Interpretations of Amelia Rose Towers Lisa French December 1999 Australian Cinema Issue 1 Amelia Rose Towers whose initials spell ART – faces off against an adversary whose initials spell MAN, after passing through surrealistic chambers and screens offering images of a personal identity that can never be reconciled. Camp, baroque, decadently theatrical, with a distinctly Warholian rap on the soundtrack, Amelia Rose Towers is filled with an acute atmosphere of fear and loathing, and a suitably perverse ethic of survival. (Adrian Martin) (1) Amelia Rose Towers is an Australian short film which was directed by Jackie Farkas (who was also co-director of photography with Robyn Peterson), written by Ashley Scarlett and produced by Nicole Sorby. It is an inventive student film that was made at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (A.F.T.R.S) in 1992. It is about sexuality, maturation, and perception. Farkas offers the phenomenon of a girl growing up via a sensory exploration of words, discourses and images. The film makes one think of a whole host of perspectives, touching as it does, in a superficial pastiche, on feminism, contemporary art, structuralism, semiotics and Gestalt Psychology. It is intended that this piece circle around these referents, just as the film does. On release, Amelia Rose Towers was well received and frequently invited to film festivals. It has been the recipient of numerous awards in Australia and overseas. It won a special achievement award for Direction and Cinematography at the AFI Awards in 1992. In terms of film craft, it is highly accomplished. The film-making aesthetic developed at A.F.T.R.S. is evident in this film although the genre, experimental film (as it has been classified), was not the type of film widely made at the School in, or before, 1992. Experimental films rarely act as industry ‘calling cards’ (although Amelia Rose Towers is evidently an exception to the rule). Most of the productions coming out of the school are of a high quality technically and aimed at enabling graduates to enter the industry (particularly the area of feature production). Amelia Rose Towers is slick, made with an eye cast towards exhibition (the choice of 35mm. improves chances of this), and the film is somewhat self-consciously obvious about being ‘arty’ and loaded with meaning. Traditionally the genre of the experimental film has a rough aesthetic. This is due to a number of factors, including that fact that budgets are generally quite low or non-existent. A small budget results in the limitations on the gauge of film chosen (35mm. being very expensive) and the facilities or number of people involved are generally limited (a cast and crew of the size of that on Amelia Rose Towers would also be expensive). In addition, the process of making experimental work often necessitates a more individual approach where trial and error are important to the result and using a full crew would be inappropriate to the working method. The director Jackie Farkas said in regard to her intentions for the film that during her time at university, an anecdote left a marked impression on her. It was about a group of Gestalt Psychologists who were testing the Ames Room, which was a distorted room designed so that if viewed from a particular perspective, the room would appear perfectly normal, whilst if two subjects stood in corners, one would appear giant and the other would appear as a midget. (2) This idea of the ‘Ames Room’ provides the inspiration for the set and for the framing where the audience see shots such as the room in long shot, the bed in the middle, Amelia towering in one corner and her midget parents standing behind a picture frame in the other. The Gestalt psychologists were influential in regard to theories on the individual’s personality. These ideas of growth, and personal adjustments to the world, are central to the film. The word ‘Gestalt’ is German and means ‘shape’ or ‘whole’; central to the description of Amelia is her height as opposed to everyone else’s apparent lack of height. In addition, the film is about the shaping and development of Amelia’s identity. The idea of perception is immediately brought to mind by the ‘Ames Room’ and also by the props of eye charts and old fashioned optometrist devices for eye testing. Jackie Farkas said that the film is the story of “juggling variables of reality of self and other; space, time and perception”. (3) The Gestalt psychologists were very interested in perception, particularly visual perception. They also focused on subjective experience and the exploration of the consciousness (on the constructive rather than the receptive function of the eye). Their approach was to look “at a person as a whole being andstudy his [sic] behaviour in terms of how he sees objects in the world around him”. (4) Amelia Rose Towers is very much about Amelia’s perception of her world and the people or objects in it (especially in relation to herself). The