The third instalment of COLLECTIONS, a monthly series in which Daniel & Clara gather together thematically connected materials as they map their own path through the history of cinema and moving image art.
A room of one’s own is for many artists the essential ingredient for creation, a room to be silent in, to feel safe in, to spread out, to be alone with our thoughts and to focus our senses. A room of one’s own will be whatever each of us needs it to be – tidy or messy, tiny or large, completely bare or filled with mementos, creative triggers and symbolic doorways into adventures of the mind. Whatever form it takes, a room of one’s own is an extension of one’s own sense of self, a chamber whose boundaries are both interior and exterior, whose contents are impregnated with the inner life of its occupant.
We are fascinated by filmmakers’ attempts to capture this space for themselves, turning their cameras to their closest and most intimate surroundings. It could be seen as a form of self-portraiture, not only in those more straightforward documentations of the space and its contents which reveal the daily life of the artist but also in the more expressionistic accounts when the space takes on the mood and spirit which haunts the artist’s unconscious.
One’s home and work space is often the first thing filmmakers tend to film when they are getting to grips with their camera. It is the subject closest at hand for the first tests when one is exploring how the camera can transform reality. One of our favourite films of this kind is Derek Jarman’s first film Studio Bankside (1972).
Jarman had already been living in his warehouse studio on the Thames riverside for some time when a visitor from the US left him a Super 8 camera to try out. Studio Bankside is as much an exploration of the acts of looking and filming as it is an exploration of his living space. Using both colour and black & white, the film approaches the space and its contents in an exploratory fashion, images of Jarman and his friends are spliced with shots of the various objects found around the studio as well as time lapse footage of the surrounding area seen through the window. The rooms presented here exist in an industrial space lovingly transformed into a haven of creativity, a living space where art and life coexist. Here is a brief excerpt:
In Margaret Tait’s My Room, Via Ancona 21 (1951) – watch here – we see a document of another room where a creative life blossomed. This is a temporary room, one Tait occupied while she was studying filmmaking in Rome. By this time Tait had been a qualified doctor for ten years and had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, stationed in India, Sri Lanka and Malaya, but she had come to see her medical practice not as her life’s work but as a way to finance her art, so when she took the step into filmmaking it was a new direction in her life.
In this film, one of her first, the camera pans and tilts across the room purposefully but with a delicate looseness that gives the film a warm intimacy. Brief shots capture Tait’s belongings, we see filmmaking equipment along with tea cups, shoes, plates, stacks of paper, a hot water bottle, loose film stock and a copy of the British Medical Journal. Everything we see has a practical use, apart from maybe the three little decorative porcelain cups on the table which the camera honours with a close-up. We get the sense of a very pragmatic person dedicated to her work, for whom filmmaking has taken over her life, the stuff of her practice is treated just like any other day-to-day object, sometimes even repurposed like the tripod used for hanging the towel. From this film emanates the single-mindedness of someone who is in this place for a specific purpose and with not much interest in anything else, in the final shots of the street seen from the balcony one feels a certain distance from the activity going on below. And yet we get a sense of affection and even of humour from the contemplation of this rather plain room, perhaps what transpires is the joy one feels for following one’s own path, even if it comes with a spartan life.
Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre (1972) also documents a filmmaker’s room outside of their native country. In this case the focus is Akerman’s small apartment in New York, shot the day after she finished making the feature-length Hotel Monterey (1973).
Akerman’s strong formal approach is the highlight of La Chambre, it consists of a continuous 360º shot panning several times slowly and very deliberately around the room. We see Akerman herself laying lazily in bed as morning light streams in through the window. We are led around the room from a red chair to the breakfast table, to the wardrobe, the bed where Akerman is laying looking at the camera, around to the desk, the wash basin, cupboard, back to the red chair and then around again. This is Akerman’s characteristic direct style at its most simple and delightful, it seems like nothing much is happening but one finds that the camera move in itself builds up a tension, especially as there is so much to read in the room, the lack of overt action attuning our attention to the smallest of details which we read as plot points in a microscopic narrative.
Watching it the first time there is a labyrinthine aspect to the room, it is surprisingly difficult to orientate ourselves in the space and as the camera circles it’s hard to tell if we are seeing something for the first time or passing it again. While there are some significant objects that stand out and act as a kind of milestone in the space, there are also some dark gaps in between where our imagination takes over and by the time we slowly get to another significant object we are not sure what we’ve seen and what we’ve imagined.
It’s also confounding time-wise, the slow pace of the camera and repetitiveness of the subject make us feel that we might be going endlessly around the room many times but in fact it falls short of completing three full turns, at which point it stops going round and pans back and forth focusing on the bed area where Akerman lays, now eating apples. Her gaze, directed at the camera, is a subtle but amusing gesture, we’ve entered her room and got caught in her game, a witty play with our narrative expectations, but we can’t help thinking also of the many rooms we see in her later filmography, rooms which do feel like traps, imprisoning their characters through inertia.
