Film Scratches is a blog by David Finkelstein focusing on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
Serial Seduction: Film About a Father Who (2020)
Film About a Father Who is Lynne Sachs’ absorbing feature length film about her unconventional father. She worked on the film for almost 30 years, shooting on a variety of analog and digital formats. The film begins with Lynne Sachs laboriously combing and disentangling her elderly father Ira’s long gray hair, an occasionally painful process, and the film is likewise an extensive process of trying to disentangle the many confused and hidden strands of her father’s complex relationships, hidden lives, and bewildering behavior. The examination is painful at times as well.
The film plays out as a detective story, as Lynne uncovers layer after layer of information about her father’s many contradictions and secrets. A free spirit and compulsive womanizer who spent most of his adult life picking up as many young women as he could, he pursued so many women at once that he had to keep elaborate lists and diagrams to keep track of them. Lynne admits that there are so many girls that she doesn’t even learn most of their names. Ira Sachs was adept at closing his eyes to the havoc he created in the lives of his various wives, girlfriends and children, and expert at keeping parts of his life hidden.
An extremely willful, volatile person, Ira acts on every passing desire and impulse he feels, heedless of the consequences. By contrast, Lynne’s mother and the other young women in his life seem so passive and fatalistic it is as if they don’t even know what it is like to identify one of their own needs or desires, let alone to act on it. Her mother says she didn’t make major decisions in her life, things “just happened.” She describes herself, in retrospect, as “purposefully blind” to Ira’s infidelities.
Ira’s instinct is to be courtly and attentive to all women: wives, girlfriends, daughters, his mother. They are each treated like queen for a day. Ira is seen dancing with his mother to Autumn Leaves, and her face lights up with a smile. (Perhaps this is why Lynne’s brother Ira Jr. comes across as having a more clear-eyed, less conflicted view of his dad: Ira Sr. doesn’t typically turn the charm on for men.)
A scene where Lynne discusses her parents with her brother and sister reveals that the three siblings act like close, trusting family allies. All three identify as artists: Ira Jr. is a filmmaker and Dana is a writer, and not only are they comfortable analyzing their family dynamics, they all relish it. Their father might refuse to see the uncomfortable truth of the people he has hurt, and their mother might close her eyes to her husbands philandering, but these three offspring do not believe in living an unexamined life. They have each made careers out of what amounts to a survival technique in the Sachs household: shining a light on the murky darkness.
Lynne Sachs builds her story with the consummate skill which viewers have come to expect from her films: seamlessly weaving together diverse fragments of sound and picture so that they tell a complicated and ambiguous story in a way that constantly draws you in. She circles around her elusive subject, viewing him from multiple angles, but always moving in towards the center of the story. The film’s nonlinear form, intercutting between time periods, pointedly calls attention to the disconnect between Ira’s perceptions and the real consequences of his choices.
The revelations pile up, and some of them are devastatingly ugly. Yet as Lynne brings the different branches of her family together for the film, it is clear that their frank discussions provide them with a powerful source of trust and healing. The film’s title, a reference to an Yvonne Rainer film, perfectly sums up a man so full of contradictions that he is impossible to sum up. The film wisely refrains from providing judgements or pat conclusions about Ira, and it ends with Lynne and her sister realizing that forgiveness is the only possible attitude to take towards this dynamic, creative father who offered inspiration and dismay in equal measure. When you dig deep enough into family histories, they can seem like an unending chain of cruelties suffered and inflicted in turn, but Lynne Sachs’ spirit of intelligent compassion lights up the film, giving voice to the anger and pain, but also providing the space and distance needed to recover from it. It’s a spectacular gift to the viewer, and one that will provide insight even to those with more conventional parents.
Lifting the Veil: Auricular Confession (2019)
Auricular Confession is Martin Del Carpio’s hauntingly poetic tribute to the memory of his father: an 11 minute sequence of dances, rituals, and evocative images of a troubled man (beautifully portrayed by Esteban Licht), illuminated by William Murray’s starkly suggestive monochromatic cinematography.
