Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Zoe Beloff

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.

27 Comments:

Blogger girish said...

Doug Cummings on Nathaniel Dorsky.

May 02, 2006 9:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Video: A typically wonderful taste of Guy Maddin.

May 02, 2006 9:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

An exhaustive article by Ben at Lucid Screening on Seed Of Chucky.

May 02, 2006 9:19 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I wonder if anyone's done any writing about little killers in horror films in general (Pet Sematary, Trilogy of Terror, Child's Play, Puppet Master, Magic)....

May 02, 2006 10:54 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Very interesting post, Girish. I don't know Beloff's work, but I really liked it when you wrote: "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." Nicely done. Thanks for introducing me to a interesting filmmaker.

May 02, 2006 11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great to hear about this -- I love Zoe Beloff's work, but haven't seen any of the new stuff she has done in a number of years....

Steve Shaviro

May 02, 2006 11:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, "Little killers"--never thought of it that way.

Thanks, Michael. I'm very glad you found it worthwhile.

Steve, I shall google up your archives to see if you've written about Zoe Beloff; I'm curious.

May 03, 2006 8:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Great fun: The Pop View runs Indian week, with mp3's.

May 03, 2006 8:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Two Andy Horbal posts on film criticism and recent press articles about it: one, and two.

May 03, 2006 8:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Whoa. Nice and meaty coverage of films at the New York African Film Festival from Acquarello.

May 03, 2006 8:39 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

G, great post! I have not seen this film yet, but I have been to a program Zoe Beloff curated at Anthology. She has such a fascinating understanding and interpretation of the unconscious & the dream world!!!!

May 03, 2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, J.
I had a chance to chat with her for a while; it was interesting to hear her talk about her current project, of which this film is a part: hysteria and its relationship to cinema and art.

May 03, 2006 11:25 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Your opening paragraph sounded almost exactly like Ernie Gehr's autobiographical comment a couple of years back at the Views from Avant Garde when he presented The Astronomer's Dream. Apparently, the one theater in his hometown that showed movies was also a regular stage theater where he would also catch magic shows. So for him, the idea of magic and cinema were inextricable, like a Georges Méliès film.

May 03, 2006 12:54 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Zoe Beloff's work sounds fascinating! Thanks for the recommendation Girish.
I'd like to see the original material photographed on Augustine, maybe I could find them here in Paris somewhere...
On Google I found another short film made recently : Augustine (2003/Monod/Valtat) in B&W directed by a philosopher and a writer...
I'm really curious about Zoe's 3D experimentations though. How does the irreality translate in matter of mise-en-scène?

May 03, 2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh wow.
I heard Gehr speak for an hour at TIFF last year and it was truly a high point of the festival for me. What a great, humble, thoughtful guy...

There are some people (Guy Maddin is another) who I could just sit down and listen to for hours. Endlessly interesting and stimulating people.

May 03, 2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, thanks for the link. I had no idea another film had been made about Augustine, and Zoe Beloff didn't mention it at the screening.

Yes, the mise-en-scene was very interesting, Harry. I'm rushing out the door to go meet with students now, but will respond with details when I get back a little later today...

May 03, 2006 1:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, a few things about the Zoe Beloff film that I didn't get a chance to discuss in the post:

--We wore 3D glasses during the screening, and huddled towards the center of the screening room (the 3D illusion is poorer towards the periphery of the room).

--The projector was right in our midst; I actually sat next to it, inches away, with it rattling in my ear.

--Here's the interesting tension that resulted from 3D: on the one hand, there was great depth perception (it was actually the first time I had ever seen a 3D film). This depth enhanced illusionism by plunging us into the 3D space.

On the other hand, there were several aspects that worked actively to counter that illusionism: the abstract and non-naturalistic B&W; the archaic nature of the apparatus (old projector whirring loudly in your ear, reminding you that you were watching a film); and the gradually escalating stylization of the film. Beloff also played operatic arias behind some of the hysterical episodes in the second (subjective) half of the film.

--The film did not play any of the usual tricks of 3D films, e.g. throwing objects at the audience, etc. Beloff wasn't interested in this more gimmicky side of 3D.

