Bright Lights Film Journal

Spade Work: Four Autobiographies and an Elegy: My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2008); Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2007); Hommage (Jean-Marie Téno, 1985); Gloria! (Hollis Frampton, 1979); and (nostalgia) (Hollis Frampton, 1971)

“Because they assume that memory is fallible and experience inassimilable, they’re more like inquests or excavations than diaries or memoirs. Instead of reminiscing, they dig.”

In the published notes to his experimental film autobiography (nostalgia), (1971), Hollis Frampton described his working method:

My subject, hoping abjectly to be taken for a man of his time, had practiced rigorous self-effacement for a decade or more. So I was forced into examining his leavings and middens, like an archaeologist sifting for ostracizing pot shards.1

(nostalgia) has long been regarded as a masterpiece of structuralist film, interrogating the relationship between film, still image, and voiceover. But it’s also a founding document for a new kind of skeptical, self-reflexive autobiography.

These are films which take place in the gap between author and subject. That is to say, even though they’re autobiographies, they assume that the person making the film isn’t the person the film is about. Because they assume that memory is fallible and experience inassimilable, they’re more like inquests or excavations than diaries or memoirs. Instead of reminiscing, they dig. Following Frampton’s lead, I would call them archaeologic films.

In recent years several great filmmakers have been making them. Some, like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, and Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City, are biographies of cities as well as of their makers. Jean-Marie Téno’s Hommage mixes investigation of place with elegy and introspection.

Of the four films, Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) is the most austerely devoted to self-scrutiny and, despite appearances, to demystification. The first section of the seven-part Hapax Legomena series, (nostalgia) is a künstlerroman about a filmmaker finding his vocation on the Damascus Road of still photography. It consists of thirteen photographs viewed head-on: twelve by Frampton and one found image. Some are attempted artworks; others were made on a whim or as favors to friends. Together, they capture the back alley romance of the Lower East Side in the early 1960s as a group of young artists, including James Rosenquist, Frank Stella, Michael Snow and Frampton’s prep-school roommate Carl Andre, were turning their oedipal revolt against Abstract Expressionism into open war.

Each of Frampton’s photos is on a hot plate; we are watching them burn. A black spiral slowly appears on their surface and then they shrivel into ash. A voiceover, delivered by Michael Snow in the guise of Frampton, accompanies their destruction. He describes the circumstances behind each photo’s composition and interprets them in parodies of art-historical interpretationese. However, the voiceover and the images are out of synch. We don’t see a photograph until its description is over, though we do not realize this until after Snow, as Frampton, has described a picture of Carl Andre as if it was of himself. For the rest of the film, we watch while remembering the previous description, and we listen in anticipation of the next photograph. As the last picture burns, the narrator describes an image containing a horrifying detail, which we never get to see. The film ends with him asking, desperately, “Do you see what I see?”

This summary doesn’t convey either the beauty of this film or its demanding combination of deadpan humor and intellectual rigor. It is also a daredevil act of artistic self-abnegation. The captions, heard against the photos — some of which are genuinely ghastly pieces of teenage pomp and pseudo-Surrealist juvenilia — evoke an unexpected amount of feeling. Watching creative failure brought so close to erudite self-criticism is like seeing someone juggle with TNT, at once brilliant and wince-worthy.

Frampton manages to slip the story of his life into this creative auto-da-fe, only to snatch it back in the final reel. (nostalgia) isn’t so much an autobiography as an essay on the impossibility of the genre. Between himself and the person who “had once been myself” lies an unbridgeable gulf. As his voiceover (further distanced by being delivered by Michael Snow) makes clear, even Frampton’s cells are no longer the same as they were, except for the central nervous system.

In (nostalgia) the artist’s archive provides the structuring mechanism for his reminiscences, real and invented. A city map does the same in Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City. As an autobiography, My Winnipeg is structured around an attempt to dodge the burden of biography. At its start Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr) is on a train, dozing. He is trying to escape the city of his birth, “his home for his entire life,” and with it, the paralyzing presence of his mother. But Winnipeg has other ideas. It’s a labyrinth, “a city of palimpsests, of skins, of skins beneath skins” whose very layout mirrors Maddin’s fraught psychohistory. Stymied by the constant sleepwalking of his fellow citizens, Maddin decides to “film his way out.”