frequent positioning of Amelia in a corner of the frame or having her pacing across her room serves to indicate that she is trapped or cornered. Amelia’s parents appear framed within the baroque gold frame or within the frame of the back-projection (the idea of the frame within the frame is repeated throughout the film). This could be illustrating that Amelia perceives them as stuck within a certain contained, superficial, old fashioned world. The frame could be read as reflecting their inability to step outside their narrow mindedness or their own frame of reference. The audience are offered this as Amelia’s perception of them and this is why they only appear within ‘frames’. Vikki Riley cites a number of referents for the film:”in the tradition of early Buñuel, Cocteau (Blood of a Poet  in particular), Melies – a young girl, trapped in a room, creating her own transcending, poetised self. …” (5) The images of the fish/mermaid and the birthday party, the dream- like images, the costumes, religious references and the imaginative, dream-like atmosphere are reminiscent of Melies. Another similarity to Melies is suggested by Paul Hammond who says that “Melies, like de Chirico and Uccello, was aware that distortions in linear perspective can suggest malaise and mystery”. (6) Melies was interested in perception with his playful exposition of optical illusions and frequent manipulation of the visuals so that characters were tiny and life-size in the one frame. The idea of paintings coming to life is also a Melies motif; in Amelia Rose Towers the French painting of two courtesans entitled ‘Gabrielle and Her Sister’ (ca.1500, artist unknown) is appropriated with live models. This image has achieved iconic status and has been frequently appropriated by postmodern artists in both feminist and lesbian contexts for contemporary cultural production. Melies was also interested in the tension between reality and fantasy, between life and the theatre. In Amelia Rose Towers the idea of a theatre is suggested by the set, and the placement of the camera at one end (where an audience might sit in the theatre). Melies and Farkas are interested in studio settings. For Farkas, the studio setting allows her to achieve an anti-realist, surreal atmosphere. Film-making practice at the time the film was made included a number of films made in the studio. For example, two contemporary films exhibited at the 42nd Melbourne International Film Festival: Wittgenstein (1993) by director Derek Jarman and Bedevil (1993) by director/writer Tracey Moffatt whose earlier work was also made in a studio: Night Cries, A Rural Tragedy (1990) and Nice Coloured Girls (1987). Riley’s likening of Amelia Rose Towers with the Cocteau film Blood Of A Poet is a useful analogy. The imagery and atmosphere are similar. For Cocteau, film was only one means of expression and his films frequently dealt with the role of the artist and the nature of inspiration. A comparison with Cocteau, whose tradition Riley likens Amelia Rose Towers to, thus brings the audience to consider ‘art’ (as do other elements of the film). Rene Gilson (7) remarks of Blood Of A Poet that it asks where poetry comes from, how it works and what a poet is. However, in contrast, Amelia Rose Towersdoes not delve below the surface and ponder questions of the nature of art or artists. It merely offers up images of art and their presence offers the audience who recognise them an additional field of reference. This signification invests meaning where perhaps there is not any other than the film-maker’s playing with images and experimenting with their juxtaposition. As well as being a film-maker, Jean Cocteau was a writer of novels, poetry, plays, essays and a graphic artist. The writer of Amelia Rose Towers, Ashley Scarlett, is herself a poet and writer (also skilled musically) and may well have been influenced by someone such as Cocteau given his status as a poet/writer and film-maker. Riley’s comparison of this film with the work of Buñuel is an apt one. At work throughout Luis Buñuel’s films is an interest in issues such as religion (especially blasphemy and mockery of religion), the opposition of individual versus society, and references to sexuality, dreams, surrealism and childhood – all of which can be seen in Amelia Rose Towers. Amelia wishes “at every opportunity”, reflecting not only a lack of acceptance of herself, but her childlike state in abandoning all religion and superstition because her wishes are not granted. Richard Roud says of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928) that wish fulfilment structures the symbolic setting of the film (a similarity to Amelia Rose Towers) and that “not every sign is there to be decoded on the puzzlement principle of ‘What does that mean?’ It is the act of displacement of the signs which must be read.” (8) This placement of visuals for superficial face value, rather than deep meaning, and displacement of signs, bears some resemblance to Amelia Rose Towers. Image and sound are repeated and then juxtaposed with a different image or sound, and the imagery is often confusing as well as disturbing. Visuals are frequently repeated, for example Michael Andrew Norton is seen taking Amelia’s glasses twice. The voice-over also repeats the same lines over and over, for example “I’m enjoying myself, go away and leave me alone” resounds three times. The voice-over reveals that the vast scribblings on the wall are as complicated as Amelia Rose Towers herself. Amelia’s art thus becomes a metaphor for Amelia (also signified by the initials of her name). The writings on her wall say “Milk is for … the pussy … then give it to … the pussy” (this implied sexual reference is followed by gasps of shock on the soundtrack). The expression “the writing is on the wall” is brought to mind, an expression indicating an imminent event, something obvious or “an event presaging disaster” (9). Stevenson’s Book of Quotations reveals that the expression “the writing is on the wall” comes from The Old Testament: Daniel 5:24-25 : “In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace … and this is the writing that was written.” Hence, “Writing on the wall.” (10)This is reminiscent not only of religion but of the fingers of a man we see in the film – playing with Amelia’s toes after the fashion of ‘this little piggie went to market’. The image of the man’s hands is disturbing and does not sit comfortably with the nursery rhyme. In the Old Testament story, Daniel was called to the court of King Belshazzar and asked to interpret the writing on the wall. It was a message of impending misfortune: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting”. (11) Perhaps if a disaster is being predicted, it is signified by the act of writing on a wall which is also an indication of anarchy and a failure to conform to expectations. This is also reflected in the disapproval of Amelia’s very Edwardian parents as she draws on her walls in front of them. The religious imagery throughout the film may be a hint to Amelia’s frustration; she renounces God just as she renounces ‘M.A.N’ and her parents. The film could be interpreted as offering a simplistic Lacanian (12) rendering: that Amelia has entered the symbolic stage from the mirror stage and can, by the end of the film, see herself more clearly. This ‘seeing’ is signified by the optometrist’s glasses, glasses being stolen by ‘M.A.N.’ and then recaptured by Amelia. Near the end of the film Amelia paces across her room and we see many reflections of her in the back projection. The little boys who steal her glasses are most likely to be trying to gain attention. After Amelia reclaims her glasses in a violent struggle that makes the boys both cry, we hear that “the boys didn’t like her”. Amelia lures ‘M.A.N’ almost unwittingly but resists any advances from him. One of the few shots which does not take place in the bedroom is where Amelia dives into water. We see shots of fish tails and a graphic match to the tail of Amelia’s mermaid costume at the birthday party. This is the only scene where Amelia appears with her peers. Mermaids are fantasy figures, half woman and half fish, beautiful and alluring but dangerous for sailors whom they lure onto the rocks and thus cause their destruction. The girls, it is concluded, do not like Amelia either and she is left alone. Amelia Rose Towers has been programmed at various venues of exhibition in Australia, with films dealing with queer themes. In Melbourne it was shown before director Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) at commercial cinemas, and with director Derek Jarman’s Edward ll (1991) at The Melbourne International Film Festival. It was screened at the Sydney Film Festival with director Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992). The awakening of Amelia’s sexuality is signified by the “full length night gown which came up to her knees and sometimes higher if she felt bored or restless”, her displaying of her stocking tops, the fact that other girls have boyfriends but Amelia does not, and Amelia tenderly and tentatively kissing the androgynous Amelia Earhart in one of the last sequences. On the level of audience identification with the experience offered by the film, the awakening of the individual’s sense of themselves as a sexual entity is a common experience of growing up. An awareness of holding sexual preferences contrary to those dominant in the culture is a certain source of anguish, as the individual perceives themselves as the ‘other’. Amelia seems to separate herself from her peers or to make choices which result in her being pushed out of the normal milieu. Her choice of the books, and intellectual pursuits, over her peers separate her from them. Amelia’s glasses recall the refrain ”boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” (and the idea of boys preferring girls who are shorter than themselves, “She wished to