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.
H. (2014), a haunting and poetic new feature by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, presents motifs from the story of Helen of Troy that are re-imagined in the parallel stories of two women named Helen in contemporary Troy, New York. The first Helen (in a fine performance by Robin Bartlett) and her husband Roy (Julian Gamble) are in their seventies, and her life centers on her obsession with caring for a very lifelike doll as if it were a real baby. Her obsession is part of a larger culture of “reborn babies,” and she meets regularly with other adult women to talk about their dolls. She also uploads videos about caring for dolls to share with an apparently worldwide subculture. The other Helen (the fine Rebecca Dayan) is thirty, and is a collaborative artist with her husband Alex (Will Janowitz). This Helen is pregnant, but there are many hints that something is seriously wrong with her marriage, her pregnancy, and their art career.
The plot revolves around a mysterious atmospheric change, possibly caused by a meteor, which causes many residents of Troy (including Roy and the younger Helen) to become catatonic, act strangely, and wander off into the woods. The film plays with some familiar tropes from science fiction, but in the service of creating a mysterious and poetic meditation on larger changes in our society – a surrealist film prose poem with mythic resonance. Disturbing images of a riderless horse which leads the citizens of Troy into the woods or of an enormous head floating down the river lift the story from the realm of the everyday into the realm of the fabulous. The film’s evocative score (Garcia, along with Kazu Makino, Alex Weston and Jesse Gelaznik), expressionistic minimalism along the lines of Arvo Pärt, works beautifully to facilitate this transition. (The music is so well integrated that one would never suspect it is by four composers.) The cinematography (also by Garcia) uses subtle color gradations and hand-held camerawork to greatly expressive effect.
The events and images in H. are very specific in their detail and their presentation, but the film doesn’t wrap them up and hand them to us with one obvious interpretation. Rather, there are a cluster of related meanings which underlie the film, and these invite us to supply our own take on the story. The sense that the film’s images are not random but have a strong (if hidden) coherence encourages us to trust them. The opportunity for the viewer to participate creatively in building the film’s meaning enriches our experience of the its possibilities.
For me, the stories of two women who live in a fantasy of motherhood resonated strongly with pervasive changes in our culture, in which more and more people are devoting themselves to delusional senses of community, a delusional sense of collective action, and a deluded sense of creating a vibrant and living artistic tradition. One example would be those who spend hours each day immersed in imaginary online worlds such as Second Life. Or those who imagine that collecting signatures for an online petition has a genuine political effect. Or those that endlessly exchange videos which are mashups and remixes, thinking that they are developing a new art form. It is easy to imagine those who are seriously computer-addicted or phone-addicted as similar to the hypnotized, catatonic people in H., who simply disappear out of their own lives. In the film’s disturbing climax, young Helen’s break from reality is specifically depicted as being a confusion between the real world and the digital world.
When we watch the women in the older Helen’s doll group fussing over their baby dolls, it is deeply creepy to see so many adult women whose emotional lives are focused on the imaginary. (Helen even sets her alarm each night so she can wake up for a 2am feeding.) To my mind, it contrasted strongly with the way that little girls play with dolls, which is so creatively driven towards exploring an adult life still to come. According to the filmmakers, the idea of the dolls is based on a real culture and community, which should give us all pause.
The four lead characters are not obvious online addicts, that is, they are not 19 year old coders or hackers who spend 20 hours a day glued to a screen. This strongly reinforces the idea that the film is speaking of larger, pervasive changes in our culture, which affect people of all ages and types, and are gradually unmooring all of us from a grounding in our real lives. All four characters are written and performed with the complexity and depth of real people. Attieh and Garcia are young artists, but they are adept at understanding characters of different ages, and allowing the actors to help them shape performances which ring true. The filmmakers trust their intuitions enough to allow powerful and surprising visual images to serve their vision, and they have the artistic skill to shape these visions into a poetic and resonant form. I, for one, am excited to see where their imaginations will take them next.