Licht appears naked in nearly every shot, but the images aren’t overtly erotic, and his nakedness seems more a sign of emotional and spiritual vulnerability than one of arousal. We see him writing a personal confession in a notebook: a poem about being “love-sick.” His ghostly image, half transparent, sits in a wooden chair, stroking a wooden crucifix. He hangs his head in an attitude of mourning, seated at a table carved with the words “In Remembrance of Me.” In a close-up, we see him sensuously licking a flower, then eating one of the petals. The pleasure with which he licks the flower suggests that his “confession” is sexual. Shots of the man fervently praying with a handful of rosaries are intercut with shots of him eating the flower, conveying a powerful sense of guilt about physical pleasure. All of the scenes in the film are set in a decaying, abandoned building with peeling paint and dirty floors, suggesting that the man has allowed his life to fall into ruin. The suspended electronic chords of the music, punctuated by sudden cries and crashes, create a tremulous atmosphere of fear and expectation.
In a crackle of of electronic sound and with a flash of light, the man emerges from a crouch, wearing a “plague mask,” the medieval doctors’ mask which looks like a raven’s head. The darting movements of his dance suggest he has become possessed by a spirit, some ancient, bird headed god from Egypt or Mesoamerica, a chaotic and liberating force of erotic or creative energy. The bird-man selects the Moon card from a tarot deck, the card of intuition and fear.
To the sound of a doleful march, like something a carnival band might play at a funeral, he dances with a bouquet of flowers, inside what looks like a bathroom in an abandoned school building. He tenderly offers the flowers to the air, as if offering his heart to a love that is doomed from the start.
Del Carpio’s visual compositions are haunting and precise. He creates an abundance of images that seem to speak on many levels at once, without shouting their meanings. The beautifully orchestrated rhythms of the music and the editing suspend us in a spooky poetic space, where the danger lies not so much in ghosts as in uncontrolled passions. Murray’s judicious use of lighting and editing effects and his restrained color palette beautifully enhance and support Del Carpio’s vision.
The film ends with an epigraph in which Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg defends the reality of his mystical experiences, hard as they might be for others to believe. The “confession” in the film appears to be this man’s direct experience of a disturbing and powerful spirit being, a bird-man who tempts him to sensual pleasures. This force is pagan, it is sexual, it is many things at once, and the man clings to Jesus for protection. But any single interpretation of the images in this film would be both misleading and unnecessary. The images all feel highly charged with the personal meaning they hold for Del Carpio, but he has skillfully arranged them so that they resonate with multiple, universal associations of human desire, guilt, and the longing for redemption. In the final image, the man lifts a veil from his face, gazing upwards. And by lifting a veil and allowing us to the images of his heart, Del Carpio offers us all a chance to look for redemption.
Freezing the Demons: Onikuma (2016)
Onikuma, Alessia Cecchet’s beautifully rendered 12 minute meditation on myth and violence, opens on a seacoast in winter, the beach covered with icy snow. A woman in a fur hat stands filming the scene on an old 16mm camera, accompanied by her female companion. The title refers to a figure from Japanese folklore, a demon bear who chases horses. The film doesn’t tell a linear story but instead stages fragments of symbolic action on the lonely, frozen coastland, providing a poetic examination of the roots of the legend, and indeed of the very process by which primordial fears and desires are transformed into legends.
The film’s action is occasionally intercut with shots of a mantlepiece where the woman’s film camera is surrounded by mementos: framed photos, and figurines and illustrations of horses and bears. The figurines, bell jars, and tchotchkes serve the same function as the film camera does: they distill the wild freedom of real horses and bears into idealized images, into mythical beings.
When we see one of the bronze horse figurines lying in the snow, we realize that the film’s program is to intermix the mythical with the real, to explore a liminal space between the two realms. The winter coastline setting, where flowing water crashes onto a boarder of frozen ice, emphasizes this same liminal zone, where flowing, living energies become frozen into mythical ideals.
The two women encounter a silent, wounded man lying against a tree, his face bloody. His beard links him to the bear figurines, while the woman with the camera is shown with images of the horse. One can think of the horse fleeing the bear in the Onikuma myth as referring to women’s ever-present awareness of men’s potential for violent assault.
The film moves to a beautifully realized stop-motion animation sequence, using colored felt puppets and landscapes, in a style reminiscent of the work of Belgian animators Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels. The puppets reverse the process of iconizing: they take the figurines and re-animate them, bringing the myth to life. Film, by setting still images in motion, also lives in the border between the iconic and the living.
In the animated version of the story, the bear growls, threatening a horse who is safe in her barn, and in her fear she knocks over a lamp, setting the barn on fire (the smoke beautifully rendered with cotton wool). In this version of the story, it is the horse’s fear which instigates the danger, since otherwise, she would have been locked safely inside the barn.
