein’s desire to “create provocative ruptures between the sign and the signifier, between the way we are taught to speak (to communicate) and the way we ultimately choose to express ourselves (art).” Sachs says that her aim is to do the same kind of thing with images and sounds, and one way to do this is to get rid of the traditional chronological narrative and instead tell a personal story through patterned imagery.

What she comes up with is illustrated in her recently released DVD of her 2009 documentary essay, The Last Happy Day, which also includes four of her shorter films as well. The Last Happy Day aims to create a portrait of her distant cousin, Alexander (Sandor) Lenard, a Hungarian doctor who had kept his Jewish identity hidden from his family when he married. With the threat from the Nazis growing, he fled to safety in Rome, helped rescue other refugees and eventually began working for the US Army’s reconstructing bones of dead American soldiers. Later, fearing a WWIII in Europe, he moved to the Brazilian countryside. It was there that he turned out his Latin translation of Winnie the Pooh, a somewhat strange undertaking, but one that was to garner him something more than his five minutes of fame.

Sachs’ documentary rejects the normal grammar of the genre. The Last Happy Day uses some historical war footage, sometimes straight, sometimes in negative, sometimes superimposed over other images. There are no expert talking heads. There are two family members who speak, Lenhart’s son and his second wife, but their commentary is limited, and the wife an elderly woman points out that what she says may well be untrue. Memory, she adds, often betrays us. She can’t always tell truth from fantasy. Instead most of the information comes from Lenhart’s letters read as voiceovers. There are shots of contemporary children playacting the Pooh stories, and one of them does some of the background narration as well. All this has the effect of downplaying the narrative and foregrounding the visual imagery.

altogether, substituting a completely visual syntax instead. A Georgic for a Forgotten Planet is a visual homage to Virgil’s poem using settings from New York City, juxtaposing images of typical city life with less typical flowers and gardens. One comes away from the film with telling images embedded in the imagination. The enigmatically titled Sound of a Shadow, a collaboration with her husband, takes a similar look at Japan, creating what Sachs calls a “visual haiku.” The visual image is the language of both films. It is a language both highly personal and open ended. It is language that can be fraught with meaning for some, meaningless for others.

And therein lies the rub, indeed the rub for much of such experimental work in art. There are those audiences that will have no truck with Gertrude Stein’s “ruptures.” They want things to maintain their meaning. These are audiences that will have trouble with some of Sachs’ work as well. For them a random collection of images will simply be a random collection of images, and nothing else.

That’s the nice thing about The Last Happy Day, while it makes its points with arresting images, it gives the viewer a narrative hook to help navigate through them. Everything in the film from the Bach score, to the horror of collecting human bones, to the beauty of the Brazilian countryside, everything is there in support of a personal vision. Nothing seems random

Nat’l Gallery of Art presents American Originals Now: Lynne Sachs Oct. 16 & 23

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The National Gallery of Art presents
American Originals Now: Lynne Sachs
Sundays, Oct. 16 & 23, 2012

The ongoing film series American Originals Now offers an opportunity for discussion with internationally recognized American filmmakers and a chance to share in their artistic practice through special screenings and conversations about their works in progress. Since the mid-1980s, Lynne Sachs has developed an impressive catalogue of essay films that draw on her interests in sound design, collage, and personal recollection. She investigates war-torn regions such as Israel, Bosnia, and Vietnam, always striving to work in the space between a community’s collective memory and her own subjective perceptions. Sachs teaches experimental film and video at New York University and her films have screened at the Museum of Modern Art and the Buenos Aires, New York, and Sundance Film Festivals. Her work was recently the subject of a major retrospective at the San Francisco Cinemathèque.

Lynne Sachs: Recent Short Films
October 16 at 4:00
East Building Concourse, Auditorium

Lynne Sachs in person

Three short films exemplify Sachs’ unique approach to nonfiction filmmaking and to the empathetic process of imagining other people’s motivations. Photograph of Wind (2001, 16 mm, 4 minutes) is a portrait of the artist’s daughter as witnessed by the eye of the storm; The Last Happy Day (2009, 37 minutes) uses personal letters, abstracted images of war, home movies, and a performance by children to understand the complex story of Sachs’ distant cousin, Sandor Lenard, a Hungarian medical doctor who fled the Nazis and reconstructed the bones of American dead; and Wind in Our Hair (2010, 42 minutes) is a bilingual narrative inspired by the stories of Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. (Total running time approximately 83 minutes)

