Suite for Barbara Loden – Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon)

United States, 1970, Kent State and Jackson State shootings occur during violent student protests, there’s a burning disenchantment with President Nixon and the Vietnam War, the previous year’s Woodstock Festival is released on film, along with the counterculture films ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘M*A*S*H’. At the 31st Venice Film Festival a small independent film, ‘Wanda’ premiered, winning the Best Foreign Film gong.  Despite the award ‘Wanda’, directed by Barbara Loden, was released in a single theatre in New York, “Cinema II”, and was never shown in the rest of the country.

It quickly slipped from view “Forgotten in the United States”, but “much admired in Europe”, screening at various festivals and events.     

Pick up a recent textbook about Hollywood movies from the 1970’s and you are likely to come across a ‘Wanda” reference:

…although the auteur renaissance introduced a new American cinema, this generation of movie directors was still by a vast majority male. The few women directors working at the time did not benefit from the commercial Hollywood financing that their male counterparts accessed and instead were relegated to indie micro-financing and playoffs at the art house, university film series, and museum showcases. Even the best of the films made by women in the 1970s remain difficult to find and screen today. For example, in 1970, the accomplished stage actress Barbara Loden produced, wrote, directed, and starred in a terrific no-budget film, Wanda. The film tracks its title character as she stumbles upon a petty criminal with whom she goes on the lam. He treats her with casual cruelty, but she stays with him anyway, because her life before she met him (drinking, sleeping around, sponging off her sister) wasn’t any better. Creatively financed, shot on a shoestring, and distributed by a company otherwise specializing in martial arts imports, Wanda grossed on its first run, such as it was, just over $100,000. “When the Movies Mattered : The New Hollywood Revisited” edited by Johnathan Kirshner & Jon Lewis

This short precis does not give the film any justice, Wanda, disenchanted with her life leaves her husband and children, in search of something better, throughout she carries a large oversized handbag, which contains her worldly possessions, she grips it so tightly you can also believe it contains her hopes, her memories, her desires.

Fast forward forty odd years, and Nathalie Léger has been asked to provide a short encyclopedic entry on ‘Wanda’, and/or Barbara Loden. Her research, obsession, exploration becomes far too detailed to be an encyclopedia entry, it has become a journey, a book, ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’ (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), and thankfully the wonderful Dorothy Project has brought this French work to English readers.

What is it that attracts me so to Wanda? I have never been homeless, I have never abandoned my children, I have never given over my existence or even my financial affairs to any man, I don’t think I have ever entrusted even the most banal area of my life to anyone. I’ve left men, sometimes heartlessly, with the trembling joy that one feels slipping away down a side street, or vanishing into a crowd, or jumping onto a passing train, or standing someone up; the acute and rare pleasure of avoiding something, of evading something, of disappearing into the landscape – but never the experience of surrender. And yet: it did happen to me once, just one time and it was enough, but who hasn’t experienced that – not knowing how to say no, not daring to say it, yielding to the mortal threat, escaping in the end by withdrawal, absence, slipping to the ground, no longer even offering him the gift of fear, no longer pretending, no longer thinking the unthinkable, protecting oneselg in shock, vomiting, the lusted-after body suddenly repulsive, leave me alone, leave me alone. But mostly what happened is that I’ve allowed myself to be pushed around, just waiting for it to be over, preferring misunderstanding over confrontation – it’s impossible in moments like that to think that defending my body could be worth the effort, and anyway what does that mean, “my body,” at the age of fifteen? Only this matters: not to be alone, not to be abandoned.

This short work is a blend of auto-fiction, research and memoir, like Wanda, Nathalie Léger is carrying around a metaphorical oversized handbag, a repository for her thoughts, a place to store her memories, and her bag becomes the pages you read.

