When I was a kid, my parents took me regularly to witness two spectacles of illusion and performance: (1) the magic shows of PC Sorcar, and (2) the movies. The two are forever linked in my mind, and I’m reminded of this when I watch the movies of avant-garde filmmaker Zoe Beloff.
Images, in Toronto, is one of North America’s leading avant-garde film festivals, and it was there that I first encountered Beloff’s work a few years ago. This year, she returned to the festival, and also stopped here in town at Hallwalls, to present her new 40-minute 3D experimental narrative film Charming Augustine. The film is inspired by photographs and texts published by an asylum in Paris in the 1880’s. Augustine was a young hysteria patient who heard voices and had hallucinatory visions. Her doctors kept transcripts of her attacks and also took accompanying photographs.
The film starts out as a clinical medical documentary but then slowly morphs into an operatic melodrama. It’s almost as if the point-of-view changes from that of the observing doctors in the first half to that of Augustine’s interior in the second half. Though the story of the film is told in linear fashion, the effect is one of circularity since we are seeing the same Augustine from two different vantage points in the two halves of the film.
It's interesting to learn that the term “hysteria” was abolished by the medical profession in 1980—it is now subsumed under multiple personality disorder and dissociative disorder. The film wants to explore the theatrical aspects of Augustine’s hysterical fits. It does this by recreating the archival photographs and texts using actors. And it is this performative element of hysteria that particularly lends itself to being cinematic. (Depression, on the other hand, is a disorder less overtly suited to such cinematic performance, being directed internally rather than externally.) Beloff is using cinema, one might say, to make altered states visible, to capture spells of deliria as they unfold, during the moment of their performance.
The film is set at an interesting point in time. Pioneers like Muybridge and Marey were using cameras to conduct studies of human and animal bodies in motion, and their investigations would soon result in the birth of cinema. Augustine’s doctors used the same cameras to not record the body but instead to probe the human mind.
Though movies had not yet been born, audiences of the day did not lack for cinema-like spectacle. 3D (or stereoscopic) photography was invented in the mid-1800’s, and the magic lantern, which was the forerunner of the movie projector, had been around for much longer. Victorian ghost shows and phantasmagorias used a combination of these devices to conjure up likenesses of people, conduct séances and mount horror shows. 3D presentations were especially effective because live performers would interact dramatically with hand-painted slides projected on a screen. (There is an entertaining account of this bit of cinematic pre-history here.)
By choosing to use 3D, Beloff has filmed the story of Augustine the way it might have been filmed at the time, if cinema had existed. She has said: “My project for some time has been an attempt to awaken the past buried behind the present, behind the illusions of progress, by studying its scraps and remains, outdated buildings and fashions, the landscape of the everyday that has been discarded, overlooked.” In addition, she uses here a vertical, door-like aspect ratio, common at the time but discarded once standardization arrived in the cinema. It reminds you that the early years in the evolution of a form are often marked by exciting experimentation, which ends up being quashed as standards get created and adopted.
Also on the program were two short films that influenced Beloff. In D.W. Griffith’s The Painted Lady (1912), Blanche Sweet plays a woman afflicted with delirium who speaks to people who aren’t there. Griffith was known to strive for authenticity and it is said that Sweet’s performance is close to descriptions of hysteria patients of the time. The other short film was made by a psychoanalyst in Pittsburgh in the 1920’s, and documents a woman elaborately performing her various multiple personalities. It had the strange effect of making even the operatic bits in Charming Augustine look documentary-like.