Sleepwalkers, sleepers, phantoms, psychics, spectres and memories of the dearly departed suffused the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF) this year. While festival attendees flocked to pit their trivia knowledge against Patrons David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz in the popular Film Quiz, or attended sold-out sessions of a number of excellent films that are now in theatrical release (The Lobster, Carol, He Named Me Malala, The Dress-Maker), it was cinema’s necromantical ability to bring the past back to life that stood out for me in a number of key titles.
In his hypnotic Cemetery of Splendour, celebrated Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (interviewed elsewhere in this issue of Senses) fuses the trance film tradition with the personal and the political. According to P. Adams Sitney, the trance film can be dated back to dreamers who populated early European art films such as Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930), before becoming a mainstay of U.S. avant-garde filmmaking during the 1940s and 50s. Above all, the trance film is concerned with the “visionary experience” of a protagonist who wanders “through a potent environment toward a climactic scene of self-realisation.”1 True trance films are more concerned with the subjective intensity of dream-like, altered or hallucinatory states than showing us characters “dreaming” as such. They harness the affective and expressive power of cinema to convey the physical and/or poetic experience of an interior psychodrama.
In Cemetery of Splendour, the central character is Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas), a middle-aged nurse who limps because of one of her legs is ten centimetres shorter than the other. Jenjira volunteers her services for a military clinic in Khon Kaen (Apichatpong’s real-life hometown) in northern Thailand. Here, former soldiers sleep much of their life away due to a mysterious sleeping sickness, an illness suggestive of political allegory. Jenjira befriends a young female medium named Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who can telepathically communicate with the sleeping patients. She then forms a close attachment with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a handsome young soldier whom she cares for. Jenjira’s loneliness is palpable as she tries to prolong Itt’s waking moments through trips to the cinema, afternoon excursions, or eating at the local night markets before his narcolepsy returns.
In Apichatpong’s hands, the visionary experience of the trance film actually belongs to no one character – not even Jenjira. Rather, it is built into the core of the film through its crystalline imagery and somnambulistic pace. As with earlier iterations of the trance film, it is the poetics of the visionary that gets privileged rather than rational explanation. Such a poetics manifests itself in Cemetery of Splendour in the unexplained image of a free-floating amoeba in a bright blue sky, or the recurring imagery of the hospital beds, where soldiers sleep a multi-coloured slumber beneath experimental light treatments. Later, we learn that the hospital is built on an ancient burial ground where the souls of subterranean Thai kings continue to feed upon the soldiers’ living energies. No matter: this film knows how ghosts of the past continue to linger. It is Apichatong’s intermingling of the quotidian with the otherworldly that makes this film so human, such as when two Buddhist goddesses adopt the guise of human sisters and strike up a humorous conversation with Jenjira over a nondescript picnic table.
Apichatpong is known for experimenting with and blurring the boundaries between feature filmmaking and the properties of time-based art, employing minimal editing, carefully composed long shots and slow temporal progression. However, Cemetery of Splendour might be one of his most accessible and even linear efforts. Rather than pursuing his usual split film structure, featuring formal doublings, image inversions and reversals – as if the two halves of his films could, potentially, be displayed in the gallery as a dual-channel projection – Cemetery of Splendor makes for a gloriously layered and ghostly palimpsest.
In the penultimate sequence, the soul of Itt inhabits Keng’s body so that Jenjira and Keng/Itt can spend the afternoon together, walking a shared path through the landscape in which the past and the present, the living and the dead, converge. Apichatpong’s conceptual overlaying of ideas here finds arresting figuration in the use of a prolonged dissolve that occurs after Itt falls asleep at the cinema. After he is literally carried out, the vision of the camera lingers on the neon architecture of the cinema multiplex as it slowly merges with the space of the hospital, its bedding and multi-coloured lights. As with his previous work, it is clearly cinema that provides Apichatpong with a pathway to the visionary. In his re-working of the trance film, however, the spiritual and the mundane are always in close dialogue, as both arise from the poetic dimensionality of cinema.
Whereas Cemetery of Splendour moves at a slow, fittingly oneiric pace, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room wildly careens from one episodic fragment of its re-imagined film history to another. Co-directed with one of Maddin’s former students, Evan Johnson, The Forbidden Room was one of the most unique, lively, and experimental titles screened at the AFF. The film’s sprawling cast includes Louis Negin, Mathieu Amalric, Ariane Lebed, Charlotte Rampling, Jacques Nolot, Udo Kier (look out for his appearance in “The Final Derriere”, a musical number about a man with a seemingly incurable fixation on bottoms), Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Dupuis and Maria de Medeiros, among others.
