Michelle Orange and I grew up a few neighborhoods apart in the woodsy, conservative university town of London, Ontario and, after high school, we both studied English Lit and Film in Toronto. Yet wasn’t until 2009, in New York, that we got to know each other. Canadians have a knack for…
I didn’t realize that John Huston’s devastating Let There Be Light is available online. Even in 2003, when I first saw it, it felt like a coup: the U.S. military had suppressed the documentary for some forty years, and it was still considered a rarity.
Of the several documentaries Huston made during World War II, this is perhaps the most moving and the most relevant today, when suicide rates for our war veterans are reaching record highs and thousands are struggling to reintegrate after a deployment overseas. Seeing the defenselessness of many of the subjects, who were being treated at a Long Island psychiatric hospital for what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome, I can’t really blame the military for wanting to quash the film, if only to protect their privacy. It’s a devastating record; the more we glory in images of war and combat, the more essential it becomes.
Paul Thomas Anderson has described lifting scenes from Let There Be Light for The Master, specifically those in which Navy veteran Freddie Quell is interviewed by a doctor upon returning to the States. Freddie is all but unintelligible in one interview, as several of Huston’s men are reduced to whispers and incoherence; there’s also the fact that the soundtrack was in terrible shape before a digital restoration.
John Huston’s experience with Let There Be Light, which was in part designed to promote the advances in psychiatric treatment, got him very interested in psychiatry, an interest that led him to make a movie about Sigmund Freud (Freud, 1962), starring Montgomery Clift in one of his last performances. Huston is thought of as a quintessentially American director; it’s interesting to note that after the Kennedy assassination he renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved to Ireland, where he lived for the rest of his life.
“It was assumed that I would have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old. My father had had his first fedora hat at the age of nine, but he said he recognized that the circumstances of his bringing up had been different from the circumstances of mine (it was his opinion that his mother, my grandmother, had been excessively strict in the matter of dress), and he would not insist on anything inappropriate or embarrassing. He said that probably it would not be necessary for me to wear kid gloves during the day, ever. But certainly, he said, at the end of boyhood, when as a young man I would go on the New Haven Railroad to New York City, it would be necessary for me to wear a fedora hat. I have, in fact, worn a fedora hat, but ironically. Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned—not out of any wish of mine but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me. I was born into the upper middle class in 1943, and one of the strange turns my life has taken is this: I was taught by my parents to believe that the traditional manners of the high bourgeoisie, properly acquired, would give me a certain dignity, which would protect me from embarrassment. It has turned out that I am able to do almost anything but act according to those modes—this because I deeply believe that those modes are suffused with an embarrassment so powerful that it can kill. It turns out that while I am at home in many strange places, I am not free even to visit the territory I expected to inhabit effortlessly. To wear a fedora, I must first torture it out of shape so that it can be cleaned of the embarrassment in it.”
—George S. Trow in 1980, Within the Context of No Context
I recently watched Vanya on 42nd Street for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also learned the story behind the film: After workshopping the play to the point that it felt like it might betray their experience to actually perform it, the cast agreed to perform for small, invited audiences over a period of weeks.
Brooke Smith plays the young, constant Sonya, who is hopelessly smitten with the older, dissipated doctor (Larry Pine) who keeps sniffing around Julianne Moore’s lovely but indolent Yelena.
In the making-of featurette, Smith tells a funny story about an impassioned Susan Sontag grabbing her by the shoulders after a performance. “You’re terrific,” Sontag reassured the actress. “You know why that doctor didn’t like you? Because you’re a strong, smart woman, that’s why.”
Here is a short piece I wrote about Whitney Houston’s body for The Rumpus a few weeks back. Above is the Grammy performance mentioned within—such a corny song and so worth watching.
I finally saw The Tree of Life last night, and I’m still gathering my thoughts. More accurately, I’m still generating my thoughts. As the credits rolled, I asked my friend if I had heard or just imagined, among the film’s stream of overlapping dialogue and whispered epigrams, someone defining subjectivity in art. I had lost track of whether I had mapped that moment in or it had burrowed directly into my subconscious and was already sending me remote signals. Terrence Malick’s attempt to render his memory onto the screen, in all of its fragmented idiosyncrasy, has a collaborative effect. I found myself sharing so intricately in the shape and form he gave to the rendering that it seemed plausible I had lived inside of it, added a line here or there, offered my own images for extraction. My friend confirmed that Brad Pitt had indeed given a definition, but by then the source seemed like the same difference.
Creating a visual language for remembered consciousness has a double function in cinema, a form intimately tied with how we construct subjective memory. The borders have only grown more porous over the first 100 years of cinema, so that I sometimes wonder what it was like to remember something before the moving image gave us this vocabulary. Just as I wonder what it was like to go through your entire life without once seeing a photo of yourself, or anybody else. How has cinema influenced the way we remember ourselves, individually and as whatever collective we might form? Malick’s depiction of a mid-20th century American childhood has resonances far beyond those of personal expression or conventional narrative. To a point, the more personal and detailed —if not subjective— the telling, the more universally accessible the story. In this case his experience coincides with what happens to be a potent moment in America’s cultural memory, and the two ideals converge to form a definitive vision of what it means not just to be innocent but to be innocent in this country.
This week I received a CD with a cache of 1500 old family photos. My father had made a project of digitizing them, pulling down all the old albums that he never looked at from his closet. I was always looking at those albums as a kid, and I especially loved looking at photos of my father growing up. The imagery—the dungarees, the wiffle cuts, the fishing rods, the piles of siblings, and no doubt the sorrows and loss imprinted on them in the decades since—offered a more compelling idea of what childhood was like than my own corduroy-and-turtleneck archives, or indeed my still ongoing experience. I built an existence within and between them, and it came to house not just an idea but a remembered self. Powerfully inflected by what was fixed in time and yet accommodating of all that I imagined but could not yet confirm about growing up, it was a richer understanding for being shared. Still today, and especially last night, when I think about what it means to be a child, at least as often as I am visited by my own memories I return to my father’s.