Themed Playlist: On Touch and Materiality
About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
Lucy Donaldson, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, draws on her interest in textures and tactility to bring us this playlist:
On Touch and Materiality
As my research is very much concerned with film as a material experience and our current situation revolves around the absence of touch, calls to remove ourselves bodily from public space and to avoid contact, I thought it would be worth offering some films to watch that could be defined by their attention to materiality, to touch and bodily contact. Here is a list of films that for me highlight the profound substance of film, its capability to evoke texture and tactility, and to immerse us into fully material worlds.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu / Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)
Starting with the most recent entry on my list, which I was fortunate enough to catch at the cinema, I found this to be such a richly textured film, both in the consistency of its fictional world and as a whole filmic experience. In its intense depiction of female relationships familial, social and sexual, this film is deeply attentive to the consistency and textures of the women’s world: the quality of the fabrics they wear; the scuffing sound shoes make on stone floors; the feel of wind, seaspray and fire on the body; the embodied and material nature of art as a process (both the painting which is so central to the narrative, but also embroidery and drawing); and in the erotic possibilities of skin to skin contact.
Available for viewing on:
Curzon Home Cinemas: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/film/watch-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-online
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Another immersive experience into the material particularities of a character’s world, where touch is something to be feared and craved. Each section of Chiron’s life works to bring us tangibly into his experiences through camera movement, colour and sound, making us acutely aware of how the different people in his life shape his world, through moments of both intense discomfort and pleasure.
Available for viewing on:
Amazon prime: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Moonlight-Mahershala-Ali/dp/B071419359
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
Reichardt’s film about a group of pioneers lost on their journey to Oregon is another film concerned with the nitty gritty of process, with every action of frontier life (making coffee, hanging washing, making a fire, loading a gun) depicted in careful detail. The harsh environment and its physical (as well as mental) toll on the group is made clear for from the perspective of the women, who are at the centre of labour required to keep things moving.
Available to view at Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07VKBDWNT/ref=dvm_uk_sl_tit|c_419850026779_m_Zpg3rql1-dc_s_
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Philosopher Stanley Cavell likens the movement between the spaces of Vertigo to ‘moving from one world to another’ and this is embodied not only in the look but also the feel of these spaces, as rendered through the combination of visual design, camera placement and musical score. A pivotal scene in the film is the one in Ernie’s restaurant where James Stewart’s character, Scottie, first sees Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), the women he is employed to follow and becomes obsessed with. The interior of Ernie’s is plush and red, filled with people and things to create an overpoweringly tactile and excessive environment that is designed to heighten the intensity of Scottie’s response to Madeleine. The film also plays with the feel of space, mixing substance and depth with thin flatness in order to create the sense that the film’s environments can expand and flatten simultaneously, as though to recreate the disconcerting inconsistencies of dream spaces, or like the famous vertigo shot itself which alters spatial perspectives by zooming and tracking out simultaneously.
Available to view on BFIplayer: https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-vertigo-1958-online
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
While this film has other possible connections to our present moment, especially in its thoughts on the role of caregiving in a relationship, it also offers a densely crafted world, with a particular emphasis on the labours involved in such craft, given the narrative focus on a fashion house. The film is careful to highlight the detailed work that goes into making the clothes – from Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) and his intense approach to his work (about which the film gives plenty of opportunity to see as overblown and overwrought, particularly through the delightful sharpness of his sister, played by Lesley Manville), to the dedicated and finely detailed craftsmandship of the women that work for him – so that we might be prompted to think analogously about the process of making a film. What’s more, the world of the House of Woodcock, expressed as it is through action that primarily takes place in the family’s London and country houses, is characterised by the specificity of its audio-visual design. The overwhelming intensity of people eating, or the jarring placement of a highly patterned wallpaper are part of the designers’ work in developing the relationships between characters through consideration of the materiality and feel of the world
Available to view on Netflix and Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Phantom-Thread-Daniel-Day-Lewis/dp/B07981D84F
Synchromy no. 2 (Mary Ellen Bute 1036)
And now for a somewhat sudden change in direction, but one that continues these thoughts about filmmaking as craft. Mary Ellen Bute is a fascinating figure in the history of experimental film. Trained as a painter and involved in a community of inventors and musicians in New York in the 1920s and early 1930s, Bute made a series of what is often referred to as ‘visual music’ films. The rhythmic patterns and abstract light forms she created to connect to existing music are created by ordinary objects like ping-pong balls, egg beaters, bracelets and sparklers. The shapes make us think about the non-representational nature of music, and connect particularly to its feel, with a material sensuous quality brought about by framing, movement and rhythm.