It begins in a retro-styled bathroom with a heavily bespectacled man in a lush robe (Negin) delivering instructions to the camera as to how best to take a bath. From there, we journey beneath swirling bathwater to reach the interior of the SS Plunger submarine, where the crew must survive by breathing air through bubbles contained in their flapjacks. From there, we are transported to many films-within-films: scenes of an ice-covered forest, a 1940s-style Hollywood night club, a red-tinted jungle and its erupting volcano, the Oracle Bones Hospital, and a cave filled with bandits. The film successively piles up these different image fragments, textures and sounds from cinema’s past – a past that has been entirely cooked up in digital post-production.
Named after a lost 1914 Allen Dwan short starring Lon Chaney (the “man of a thousand faces”), Maddin and Johnson’s experimental opus is nothing less than a love-song to cinema itself as the medium of a thousand faces. Its composite structure derives from the French poet, novelist and playwright Raymond Roussel (think lengthy parenthetical asides and poems contained within poems). In this regard, The Forbidden Room often feels like an intricate anthology or assemblage of films with no clear or foreseeable end in sight.
The impetus for The Forbidden Room emerged out of Maddin’s longstanding desire to remake lost films, “films that were made and then disappeared, or that never developed beyond a script or a title or that were only rumoured to exist.”2 Yet despite its obvious love of cinema, the conceptual beginning and outcome of The Forbidden Room is inter-medial. Parts emerged out of two installation projects in which Maddin filmed a series of shorts before the public in Paris’s Centre Pompidou and at Montréal’s Phi Centre. Maddin “invited the sad spirits of lost films to possess his assembled actors and compel them to act out the old stories, while the spirit-photographer/director captured the precious narratives with his camera.”3 This material is destined for an online project known as Seances, yet to be launched and said to be replete with around 3,000 specially designed inter-titles. Because a feature film was easier to fund than an experimental online interactive, some of this footage went on to become The Forbidden Room, to help enable eventual delivery of the website.
This is not the first time that Maddin has worked between cinema and the gallery. Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) began life as a ten-part peephole installation for the Power Plant Gallery, while Maddin’s fascination with re-making lost cinema can be traced back to Hauntings (2010), another moving-image installation commissioned for the Bell Light Box. Despite its inter-mediality, The Forbidden Room fosters the eerie experience of what Jonathan Romney calls a “phantasmagorical cinema”.4
One of the foremost influences on the aesthetics of the film is the American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, especially his Decasia (2002). As production and title designer Galen Johnson comments, Morrison’s silent found footage re-workings are “degraded and damaged in such a way that people start to look like ghosts and it feels like the film is melting as it goes through the projector.”5
Both the narrative content and film style of The Forbidden Room enhance its own cinematic hauntology. Maddin is known for exhuming silent cinema through his signature use of hyper-melodramatic plots, exaggerated performance styles, trademark inter-titles, mismatches between images and sounds, and his recreations of aged or worn film stock. For me, however, The Forbidden Room marks both a continuation and a point of departure from Maddin’s previous work. The film eschews the grounding of any sustained narrative or characterisation in favour of impressions of constant movement, energy and vortical flow. The Forbidden Room luminously pulsates, bubbles and mutates, liquefying its images so that one visibly melds or melts into that of another. More so than Maddin’s other films, this work revels in a ghosting of celluloid. Looping textures of pseudo-nitrate, continuous shifts in colour tinting, blurred images and chromatic explosions reminiscent of decaying two-tone Technicolour combine to utterly entrancing effect.
At the same time, Maddin and Johnson’s film is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Its inter-titles alone are deserving of their own commentary—BONES! POISON LEOTARDS! WOMEN SKELETONS! ASWANG BANANNAS! Elsewhere I have argued that, for all its hilarity, camp is something of a misnomer for Maddin’s cinema because it splits the heightened artifice and self-awareness of his filmmaking from its emotional power and the feeling of intense physical proximity that arises from his baroque choreography of images and sounds.6 This is no less the case here. Clocking in at 128 minutes in the version I saw, The Forbidden Room is certainly one of Maddin’s longest directorial efforts. If the film sounds too hyperbolic, too excessive and too much, then rest assured that it certainly is. Nevertheless, there is method to its madness and joy to be found in its sheer lack of restraint. According to Maddin and Johnson, any shorter duration would not have had the same experiential impact. As Maddin remarks, “We wanted (audiences) to feel like we’d broken their brains, really left a physical impression on them, left them exhausted… We wanted ‘too much’ to still be insufficient.”7 Equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, The Forbidden Room is like a shot of adrenaline to the eye, brain and central nervous system that will leave you struggling to keep up with its episodic flow. One viewing is not enough to exhaust all its spectral riches.