Your Day Is My Night
October 23 at 2:00
East Building Concourse, Auditorium

Lynne Sachs in person

The Task of the Translator (2010, video, 10 minutes) and Sound of a Shadow (2011, Beta SP, 10 minutes), two recently completed shorts, precede a screening of Sachs’ current work in progress, Your Day Is My Night: “…a collective of Chinese and Puerto Rican performers living in New York explores the history and meaning of ‘shiftbeds’ through verité conversations, character-driven fictions, and integrated movement pieces. A shiftbed is shared by people who are neither in the same family nor in a relationship. Looking at issues of privacy, intimacy, privilege, and ownership in relationship to this familiar item of furniture…I have conducted numerous performance workshops centered around the bed—experienced, remembered, and imagined from profoundly different viewpoints.”—Lynne Sachs. (Total running time approximately 60 minutes)

The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are at all times free to the public. They are located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW.

Alexander Lenard: A Life in Letters by Lynne Sachs in Hungarian Quarterly

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LastHappyDaySachsSandor

Alexander Lenard: A Life in Letters
by Lynne Sachs

Published in The Hungarian Quarterly VOLUME LI * No. 199 * Autumn 2010
http://www.hungarianquarterly.com

For over seventy years, a steady stream of letters was exchanged between Alexander Lenard and members of my family in Memphis, Tennessee.   Most of these reflections on everything from stock market prices to family trips, to the legacy of war to the cost of cranberry seeds, were exchanged between Sandor  (he was called in the family by his Hungarian first name, without the accent) and my great-uncle William (a.k.a. Bill) Goodman.  Luckily for me, my prescient uncle had a heart-felt, insightful appreciation for the epistolary vision he saw in his cousin Sandor’s missives.  He kept every letter that he received from Lenard, as well as copies of his own correspondence.

In the mid-1980s,  I became fascinated with Alexander Lenard’s story, wondering to what extent it could give me insight into our family’s heritage in Europe before and after the horrors of WWII.  Aunt Hallie Goodman, Uncle Bill’s wife, and later Eleanor, their daughter,  knew that I had chosen filmmaking as my life’s work.  They appreciated my curiosity about and commitment to Sandor’s story and eventually offered me the entire archive to fathom what I could of this rich and troubling tale of hardship and survival.  In 2009, I completed The Last Happy Day, an experimental documentary film inspired by the life of my distant cousin.

By interweaving excerpts from these letters into the visual and aural fabric of my film, I embrace the whimsy and the pathos that was Sandor Lenard.  Always an exile, a victim of a kind of human “continental drift”, my cousin never felt “at home” in the synthesized post-war euro-culture he found in Brazil. Building a harpsichord on which to play Bach, reading thirteen languages and translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin allowed him to stay connected to an old-world life to which he would never return.  The two decades I spent researching, traveling, shooting and editing my movie allowed me to explore the implicit paradoxes of a life both thwarted and nourished by the contradictions of a troubled time.

Interestingly enough, the Lenards were the only branch of our extended family that remained in Europe during World War II. In 2003,  I travelled to Düsseldorf, Germany to meet Sandor’s son, Hansgerd Lenard, then in his late sixties.  As I stood with my camera, he uncovered a trove of family diaries, letters and inscribed books from the 1920’s and 30’s. Inside each book, Sandor and his parents had meticulously transformed their obviously Jewish surname LEVY to a more Hungarian LENARD.   Rather than destroying this direct reference to their hidden family identity, Sandor’s family, my sole remaining European relatives, meticulously erased. In their minds, the key to survival in early twentieth century Hungary would be pristine assimilation.

My own  family, during that time, also refused to grasp fully the catastrophe that was Europe.  With far less to lose, their methods of confronting imminent danger were similarly subtle. The earliest letters of our family correspondence  begin around the turn of the century, but for our purposes, I will start with a letter between William’s father Abe offering help to Sandor’s father Eugene, a polyglot just like his son, in post-World-War I Hungary:

June 17, 1920, Dear Eugene: Our oldest son, William will graduate tomorrow at the University of Pennsylvania, the second is in military camp in Kentucky, the third is too small and is at home.  Acting on your suggestion I am herewith enclosing you New York Exchange for $1,000.00 which from the figures that you gave me in your letter you can use to a very much better advantage in Budapest, than having this amount converted into Kronen in this country. I am sending this to you to use or invest, returnable in two or three years without interest.