I watched ‘Wanda’ a few years ago when I was doing a 1970’s Hollywood counter-culture binge, and revisited the movie last year with a poet friend of mine, whose insights into the female psyche added an extra layer to this wonderful film. Now I’ve experienced Nathalie Léger’s response, her “Suite for Barbara Loden” and the appreciation again increases.

Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men. We were in the kitchen having breakfast: he told me that he was afraid of that habit particular to women in general and me in particular, in his opinion, of being either unable or unwilling to resist uninvited male desire, of the madness of giving in to whatever they asked of us. He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it – how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?

The book also plays through the various scenes in the movie, “she sits up and gently strokes his forehead until he cries out”, and then fallows Nathalie Léger’s personal attachment to each scene. A short work, this is also a fine accompaniment to a wonderful film.

I have seen a few reviews, of this book, that are quote scathing and I wonder if the reader hadn’t had the opportunity to view Barbara Loden’s film before reading, it was very hard to find, until recently when the Criterion Collection released a restored print. My reading journey was brilliantly enhanced by having a solid grounding and relationship with the film ‘Wanda’ and a fair understanding of Barbara Loden’s struggle to raise funds, be recognized, be acknowledged as someone other than Elia Kazan’s wife, and her subsequent death at only forty-eight years of age. This allowed me to travel with Nathalie Léger and see her peeling away the layers of the film, applying them to her own experiences, justifying her obsessive travel to understand more about Barbara Loden and simply relishing in a gem of a movie that could easily have been lost.

Once again the Dorothy Project delivers a thoughtful and provocative work of feminist literature, a collection of works that deserve wide readership.

The Juniper Tree – Brothers Grimm, T.S. Eliot & Nietzchka Keene

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining

We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,

Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,

Forgetting themselves and each other, united

In the quiet of the desert.

T.S. Eliot

Black screen, white text, so opens the 1990 film ‘The Juniper Tree’, written and directed by Nietzchka Keene, based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. The quote is a short piece taken from the much longer work by T.S. Eliot’s, “Ash Wednesday”.

The juniper tree is mentioned only twice in Eliot’s poem, both references in part II of the poem, the one above appearing at the end of the section, the other reference at the beginning:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree

In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity

On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been

contained

In the hollow round of my skull. And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady

And because of her loveliness, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

Reading Eliot’s poem, I found the juniper tree reference removed from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, although there are some similarities.

‘The Juniper Tree’ published in the Grimms’ collection was written by Philipp Otto Range, and has been seen as a counterpart of the Greek myth of Cronus, who devours his children in order to ensure he retains his power. The tale opens:

A long time ago, as many as two thousand years ago, there lived a rich man with a wife who was both beautiful and good. They loved each other dearly, but they had no children, even though they longed for them. Day and night the wife prayed for a child, but still they had none.

She becomes pregnant and “in the seventh month, she picked the berries from the juniper tree and gorged herself on them until she became miserable and was ailing. According to the classical antiquity physician Galen, the juniper tree’s berries can be used for contraceptive purposes and to induce abortion. However the mother eventually “bore a child as white as snow and as red as blood. When she saw the child, she felt so happy that she died of joy.” The child was a boy, the husband buries the mother under the juniper tree.

He remarries and his second wife gives birth to a daughter. “When the woman looked at her daughter, she felt nothing but love for her, but whenever she looked at the little boy, she felt sick at heart….The devil got hold of her so that she began to hate the little boy, and she slapped him around and pinched him here and cuffed him there.” The second wife eventually beheads the young boy by slamming the lid of an apple chest onto him as he is reaching for an apple. “The mother then took the little boy and chopped him up. She put the pieces into a pot and cooked them up into a stew.” The father thought the stew tasted really good and as he ate “he threw the bones under the table.” The daughter collects the bones in her silk handkerchief and puts them “down in the green grass under the juniper tree.”

“The juniper tree began stirring. Its branches parted and came back together again as though it were clapping its hands for joy. A mist arose from the tree, and right in the middle of the mist a flame was burning, and from the flame a beautiful bird emerged and began signing gloriously.”

