Don’t Look Back: Life and Death and the Films of Mary Helena Clark

dragon-mary helena clark

The Dragon is the Frame

By Phil Coldiron

Why am I finding it so hard to write about Mary Helena Clark’s films? There’s something to their poetry…

But to even start a claim like that, we have to have a working definition of poetry in (relation to?) the cinema, for now; right now. Because we’ve all finally turned our backs on Brakhage to better embrace the lapse, right? (Right, in every sense. Though we would do well to remember not to throw out the bath water with the Baby.) Because as Jacques Rivette told us, cinema is not a language; but then, as Ariana Reines has told us, neither is poetry. Or rather: “Poetry’s not made of words.” What is cinema not made of then? A winning, cheerful answer would be to follow Bazin and say, “Cinema’s not made of death.” That is, as poetry is not made of words but is the arrangement of words (or the relation of the poet to words), cinema is not made of death but is the arrangement of death (or the relation of the filmmaker to death).

Arrangement. No not here, over there. A seating arrangement: a plan for decorum, manners, politeness, for all of the affectations that can be dreamt up so as to continue avoiding. “To have to make arrangements…”: not something you ever want to have to do. To arrange is to engage tactically against perhaps inevitable, or even historical, catastrophe, against the spectre of some death, big or small or endless, lurking in every moment—“And doom goes with her in walking,” wrote Pound. Poetry, of course, can arrange death as well (words die quite often), but cinema, with its direct line to duration, remains uniquely suited to navigate this indefinite encounter with death, and the dead.

And now look at me, what am I doing? Avoiding. Is this—greasing the wheels of some avoidance or other, leading to distraction, etc.—not what language spends most of its time doing these days in a capitalism that’s hopelessly too early, too late? Faced with this, the only serious option is to try to save words from the language they’re sick with and set them back about in arrangements that allow them to function properly again, or for the first time; there’s a crude definition of poetry today. But can I extend this far enough to define cinema’s relation to poetry, to define “poetic cinema?”

This is, I think, an urgent question, because it seems that a new poetry is in fact just what a truly experimental cinema today needs: how else to break the image out of its slump? Certainly the turn back to ethnography, the major event in the last few years of serious cinema, has leaned heavily on a certain set of forms descended from the classics of poetic cinema. But our problem then starts further out, on an edge beyond aesthetic continuity (but not beyond history), and it is nothing more or less than a need to define the bounds of a poetic cinema. Poetry cannot be only a sense for detail, an openness to duration and to abstraction, situated in a concern for the everyday stuff of the world. Of course it can be, and is, those things too. (Did I really mean what I said earlier about Brakhage? The Arabic Numeral Series is, after all, one of the towering achievements of American art. But…) Poetry in the cinema today is a willingness to work productively on the edge of inscrutability, opacity, meaninglessness, fears which are only the products of capital’s smear campaign against the time of contemplation; an ability to arrange images such that they regain their mystery—it’s shocking how many programs of ostensibly experimental films today run their course without a single alluring image making its way in—and choose the possibility of being loved some day over selling you straight away on a feeling, a thrill, an idea; and a properly historical understanding of what an image has meant, and will mean. In short, poetry in the cinema today would give images back the fullness of their possibility. It might look like the films of Mary Helena Clark, and as I had started to say, there’s something about her poetic cinema in particular…

But we’ve gotten away from death. It’s OK; it’s inevitable. We can stray as far as we want, and there it is.

Clark has made three major works to date: By foot-candle light (2011), Orpheus (outtakes) (2012), and now The Dragon is the Frame. What follows from here will deal mainly with the latter two films, as the former works so productively in inscrutability that after too many viewings I remain trapped in the room it’s built in my thoughts, staring blankly but with a little terror into the sudden face of a middle-aged man who’s quite intent on keeping a hold of my gaze. This image of a face (or eyes) offered, and searching, for a viewer’s gaze returns in gentler, richer form in both Orpheus (outtakes) and The Dragon is the Frame. Michael Sicinski, writing on this point in regard to the earlier film: “Clark locates Surrealism’s very unconscious: the film’s desperate desire to look back.” It’s a curious spot to try plopping a film down (note: both Orpheus and The Dragon at points feature a conspicuously radar-like recurring ping on their soundtracks…), and a precious finding to bring back from the deep—though it leaves me feeling a little like our protagonist, with an itch that perhaps something crucial didn’t quite make it out.

That ping first appears on Orpheus’ soundtrack at the moment just before a slow optical zoom into a hole punched in white film leader finally plunges the frame into total darkness. Clark, a subtle but rigorous materialist, isn’t offering a metaphor here: there’s no need to accept some illusion of entering “the body” of the film—could you describe to me where exactly your unconscious is located?—only that we’re in the dark. From here, Orpheus and Eurydice find one another for our delight, and then discuss reading in a place where the power’s been cut off, where the lights are out. This scene plays out entirely in mottled, jumpy subtitles at the base of a black frame; there is, again, no reason to read this scene metaphorically, as tempting as it is. The introduction of the simple fact of reading in the dark, and the modest, profound pun Clark plays out on our inability to ever “read” an image, is quite enough.

And then come those eyes. Whose? They gaze from the same black frame, now grown lively with the ghostly signs of expired stock. Moment by moment they seem to float in and out of register with the surface of the image; put another way, they’re stuck in a flux between seeming to be the eyes of someone dressed like a ghost, i.e., wearing the frame like a bed sheet, and the eyes of an actual ghost—remember, any good film image is some kind of haunting (any bad one too). There appears to be a problem here though: ghosts, generally speaking, are all psychology: a shade hangs around because there’s something, a memory, that it just can’t forget. But Clark’s film has not suddenly erupted into an odd structural psychodrama about the psychic pain of the 16mm filmstrip. The apparent trouble here resolves simply enough though, because ghosts don’t exist. This isn’t a referendum on whether or not you, personally, believe in ghosts; that’s none of my business. But a ghost, ontologically, is always on the side of the haunted: if I’m haunted, it’s because you’re not here and I still am.