Maddin sees Winnipeg as a city of symbols, doubles, and hilariously over-determined sexual confusion. Its very location, at the confluence of the Red and Assinoboine Rivers, is an oedipal rebuke. Maddin rhymes the intersecting rivers, called the Forks, with an image of his mother’s lap, naked and glimpsed through a peephole. Maddin’s narcoleptic chant of “the forks, the lap, the forks, the lap” sounds through the rest of the movie as an obligato of compulsive doubling and geographic neurosis.

Everything in Winnipeg is doubled. Beneath the Forks, according to Indian lore, lie another set of Forks, the Forks beneath the Forks. A subterranean swimming pool sits atop another one, even deeper underground. The layout of the city is similarly doubled and obscured. A second set of streets exists in addition to those found on maps:

In Winnipeg it’s way more fun for us to cross the city using only its back lanes. The city possesses a vast network of these unofficial streets. A fine grid-like work of narrow unspoken of byways that hold a charm all of their own . . . It’s inside these black arteries where the real Winnipeg is found, where memories most plausibly come alive. The network of these lanes suggests the grid of a secret city, laid directly on top of the known one . . . the lanes are illicit things, best not discussed, shameful.

To exorcise some of this shame, Maddin decides to restage key scenes from his early life. He rents out his childhood home, perched above his mother’s beauty salon, and hires actors to portray himself and his siblings. His mother ostensibly plays herself, though in reality she is portrayed by noir battle-axe Ann Savage in a masterstroke of intuitive casting. These reenactments run from the uproariously irksome — Sisyphean attempts to straighten a hallway runner — to the wrenching — his mother turns his sister’s collision with a deer into an interrogation about her supposed sex life.

Autobiographic elements are scattered through much of Guy Maddin’s filmography, either in the form of geographical cues, as in Tales from the Gimli Hospital and The Saddest Music in the World, or as fully worked out mythologies of alternate, demonic parentage, as in Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain! For all the gothic convolutions of its plot (Chinese temptresses, zombie hands), the basic coordinates of Cowards Bend the Knee are the same as those in My Winnipeg; both movies take place under the twin signs of the mother’s beauty salon (doubling as an abortion clinic in Cowards) and the father’s hockey arena (Maddin’s father was a longtime coach of the Winnipeg Maroons).

My Winnipeg is not limited to these two spaces. The film moves out in concentric circles until it subsumes the surrounding city. While My Winnipeg is the most fleshed out of Maddin’s autobiographic fictions and seemingly the most true to the biographic details of his life, it is also a mordant essay on the civic history and architecture of his home town. The two elements of the film circle each other from opposite chronological perspectives, until the story of Maddin’s passage towards a peculiarly Canadian sexual maturity transforms into a lament for Winnipeg’s lost monuments: that same hockey stadium, a terrific department store, and its forgotten history — the real, the imaginary, and the genuinely imagined, including Communist strikes, parliamentary séances, impossible winters and staged Nazi invasions.

A tenacious concern for the material fabric of civic life also animates Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City. Davies’ native Liverpool is the overarching subject of his art. It is the setting for all his films except for two literary adaptations (The Neon Bible and House of Mirth). His Liverpudlian youth sustains all the rest, from his student trilogy, Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration, which together constitute an accelerated life-history from birth to death, from the 1940s to the 1970s, with a special focus on its tutelary institutions: school, church and the workplace. His next two films, the paired Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, explore the same terrain at a more leisurely pace, drawing out events and scenes from a few years in Davies’ childhood in the 1950s. These take place wholly in a circle circumscribed by family, home and neighborhood, rarely straying farther from the front stoop than the corner pub or cinema. The two films provide a remarkable portrait of a moment in Catholic working-class habits, dress, song, and even more indelibly, of the war of attrition known as family life. The two films are poised between the figures of Davies’ benevolent, long-suffering mother and brutal, magmatic father, indelibly embodied onscreen by the barbaric head of Pete Postlewhaite.