The bird, the boy reincarnated, sings:

“My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!”

Singing and collecting, a golden chain, a pair of red shoes and a mill stone. Continually singing his song, he drops the golden chain for his father, the red shoes for his sister and drops the millstone on the mother’s head crushing “her to death.” The smoke, flames and fire return and the “little brother was back, standing right there. He took his father and Little Marlene by the hand, and the three of them were filled with joy. Then they went back in the house, sat down at the table, and dined.”

A fable filled with eating aligned with death, gorging the juniper berries, apple chest, the child cooked as stew, happily dining once the step-mother is deceased, it is also a tale of childhood innocence vanishing and, according to the notes in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm”,  “by crushing the mother and joining the father, the children have been seen as “successfully” negotiating the path from dependence to autonomy.”

T.S. Eliot’s poem has a few similar references, primarily the bones, other interpretations of his poem state that the juniper tree in Eliot’s poem references the Bible – I Kings 19 (in some Bible versions it is a “broom bush” or “broom tree”, however in the King James Bible it is a “juniper tree”).

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.

The poet is lost in the woods and like Elijah in the Bible, who is lost in the desert, he is nourished and renewed by an angel.

Onto the film, where we have a single father, with a son, Jonas, and two sisters who are seeking a new home as their mother has been stoned and burned for being a witch. The older sister becomes the stepmother, by using witchcraft, potions and incantations to attract the single father as her husband. The connection to nature, as appears in the Grimm Brothers tale is here, an early scene showing Björk, who plays the youngest sister Margit, reciting an incantation to stop the buzzing of the fly, and soon thereafter she entertains the young Jonas with shadow puppets, using her hands, whose actions align perfectly with the crowing of the rooster or the barking of the dog. Margit has a power over nature.

The film is filled with religious symbolism, crucifixes, prayer as well as the witchcraft elements. Margit also having visions of a mother figure.

Whilst the film does have elements of the Grimm fairy story, it deviates in a significant number of areas, a stand alone work that feels more aligned to religious and witchcraft themes, and less to the family, natural world, eating associated with death and childhood growth themes.

I loved the Brothers Grimm tale for its extreme themes, I rather enjoyed the movie and I question the T.S. Eliot reference, did the director just see a juniper tree in a poem and thought “I’ll make that the epigraph”?

Andy Guérif, Duccio di Buoninsegna and Georges Perec

Today a film, literature, and art post.

Andy Guérif, born in Angers France in 1977, has made a number of short live animation films, his latest film ‘Le Code de l’art’ looks fascinating, he has taken sixty road signs and associated them with famous works of art. However, it is his 2015 film ‘Maestà, the Passion of the Christ’ that I would like to highlight today.

In 1308 Duccio di Buoninsegna was commissioned by the city of Siena to paint an altarpiece, a monumental Madonna and Child with saints and angels, and a predella of the Childhood of Christ with prophets. On the reverse there is a combined cycle of the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ in a total of forty-three small scenes; several panels are now dispersed or lost. Andy Guérif’s film focuses on the twenty-six panels that make up part of the reverse, the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

A review I came across says “Guérif reinvents Duccio’s masterpiece with ‘Life a User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec in mind.” How could I not watch this film?

IMG_8500

As visitors to this site would know I’ve investigated Perec’s 100 rooms, ten squares high, ten squares wide, and the chess like movement throughout the rooms. I don’t intend to go into the details here, but if you’re interested you can read my previous post here.

Andy Guérif’s film is nowhere near as complex as this, it opens with the crucifixion, an eleven- or twelve-minute complex sequence being shown full screen, with firstly the supporting players being crucified and then finally Christ. The screen then switches to twenty-six blank panels, painted only with the backgrounds, it moves in a sequence from the bottom left of the screen.