Sincerely, Abe Goodman

For the next 28 years, there did not appear to be a great deal of cross-Atlantic letter writing between the families, not until the end of World War II when William Goodman, now a successful Memphis attorney with four children, traveled with his wife Hallie to Rome where he made some remarkable discoveries about his cousin.   During World War II, Sandor , a struggling doctor with Jewish lineage, had found refuge in Rome and had devised his own unique way to survive the traumatic world of occupied Italy. By 1948 he worked for the United States Army’s Graves Registration Service reconstructing the bodies of American soldiers killed in combat.

In a letter dated September 26, 1948, William and Hallie Goodman have just met Lenard for the first time. Together, they write to William’s mother Bobye Wolf who was directly related to the Lenard family through her mother Wilhelmina Levy, born in Worms, Germany in 1840.  Here you will see Hallie refer to Lenard’s first son whom Lenard left in Germany with his German, Aryan, mother. She also refers to Lenarad’s second, Italian wife, Andrietta.

(Hallie) We went to Alexander’s home to see him, his wife and child.  He’s a very intelligent man, but I am afraid not too practical. He doesn’t seem very anxious to come to the US even though they are destitute, and can barely manage to get along. Bill gave him a suit of clothes, and we took his wife Andrietta all our extra soap, a few pairs of hose, and a five-pound box of candy. Lenard says his son, Hansgerd, is almost starving in Germany and we promised to ask you to continue sending him boxes.

(William)  Lenard was very easy to get along with –didn’t ask for a thing, which made me all the more anxious to try to help him.  I arranged for the manager of Paramount in Italy to give him some translating work on subtitles.”

While making my films, I travelled to Sao Paolo, Brazil to film Sandor’s eighty-five-year-old wife, Andrietta. She described in vivid, almost dreamy, detail her husband’s macabre, medical work. I listened to her recounting his daily contact with the detritus of war, wondering to myself why we so rarely think about who is responsible for “cleaning up” the dead.  In The Last Happy Day her graphic, realistic recollections stir visual ruminations on her husband’s futile act of posthumous, cosmetic surgery.

By the early 1950s, Sandor reaches out to William with a kind of forlorn intimacy one might not expect between two men who have only met once in their lives

March 25, 1950. Dear Cousin Bill, My conscience is the worst:  I have still not completed the research (on our family), which is after all even more interesting for myself than for you… The fact is that after four years as a civil employee of the US Army I had to build a new base for my existence in medical writing. I wrote and published a book on children’s diseases and started one on painless childbirth.  ….It’s the depressing present that renders looking into the past such a sorrowful undertaking. One hoped during the war that there would be a better world. It is hard to realize that the victims died so uselessly. Race hatred not only survived, but also came out stronger than ever.  Europe and the world found a new and holy pretext for hate. I really hope that I am mistaken when I think the United States is becoming a dangerous place to live.

As Sandor’s world fell into a wartime state of hunger and decay, he delighted in the absurd and the arcane.  His love of literature and language was his life raft, his potent means of resistance.  Speaking, reading and writing Latin kept him from what Natalie Ginzburg, another writer trapped in occupied Italy, called  “the fury of the waters and the corrosion of (our) time.”

Soon afterward, Sandor left for South America, never to return to the Europe that had so fed his imagination and his mind.  In my film, I contrast the haunting confinement and violence Sandor experienced in Rome during the Nazi occupation with the verdant emptiness of his later life in remotest Brazil. I juxtapose Sandor’s fearless introspection in his unpublished letters with my imagined visualization of his idyllic life in his house in the woods. The geography of his NOW simultaneously saddens and protects him from the threats he fears are still percolating on the other side of the Atlantic.

Correspondence with my family does not resume again until a decade later in 1961, when Lenard publishes Winnie Ille Pu, his Latin translation of Winnie the Pooh, and enjoys surprising worldwide success. Goodman gets word of the publication and brazenly takes things into his own hands by writing this Feb. 6, 1961 letter to the Editor of Time Magazine in the Time and Life Building in New York City.  Clearly, Goodman sees the story of his cousin as an intriguing mix of quixotic impulses and stubborn intellectualism.

In the spring of 1961, the two cousins finally make contact once again.  Sandor writes a letter to Memphis, explaining his disappearance and his unexpected literary glory.  Clearly, Lenard does not yet know that Goodman is not only well aware of his cousin’s publication but may also be responsible for the press coverage.

