RAY & LIZ

By Andréa Picard 

Right now a moment is fleeting by!”—Paul Cézanne

Memory demands an image.”—Bertrand Russell

I don’t make movies about my life. I live my life like a movie.”—Lana Del Rey

How often has a film or artwork been praised for capturing or visually demonstrating the ineffable? But what about the indelible, that which lays claws on us, refuses to let go, and continues to alternately haunt and inspire? To restate the oft-said: cinema is inherently imbued with ghosts and phantasms as much as fantasies—projections from one person’s mind to that of another. We can revisit and debate all we want the aesthetic and psychoanalytic theories about film’s abilities to resuscitate the past, to animate a moment locked in time, and to replay it over and over again, but one thing remains certain and is still somehow contentious: the role of our subjectivity. “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag’s famous 1964 essay, has lost none of its relevance, calling as it does upon our senses to revitalize our own existence via art, rather than primarily interpreting the content of that art. Sontag’s advice is for the artist as much as for the critic, and a notion both totally romantic and exceedingly pertinent—more than welcome in an age of fractured identity politics, cynicism, and psychic exhaustion. We know that content can shift with the context (fixity is perhaps the most elusive of all things these days), but what about those unforgettable details that locate a common denominator—that of simply being human and living one’s life?

Two of 2018’s most affecting films, British artist Richard Billingham’s impressive and quietly wrenching feature debut RAY & LIZ and Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s semi-posthumous diary film cum sinuous and generous love letter, I diari di Angela—Noi due cineasti, both explicitly draw from and depict indelible moments from the filmmakers’ respective lives. RAY & LIZ had a long gestation period: the project was announced several years back during a fundraising campaign, and taking as its starting point Billingham’s celebrated and iconic YBA photographs from the ’90s. Gianikian, on the other hand, compiled and completed his film in a hot flash of emotion, working through (or despite) the grief of having lost Angela, his partner in life and in work, who died in late February, as he undoubtedly wanted to remain near her, close to her image, loyal to their mutual, engaged mission as artists, and especially to hear her voice again. It was imperative to keep going, no matter what. The two films could not be more different both stylistically and in terms of content, yet both affirm strong, personal voices, displaying the porous boundaries of autobiography in cinema where life and art intersect and overlap. This may be a well-worn genre, but these films are full of vivacity, poignancy, resilience, reckoning, and melancholy.

Although he began his career as a painter, Billingham is best known for a series of striking photographs depicting his family in their Black Country council flat on the outskirts of Birmingham during the Thatcher era. The saturated, startling images, often disarmingly candid and composed within cramped, claustrophobic spaces, exude raw emotion and intimacy, and have been compared to the revealing and deeply personal work of Nan Goldin. Consisting of portraits of Billingham’s alcoholic father Ray, his obese, tattooed, puzzle-playing, and chain-smoking mother Elizabeth, and his younger brother Jason, the photographs were published in 1996 as an artist’s book titled Ray’s a Laugh. An immediate success, the photographs were hailed for their emotional authenticity, warmth, and compassion, while simultaneously igniting debates on the ethics of representation, with the work’s squalid realism inevitably read as polemical. How often have empathy, curiosity, and voyeurism walked along the same fine line? And what liberty does one have in representing one’s own life? The jury’s still out (or at least wavering) if you’ve read the latest in contemporary discourse, but Billingham’s work has only ever struck me as sincere, somewhat sad, sometimes wry and playful, never exploitative or gratuitously abject. It is not only a disquisition on class as much as an affirmation of a life being led and observed in the face of harsh social conditions and ailments, and a reminder that humour and purpose can indeed soothe the soul.

Stunningly shot on Super 16mm by Daniel Landin, RAY & LIZ dreamily unfolds as a triptych, fictionalized re-enactments of everyday rituals and details that defy chronology as if jutting forth from memory itself, and are as much about desperation and poverty as they are resistance and small moments of grace. Three distinct episodes—Ray in his later years, self-confined to his bed, drinking all day; a babysitting uncle’s boozy bender; and Jason’s overnight outdoors excursion—are assembled like a puzzle of memories, encased in a mise en scène replete with lace curtains, paisley rugs, and ornate wallpaper, which all contribute to both the tackiness and the paradoxical beauty of the film’s period decor. While each of the characters is exquisitely sketched and superbly acted, the film accrues power by the strength of its indelible details, often rendered in extreme close-up: the golden light streaming through the window, the bottles of brown, swamp-like homemade brew, large jars of pickled beets, the fly resting upon the sill. Like the cliché of Proust’s madeleines, these punctum-like details recast nostalgia into a spectrum of colour and sensation harbouring the weight of emotion, with fragments of testimony carried within, then released into the world newly transformed. (We might not want to smell them wafting, however…)