Passion

Each panel is slowly populated with equipment and characters, as though they are in rehearsal for a passion play, arguing amongst themselves, chatting, they slowly form a replication of the image in the altarpiece which is then frozen. Here is the sequence of the narration:

Maesta

The freeze thaws and the characters, players continue along their journey. There are concurrent happenings, for example ladies set the table for the last supper whilst in the first panel Christ meets with his disciples at the Temple, a man builds the coffin in panel twenty-two.

The movie closes with all twenty-six sequences concurrently playing and forming the final replication of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s masterwork.

Maestà, the Passion of the Christ, is Guérif’s first long feature and was started in 2008 and finished in 2015, filming took place each Sunday with a group of volunteers. It is worth a viewing if you can stream it in your country. A small preview is available on YouTube to give you a taste.

Charles Baudelaire & Agnès Varda

Caryatids

Seems readers like the merging of poetry and film, last week’s post about Roy Andersson’s film featuring Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s poem ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ has been my most popular post for 2020. Let’s continue the theme.

“The only female director of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda has been called both the movement’s mother and its grandmother” according to Criterion. Her short, 12 minute, film ‘Les dites cariatides’ (‘The So-Called Caryatides’) (1984) was made for French television, and features the music of Offenbach (his 1864 opera bouffe ‘La Belle Hélène’) and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.

The film opens with a slow panning shot of a nude bronze sculpture light pole and then a nude man walking the streets of Paris. From the off the feminist themes abound, I won’t comment on these here, but if you’re after an explanation of the feminist themes in this short film I highly recommend the article “Wandering in the Presence of Women: Les dites cariatides” by Eloise Ross – click here for a link.

Caryatides, “the bearers of doors, lintels, capitals or balconies.” Agnès Varda tells us their origins and a brief history, whilst her camera pans from feet to head across a number of Parisian examples, from the late 19th century. In Paris there a twelve twin like men – “Pairs symmetrical but not identical” the males representing force and power, there are fifty twin like females, naked, bearing the weight on their heads, calm and composed.

Fleurs_du_mal

Poems from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘The Flowers of Evil’ are read by Agnès Varda, again whilst the camera pans the caryatides. The subtitles on the version of the film I watched were uncredited, so I can’t direct you to the translator, however I transposed a number of the lines and have managed to find three of the poems in ‘The Flowers of Evil’ (with very different translations).

Sonnet XLIII

What sayest thou, to-night, poor soul so drear,

What sayest—heart erewhile engulfed in gloom,

To the very lovely, very chaste, and very dear,

Whose god-like look hath made thee to re-bloom?

 

To her, with pride we chant an echoing Hymn,

For nought can touch the sweetness of her sway;

Her flesh ethereal as the seraphim,

Her eyes with robe of light our souls array.

 

And be it in the night, or solitude,

Among the streets or ‘mid the multitude,

Her shadow, torch-like, dances in the air,

 

And murmurs, “I, the Beautiful proclaim—

That for my sake, alone ye love the Fair;

I am the Guardian Angel, Muse and Dame!”

 

Illusionary Love

When I behold thee wander by, my languorous love,

To songs of viols which throughout the dome resound,

Harmonious and stately as thy footsteps move,

Bestowing forth the languor of thy glance profound.

 

When I regard thee, glowing in the gaslight rays,

Thy pallid brow embellished by a charm obscure,

Here where the evening torches light the twilight haze,

Thine eyes attracting me like those of a portraiture,

 

I say—How beautiful she is! how strangely rich!

A mighty memory, royal and commanding tower,

A garland: and her heart, bruised like a ruddy peach,

Is ripe—like her body for Love’s sapient power.

 

Art thou, that spicy Autumn-fruit with taste supreme?

Art thou a funeral vase inviting tears of grief?

Aroma—causing one of Eastern wastes to dream;

A downy cushion, bunch of flowers or golden sheaf?