Dear Cousin William, ….On the long way from Rome into the forest of Santa Catarina, Brazil I had lost your home address and I had abandoned all hope of tracing you again.  Now, by the strangest chance of the world, I have become a best-selling author – or at least translator. Thanks to Winnie Ille Pu.  LIFE magazine has published an article about my life and work. A reporter visited me and sent notes to the USA.  They wrote the piece as an editorial, a success story and the result is a hopeless mess of misunderstandings, half-truths and outright inventions.  On the other hand, more than 100 papers have published reviews about my Bear – which seems on the way to relieve American children of the menace of irregular verbs and defective nouns.  For the first time since 1938, I dream about a settled life.  At present, this is only a dream, because even after the publication of 84,000 copies in the USA, I have not received a contract for the book, let alone a cent.  Please let me know how you are getting on!  I remember you had twins. They must be beyond Winnie the Pooh age by now!   With love, your Sandor

Thrilled by his rejuvenated contact with his Hungarian distant cousin relocated to the forests of Brazil, my Uncle Bill responds immediately and practically to Sandor’s concerns about money.  In addition, he describes his travels to Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, Helsinki, Amsterdam, London and Paris with the family, giving Sandor a window into a wealthy American’s “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Moscow” itinerary.

Dear Sandor, It was shocking to learn that your royalty situation has not yet been straightened out.  If I could be of the slightest assistance in working out your difficulties with the publisher, please let me hear from you. Sincerely yours, William

Months later, this letter arrives from Brazil on May 26, 1961, politely spelt in American English by Lenard:

Dear William, Traveling is wonderful if you do it in a voluntary basis. After having been shoved around half the globe, I got allergic to the outdoors. I think a travel agent would have an easier time selling a round trip of the Mediterranean to Odysseus himself than to me.  The less I move from my hideout 80 miles inland from Blumenau (the nearest village) in the greenest most peaceful valley in the world, the more I enjoy letters which have traveled a long way.  Winnie Ille Pu has brought me in contact with Latinists the world over.  I certainly never thought my Bear would reach the best-seller list, where he now enjoys his life for the 12th week running. I still have not received a cent from my publisher.  Should I really receive royalties some day, I am going to become a sort of millionaire – or at least return to the middle class our family left in 1938. In 23 years of existence as a “have-not”, I am ready to accept it for the rest of my life.

I have a wooden house, half way between cabin and castle, with such incredible objects as a bathroom and a piano (next bathroom: 20 miles away – next piano: 80 miles). The satellite I see flying occasionally across the evening sky is the only sign of the present. I am sure that you would enjoy the silence and the distance from worldly events. Translating modern books into Latin is not quite paradoxical here.  Won’t you come and see for yourself?    Your Sandor”

Because William is an attorney and is able to arrange the legal matters pertaining to Sandor’s royalties for his book, his next letter dated June 7, 1961 arrives with exactly the news Sandor wants to hear.

Dear Sandor,  Your publisher confirms that you will receive the full 5% royalty and there will be no further arguments.  Your valley certainly sounds attractive. As I get harassed by all the hour-to-hour difficulties of so-called civilization, your mode of living really becomes more inviting. Sincerely yours, William

Sandor’s subsequent July 12, 1961 letter, which is included here in its entirety, is a profound meditation on civilization and the ways Sandor has come to understand and perhaps reject it.  In the letter he speaks about the joy of living amongst the flora, and his love of cranberries in particular.  I remember hearing my Aunt Hallie’s stories about putting packages of these seeds inside a roll of newspaper and sending it off to our distant cousin in the southern hemisphere.  How charming and eccentric we all thought this was, at the time, not yet having a sense of our distant cousin’s longings.

The early 1960s mark a time in the cousins’ correspondence in which letters seem to flow almost monthly. Sandor finally receives a check for $8000 and claims that he could now be the richest man in the valley, except for the fact that he cannot cash the check.

Dear William, I thank you very much for the seeds and have sown them with care. I also enjoyed the papers the seeds were wrapped in! It is nice to hear sometimes about the outside world.  I love Brazil for all the space and freedom it gives and the more I hear about neutrons and rockets the more I love it, but you can’t ask for the advantages of uncivilization without some drawback. Absolute freedom and good bathrooms, space and chamber music are contradictions. I chose freedom and renounced the pleasures of a country where you pay with checks.  Still, let me say to you again how happy I feel knowing that you represent my interests up there (in the U.S.). The bonds between our families outlasted the centuries and are still strong. Gratefully and with good wishes, Sandor

By 1962, life is good for Sandor, his wife and his second son Giovanni.