Davies’ films are the product of an unyielding fidelity to a vanished place and time, to its textures and spaces. On the spectrum between mourning and melancholy, Davies falls decidedly on the melancholic end. He doesn’t share the anxieties about parentage and artistic vocation that drive Frampton and Maddin. Davies has said in interviews that his youth, from age seven to eleven, was the happiest time of his life: “I was ecstatically happy and everything seemed magical. Literally, I was sick with happiness.”2 This bliss ended with the abrupt realization of his homosexuality, which he experienced as a kind of divine curse. Davies’ attraction to that lost idyll might explain his lack of interest in establishing distance from himself through irony or myth. At the same time, whatever nostalgia is present in his films is shadowed by the baleful presence of a hated father, and a church which has given more pain than succor.

Although his latest film, Of Time and the City, is a documentary, it follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessors. Like My Winnipeg, the film was commissioned as a work of municipal self-congratulation. Instead, Davies has produced a rapturous evocation of the past — he summons the city of his youth in all its dimensions, its architecture, music, movies, vacations, smell, houses, backstreets, churches, rites of passage — while at the same time delivering a Jeremiah-worthy damning of the present. The two modes work in tight counterpoint — reverie alternates with exfoliating blasts of scorn. A stanza from a poem by Housman

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again

sets the tone for the bittersweet half. Shelley’s Ozymandias does the same for the angry one. Davies aims his magnificent wrath at a city which has become an “anus mundi” of council flats and chain pubs. In between the two, archival footage presents a strangely beguiling vision of 1950s Liverpool as a city of crowded docks and busy streets, where pleasure could be snatched from the perfumed atmosphere of a church or in the midnight theatrics of a wrestling match.

Davies never appears onscreen in Of Time and the City; he is only present as a voice. But what a voice! Seductively erudite, luxuriously vituperative, nostalgic, inflamed, an iron fist in a velvet glove and vice versa.

Voice is crucial to autobiography, its vessel. A disjoint between it and the speaker is typical of archaeologic films. In (nostalgia), Hollis Frampton is present as an image (incinerated), but his voice is supplied by Michael Snow. In My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin supplies the voice, but Darcy Kehr provides the body. In Hommage, Jean-Marie Téno tests a novel solution to this problem of tension between authorial voice and self-depiction.

Jean-Marie Téno is chiefly a documentary maker (though he has one fiction film under his belt, Clando, 1996). Most of his documentaries focus on social problems in his native Cameroon. His films are centrifugal; they begin with a local injustice — an unequal marriage; a child thief threatened by villagers; the difficulty of publishing a book in Yaoundé — and work steadily outwards, until they include everything around them — the pathologies of chieftainship, the destruction of African alphabets, the problems of film distribution, the legacy of colonial wars, structures of patriarchy and corruption.

For all their social and historical intelligence, Téno’s films are most remarkable for his ability to let his subjects speak for themselves. Téno’s most recent film, Sacred Places (Lieux Saints, 2009), is an investigation of the practice of African cinema, stepping out of the Burkina Faso Film Festival in Ougadougou to dwell in the storefront “cinemas” operating in its shadow. Moving through their neighborhood, he picks up the trail of a local djembe maker, who explains that the drum is film’s “elder brother.”

A current of autobiography runs through much of Téno’s work. It is especially evident in his Chief! (Chef!, 1999), where he returns to his family’s home counties for a festival, and in Africa We Will Fleece You (Afrique, je te plumerai, 1993), where he recalls his childhood education in colonial-era primary school and Bollywood movie house. His most autobiographical film, though, is one of his first films, the thirteen-minute short Hommage (1985).