An original take on the British kitchen-sink genre, RAY & LIZ recalls the grittiness of early Ken Loach, the absurdity of Samuel Beckett, and the outsized yet strangely intimate melodrama of Fassbinder’s gauzy 16mm television work, all the while exhibiting a vision and aesthetic all its own. It has a compositional elegance in its boxy frame, demonstrates restraint in its reach, yet is as fanciful as pop. By turns sad, funny, and humanist, Billingham’s film is a successful example of a visual artist grasping the unique language of cinema and its power to convey both time’s passing and its jolting immediacy. The film also benefits from a terrific, time-warping soundtrack—which includes “Happy House” by Siouxsie and the Banshees and “Good Thing” by the Fine Young Cannibals—that injects some clever irony and paradoxical emotion into a generally bleak portrait. Whether based on memory or already extant representations of that memory, both photographed and filmed—Billingham had already made a short documentary on his family called Fishtank (1998), and the sequences of the older Ray alone in his room were presented as a single-channel video work in 2015—the film relies on narrative development, no matter how distilled and attenuated, to amplify the complexity of human emotion, even the oneiric quality it can sometimes exude. RAY & LIZ teeters on abstraction, but nevertheless conveys a family drama that is soulful and stings.

Forthcoming, patient, and articulate during his Q&A at TIFF, Billingham perfectly summed up the film’s complex mix of emotion in one of his responses. When an audience member asked whether Liz was expressing sadness or shame as she cried upon finding out that her youngest child would be taken from her and put into foster care due to her and Ray’s negligence, Billingham confirmed the viewer’s suspicion: a combination of both. But also, he continued with a bit of a laugh, because she’s upset to lose the government paycheque that comes with the boy. As it consistently oscillates between hope and hopelessness, one could say the film maintains a healthy distance while inducing heartache. Ray takes great pleasure in drinking his days away, but that taste is bittersweet— he’s aware and sensitive enough to know that he’s wasting his life as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to inure himself from failure. It is perhaps unsurprising that some critics have lamented the film’s so-called miserabilism, finding in its startling scenarios—Ray’s excessive drinking and atrophied existence, the shocking child neglect and general filth of the family’s flat, the overall drabness of their lives—a deep dive into wretchedness. And yet moments of tenderness and comic relief, and the extraordinary performances that render the outsized personalities endearing despite their flaws, elevate the film far beyond the confines of misery. Love trumps judgement—a hot mess can be an antidote to the societal pressures for normalcy under duress. RAY & LIZ can be read as a time capsule from Thatcher’s Britain through the frame of an artist’s ever-evolving oeuvre and experimentation in a new medium, a fragmentary teenage memoir, a portrait of family dysfunction and struggle, but also as an affirmation of life itself. Owning it, as it were.

***

A very different portrait of family and love emerges from Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s I diari di Angela—Noi due cineasti, a film assembled by Gianikian as a tribute to a life’s work and, above all, to the love of his life. Using personal video footage largely shot by him over the course of their 40-year career, and Ricci Lucchi’s extensive diaries and gestural drawings, Gianikian has produced an intimate yet epic journey of a film. It begins with the couple’s 2012 retrospective exhibition at the HangarBicocca in Milan—as Angela tells the camera, their first in their own country. Indeed, even in Italy these singular and extraordinary artists and filmmakers were, for a long time, not given the recognition they deserved. Public accolades came later, including their winning of the Golden Lion at the 2014 Venice Biennale as part of the Armenian pavilion, which is movingly documented on video and is shown near the end of the film, after what feels like an overwhelming abundance of rich life experiences, globetrotting encounters, and homemade meals prepared by Angela—all the beauty, tragedy, and survival that life inevitably insists on serving.