Affiliated with the experimental 9:16 Vertical Cinema program that featured vertical works by Australian filmmakers John Hughes and Bill and Vicky Mousoulis, among others, the one-off special screening of White Epilepsy (2012) by the contemporary French filmmaker and installation artist Philippe Grandrieux was another highlight of the AFF. White Epilepsy is the first part of a trilogy that Grandrieux is making loosely devoted to the theme of anxiety (the second film is Meurtrière (2015), while the third planned title is Unrest). Each instalment of the trilogy consists of a performance, a film and an installation piece. White Epilepsy continues Grandrieux’s efforts to return cinematic “representation to a state of immanence” by “using every type of sensation, drive and affect.”8 While Grandrieux’s films have always refused classical narrative strictures and the casual explanation of character psychology, the use of the vertical format in White Epilepsy foregrounds the primacy of the body.
The work begins with a naked, body-hunched over male figure, surrounded by darkness. The crease of the man’s spine appears strange – like the vertebrae of some pre-historic animal. A woman eventually joins the man. Their bodies fade in and out of visibility, existing in a space and time that cannot be conclusively identified. Our only surety lies in the two bodies isolated by the vertical frame before us, together with the path that they tread underfoot.
In White Epilepsy an extreme slowing down of the image is combined with the intense amplification of different sounds: heaving breath, rustling trees, animal cries in the night and the trampling of grass. Grandrieux’s use of the vertical frame, sound and slowness is unnerving. After the first cut appears, towards the conclusion of the 68-minute version, the woman’s face is suddenly seen in close-up. Her face is bloodied and illuminated by a bright white light. On all fours she crouches close to the ground, with individual strands of hair and blades of grass beneath her clearly visible. This abrupt formal and affective shift is like a lightning bolt rent through the screen. It turns the compositional world of the film on its axis: from darkness to light and from distance to proximity, re-configuring the human body as overtly blood-thirsty, brutal and animalistic. Whereas the bodies of White Epilepsy had previously been affiliated with moving-image gallery works, now the piece takes on all the qualities of a painterly tableau or a portrait. After the woman disappears into the shadows, another male figure appears in mid-shot (the same man but older?), such that the moving image appears to be slowed down to the point of utter stasis.9
Through his radical paring down of narrative, his privileging of the body and its movements, his dialectic between motion and stasis, and his allusions to film in the gallery and painting, White Epilepsy sees Grandrieux’s interest in the body at its most minimal, but also its most revealing. Within the bounds of the vertical frame, Grandrieux constructs a self-contained and seemingly timeless universe from out of the slightest shifts in musculature, gradations of movement, unexpected cuts, primal sounds, light and darkness. Given that Grandrieux’s strikingly sensuous works are so rarely screened in theatrical settings in Australia, it is unfortunate that more was not made of this event and programming connections created with body-focused cinema and/or moving-image art. Similarly, a dedicated discussion of the experimental was lacking in any of the festival’s affiliated public talks.
In her memoir about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking (2006), the American author Joan Didion describes grief as wave-like and all encompassing. When in a state of grief, nothing else exists beyond its affective orbit. While grief eventually fades into mourning, it is still felt in and through the aftershocks that interrupt daily life. In her Heart of a Dog (2015) at the AFF, musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson lends poignant cinematic form to grief and to mourning. This is not a grief-stricken film (it is often very funny), though its subject matter makes for intensely moving and heart-breaking stuff.
Invoking the words of David Foster Wallace, Anderson’s voice informs us at one point that “every love story is a ghost story.” In Heart of a Dog, the ghosts of Anderson’s loved ones are everywhere.