“Do you go as far back as the silent movies?” concludes the round of questioning from What’s My Line? that plays against the eyes, which only offer answers if we decide that they do—Kuleshov, of course, does go as far back as the silent era. But foregoing this old psychological toy, another possibility presents itself: the eyes really are emoting in response to the vocational questions being asked, a fact which would demand that we accept an entire person (we might call this a ghost) hidden within the frame—a ghost in a ghost costume. Haven’t we already concluded though that there is no inside to a film image? We have; but a ghost, again, doesn’t exist, doesn’t need to fit anywhere. And it’s just this impossibility of the ghost-film that Clark exploits for its window onto the surreal: an object confronts us which appears perfectly psychological despite not having the capacity to think for itself (the phrase “historical materialism” springs to mind). A film, like the unconscious, is only a vessel.

After a brief storm composed of scratches and static, Orpheus settles into its final groove, an image that coolly defeats my ability to describe it. It’s not abstract; it bears a resemblance to something that is, from certain angles, even definite. In it I’m certain that I see the signs of a clear design, but in its inscrutability it is so perfectly constructed that I can find no way to move beyond its glowing, pulsing surfaces. And it’s this, the blank shape, which sits at the very bottom of Surrealism’s unconscious, the most deeply deferred dream: the perfect object of eternal, thoughtless contemplation, that strange thing which will one day grow to fill the space of the emptied unconscious.

So Orpheus (outtakes) leaves us hanging with the possibility of a productive, or at least tolerable, nihilism, the endless chill of final liberation—fittingly, in this space, it’s impossible to tell from moment to moment whether one is rising or falling. The Dragon is the Frame plucks the viewer out of this suspension, which I might just as well have called death, and sets them down in a fantasy whose shape is borrowed from Hitchcock and whose movement is back towards life.

By any rubric, The Dragon is the Frame is a difficult film. In contrast to Orpheus, a tidy haiku of beguiling gestures, it sprawls, dallies, distracts itself—and now we’re back to death. My original plan for dealing with Clark’s new film was to rewrite it, to describe each of its 65 shots in sufficient detail that it would be stolen away in words, perfectly situated and forever protected against any degradation, digital or analogue. This, it turns out, was even more ridiculous than the phrase “poetic cinema”; it led only to a slag heap of adjectives, so many dead words. So then how to deal with a set of images that, despite their individual poetic charge, seem to truly exist only—and here, now, is a doozy—as hauntings?

To begin, a rough shape. The Dragon is the Frame seems to consist of two tracks: video works by the genderqueer artist Mark Aguhar, who took her own life in 2012 and to whom the film is dedicated (it takes its slippery title from a memorial show for Aguhar held at the University of Illinois at Chicago), and everything else—you are gone, and this is what I’m left with. For Clark, “everything else” is a San Francisco shaped by Vertigo (1958), through which she traces a parabola; Hitchcock’s film provides a repertory of images, spaces, sounds (Herrmann’s score is put to magnificent use), and ideas, from which she builds a machine that, unlike Hitchcock’s, has no capacity for manipulation: strictly speaking, nothing is withheld from our view, because its mystery is quite a bit more mysterious. We might dream, like Scottie, to cycle through endless iterations of Judy and Madeleine, coming closer to the mark each time, but Mark Aguhar is simply gone forever.

Or maybe she’s not? The mystery of The Dragon is the Frame is not why she is gone, or, as in Vertigo, how she might be brought back. The mystery is how a person who is gone might continue to arrange so much in our lives; it’s the perfect question to ask after an artist who worked so consciously to put herself into her work. Mark Aguhar made herself fabulous, because she made her work fabulous, and Clark pays fitting tribute to her by making the world fabulous in its poetry: rather than taking on the Hitchcock role, Clark is content to play a self-aware Scottie. There is no paranoia over the missed detail, no agony in the knowledge that the double will never quite line up.

So then Aguhar’s work, in which she primps, preens, dances, sasses, allures, and, touchingly, comments on her friend Isaac Richard Poole’s own video (whose text Clark renders as on-screen verse, creating a swirl of utterances every bit as disorienting as Hitchcock’s camera tricks), sits at the base of Clark’s film and its impulse—to make the marginal extravagant and alluring on its own terms—informs each of her poetic choices. The result is a film of tremendous visual pleasures: fog that molts into sequins; the rhyme between a contrail and lighting in a mountain tunnel (one could very easily write an essay the length of the one you’re currently reading which dealt only with the film’s tremendously sophisticated sense of visual repetition); the deft play of shadow and red across the opening sequence of shots; the textures of digital video transferred to 16mm film; the teasing, sexy quality of heavily filtered light; a long, slow pan which is as expressive of the space it records as anything in the films of Straub and Huillet; the searching illumination of a flashlight; and, finally, the perfect sensitivity to scale when, late in the film, one of Aguhar’s videos bounces from filling the frame to peering out from a small monitor in a dark room, our view briefly blocked as the shape of a body crosses between camera and screen. In this moment, the last we see before a series of titles and dedications, Aguhar, like the eyes of Orpheus, slips gently into register with the surface of the film image; she’s not quite alive, but in this space of images plucked from life and arranged just so, Clark has cleared a space for her of the purest pleasure, an ecstasy free from deaths, big and little.