shrink”). Amelia is placed in an alienated position. In general the sexual references are playful, non-physical, almost disembodied. Amelia does not seem to have developed or to even be aware of her sexual preferences at the beginning of the film but appears to work through this and gradually moves towards lesbianism. Audiences privy to or part of lesbian culture may be able to make further interpretations in regard to this element of the film. The Illustrated Auschwitz (1993) was the film made by Farkas immediately before Amelia Rose Towers and it does offer some insights for interpreting the later film. Both films incorporate the use of clips and inserts from other films. In The Illustrated Auschwitz it is movie clips from The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), a film that also utilises backprojection in its construction. The back projection in Amelia Rose Towers is a mixture of fiction and what appears to be didactic, educational, scientific footage. It is not used as a back drop to make something shot in the studio look real, but rather, in the tradition of the music clip, it inhabits its own frame and contributes to the anti-realist or surreal feel or style of the film. In her article ‘Wizards of Oz: Into the ’90s’, Freda Freiberg says that one way clips are used generally is to illustrate academic monologues, to suggest unspoken associations or implications. She goes on to say that in “the non-fiction film of today there is a new recognition of the power of the fictional to invest human experience and history with weight and significance, irony and pathos.” (13) Freiberg’s insights into the use of the clip are relevant to this analysis of Farkas’ film. While Amelia Rose Towers is not a non-fiction film, it incorporates both fiction and non-fiction clips in back projection. The effect, and in all likelihood the intention, is of investing meaning or implying a further dimension (where perhaps one does not exist). The backprojected images, while adding to the interest of the set, appear to be superficial. They vaguely suggest dreams and are perhaps only meant as flashes of images, some with more or less relevance, just as images appear in dreams. The credits acknowledge the use of a BBC film titled The Mind of Man and this is the likely source of the scientific back-projections, robots and the chimpanzees in Amelia Rose Towers. The excerpts from The Mind of Man are obscure and confusing in their relevance to the film. However, ‘M.A.N.’ in the film is represented by Michael Andrew Norton and possibly this implies that men are confusing to Amelia. All of the films Farkas was involved in while at A.F.T.R.S (Amelia Rose Towers, The Illustrated Auschwitz, Damming  and Terra Nullus ) are personal stories, and experiential stories, about women. They indicate that the director is interested in representing women, in their stories, and perhaps in offering a voice for women or through a feminist perspective. The Illustrated Auschwitz seeks to represent one woman’s experience of the Nazi Holocaust. Amelia Rose Towers offers a more universal experience of growing up and developing as a sexual being, of feeling different from peers, isolated and seeking refuge in wishes and dreams. Damming and Terra Nullus are also films that explore experience. Damming is about a woman’s memory of her sisters drowning and Terra Nullus is an exploration of a woman’s experience of growing up with a white family who deny her aboriginality. All of the films Farkas had made or been involved with during film school use a woman’s voice for the voice-over- a deviation from the dominant modes of production which generally employ the male voice. Barbara Creed says that feminist filmmakers in Australia have tended to make films which either deconstruct dominant filmic practices .. or which attempt to present their narrative from a woman’s viewpoint… In these films, woman’s questioning voice (as voice-over) or viewpoint (through the eyes of the female character) becomes the dominant organisational structure. It is these films which deal most directly with the issue of the woman’s voice – although their intention to do so may not always be a conscious or deliberate one…[these films also] refuse closure and retain an open-ended structure (14) Amelia Rose Towers uses a female voice-over and resists closure. Judith Mayne discusses feminist criticism which challenges the notion of a whole subject in her article ‘Feminist Film Theory and Criticism’. She outlines Hollywood fictions of the ‘unified self’ (particularly prevalent in Hollywood’s version of psychoanalysis) and the idea that the “once fragmented individual is now unified and secure in the knowledge of herself”. (15) Amelia Rose Towers rejects a conclusion where the unified or whole self is realised. Amelia does however achieve a self sufficiency, and begins to see herself more clearly, and the audience are offered a positive although not conclusive ending. Other features of