Available to view on YouTube:
Character and environment
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Andrea Arnold’s filmmaking is preoccupied with the feeling of a place, especially the tension between restriction and freedom. In Fish Tank the central character, Mia (Katie Jarvis), is trapped in her environment (and the film’s 4:3 frame), an isolation that is exacerbated by the limitations of her circumstances, of class and family. She tries to escape her constrictions through almost constant movement, the camera following her closely as she strides across the estate where she lives or performs dance routines in an abandoned flat.
Available to view on BFIPlayer: https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-fish-tank-2009-online
You can also catch Arnold’s early short film Wasp (2003) on YouTube:
大紅燈籠高高掛 / Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991)
Like the protagonist of Fish Tank, the central character of Raise the Red Lantern is isolated, trapped in an ancestral home and in her role of 4th wife in a wealthy family. The spatial design of the film intensifies her isolation, with each wife residing over a small identical courtyard which effectively keeps them apart and in competition. Unlike Mia, Songlian (Gong Li), can be characterised by her stillness and an aversion to company and touch, aside from the pleasures of the ceremonial foot massage that herald the master’s intention to stay the night with one of his wives. The film moves between moments of stilled restraint and sensory overload, with its evocative use of colour and the musical rhythms of the foot massage, which become a synaesthetic expression of the tactility that confers value onto the wives.
Available to view on YouTube:
Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
To complete this trilogy of women who are confined to a particular environment, we have Satyajit Ray’s film about a wife who lives her life entirely within the walls of her home and garden. Isolated from the outside world and neglected by her husband, she is frustrated until her husband invites his younger cousin to stay and entertain her. The growth of their relationship shapes the film, but the core of it is Ray’s attention to her and her perceptions of her world. The film is vivid in its depiction of her environment, grounded in material realities and the feel of her world, which are captured in a simultaneously everyday and thrilling moment of movement and light when Charulata swings in the garden.
Available to view on YouTube:
Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
If you can cope with what is actually a pretty good quality version of the film on You Tube, Lost Highway, continues our theme of touch as absence and presence. David Lynch is a filmmaker committed to creating feeling and atmosphere, and the first 40 minutes of this film is great example of how compelling and dense with mood a film can be (I’m somewhat less convinced by the remainder of the film, but that’s probably just me) – if ever it didn’t matter what was happening in a narrative, this is a film to feel rather than try to follow. The house of Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette) is a brilliantly material expression of their relationship; a home made strange through sensitivity to surfaces that are simultaneously soft and tactile, shiny and repellent, that blur together to create an interior that seems to shift dimensions as you move through it.
ETA: The YouTube link was taken down, but for people in the US, it’s available for viewing on Amazon.
The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)
Film Scholar Michel Chion describes this film as ‘a symphony of textures’ and when I think of it, my immediate thoughts comprise a series of encounters between Marlene Dietrich (playing Catherine the Great) and the conflicting soft/hard textures of her environment: the imposing stone statues of the Russian court; the rough surfaces of a back stairway; translucent, silken fabrics of her bedchamber; the straw bed of an barn where she begins her affair with Count Alexei. Marlene herself is a crucial part of these textural contrasts, clad in furs and huge skirts, while the lighting transform her into a sculpture of her own.
Available to view on Daily Motion: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x23gc72