Anderson’s film has been described as a documentary, but it is really a lyrical film essay and an inheritor of the sensibility of the great Chris Marker (whom Anderson thanks in the credits). What begins as Anderson recounting her relationship with her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle (a loyal furry companion, a budding dog artist, and a piano-playing wonder) becomes a deeply personal meditation on love, life and loss. Interspersed with Anderson’s own drawings and animations, the film’s wave-like, rippling and haunting imagery evokes tides of memory and a sense of how our love for the departed (animal and/or human) endures in the present.
Strung together by Anderson’s lilting voice-over, we move from quotations from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, musings on the lifelong bonds that we form with our pets and different dog personas. We learn of Anderson’s own hospitalised childhood, her complicated relationship with her mother, and New York post 9/11. Given its delicate, tender foray into potentially heavy subject matter, Heart of a Dog was amongst the top picks of the festival. Without lapsing into the sappy or sanguine, Anderson at one point recounts how she came to the realisation that death is the concurrent “release of love”. Significantly, this phrase appeared in her 2013 written tribute to her late husband, musician Lou Reed.10 While Reed himself is only ever present in brief glimpses throughout Heart of a Dog, Anderson has spoken of how his spirit suffuses the film. In fact, Heart of Dog closes with a photograph of Reed playing with Lolabelle while his song, “Turning Time Around”, plays over the credits. It is to her husband and his “magnificent spirit” that Anderson dedicates her film.
In her Year of Magical Thinking, Didion beautifully writes, “if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead … Let them become the photograph on the table”.11 Rather than glossing over the release of love that accompanies death, Heart of a Dog confronts grief and its aftermath head on. It is a film that lends real feeling and humour and poignant form to how we grieve and remember the dearly departed. It is fitting, then, that Heart of a Dog should bring the ghosts of Anderson’s loved ones together in its final closing image of Reed and Lolabelle, such that they finally become ‘that’ photograph.
In terms of the AFF awards, the Brazilian Neon Bull (director Gabriel Mascaro) was awarded best feature film, while the Canadian Speed Sisters (director Amber Fares) took out the documentary prize. While the AFF boasts particular strengths in showcasing Australian as well as documentary film content, and a substantial selection of international titles, its continued lack of a major filmmaker retrospective is becoming a glaring absence from this bi-annual festival. Similarly, while White Epilepsy was intelligently introduced by the Australian filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson (who spiritedly connected Grandrieux’s influence to his own work), some of the introductions that I sat through came across as pointless or downright cringe-worthy. If a speaker cannot add anything to a film other than listing its awards or noting where it has previously appeared (information that is readily available in the program), then it would perhaps be best to let the film speak for itself.
Adelaide Film Festival
15–25 October 2015
Festival website: https://adelaidefilmfestival.org/
- P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.18. ↩
- Jonathan Romney, “The Infernal, Ecstatic Desire Machine of Guy Maddin,” Film Comment (October September 2015). www.filmcomment.com/article/guy-maddin-the-forbidden-room/ ↩
- “Seances,” Guy-Maddin.com, http://guy-maddin.com/projects/seances/ ↩
- Romney, “The Infernal, Ecstatic Desire Machine.” ↩
- Galen Johnson quoted in “The Forbidden Room (2015)”, Artofthe Title.com, www.artofthetitle.com/title/the-forbidden-room/ ↩
- Saige Walton, “Hit with a Wrecking Ball, Tickled with a Feather: Gesture, Deixis and the Baroque Cinema of Guy Maddin” in Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin, David Church, ed. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009), pp. 203–23. ↩
- Mark Pearson, “Lost in the Funhouse: A Conversation with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson on The Forbidden Room and Other Stories,” Cinemascope 62. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/lost-funhouse-conversation-guy-maddin-evan-johnson-forbidden-room-stories/ ↩
- Nicole Brenez, “The Body’s Night: An Interview with Philippe Grandrieux,” Rouge 1 (2003). www.rouge.com.au.au/1/grandrieux.html ↩
- Thanks to Lucio Crispino for this observation. Given its evocations of stasis and use of the vertical frame, White Epilepsy bears much in common with the portraits of Francis Bacon. On the relationship between Bacon and Grandrieux, see Greg Hainge in Philippe Grandrieux: Sonic Cinema (New York: Bloomsbury, forthcoming). ↩
- Laurie Anderson, “Laurie Anderson’s Farewell to Lou Reed,” Rolling Stone (November 2013). www.rollingstone.com/music/news/laurie-andersons-farewell-to-lou-reed-a-rolling-stone-exclusive-20131106?page=2 ↩
- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage 2006), pp. 225–26. ↩