Dear William, The money arrived safely. Andrietta is refurnishing the house and I am buying a forest.  I am busy writing an anti-fascist Roman cookbook, publishing a Latin translation of Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, and writing a novel in a secret almost dead language called Hungarian.  So you see, I am happily planning for 1963, as if my coronaries would be fit for long term projects and the world were waiting for humanistic and gastronomical literature.  As to the heart, I trust that big doses of silence will have some dilating effects upon the arteries. Very much cannot be achieved by medical means. The fact is that bullets that do not actually touch the body also hurt. The only medicine against world events is distance, safe distance.  We are busily typing a list of more seeds we could like, so my ‘castle’ will be surrounded by flowers. My Bach cantatas have already changed the atmosphere of wilderness into something else.  Your old Sandor

Sandor comes to live with my Uncle William’s family in Memphis for a few months in 1968, a time of palpable racial tension, street protests and nightly curfew, the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated in a small motel in our downtown. Upon his return to his cabin in Santa Catarina, he begins a correspondence with my cousin Eleanor, Uncle William’s daughter, then a senior in high school.  His November 27, 1969 letter to Eleanor (here in its entirety) is an eloquent homage to youth, wonder and discovery.

In 1970, Sandor sends his own teenage son Giovanni to live for a few months with their American relatives in Memphis. Giovanni returns to Brazil relating that William’s own adult children have each begun families in homes near that of their parents.

Dear William, My son tells me that you are all living near to one another.  Almost all of my life was a series of headaches and the rest was longing and homesickness. My headaches have passed but longing and homesickness are here more than ever and I envy those who can say ‘We are all at home.’  Abrasos, Sandor

To Eleanor, he writes another letter, offering a frank description of his own health.

Dear Eleanor, I am a very bad letter writer now.  Though my right eye is far from good, I must finish the translation of my most recent Hungarian book into German.  Despairing to get a new heart I’ll certainly try to make the old one function, with all its burdens. As soon as you realize you have a heart, there is something wrong with it. Take care, do not ever realize it!  Sandor

On September 25, 1970, Sandor’s own doctor writes a personal letter to the family, stating that for the past few months Sandor’s working capacity has declined, and that he has lost his drive to write, study or read.

Soon afterward, he writes his own obituary and dies.

Lynne Sachs (www.lynnesachs.com)

is a filmmaker making experimental documentary films since the mid-1980s. In the The Last Happy Day she constructed a narrative triangle between Lenard, her Uncle William and herself.  While their presence in the film is grounded in a dialogue from the past, her participation is more temporally and geographically fluid, creating an evolving relationship of distance and intimacy through voice and text. The film (available from the New York Film-makers Cooperative at www.film-makerscoop.com) premiered at the New York Film Festival and was shown by Duna Television on March 16, 2010, the 100th anniversary of Lenard’s birth.

Sachs explores themes of war through films at Memphis Brooks

Lynne at Haifa cemetary

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Friday, November 12, 2010
by John Beifus

“Why didn’t I know this?”

When those words appear onscreen during Lynne Sachs’ “The Last Happy Day,” they refer to an aspect of Sachs family history during World War II that had been unknown to the filmmaker. But the question is one that resonates throughout Sachs’ work, as both theme and motivation.

Sachs’ films are searching, inquisitive projects — quests of discovery (and self-discovery) that yield facts and insights that become even more meaningful when they are shared with audiences as art.

And, just so you won’t be intimidated, we might add: All this, and Winnie-the-Pooh, too.

A native Memphian who now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker Mark Street, and two teenage daughters, Sachs returns to her hometown next week for a mini-retrospective at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art titled “I Am Not a War Photographer: A Film Series by Lynne Sachs.”

Four films — ranging from 33 to 63 minutes in length — will be screened, two per day, at 7 p.m. Thursday and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20.

The “I Am Not a War Photographer” title connects the screenings to the “Picturing America” exhibitions now at the Brooks, which include Civil War engravings by Winslow Homer and photographs of Civil War re-enactors by Robert King. The title also acknowledges that the films selected for this series all deal with war, albeit in an indirect if extremely personal way.

For example, 1996’s “Which Way Is East,” which screens Nov. 20, is a sort of experimental travel documentary shot by Sachs when she and her sister, Dana Sachs, visited Vietnam. “It’s about how the resonance of the Vietnam War, the dust of it, settled into my consciousness as a child, and then remained there as an adult,” said Sachs, 49, who remembers watching Walter Cronkite’s war reports “lying on the couch, with my head upside-down, so it was sort of abstracted … .”

Perhaps more influential, she said, were the violent depictions of staged combat she encountered in Hollywood war movies when her father, who “despised children’s movies,” took her to see such films as “Patton” at the old Malco Quartet theater at Poplar and Highland. “In a way I think I had more access to ideas about war through those movies than on TV, because they were usually at least subliminally anti-war, through their harshness, even if the depiction of warfare was their calling card.”

