I have a clip in my head. A person washing another persons hands in a sink. I know it’s from a film. ‘Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman’, starring Brigitte Bardot, directed by Roger Vadim, released in 1973 . I haven’t seen the film for about 5 years. I haven’t re-watched it, yet it is as clear or clearer than any personal memories of the last 5 years, my 21st for example. I lived ‘through’ this experience. I can just remember vague details of the story that surrounds the clip. Bardot (Don Juan) washes a priest’s (her cousin?) hands after they are dirtied by (black?) oil from his motorbike, they then go to bed together (surrounded by mirrors?). I can’t remember what the hands look like, or the sink, or the music, or the camera angle, or its sequence in the films entirety. In my mind however I have a very clear image, full of highly charged eroticism. It is constantly repeated, a fixed camera, never allowing a wider shot, or context, completely removed from a narrative its original. It’s no longer part of the film (would I have remembered any other details, actress, title, year, without imdb? Or the back of the video box?). It has become part of my memory, my history, my narrative, plucked from its initial physical, public reality and stiched (sutured) into my mental, private reality. It hasn’t become les ‘real’, in fact almost the oposite. This clip no longer belongs to the film. I now see my hands. Have I become Brigitte Bardot? “We don’t know Brigitte Bardot, we only know her through her newspaper image” and her films, and her posters, and the internet. To me that IS Brigitte Bardot. Interestingly Laing uses ‘to know’ in this quote, in two diametrically opposite ways, or are they identical? Is the ‘know’ derived from the ‘newspaper image’ or film any less valid, from a personal, but also historical position, than the other ‘know’. Or are they infact the same. When does something become known?
As History is a concept created in the present, with the benefit of hindsight, it is constantly changing and being reevaluated in relationship to what we now know. Historty can be seen as an endless backlog of ‘clips’, that in any given present moment, are edited to create the past . As much as thoughts and emotions can change, so can history, with clips endlessly supressed, re-discovred and edited, there are infinate possibilities for narrative. What is fascinating is the origin of these ‘clips’ and if/how ones sourced from reality or from film take equal precident in our understanding of the past, personal and shared. As Victor Burgin points out, there is a moment when, in the re-telling of event, the “at the cinema” is dropped or misplaced and it becomes a simple “I saw” . It becomes, I suppose, a retro-performative statement, in our minds it creates (re-creates?), or cements the scene as a lived through action.
“The screen memory, brilliant and enigmatic, dissimulates another memory, thought, fantasy- one that has had to be repressed” . Though Freud was not talking about cinema, I immediately read ‘screen’ as in the ‘cinema screen’. To me the idea is perfectly suited my thoughts on film-constructed memory, demonstrating why one would attach to psychologically ‘necessary’ moments in film. Why, as I did with ‘Don Juan’ one could get “emmotionally touched” by a detail. A detail that would attach (or as Freud says hide) a memory with an associated fantasy images. The film provides a way of dealing with a memory that then becomes the memory, stitching pop culture into our histories.
An artist who works directly with this construction of history and identity is Eleanor Antin. For her the mixing of the real with the filmic or imagined is not as Freud would say, detrimental. (“Story-telling to re-animate and resusitate history, move between personas past and present, both real and imagined to reflect and illuminate the world” ). Antin acknowledges the idea that history is a subjective mix of reality and fantasy to explore what can be learnt from the way we include and edit our past. By accepting and using history as a backlog of ‘clips’ rather than a written in stone reality her work becomes completely contempory. Characters she uses, like Florence Nightingale, are disintangled from their histories and become part of her history as she makes new connections with them. Antins un-precious relationship to history and the imaginary helps me with the earlier question of what is ‘to know’. She seems to have disregarded the general necessity for subjective facts and replaced them with a belief in the remembered- however objective, as giving more insight. As Hirosho Sugimoto says “all representations are a blend of fiction and reality” , merely by re-telling a ‘reality’ we are injecting it with a certain ‘fiction’. As Antin tries to dissolve this reality/fantasy boundary, it seems that however inseperable they are, they are are also totally opposite.
The idea of these opposites that cannot exist independently duplicates almost exactly the idea of the cinema screen. The physical divider between what is real and what is not. Viewer/film, reality/fantasy. The relationship that we as viewers have with a film is like that of a mirror. Lacans ‘mirror stage’ sets up the distinction of the self from the other, a misrepresentaion that leads to a constant search for completion, an ideal. The screen can be seen as a continuation of this mirrored separation, confusing “what “I” look at and what “I” am” . As we watch a film we our constructing our self and identity. The film, or clip can act as the other, and become assimilated into ourselves as we search for this completion. It allows us to live the unnatainable duality, it gives us an Agatha Christie like alibi. Allowing us to be both sides of the mirror as we create our identities. As we play off ideas between ourselves and the screen, it becomes less and less clear which is the original. Did the screen validate our experience or did the screen create the experience?. This is demonstrated in Radley Metzgers 1970 film ‘The Lickerish Quartet’, it shows the search for the ideal. An ideal created in the fantasy space occupied only by the film and viewer . A family watch a film, they are all affected by the leading lady (much, I suppose, like myself and the hand washing sequence), later they meet her. When they re-watch the film, she is no longer in it. This demonstrates perfectly Lacans theory of the impossibility of returning to the complete state. As soon as the girl herself is found, the screen image no longer matches. The rest of the film concerns itself with the characters struggling, much like Antin does, with the idea of the representation mingling with what it represents in a constant search for the self.