the film which might be interpreted as feminist include the way in which Amelia is photographed. The voice-over reveals that she liked to show her stocking tops, but we do not see them in close-up nor linger on Amelia in a fetishistic way (that which Freud described as ‘scopophilia’ and Laura Mulvey described as ‘the male gaze’ (16) ). Amelia Rose Towers is anti-realist and as such constantly reminds the audience that it is a construction; a technique frequently employed by contemporary feminist filmmakers to break down the illusion of film as reality and draw attention to film as a construct. The effect is to make the audience aware that they are constructing meanings (which often work to reinforce the patriarchal status quo). Codes of language give us the anachronisms for names: Amelia (“ART”), Michael Andrew Norton (“MAN”) and we see various words such as “boy”, “girl”. There is also the writing on the wall: “Milk is for… the pussy… then give it to … the pussy”. The word ‘woman’ is conspicuous by its absence and in its place is “girl” and “ART”, the only women are Amelia Earhart (Amelia’s namesake perhaps?) and Amelia’s mother. The limbo Amelia is caught in, between girl and ART, is between child and something skilfully constructed or held on a cultural pedestal. ‘Woman’ in the film is represented as mother, as heroine (Earhart) and if Amelia is included, as art. The mother and the heroine are perhaps stereotypes of representations of women: they are flat, undeveloped characters who signify certain values which are in opposition to each other. The mother character is unattractive, she is disapproving, hysterical, closely linked to the father. Amelia Earhart is alluring, ethereal, fascinating and seems to offer Amelia escape. Perhaps the role model offered by Amelia Earhart is the solution for Amelia, or perhaps ‘art’ is – she is happy when drawing on the wall, and from her drawing, she is seen floating up and out of the room near the end of the film. The audience are told that having “ART” as her initials made expectations higher of her than of any other girl and this led her to hate her name. The audience is also led to have expectations of Amelia (and the film) because of all that ‘art’ signifies. The film-makers have thus used signification to invest meaning. References to art abound, Amelia’s initials spell ART, the black and white photography signifies the ‘art film’, the various art montages and tableaux offer up art. The frame of two naked women with one holding the nipple of the other are references to images in the history of art and remind the audience of the way in which images are appropriated from the past by contemporary artists working in the post-modern tradition. Like this tradition, the images in the film are pastiche, fulfilling a surface value rather than having any great significance. They could be interpreted as saying that nothing is new, or as being a comment on art, in particular post-modernism. Alternately, perhaps they represent film-makers working through their influences or experimenting with imagery and symbols. The subject matter, which has been described as “stereotypically sophomoric’ (17) is the product of reasonably young students working on their first films. The film-makers’ youth could explain the influence of popular culture, in the form of the music clip, and the reflection on contemporary art practice concerns of post-modernism. The music, voice-over (which offers a kind of ‘rap’ soundtrack) and rapid editing which cuts with the music signify the music clip. Peter Hutchings says of Amelia Rose Towers that “its overall compositional qualities are superior to the gormless whimsy of rock clips”. (18) However, contemporary rock clips generally do also offer a premium aesthetic as part of the genre. The voice-over in the film is often repeated over and over again, often juxtaposed several times over different footage and spoken in time with the music. Audience approaches to reading this film must be coloured by the genre label placed on the film (this must add to any pre-opinion they might bring with them) as ‘art film’ or ‘experimental film.’ In contrast, those audiences watching what they know to be ‘rock clip’ take a different approach to viewing and are perhaps less inclined to look for meaning and instead let it just flow over them; especially those people very familiar with the rock clip genre. As Richard Shusterman wrote in regard to the arguments of Danto, “nothing is an artwork without an interpretation that constitutes it as such”. (19) The context offers the audience a framework from which to view the material (labelled ‘art film’ by its distributors), as does the placement of ‘high art’ images which imply that we are observing art. From a semiotic perspective, codes of image and appearance present the androgynous Amelia in a baby doll dress but with the contradicting image of the suspender belts and stocking tops; she is neither child nor woman. Other