The illustrated diaries (with their intricate marginalia, not unlike medieval manuscripts) provide the structure for the film. Yervant physically opens and shows them, his hands pressing down upon handwritten pages. The words and observations spoken in voiceover throughout the film are hers, voiced by him—so Yervant is often amusingly relating anecdotes about himself, as Angela ostensibly made him the main subject of her chronicles. She writes about him and he constantly films her in fits and starts, in furtive cutaways, as she catches his glance, sometimes performs and hams it up, or coyly tries to hide her self-consciousness and evade the camera’s gaze. We are quickly privy to their beautiful dance of complicity, which has an innocent hide-and-seek quality to it. The accumulation of largely non-chronological footage shows the couple’s peripatetic nature as they set out to do field research in war-wounded countries (Armenia, the Balkans, Turkey, the former USSR), excavation trips for finding rare films (which speak to the Cold War, dictatorship, fascism, militarism, genocide, imperialism, propaganda, and colonial conquests, films both forgotten and/or suppressed) for their archive collection—the raw and sometimes dangerous material of their work. But more than that, the trips are imbued with a humanist impulse to meet like-minded artists, poets, activists, and musicians fighting against oppression, and a desire and curiosity to hear first-hand testimony as much as to linger over long, boozy meals in which song or laughter break out in exuberant moments of camaraderie and solidarity, cutting through cultural and language barriers.

An artist who studied watercolour with Oskar Kokoschka in Salzburg, and who participated in many avant-garde movements including “mail art,” Ricci Lucchi met Gianikian while working on an art project; at the time he was a handsome, moustachioed recluse living in the Alps. That was in 1975, and the two quickly began working and living together, always committed to an idea of the avant-garde, to resisting the mainstream dominant-culture machines, seeking alternative ways of seeing the world and of exposing the violence of the 20th century and its inevitable cycles. Their first collaboration occurred that very year, when Angela made a short 8mm film and Yervant created superimpositions for it. A lyrical, experimental film based on a poem by Ezra Pound, it is one of many surprising gems embedded in I diari. Ever the Benjaminian collectors, the pair work shifted the focus of their work to the archive when they received boxes of 35mm nitrate film from a lab in Milan that had been storing Luca Comerio’s films. Comerio was the king’s official photographer and an Italian documentary pioneer, but Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi’s “analytic camera” transformed the meaning of Comerio’s images. That camera is a metaphorical one for cataloguing and seeing, and Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi’s process of meticulously examining celluloid one photogram at a time, of creating a montage of decayed, repeated, slowed-down, tinted images set to atmospheric music—of summoning the ghosts—became their most known practice. Not unlike Godard, they remained devoted to the ontology of the image within the apparatus called cinema. But they also shot video footage over the years, most importantly of Yervant’s father Raphaël Gianikian, who survived the Armenian genocide in eastern Turkey by undertaking a harrowing journey on foot, and who reads his memoirs on camera in Return to Khodorciur, Armenian Diary (1986). (This story has played a central role in the couple’s lives.)

I diari shows Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi devoted to a critical and theoretical gaze as much as to an aesthetic and poetic one, the poles of the equator in each of their films. But what sets this document apart is its fragility and naked sentiment, its yearning, its offer of vulnerability. More than anything else, it is a love letter to a lifetime of devotion, a shared cause, and to everyday pleasures like soaking up the sun in the countryside or making gnocchi or zabaione. We see Yervant and Angela at different points in their lives: young and beautiful, then old and beautiful, still coy and clearly in love. As the film goes on, we want to continue travelling with them, but we know the time draws near. A climactic moment in the film occurs as Angela recounts Yervant’s horrific accident, when he became literally engulfed in flames while working with nitrate film and fell into a coma. She recounts the terror of that evening, of him rolling in the grass on fire, in drawings and in text. As Yervant reads, the images vividly come to life onscreen, and the nightmare becomes surreal. Still, there is some humour to be found when Angela draws Yervant naked trying to escape his hospital bed once he comes to and doesn’t realize he is naked. Still suffering from major burns, he returned to work shortly thereafter. Venice was approaching and, when the Armenian pavilion won, Yervant can be seen in photographs and video footage with a hand still fully bandaged.

Life continues, but at a different pace: we see Angela growing increasingly frail, still gathering strawberries in the field and working on her folios for their upcoming exhibition at documenta 14. This time, she says, she will take inspiration from literature and not cinema. She continues to write, as she did each and every day. One of her last diary entries in January acknowledges that their existence has taken on a newfound urgency, with time being precious and limited. “Will this be the year?” she asks. I diari was made as a way to stay close to one’s beloved, to look back upon a couple’s work, to spend time with the feelings that ultimately buoyed all of their endeavours and the intimacy of their lives. They studied countless cinema images, created them, analyzed them, catalogued them, lived with them, projected them. But Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi also lived their lives like they were in a movie: a rare, great romance, one for the ages. It is impossible to forget images of them on a boat at sea, sexy in the setting sun. How lucky they were to have found each other. How lucky we are that they have shared so much, and that Yervant Gianikian has the strength to continue their invaluable work and resistance.

I wish to extend my gratitude to Yervant Gianikian and the Viennale’s Eva Sangiorgi and Fredi Themel for making this article possible.

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