In the completion of the process of creating the legend, the terrified horse puppet, fleeing for her life, plunges into the freezing sea where she turns to ice, returning to her inanimate state. Tellingly, Onikuma itself at this point reverts from moving images to a series of stills of the cracked ice and the frozen horse. Fear itself freezes the living flow of life into an iconic image: a terrified horse sinking into frozen water.
Instead of helping the bear-man, the women decide to kill him, and his blood runs onto the snow, freezing in shapes that resemble the figurines. Conquering their fear, they act in their own defense, and regain their safety. But the bear-man was nearly dead to begin with; the real enemy, all along, was the fear.
Onikuma ends, not with a tidy wrap-up of a story, but with an ambiguous and evocative set of images. The women gaze in a hand-mirror. One side, the mirror side, reflects the moving images of life, the other side is emblazoned with a horse symbol, the distilled essence of a myth. Human fears and hopes are mirrored in our legends; they are two sides of a single reality. The film, with its open-ended, poetic sequences of metaphorical action, presents a field of possible meanings, and each viewer will be able to build their own interpretation from the experience of watching the action. Cecchet has used consummate artistic skill in rendering these actions into a wordless assemblage of images and sounds that have the precise force of myth: the ability to take our primordial fears and transform them into legend.
Here in My Car: Emotions in Metal (2019)
Emotions in Metal is a 20 minute music/video/poetry song cycle by Tommy Becker, which uses driving and car culture as a metaphor for our individualistic culture. The result is a witty and evocative video pop opera, a form that combines words, music, and images into miniature graphical essays on cars as metaphors, in a manner pleasantly akin to Robert Ashley’s video opera Perfect Lives.
For the song Driving Home, Becker tries to be considerate to fellow motorists by using hand signals and waving them ahead at intersections, which they appreciate, but no one else is equally considerate towards him. This deceptively simple-looking sequence is actually a subtle look at language, gesture, and social interaction on the road, and driving as a metaphor for capitalist culture and our need to “get ahead of the others.” The accompanying text deftly comments on the images of hands and drivers.
In Chris Stephen Christine, Becker mashes together artist Chris Burden’s 1974 performance work in which he was driven around, nailed to the back of a VW Bug, with Stephen King’s horror novel about a possessed car. The heavy rock tune has complex, subtle lyrics, which link together the themes of fear, violence and cars (“a painful mixed drink of metal, blood, danger”). We see a toy remote car, armed with a knife, repeatedly stabbing a projected film of Burden’s performance. Becker mixes this with images from the film Christine to illuminate his intricate lyrics, the images expanding metaphorically on the lyrics.
Another funny and deceptively simple-looking segment shows Becker in his garage, dutifully following a set of arbitrary “instructions” to open and close the door and perform random actions. He is told to watch the garage door closing while staring “hopelessly,” which he does with the same fatalistic hopelessness most of feel when trying to be “good citizens” and follow the instructions of authorities, for example, while navigating through the daunting voice prompt menus of corporate call centers. The authoritarian tone of the the text and Becker’s resigned compliance give the segment nuanced shades of meaning about our contemporary culture of obedience.
After a section which muses on the need to find refuge from the “data glut” by creating “mobile solitude” in a car (wittily illustrated by toy cars being stuffed into toy balloons), we watch a peaceful collection of still images of yoga poses, overlaid with images of cars. We hear a playful game in which a man and a child make rhythmic nonsense sounds together (a game Becker plays with his kids during long car rides), a recipe for a kind of “yoga of driving.”
In the suite’s witty, brief finale, Becker gleefully sings “I want to drive on your street made of paint brushy Wayne” to a sequence in which the camera “drives” through the rooms of his house, as if from the point of view of a toy car, driving right up to laptops which are displaying Wayne Thiebaud’s luscious paintings of streets and cars, and even “driving” into the painting. The song effectively sums up the video’s themes of cars-as-refuge and art-as-refuge.
Throughout Emotions in Metal, Becker evokes complex and overlapping poetic notions with sophisticated means. Equally skilled as a musician, lyricist, and image-maker, he is a master of using simple, clearly constructed assemblages of words, music and images to reveal the hidden underpinnings of American life. He mixes humor and poetry in equal measure, in a video concept album which is fun to watch, while leaving the viewer with much to think about and remember.