 

I know that there are eyes, most melancholy ones,

Wherein no precious secret deeply hidden lies,

Resplendent shrines, devoid of relics, sacred stones,

More empty, more profound than ye yourselves, O skies?

 

Yea, does thy semblance, not alone for me suffice,

To kindle senses which the cruel truth abhor?

All one to me! thy folly or thy heart of ice,

Decoy or mask, all hail! thy beauty I adore!

 

Both of the above translated by Cyril Scott.

The third poem, the first Agnès Varda quotes is “Beauty”

Beauty

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,

And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself

Is made to inspire in the poet a love

As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,

I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;

I hate movement for it displaces lines,

And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,

Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,

Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,

Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:

My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

Translated by William Aggeler, and if you’d like the original text with other translations click here.

More poetry on film and as I come across further examples I may post them here, Agnès Varda’s film may be short at only 12 minutes but it packs a lot into that time, worth hunting down.

César Vallejo & Roy Andersson

CesarVallejo

Something a little different from me. Literature and film culture blending.

An homage to Peruvian poet César Vallejo appears at the beginning of Roy Andersson’s 2000 film ‘Songs From The Second Floor’. “Älskade Vare De Som Säter Sig (“Blessed be those who sit down”) – César Vallejo 1892- 1938 In Memorium”

 

The film itself featuring lines from Vallejo’s poem ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ and featuring numerous scenes that are direct references to the poem (for example, a door closed on a finger).

 

The film shared the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, and reading a few online reviews, it appears as though several reviewers didn’t check the very obvious César Vallejo references.

SongsSecondFloor

I thought I’d present the poem here for people who have watched, or will watch the Swedish filmmaker’s first film in a trilogy, followed by ‘You, The Living’ (2007) and ‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’ (2014). Worthwhile films indeed.

 

STUMBLE BETWEEN TWO STARS

There are people so wretched, they don’t even
have a body; quantitative the hair,
lowers, in inches, the affable grief;
the mode, above;
don’t look for me, the molar of oblivion,
they appear to come out of the air, to add up sighs mentally, to hear
sharp lashes on their palates!

They leave their skin, scratching at the sarcophagus in which they are born
and rise through their death hour after hour
and fall, along their frozen alphabet, to the ground.

Pity for so much! pity for so little! pity for those women!
The pity in my room, hearing them wear glasses!
The pity in my thorax, when they buy dresses!
Pity for my white grime, in their combined scum!

Beloved be the Sanchez ears,
beloved the people who sit down,
beloved the unknown man and his wife,
the neighbor with sleeves, neck and eyes!

Beloved be that one with bedbugs,
the one who wears a torn shoe in the rain,
the one waking the corpse of a loaf with two matches,
the one who clothes a door on a finger,
the one who has no birthdays,
the one who has lost his shadow in a fir,
the beast, the one who looks like a parrot,
the one who looks like a man, the rich poor man,
the complete skinflint, the poor poor man!

Beloved be
the one who is hungry or thirsty, but has no
hunger with which to satiate all his thirst,
nor thirst with which to satiate all his hungers!

Beloved be the one who works by the day, by the month, by the hour,
the one who sweats from pain or from shame,
that one who goes, by order of his hands, to the movies,
the one who pays with what he lacks,
the one who sleeps on his back,
the one who no longer remembers his childhood; beloved be
the bald man without a hat,
the just man without thorns,
the thief without roses,
the one who wears a watch and has seen God,
the one who has an honor and does not die!

Beloved be the child, who falls and still cries
and the man who has fallen and no longer cries!

Pity for so much! Pity for so little! Pity for them!

Taken from ‘The Complete Poetry César Vallejo – A Bilingual Edition’ (translated by Clayton Eshleman)

Personally I’m not convinced this is a great translation “the one who clothes a door on a finger” (“el que se coje un dedo en una puerta”) surely it means “the one who catches their finger in a door”? There are other translations of the poem available online, seek them out if you’re intrigued.