Other “war zones” revisited in the Sachs films that will screen at the Brooks include Israel, Hungary and Catonsville, Md., where in 1968 nine war protesters — including celebrity dissident priest Daniel Berrigan — raided a draft board office and burned selective service records with a gooey mixture of homemade napalm contrived from gasoline and Ivory soap.

Constructed from archival materials, newsreel footage, re-enactments, films of children at play and more, “The Last Happy Day,” the most recent work in the series, is a sort of Holocaust story about Sachs’ cousin, Alexander Lenard, a Hungarian doctor who fled the Nazis but later was hired by the U.S. Army to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers for funeral and identification purposes. Years after this ghoulish if necessary job, Lenard was associated with an icon of cuteness and innocence when he achieved a certain celebrity as the author of the surprise best-seller “Winnie Ille Pu,” a Latin translation of “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

Sachs — the sister of director Ira Sachs (winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for his Memphis-made “Forty Shades of Blue”) — credits a teacher at Central High School, the late Lore Hisky, with “turning her head toward the screen.” Hisky organized a student film club that “was very influential to a few of us, because she talked about looking at images in a very sophisticated way. It wasn’t about movie stars. … It was often about political reflections of the day, with a level of thinking that was complex and meaningful.”

Sachs apparently retained those lessons, because the 20-plus more or less avant-garde short films she has made over the past 23 years — typically described in such uncommercial terms as “essay films” and “experimental documentary portraits” — have been movies of ideas, screened primarily at museums, cinematheques and film festivals around the world.

Sachs said her films attempt to “interweave the personal with a shared cultural experience.”

“So much about war has to do with first-person witnessing, and most of us don’t do that, but we still live during a time of war,” she said. “I’m very interested in the way our memory holds onto a crisis, and we try to reckon with it, but then we don’t know where to put it. What I want people to do is think about their own process of looking at crisis in society, and try to figure out where it fits into their own understanding.”

——————–

“I Am Not a War Photographer: A Film Series by Lynne Sachs” at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

7 p.m. Thursday

“Investigation of a Flame” (2001, 45 min.), a look at the 1968 Vietnam War protesters — including three priests — known as the “Catonsville Nine,” who burned hundreds of selective service records with homemade napalm in a public act of “civil disobedience.”

“States of UnBelonging” (2006, 63 min.), a portrait of an Israeli filmmaker and mother killed by terrorists on a West Bank-area kibbutz.

Saturday, Nov. 20, 4:30 p.m.

“Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam” (1996, 33 min.), an impressionistic travel diary of Ho Chi Minh City.

“The Last Happy Day” (2009, 38 min.), an “experimental documentary portrait” of Sachs’ cousin, the late Alexander Lenard, a Hungarian Jew who fled the Nazis and later authored “Winnie Ille Pu,” a Latin translation of “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

Admission: $8 per day, or $6 for museum members. Advance tickets: brooksmuseum.org.

FILMTHREAT review of THE LAST HAPPY DAY

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FILMTHREAT REVIEW OF THE LAST HAPPY DAY by Lynne Sachs
by David Finkelstein

THE LAST HAPPY DAY

“The Last Happy Day” is a stunningly beautiful essay film by Lynne Sachs, in which she uses the remarkable story of her distant cousin Sandor Lenard, a Jewish Hungarian doctor who survives two world wars, as a lens for her meditations on trauma, survival, history, and healing.

The outline of Lenard’s story is fascinating by itself: he hides his Jewishness from his first wife and children, and mysteriously disappears as the Nazis come to power. He turns up in Rome, where he works for the American army, grimly handling corpses and reconstructing the remains of American soldiers. He later moves to Brazil, where his knowledge of Baroque music wins him quick cash on a TV quiz show, enabling him to retire to a quiet life in the countryside, where he becomes famous for his translation of the book “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin.

The film, however, rather than simply telling his story, is a complex and exquisitely constructed film essay, in which the elements of Lenard’s story (told through his letters) are interwoven with archival footage and stills, ambient sounds, and interviews with family members. Impressionistic montages of images and sounds create a meditative and melancholy atmosphere, while superimposed text is used to reinforce key phrases from the letters. Sachs interweaves these elements into an elegiac counterpoint, much like Lenard’s beloved Bach, music which figures prominently in the soundtrack. (This soundtrack is notable for its subtle blend of historical sounds, such as radio war reports in Italian and airplanes, with music and narration.) Film footage about the war is projected onto ordinary household objects and medical equipment, an effective image of the superimposition of war memories onto daily life. The result is a double portrait, capturing Lenord’s sense of displacement, but also capturing the filmmaker’s own mind, as she investigates the story and learns more about Lenard’s life, and contemplates the variety of human responses to the devastation of war.

