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Monday, 24 November 2014

Grief, Gish and Three Days in Tharoul

I saw the 1927 silent classic, The Wind at the weekend. It was showing as part of the Bath Film Festival and came with a wonderful live accompaniment by Lola Perrin. It was tremendously intense, the piano carrying us through the screen into the faces of the characters; the troubed Letty, the heartbroken Lige and the predatory Wirt. There was such momentum in the playing that it made it a real journey into the desperate heart of Letty who was played by Lillian Gish.

In Bath, we don't often get the chance to see silent classics on the big screen (maybe the Bath Film Festival is the only time), so this was a real treat, especially with the fantastic score. What was also noticeable was how strong the female character was. Or maybe strong isn't the right word. She had a personality, let's put it that way.

The film essentially tells the story of Letty's departure from Virginia to forge a new life, to find love and fulfilment in the windswept badlands of the prairies. But instead of love, she comes up against hardship, jealousy and cruelty, with the maddening howl of the prairie wind the only accompaniment.

So Letty is going mad with the wind and she's going mad in her love life. The man she thinks she loves, Wirt, proves to be a scoundrel who is married. She is hearbroken and disappointed. When she is forced out of the home she is living in, she marries another man, Lige, out of desperation. Lige is truly in love with her. But she is not in love with him, as he finds out on their wedding night. When his love is unquenched, he is disappointed but honourable. He pledges that he will save her,that her happiness is his only wish.

And so he goes off to earn her ticket home. Letty is left to her own devices, and feels herself going mad with the howl of the wind. She is alone, but then the rapacious Wirt finds and violates her. In the morning she kills him and buries her body in the shifting sands of the prairies.

I won't give away the ending. At the Bath Film Festival, the projector broke just before the climax. But instead of seeing the Hollywood ending, Lola Perrin the pianist explained told us the ending that Lillan Gish had campaigned for - the one that belonged to the original novel, the ending where Letty walks out of the house into the howling wind, ending her life on her own terms, beholden to no man, able to be herself at last to confront her own mortality.

It was the right ending, the one that doesn't pull any punches, in which the woman determines her own destiny. Sadly, Gish was over-ruled by some Hollywood no-nothings and we got a different ending. Still great but Letty comes over as very much less independent.


Funnily enough, I saw another film about a woman lost in a wilderness at the weekend. Yes, it's Gravity. But here, the protagonist Ryan is a lily-livered soul who owes her life to Matt (played by George Clooney). Oh, what a sad apology of a character Ryan is. Her personality revolves around the MacGuffin of her dead daughter (continuing in the Bambi tradition: a dead male would have been too heartbreaking) and she is limited in all kinds of ways, including the spiritual. There is even a line where she moans that she can't pray, because she was never taught to pray, as if God had anything to do with it. This is from my wife's scathing review: 

Gravity is an inherently conservative, conventional Hollywood film dressed up as cutting edge. Personally, I feel insulted by that. It's like being promised Beef Wellington, then being given a sausage roll instead. The effects may be spectacular, but character and story-wise it feels like we've gone back in time. Ryan is no Ripley: she is a rather dull heroine who never seems to move beyond an emotional monotone: fear and lack of confidence. She is a vehicle for the plot, a body in a spacesuit. Personally, I didn't really care whether she made it or not.

So there we have it: female characterisation 1927 v female characterisation 2013. Lillian Gish monsters Sandra Bullock and George Clooney should just be embarrassed the dimensions he's plunging too.

So I was wondering about women in photobooks and it brought me back to Anne de Gelas. Rob Hornstra does a thing on photobooks,  the madness of the end-of-year lists (I love them!) and how to get on them. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek but alot of it looks like good advice to me. I'm not sure it's entirely meant to be.

picture by Nausicaa Giulia Bianchi

One of the things he talks about is the most neglected photobook.

Anne de Gelas's L'Amoureuse is my most neglected photobook. It's a story of grief where the message is never diluted, where the determination of a grief-stricken destiny is the absolute core of the boom. Very often, photography is used to dilute a message.People remove the story in the name of mystery, ethics or a skewed sense of balance. l'Amoureuse doesn't do this. It has the courage of its convictions.

The basic message sets the tone:

'There is a never a right way to tell a child about the death of his father.'

This is from the book:

T., my lover and father of my son, died on April 5, 2010 of a brain stroke. He fell beside us on a beach at the North Sea. The violence of his death put me in front of a big void…a silence that echoed in my head only equal to the brightness of the blue sky which no planes crossed because of the ashes of a volcano in anger, my anger.

To face that loss, I plunged myself into the work that I had started more than 10 years ago consisting in writing a personal diary, now focussing on telling about my suffering but also about that surplus energy that burst within me.

And this is from my original review. 

It's a story about family, childhood and being a woman who is suddenly plunged into a morass of solitude. How does that feel for you, for your family, for your future. What are the little things that will be missed, the little things that make a father and lover irreplaceable in a family's life.

It is also about physical and emotional love, and what it means to have that ripped away from you. What it means as a woman. There's a confrontation with both the immediacy of that loneliness, but also the wider void that threatens.

L'Amoureuse doesn't have a happy ending, because there's no happy ending to be had, but there is a resolution in the sense that life shifts, love changes and new beings are born out of tragedy.

So it's a book with a real character with a real life and all-too real problems. But then I wonder. It might not be that the book is neglected. I don't think it is. It's simply the fact that it is only in French and it's not that neglected in French-speaking land. I wonder how it would be 'neglected' if it were in English as well.

Maybe I should ask, why don't you do an English version.

The book was published by Fabrice Wagner at Le Caillou Bleu. He makes beautiful, thoughtful books. Every year he also runs a programme called Three days in Tharoul.

He invites people over to make a book. As in one book. The book is made and it stays in the house where it is made. A library accumulates. Slowly. It's slow photography.

Last year he invited Pino Musi, Remi Coignet and others. This year it's Paul Gaffney, Pierre Liebaert and myself. I have no idea what is going to happen but I'm sure it will be lovely.

So there will be a break from the blog for a week or so. And I'll be sure to ask Fabrice about an English version of L'Amoreuse.

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