Hommage is an elegy for Téno’s father, who died while he was in Paris. Téno was not able to attend the funeral. Instead, he created a short film out of images of his hometown of Bafoussam. In it, Téno memorializes his father; at the same time he interrogates his own motives in leaving Cameroon. To do so he uses dueling voiceovers, one in his own voice, one in the voice of a hypothetical self who stayed in Cameroon. For the length of the film the two selves argue, forcing each other to justify their decision to stay in Africa or go to Europe. All the themes that inform Téno’s work are already present here: his insistent questioning of his own film practice and motives, the intersection between individual lives and historical structures, and the tension between the homogenizing pressure of modernity and the spirit of place. But in the end the most indelible impression from Hommage comes from its backdrop in the outskirts of Bafoussam, with their too-broad boulevards, thatched fences, red-dirt streets and wandering chickens.

Elegy likewise opened a way out of the maze of solipsism for Hollis Frampton. Gloria! (1979), the dedicatory pendant to his immense and unfinished Magellan cycle, is perhaps his most moving and accessible work. A short remembrance of Frampton’s Irish grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth Catlett Cross, it is composed of four distinct structural elements over the course of ten minutes. The first and last sequences are short archival films from the turn of the last century depicting comic scenes at an Irish wake. The third part focuses on the song “Lady Bonaparte,” a tune his grandmother remembered hearing at her wedding party, played over a green screen. The second section presents that text of sixteen numbered propositions about her, beginning with “that we belonged to the same kinship group, sharing a tie of blood” and ending with “that her last request was for a bushel basket full of empty quart measures.”3

During the making of (nostalgia) Frampton presented himself as a radical skeptic of individual subjectivity. That film takes place between the person in the past “who had once been myself” and an investigating intelligence working in the present who does not even share the same cells as its former body. In his gnomic and brilliant essay from 1972, “Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative,” Frampton delivers an even stronger denunciation of the notion of a continuous self, attacking the presumptive first-person singular:

“I” is the English familiar name by which an unspeakably intricate network of colloidal circuits — or, as some reason, the garrulous temporary inhabitant of the nexus — addresses itself; occasionally, etiquette permitting, it even calls itself that in public. How it came to be there (together with some off bits of phantasmal rubbish) is a subject for virtually endless speculation: it is certainly alone; and in time it convinces itself, somewhat reluctantly, that it is waiting to die.4

A shift takes place in Gloria! In the course of sketching the contours of his grandmother’s life, he reveals that it was she who originally taught him a way out of the predicament of his selfhood. Fanny Cross taught Hollis to read. She read Shakespeare’s The Tempest to him when he was three years old and admonished him for liking Caliban best. She gave her his teeth to play with when they were pulled. And finally, “she convinced me, gradually, that the first person singular pronoun was, after all, grammatically feasible.”5

Six years before making Gloria!, Frampton spoke briefly at a conference of the possibilities of autobiographic filmmaking. In his remarks, he mentions the recent death of his grandmother and offers a sharply revised definition of autobiography:

I understand the word autobiography to mean: writing one’s own life. But perhaps, as with so much of Greek, our text is corrupt. I would rather understand it to mean: life, writing itself: just as we who use the camera must understand photography to mean: light, writing itself. We are not so much agents as intermediaries when we introduce film to light, as we might bring together two good friends, hoping they will love one another as we love them both.6

Frampton began his all too brief career as the archetypal archaeologist, surveying his own life from a great remove, detached, ironic, inquisitive and interrogating. But faced with death, even Frampton opened himself to the possibility of film that captures “life, writing itself.”

  1. Hollis Frampton, “Notes on (nostalgia),” Film Culture, 53, 54, 55, (Spring 1972), p. 114, cited in Sitney, “Autobiography in Avant-Garde Film,” p. 232. []
  2. Jason Anderson, “My Liverpool: Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City,” Cinemascope 35, archived at http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs35/int_anderson_davies.html. []
  3. Hollis Frampton, “Text of Intertitles for Gloria!” in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, Ed. Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), p. 253. []
  4. ———, “A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative,” in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, Ed. Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), p. 144. []
  5. ———, “Text of Intertitles for Gloria!,” p. 254. []
  6. ———, “Mental Notes,” in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, Ed. Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), p. 255. This talk was originally delivered in 1973. []