One of the film’s strongest and most original strategies is the use of four children as a  kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the film throughout in a variety of ways. These children at times narrate the story, act it out, provide the music (pantomiming a string quartet playing Bach), and perform the story of Winnie the Pooh. The kids do not function merely as a screen onto which Sachs projects her ideas; they become as genuinely obsessed with Lenard’s story as the filmmaker herself is. (Two of them are Sachs’ daughters.) They sift through Lenard’s letters together, searching for clues to his story. Although, as children who have grown up in peaceful, prosperous America, it must be difficult for them to imagine Lenard’s experiences, they comment on them with great sophistication and empathy. (Sachs juxtaposes the kids’ scenes with contrasting images of children in fascist uniforms in Italy.) The children are always shown working as a group. Images of collaborative work, especially the collaborative work of a group investigating archival texts, are an important theme running through many of Sachs’ recent films, such as “The Task of the Translator” and “Wind in our Hair.”

Lenard’s Latin version of “Winnie the Pooh” is not merely a whimsical side project. The story itself is not fluff: the quoted texts acted out by the children deal with death and violence, and Lenard’s translation, as Sachs explains to the kids, consciously cites Latin poems about war.  It almost seems as if, for Lenard, the study of Latin represented a civilized, educated world, the world which was utterly destroyed by two world wars, and which he never ceases to long for. As the language of science and Linnaean classifications, Latin is also part of the comforting process of ordering and containing the world, of turning the unspeakable horrors of the war into safely intellectual experiences. (Many educated people seemed to find the book appealing; my parents had a copy.) One begins to see how the same man who picked up bodies from the chaotic scenes of battlefields and methodically reconstructed them also translated a children’s book into Latin.

Lenard’s basic approach to the presence of war, violence, and trouble is an approach that has been central to Jewish life for thousands of years: run as far away from it as possible. The result is living in a condition of permanent spiritual exile. Like many American Jews, even before the war he found it more convenient to elaborately erase any evidence of his Jewishness. (His family name was originally Levy.) Lying, hiding, and escape become lifelong habits, making it especially challenging for Sachs to try to find out details about his story. (He hides the fact that his own father died in a concentration camp.) The images of the interviews with Lenard’s relatives are punctuated with frequent gaps in the image and sound, like the gaps in the story. This condition of uncertainty about the facts becomes a permanent part of the film, as it was a part of Lenard’s life. Like many Holocaust survivors, he becomes bitterly disillusioned when he observes that the racist ideology of Nazism, far from being discredited after the war, seems stronger than ever. His escape to Brazil seems motivated as much as anything by a disgust with Europe.

This is a man who develops a sophisticated and profound understanding of the art of healing, both for himself and for others. He surrounds his house in Brazil with healing plants, and writes that he rarely prescribes medicine for patients, instead, advising them to climb a mountain and look at the sky. The Brazilian sections of the film, near the end, are filled with entrancing tropical birdsong.

Sachs has reached a new height in her exploration of the personal essay film in “The Last Happy Day.” The viewer can feel the hunger for meaning and connection which drives her through her investigation, sending her to Europe and Brazil in search of clues. Her sophisticated gift for montage, which balances sounds with images in an elegantly musical form, turns her curiosity into a thing of beauty.
Posted on August 20, 2010 in Reviews by David Finkelstein

Last Happy Day — Lynne Sachs Director’s Statement

Lynne Sachs during Last Happy Day production

Lynne Sachs during Last Happy Day production

Artist Statement
Published in April 2010

San Francisco Cinematheque’s monograph: Lynne Sachs Retrospective 1986-2010

The Last Happy Day (2009) by Lynne Sachs; digital video, color, sound, 38 minutes

“In 2009, I completed The Last Happy Day, a film that uses both real and imagined stories about Sandor Lenard, a distant cousin of mine and a Hungarian medical doctor. (See text above for description). Several years ago I traveled to Sao Paolo, Brazil to film Sandor’s eighty-five year old wife, Andrietta. She described in vivid, almost dreamy, detail her husband’s macabre work. I listened to her recount his daily contact with the detritus of war, wondering to myself why we so rarely think about who is responsible for “cleaning up” the dead. Later in the film, Andrietta’s graphic, realistic recollections stir visual ruminations on this futile act of posthumous, cosmetic surgery.