Now for the first film in this collection that has sound – Living (1971) is a hypnotic short film by Frans Zwartjes, part of a series of films he made when he moved into a new home. In Living, Zwartjes and his wife Trix explore the empty rooms of their new house, the camera is handheld by Zwartjes but pointed at himself and it moves in the most unexpected ways, floating up and swooping down, flowing left and right as if weightless, displaying some of the most dynamic handheld camerawork we’ve ever seen.
The dizzying wide-angle shots express the uncanny feeling of entering a new space, the attempt to encompass the rooms in their wholeness and in their details, and trying to negotiate the right relationship between our bodies and the space. The characters wander hesitantly through the rooms in a state of anxious tension, their vulnerability emphasised by their overly-formal dress and powdery white face make-up. Zwartjes contorts his mouth and repeatedly wipes his lips with a handkerchief as if he is sick, while Trix is occasionally assaulted by the camera’s sudden sexual intrusions between her legs.
This film seems to express something of the impact of one’s living space on our state of mind, particularly that weird sense of entering into a new house before unpacking one’s things – the bright blank walls a disorientating maze not yet filled with the adornments of life. Soon there will be furniture, pictures on the walls and orientation will be regained, the blank canvas filled with the narrative of home, but for a short while it exists as an alienating zone where we are confronted with a sense of existential terror.
Jan Švankmajer’s The Flat (1968) presents a room possessed with a nightmarish atmosphere. In this black and white, silent movie inspired film nothing seems to behave according to our expectations. The room is an unwelcoming and hostile space that acts with its own non-human intent, its uncanny sense of action is clear right from the start as the protagonist is dragged into it and authoritatively led across the room by chalk-drawn arrows. The room’s domineering and aggressive character is made manifest through the animation of its various components, and it seems to be playing with the protagonist’s willingness to comply, we could say it even seems to mock and punish his expectations that reality will behave as it should. This transformation of normal, everyday materials into anarchic objects with a mind of their own is characteristic of all of Švankmajer’s work, but in this early short it takes an especially dark tone, the more you watch the more the blank-faced protagonist seems doomed to the confines of his torturous prison.
A brief glimpse of hope comes with the appearance of a Chaplin-like figure, played by director Juraj Herz, who floats into the room to deliver an axe. But not even this can save the protagonist, he uses it to smash down the door only to be confronted by a solid wall on which are carved the names of the many previous victims of the room’s torments. He surrenders and carves his own name, Josef, calling to mind Kafka’s Josef K., a character also condemned by an unseen authority he cannot appeal to. In The Flat we see expressed the betrayal of the sense of safety and familiarity we associate with our private rooms, that even this most familiar of spaces can be invaded by threats and everyday objects can conceal a potential danger.
In The Way To Shadow Garden (1954) by Stan Brakhage, a young man’s increasing feelings of confinement and unease lead him to a self-destructive act that opens him up to a new dimension of experience. An exciting precursor to Brakhage’s later style which favours a first-person perspective, in this film the camera’s eye shifts between a conventional narrative gaze and a first-person view which acts as a vehicle for the viewer to embody the unknown entity whose presence in the room seems to be the cause of the young man’s agitation.
The film opens with a long shot of a street at night and a young man walking towards the camera, lost in his thoughts. He is still far from the camera as it pans to the right, revealing two windows with bright lights spilling into the dark. With a cut we’re inside a small apartment and the camera, now handheld, scans the room as one would with one’s own eyes. On the soundtrack we hear a wind-like sound clearly produced by someone breathing and moaning. Something is not quite right in this room, the door ajar lets the dark of night in, a lampshade spins by itself, the bed covers are shaped against the form of a body and yet there is no one sleeping in it.
Brakhage repeatedly diverts our expectations, what at first seems to be the character’s point-of-view is revealed not to be as the actor enters the shot. A strange feeling creeps up on us, that we are seeing through the eyes of a mysterious unknown entity, maybe it’s the wind or maybe something else. Whatever it is, it seems to affect the young man’s own sense of perception, and no matter how much he tries to settle into the room and relax, he cannot. He is struck by some kind of dissociative attack, as if this unknown entity intrudes his vision and impels him to act stranger and stranger.
Finally in an act of despair he blinds himself by pressing broken glass into his eyes. Bleeding from his eye sockets, he feels his way out of the room into a luscious garden, rendered in negative black & white, where we lose him amongst the flowers and bushes, blending in like a wild creature in the dense vegetation. Here the confinement of one’s room is an externalisation of an inner imprisonment, a struggle with the walls we find inside ourselves; in the end, losing his eyesight allows the young man to transcend himself and his room, perhaps into madness or into a new realm of perception.
All the films in this collection so far have focused on rooms and individuals, exploring the ways one’s living space is an externalisation of one’s psyche or the impact it can have on one’s state of mind. This final film shows a different perspective, an interior as a witness to the passing of time.
Pia Borg’s Palimpsest (2009) combines time-lapse, real-time photography, stop-frame animation and ghostly superimpositions, to present a room whose interior is filled with the residues of three centuries of human activity resonating between its walls.