‘Every day that it could yesterday it could yesterday be there during today.’
Gertrude Stein, How to Write (1931)
Is there a beginning in the noise of memory? Perhaps an interview between slips of memory and now – a conversation with someone I used to be, but probably never was. It is not necessarily the beginnings where questions appear. It is rather in the endings – conclusions – the placing back in place, the arrest of continuity.
The perpetual provocation of conditions makes me look up at the bookshelves. Life in film would probably be seen and heard through words, books, a trail of reading as much as from a pile of out-takes. I think of How to Write. Reading Gertrude Stein was a shock. She unravels syntax. Repetition and contradiction are composed and practiced by Stein. Reading resonates, resounds, even reverberates. I’m sure this reading permeated my writing for a time. The initial question remains whether it reached far into my work. It must have. It couldn’t not have.
In this conversation with someone I imagine I might have been, memory has different functions. It precedes something that is certain. It supports something that has been done and it affects, upsets or disturbs it all. I do not remember how I felt when I saw Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) for the first time. It is strange that out of a 1946 novel, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) by Luigi Bartolini, a film was created that is called ‘neo-realist’. This translation becomes transfixed by each illustrating the other. A realism is assumed in this reflection, despite its concentration upon – almost a sentimental obsession with – the tradition of the father and son. An assumption that realism is reality? I watch it and admire it for its analysis of vicious unemployment. Interestingly, very little mention is made today of the communist or socialist alternatives that were evident in Italy at the time and are apparent in the film.
Bicycle Thieves uses non-professional actors and was shot on the streets of Rome where living was hard and uncertain. It is a telling that counteracts those tales which blame the unemployed for being unemployed when there is a desperate scarcity of work. De Sica makes it plain that unemployment had everything to do with the complete lack of jobs. I think of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Hate, 1995) too. Youth in the suburbs is marginalized, out of work and in conflict with the police.
A sense of injustice often begins with disbelief. How can Alice Guy’s work be barely recognized, even today? Guy was the world’s first woman filmmaker. La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), made in April 1896, with a running time of less than a minute, is the earliest known fiction film. Between 1896 and 1914, Guy made numerous films. (She said: ‘I was at the same time scriptwriter, director, producer and in charge of the wardrobe.’) Guy used techniques such as running film in reverse and double exposure, and also produced pictures with sound in which Gaumont’s Chronophone synchronized a projector with sound recorded on a wax cylinder. As film moved toward corporate business, Guy found herself forced out of film directing and her work was widely ignored for many years. Does the omission of a fact imply a fiction inside the history of the remembered? Certainly, chronology loses its arresting presence in the history of the forgotten. Consequence is arbitrary.
In the midst of political tragedy, extreme violence is ordinary. In Primo Levi’s book Se questo é un uomo (If This is a Man, 1947), nothing is out of order, except order itself. ‘Everything was as silent as an aquarium [...] we had expected something more apocalyptic:they seemed simple police agents [...] but R. stayed an instant too long to say goodbye [...] and with a single blow they knocked him to the ground. It was their everyday duty.’ It is the extreme violence of the ordinary, its imprecise repetition of actions, that produces a sense of familiarity that is so dangerous. In the telling of the time everything cannot be included and by intention never is. Roma, cittá aperta (Rome, Open City), made in 1945 by Roberto Rossellini, is undeniably one particular telling of the time. In premises next door to the offices of Il Messagero a temporary studio was set up. Scenes were shot by tapping into the electricity that the Allied forces were providing for the newspaper. The interior shooting had to be done at night, the only time the electricity was turned on; exterior scenes were shot on the streets of Rome.
The confusion of fictional representation of an actual happening is vividly replayed by the screenwriter of Roma, cittá aperta, Sergio Amidei, who maintained that the episode in which Pina is shot down as she runs after her captured fiancé, Francesco, was taken from a real event that had occurred on the Piazza Adriana, though other people had other stories. He said that he had read about this in Unità, the underground Communist newspaper. Much happens between the event and the recording. Events translated into words are reframed as a script and re-enacted. Even neo-realism detaches itself from events to the film itself. It represents the action after it has happened. This is turned upside down by Annabel Nicolson’s Reel Time (1973), in which a film is made of Nicolson at a sewing machine before the ‘live action piece’ Reel Time takes place. As she wrote at the time: ‘The immediate event overshadowing the projected is also fundamental to Reel Time in which an extended loop of film is passed through the projector over the roof beams and through a sewing machine. While a second loop (negative) of me sewing and shadows of the same (positive) counter balance either side, the sewn loop could in time reveal through the sewing perforations the lighted shadow of the same event. Two people present read the manuals provided; one is how to thread the projector and one is how to thread the sewing machine.’
The performance ends when the film in the sewing machine breaks; things break – are interrupted, are fragile. There is a duration, but it is unpredictable: the film has no running time. The possibility of ‘failure’ is exactly the moment of change – liberation from instruction. Sewing can undo. Film breaks. The audience is a witness to the live action. Now I am remembering a performance I saw years ago. Other than photographs taken at the time, the audience are the only witnesses of the event.
In Olga Preobrazhenskaya’s Babi Riazanskie (The Women of Ryazan, 1927) the film is both witness and evidence: the witness of a violent oppression and the evidence of two women’s lives, Anna and Vassilisa. Generated by snokharchestvo (the sexual abuse of daughters-in-law still prevalent in rural areas of Russia of 1916–18), Anna suffers rape, rejection and suicide. Vassilisa, however, rebels, founds an orphanage, and emerges as the New Woman of the Soviet Union. ‘One of the most beautiful films ever made’, according to the Cinenova catalogue, the film achieved great success, yet Preobrazhenskaya’s career – not dissimilar to that of Guy – is gradually dimmed through marriage and ideological oppression. In retrospect, Babi Riazanskie foreshadows neo-realism, as Reel Time, in its indeterminate actuality, prefigures the event where the audience is both witness and reporter of live action.
Film is history, many histories. Narrative leaps from the book, the headline, the news flash; the mobile phone clip instantly streamed; digits are re-arranged. The hard drive replaces memory, but just as suddenly forgets. The file formats have changed. The clip of passer-by Ian Tomlinson, in London’s Threadneedle Street on 1 April 2009, leaves its trace in a newspaper cutting and in my mind; The White House watching murder live on screen; the image of a woman dragged along the ground by police in a street in Cairo … and on the bookshelf I catch sight of Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1983).
The provocation of conditions arrests continuity. This pause, this catching of breath, captures the illegality of inequity. The sheer weight of the provocation might lead to a break between tomorrow and yesterday. But now cannot be without then. In the end the necessity of movement will intervene to move the still, always.
Lis Rhodes is an artist who lives in London, UK. Her films have been screened internationally since the mid-1970s. Her solo exhibition ‘Dissonance and Disturbance’ was held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts earlier this year. Among other shows, her work was included in ‘In Person’, Film Museum, Vienna, Austria (2010); the 47th New York Film Festival, USA (2009); and ‘WACK!: Art and The Feminist Revolution’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA (2007). Her expanded cinema work, Light Music (1975), will be shown at Tate Modern, London, from 17 July – 28 October 2012.
First published in Issue 146