--Ultimately, I think she is interested in the pre-history of cinema, and technologies that never made the transition from the early formative years of cinema to the post-standardization period of cinema. Things were very fluid in terms of cinema technologies in the 1880s and 1890s, and we lost some of that fluidity in the 1900's and 1910's. This interests her.

Harry, here is the title and reference to the French book about Augustine.

May 03, 2006 5:11 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the more precise details Girish. It's really an experience of itself it seems.
The 3D projection may have us wondering why flat images (non-3D cinema) can bluff us so much... I saw the amazing 3D version of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, conceived to take advantage of 3D impact on the audience.
What interests me most though, is how the deliria are expressed. Aloïse (1975/Liliane de Kermadec), performed by Isabelle Huppert and Delphine Seyrig, is a biopic of this artist (choir singer and painter) who suffered from schizophrenia at the beguining of the XXth century. Although this one is very conventionally narrative, and only shows the clinical hallucinations from outside.
I'm more interested in Beloff's experimental depiction.
Thanks for the book reference i'll look it up.

May 03, 2006 11:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, the deliria were depicted in an interestingly "split" fashion (which is appropriate given Augustine's "split" personality).

In the first half of the film, her fits were captured often in tableaux, but these weren't freeze frames or still images. The actress would often form positions and hold them for a few seconds. I'm suspecting that these tableaux were recreated from (or inspired by) the original text and photos.

Here, she was often surrounded and observed by nurses or doctors with medical instruments (one of them invented in reality by Marey himself).

In the second and subjective half, the depictions of deliria were not clinical frozen tableaux like pictures out of a medical textbook but instead involved lyrical free-flowing movements and theatrical gestures, accomapnied by stage-like sets and operatic scores. If doctors appeared here, they were subsumed into the "theater," playing characters.

Hope that made a little clearer.

May 04, 2006 7:17 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael in part 1 of a 2-part post on Elevator To The Gallows.

May 04, 2006 7:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry Tuttle on Los Angeles Plays Itself.

May 04, 2006 7:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach on the program Jen MacMillan curated at the Millennium Film Workshop.

And now, off to the last day of classses for the semester.

May 04, 2006 7:24 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

It does help Girish, especially since I have little chance to ever get to see her film unfortunately... (she's not even listed on IMDb!)
I like to be able to visualize what's going on or else my imagination wanders and assumes the representation.
So the mise-en-scène is as "primitive" (meaning "stagey") as the technique she emulates. Which is saves the coherence of the ensemble.
Jean Rouch did a stagey and realist take on a schizophreniac case in Folie ordinaire d'une fille de Cham (1986). The delirium expressed by a devil character moving in and out of frame, only interacting with the patient, and ignored by the nurse.

Speaking of magic and cinema, Raoul Ruiz' Klimt was just released in France. It's pure oniric fantasy, mixing tableau vivant and dreams. Klimt meets Mélies, in Paris, fascinated the illusionist. I liked this film much more than his last 2.

Incidentally, the birth of psychoanalysis (Freud in Vienna, like Klimt) follows the one of cinema.

May 04, 2006 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Girish: R1 Jayne Mansfield on August 8. Her two by Tashlin plus Walsh's Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.

May 04, 2006 12:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, great news.

May 04, 2006 9:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Working on a post. Shall return with it later this afternoon...

May 05, 2006 12:28 PM  
Anonymous natty said...

The mentions of Antonioni's wind in the trees reminded me of some other sound moments:

- In Cronenberg's "eXistenZ," the sound of crickets when Allegra and Ted are outside the "Country Gas Station." I remember noticing this the first time I watched the film on a friend's high-tech surround-sound system, and what an evocative and immersive touch it was. And, like almost everything about that film, it can be viewed as deliberate, something pre-programmed both by the makers of "the game" and by the filmmaker himself.

- In "Boogie Nights," the sound of an airplane or jet overhead when Eddie/Dirk tells his ladyfriend he plans on being a "big, bright shining star." I'm not sure why this appeals to me, but it almost makes me want to cry.

June 26, 2006 4:07 PM  

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