characters are dressed in garb from the last century, the children and Amelia’s parents look distinctly English and give Amelia’s environment Edwardian flavour which is emphasised by the dark, black and white images and the room which while a haven, also encloses her for most of the film. The characters other than Amelia seem to be ‘types’. The children are vaguely reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc cartoons of rude children who come to nasty ends; they signify a nightmarish side to childhood. David Bordwell says that “historically, interpreters have tended to reduce all effects to ‘meaning’; they have been attracted less to art’s ‘pleasing’ side than to its didactic side”. (20)Amelia Rose Towerslends itself to an appraisal of the pleasing and aesthetic. It offers a sense of essences (especially through its fragmented form) and an aesthetic achieved by wonderful photography (especially in terms of composition and the striking choice of black and white 35mm. film stock). Much of the pleasure of the film is also derived from the musical soundtrack which carries the audience along and to some degree hides the puzzles of the visuals, for example, the man who appears in the opening and last visual of the film is a ‘red herring’ and his purpose is difficult to interpret (and perhaps not even meant to be interpreted). Throughout the film the imagery sets up oppositions which are difficult to reconcile, the baby doll dress and the stocking tops for example, or the image of the paper piggies (signifying the rhyme ‘This Little Piggie’) against the image of a man’s hand running up Amelia’s leg. It is however a film over which many interpretative frames can be placed, relying as it does on signification, metaphor, pastiche and the use of imagery which often is conflicting. Peter Hutchings describes the film as “a witty, well conceived chamber piece”. (21) The analogy to the chamber is an interesting one; the chamber being an archaic bedroom. The bedroom appears to the audience like a stage and is a contained environment or a refuge from ‘M.A.N.’ and the world outside. However, just before the end of the film, Amelia floats up and out of her room having just seen Amelia Earhart. The final shots of the film during the credits are of the sky, perhaps of heaven, but certainly signifying freedom. The audience is left with a feeling of a higher spiritual plane being reached, and an optimistic future for the ever more complicated Amelia. * * * This article was refereed. Amelia Rose Towers was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. It is available from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and is part of the ACMI Lending Collection. Endnotes Adrian Martin, Amelia Rose Towers, Melbourne International Film Festival Program, 1992. Village Roadshow Distributors, Amelia Rose Towers, Village Roadshow Promotional Flyer, 1993. ibid. D.A. Laird, E.C. Laird, R.T. Fruehling & W.P. Swift, Psychology, Human Recreation & Motivation, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 5th Edition, 1975, p.12. Vikki Riley, ‘Melbourne Film Festival Review’, Filmnews, July, 1992. p.11. Paul Hammond, Marvellous Melies, Gordon Fraser, London, 1974, p.87. Rene Gilson, Jean Cocteau, An Investigation Into His Films And Philosophy, Crown Publishers, New York, 1969. Richard Roud, Cinema A Critical Dictionary, The Major Film-makers, Martin Secker & Warburg,1980,Vol.1,p.169. The Macquarie Dictionary, Second Edition, 1991, p.2022. Burton Stevenson, Stevenson’s Book of Quotations, Cassell & Company Limited, 1964, p.2249. The New English Bible. The Old Testament, Oxford University Press & Cambridge University Press, 1970, (Daniel 5:24-25) p.1261. Jacques Lacan, Speech & Language in Psychoanalysis, translator Anthony Wilden, Dell Publishing, New York, 1968, p.xiii. Freda Freiberg, ‘Wizards Of OZ: Into The 90s’, Artlink, Vol 13, No.1, March-May, 1993, p.14. . Barbara Creed,’Strategies for Reading the Text’ in, Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed, & Freda Freiberg, Don’t Shoot Darling, Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, Greenhouse Publications Pty Ltd, 1987, pp.308-309. . Judith Mayne, ‘Feminist Film Theory and Criticism’, SIGNS, Journal of Women In Culture And Society, Vol.11, No. 1, (Autumn 1985), p.83. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3 Autumn 1975. Mulvey argues that woman functions as ‘image’ and man as the ‘bearer of the look’, of the ‘male gaze’. She also discusses Freud’s view of scopophilia (the drive to pleasurable looking). Peter Hutchings, ‘Like A Speech Day, Reviews of the Dendy Awards Finalists’, Filmnews, June, 1992.p.6. ibid. Richard Shusterman, ‘Art & Theory between Experience and Practice’, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, London: Blackwell, 1992, p.41. David Bordwell, Making Meaning Inference & Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Harvard University Press, 1989, p.269. Peter Hutchings, Loc cit.