Through watching the ‘Lickerish Quartet’, one is reminded about the way the screen or ‘magic’ of cinema constructs its characters and personalities, that we, through our priviledged gaze as the camera are identifying and interacting with. In the film they watch another film, when the actress from the second film appears in the first, I wonder, whether any of the characters will transcend the screen that separates me from the film. (Is this what has happened with the washing hands scene? Has it been, through my recognition with it, moved into my reality?). When we interact with a film does it, like a screen memory, become part of our history?. Andre Bazin, one of the founders of the Cahiers Du Cinema questioned the ability of things continuing to exist once they had left the frame . Physically, film only exists for the 2 or so hours of its playing time. After that there is no longer an actress on screen, there is no longer her character on the screen, anything that has been retained has now joined our memory, where it can start to be sutured into our identities. The third person and the first person a start to mix and the she/ I saw becomes the “I”. The character/actress no longer exists seperately, as other, but has become assimilated.
Victor Burgin suggests that we are not only sutured into a film for its duration. He talks of how film now occupies a “cinema without walls” , encompassing stills, printed synopsis, reviews, posters, internet (me and www.imdb.com for example). There is no longer such a distinct dark ‘hypnosis’ involved with film interaction. Because of the “myhologisig effects of 20th century mass media” , you no longer have to see a film to know it. The Lickerish Quartet DVD box has an image of a woman standing on the words copulate and fornicate, and a review from Andy Warhol describing it as “an outrageously kinky masterpiece”, before I watched it, I had already been told these edited facts that were my knowledge of the film. As Barthes said of cinema, it is “to be fascinated two times, by the image and what surrounds it” . The space of participation with film has broadened so much so much that the screen no longer presents a defined boundary. As in The Lickerish Quartet, the characters can walk around the screen (suspended in the middle of a large room) but also step from one film into another, and into reality. From black and white into colour. After the film has finished, pieces remain and (like with the hand washing) are intensified, like Freuds screen memories, often being clearer and more visual (filmic) than other memories. They are given a life beyond the screen. As Burgin summerizes “although the film has dissapeared in its original form, its effect or impression energizes the image” .
As with Agatha Christie, these images, memories, characters act as clues with which we create a wider narrative history. Maya Derens film “Meshes of the Afternoon” creates an atmosphere that seems completely driven by clues, rather than narrative, which comes secondarily, almost accidentally. For me the film illustrates the fractured memory that a mis-remembered film fragment creates. Like my ‘washing hands’ it concentrates on a few clues, a key, a knife, allowing a known element that occupies the powerful place between the screen an viewer. Described as “a ritual in transfigured time” it demonstrates the methodically way in which we orgainise our memories, and edit them to create an internal history (film) pieced together from elements lived through, and lived through the screen.
In his book ‘Art and Celebrity’ John A. Walker summerizes that “entertainment has conquered reality” , through writing this essay I have realised that entertainment, or fantasy, is an integral part of our reality. Both work together to create what we percieve as history and memory. Film provides a mirror in which we form our identities, a two way dialogue which reacts directly with our desire for completion and validation. The space created between film and viewer is unique, a space that creates an opening between the otherwise solid boundary between fantasy and reality. Gavin Turk points out how he uses this borderline, “pop culture is a part of my identity and heriage. I can use the magical power of art to transform myself into a pop star” . A convergence where we are stitched, via pop culture, into a larger scheme of fantasy and identity. Antin shows how this placing can enrich our understanding of ourselves and now personal memory and history are created and shared. Gore Vidal said in his novel Myra Breckinridge “one cannot possible live out all one’s fantasies and survive” , his heroine sets out to prove this statement wrong and, through transgressing the boundary of the cinema screen manages quite well! By acknowleding and interacting with film, through the screen, it no longer becomes important where the origin of memories lie. I have now filmed my version of the hand washing, it doesn’t look like my memory, it doesn’t look like the film (original?). It couldn’t. It is like the actress in the Lickerish Quartet, once she moved from one screen to another, she was no longer recognisable in the first.
(Vampires) An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, Jalal Toufic, Station Hill, 1993
The Remembered Film, Victor Burgin, Reaktion Books, 2004
Formations of Fantasy, Edited by Victor Burgin, James Donald & Cora Kaplan, Methuen, 1986
Between, Victor Burgin, Basil Blackwell, 1986
Lacan and Postfeminism, Elizabeth Wright, Icon Books, 2000
Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal, Abacus, 1968
Myron, Gore Vidal, Abacus, 1974
Art and Celebrity, John A. Walker, Pluto Press, 2002
Eleanor Antin, Lisa E. Bloom & Howard N. Fox, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999
True Stories, Exhibition Cataloge, ICA, 1992
The Lickerish Quartet, dir Radley Metzger, 1970
Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman, dir Roger Vadim, 1973