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Film Scratches: New York Subways as Therapy – Participate in My Relaxed State (2016)

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Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.

A Review by David Finkelstein.

Halley (Megan Clement) is a young woman in search of healing from an unstated ailment. Participate in My Relaxed State, a 20 minute short by filmmaker Katya Yakubov, is an oblique and poetic portrait of Halley’s experiments with different alternative healing modalities, including acupuncture, guided visualization, and (disturbingly) leech therapy. She joins a support group where a circle of women discuss the different healing methods they’ve tried. The different kinds of therapy appear at times grotesque or absurd, at times powerful and mysterious. Her search (against the backdrop of gritty, outer borough New York) is like a search through a junkyard, where treasures are mixed up with useless garbage.

The film doesn’t tell Halley’s story conventionally. Instead, we see an extended montage, where moments from different therapy sessions, moments on the street, and the support group are all intercut, often with the sound cutting in and out on a different rhythm from the picture. This highly fragmented viewing experience could be evocative of a shattered state of mind caused by Halley’s mysterious ailment, but it also evokes her constant effort to put the pieces back together, to assemble the pieces of memory and experience into a meaningful whole.

ParticipateSideMuch of the footage shows Halley on busses and trains, pathways where enlightening connections with random strangers are always possible. On a bus, a friendly little girl is fascinated by Haley’s hat. Looking out a subway window into a tunnel, Halley’s attention is caught by Masstransiscope, an installation artwork by Bill Brand that allows riders to watch a short film, animated by the motion of the train. (Everyone who comes to New York should take a train from the Dekalb Avenue stop, so they can see this piece.) There is also a repeated suggestion that a paranormal phenomenon is haunting the subway: light bulbs flash unaccountably, and strangers pause to stare up at the elevated tracks.

In one obliquely poetic sequence, the filmmaker herself appears as a stranger, walking quickly past Halley on the street. A big white screen is lowered into the shot from above. Cut to a blank white billboard, the same shape. Halley is a screen for Yakubov to project her own search for answers, in the form of a film. Filmmaking is another modality for healing through visualization.

The film ends with a sequence in which a series of strangers pass along a glance of momentary heightened awareness, as each person passes their attention from one stranger to the next. (Full disclosure: I have a cameo appearance as one of these people.) New York is filled with seekers; the randomness of street interactions is the key that holds the possibility of insight. The diversity of cultures offers a diversity of healing skills. Participate in My Relaxed State offers no solutions or answers, but it is an absorbing and evocative film meditation on the treasures that are to be found in the act of looking.

David Finkelstein is a filmmaker, musician, and critic. For more information on Film Scratches, or to submit an experimental film for review, contact lakeivan@earthlink.net.

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