“In my previous films, the elusiveness of the biographical impulse pushed me to interweave home-movies, found footage, interviews, and actual letters as a way of exploring the intricacies of my subjects’ lives. Stylistically, I developed a discursive way of working that integrated authentic materials with more artificial, constructed visuals. With The Last Happy Day, I constructed a narrative triangle between Sandor, my Uncle William and myself. While their presence in the film is grounded in a dialogue from the past, my participation is more temporally and geographically fluid, creating an evolving relationship of distance and intimacy through voice and text.

“Early in the film, I jump right into a reverie that introduces Sandor’s strange understanding of the human body—in death and in life. Through an evolving, highly saturated visual language, I contrast the haunting confinement and violence Sandor experienced in Rome during the Nazi occupation with the verdant emptiness of his later life in remotest Brazil. I juxtapose Sandor’s fearless introspection in his unpublished letters with my imagined visualization of his idyllic life in his house in the woods. The geography of his NOW simultaneously saddens and protects him from the threats he fears are still percolating on the other side of the Atlantic. As a way of articulating his longings, I project images from Roberto Rossellini’s hauntingly sad feature film Rome, Open City onto an array of reflective surfaces in Sandor’s vine-covered house in the woods of Brazil.

“Always an exile, a victim of a kind of human ‘continental drift,’ Sandor never felt ‘at home’ in the synthesized post-war euro-culture he found in Brazil. Building a harpsichord on which to play Bach, reading thirteen languages and translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin allowed him to stay connected to an old-world life to which he would never return. Through the visual texture of this film, I use images of landscapes as proscenium, and even as character. The camera searches for familiar terrain, names, and identifiable landmarks: zones of danger, safety, comfort and despair.

“In all honesty, I’ve wanted to make a film about my distant cousin Sandor for over twenty years. His was the only branch of my family that remained in Europe during World War II. During the production, I traveled to Dusseldorf, Germany to meet Sandor’s son, Hansgerd, now in his late sixties. As I stood with my camera, he uncovered a trove of family diaries, letters and inscribed books from the 1920’s and 30’s. Inside each book, Sandor and his parents had meticulously transformed their obviously Jewish name “Levy” to a more Hungarian “Lenard”. Rather than destroying this direct reference to their hidden family identity, Sandor’s family, my sole remaining European relatives, meticulously erased. In their minds, the key to survival in early twentieth century Hungary would be pristine assimilation. My own southern Jewish family in Memphis also refused to grasp fully the catastrophe that was Europe. With far less to lose, their methods of confronting eminent danger were similarly subtle. Keeping this legacy of detachment in mind, I try to create narrative distinctions between close and remote experiences of war. As Sandor’s world fell into a state of hunger and decay, he delighted in the absurd and the arcane. Humor was his life raft, his potent means of resistance. Speaking, reading and writing Latin kept him from what Natalia Ginzburg, another writer trapped in Occupied Italy, called ‘the fury of the waters and the corrosion of his time.’ Through images and writing, implicit connections to our own wartime situation push their way into the fabric of the film.

“Throughout this episodic story, I also work with a cinema-verité style scene of four children (including my two daughters Maya and Noa) grappling with the challenges of putting on a play of Winnie the Pooh, the book Sandor had, strangely enough, chosen to translate into Latin. The children’s extemporaneous conversations express an awareness of both the English and the Latin versions of Pooh, as well as the philosophical ponderings implicit in the text. In my mind, the inclusion of this quintessential sliver of innocence allows me to explore the implicit paradoxes of a life both thwarted and nourished by the contradictions of a troubled time.” (Lynne Sachs)

New Films by Lynne Sachs Reviewed in Chicago Reader

Chicago Reader
The Films of Lynne Sachs
Review by Andrea Gronvall
March 12, 2010
Family, history, and oblivion pervade these two short works. With the experimental documentary Last Happy Day (2009, 39 min.) Sachs reconstructs the life of a distant relative, Hungarian doctor Sandor Lenard, who escaped the Holocaust, settled in Brazil, and, among other things, translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Sachs’s daughters and their friends read from this text and and recite bits of Lenard’s biography, providing a piquant tonal contrast to the archival footage and the interviews with his son and his second wife. A visit to Buenos Aires and short stories by Julio Cortazar inspired the dreamy narrative Wind in Our Hair (2009, 42 min.), which deals with sisterhood, children’s games, passing trains, and brief encounters.