Themed Playlist: Lungs and Breath, Air and Matter
About the lists: When it comes to finding something to watch, 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/
In this list, Davina Quinlivan explores breath as a site of perception and feeling.
Lungs and Breath, Air and Matter
Indoors and in isolation the body becomes a subject for elusive contemplation. Onscreen the body draws us in with a face in close-up, the breath almost visible as cinema becomes a beacon of human connection against the waves of separation, social distancing and the withdrawal of contact. Jean Epstein evokes this intriguing and impossible proximity, in his famous text Magnification, in which he writes lovingly about the close-up in cinema, claiming: ‘it’s not even true that there is air between us…a breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds’. This rarely discussed aspect of film viewing is like a kind of spectatorship through the lungs, attuning ourselves to the rhythms of the bodies within the diegesis, and in the formal aspects of the film itself. Cuts and cinematographic cadences spill over into our world of perception or what we have come to know as our sensory appreciation of film. (The wind on screen is another thing, which moves me, still, as the world outside momentarily shifts and brings relief to the tension of isolated stasis).
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
Marlene Dietrich plays ‘Shanghai Lily’ in one of most iconic moments of her film career. On board an express train from Peking to Shanghai, Lily rekindles a love affair with a British captain, played by Clive Brook, and lingers around, brazenly, with a knife-wielding femme fatale, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong). In close-up, we see Dietrich light up a cigarette and smoke in silence, taking long, slow breaths in and out. We see her eyelids solemnly closing, punctuated by sweeping lashes, momentarily holding her breath, then, oxygen and smoke again between her lips, an over-sized, glittering bow on her dress casting a dazzling ripple of light just beneath her chin. Dietrich’s cheekbones are taut are she pouts her lips, holding her cigar and then moving her hand away with a flourish. Her face is framed by the train carriage window, a screen reminding us of her star presence. A graceful, ‘sighing’ carriage, the mechanical movement of the train is like the rhythms of Lily’s breath which now align her body with the entire process of motion and fleeting abandon.
La Captive/The Captive (Chantal Akerman, 2000)
Visually masterful, laying bare the mechanisms of the male gaze through her seminal retelling of Marcel Proust’s La Prisonniere, the soundtrack of this film also contains within it an unravelling sense of breathlessness and tightening of the lungs as her female protagonist resists and eludes her lover’s controlling gaze, finally disappearing into sea. Here, Akerman employs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1908 symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, in order to invoke not only a particular sense of dread and its intertwinement with fate and mortality, but rhythms of breath; based on Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist painting of the same name, the music betrays the exhausted body of a rower whose arrival is imminent at the ‘isle’. Ariane’s disappearance at the end of the film might, then, be understood as a moment foreshadowed throughout the film’s aural track: her body moving against the tide, breathing in and out against the waves and towards absence, no longer visible and forever caught within the symphonic, elliptical patterns of the film’s soundtrack.
La Captive is available on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/captive-Sylvie-Testud/dp/B01M25W94O
The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019) and Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
Semi-autobiographical in nature and based on Hogg’s early years as a student at film school, the opening images of the film are photographs from the director’s early body of work. The bleak immensity of industry and labour is evoked through monochromatic scales of steel, light and air; we see rooftops, shipbuilding machinery, concrete spaces and smoky skies. Such images encourage viewers to attend to their objects and textures; to their material qualities and the very matter of the photographs themselves. Later, the elemental, deep vibration of metallic noise, air and glass are entangled as obliterating noise as Julie experiences the sound of a bomb (precisely, the famous IRA bombing of Harrods in 1983) and the awful silence which it follows. Julie’s apartment, carefully contained and beloved, seems to subtly process the turbulence of the effects of the bomb which comes to stand for the central trauma in Julie’s life, prescient of the shockwave of Anthony’s death. Like the act of lovemaking and the role of memory and trauma, twinned through Alain Resnais’ adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) where the opening titles portray the lovers of the film seen in an embrace, visibly breathing and intertwined, while covered in ashes, dust, suggestive of the film’s protagonist’s recollection of Hiroshima, Hogg’s filmic representation of an explosion is metaphysical – the rupture at the heart of her film which also marks the intersection between physical and metaphysical, real and imagined.
The Souvenir is available to watch on BFIplayer: https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-the-souvenir-2018-online as well as on Google Play and YouTube.
Davina Quinlivan is Senior Lecturer in Film at Kingston School of Art, Kingston University. She writes on the intersections between film and philosophy, the cinematic body and film experience. She is author of The Place of Breath in Cinema (EUP, 2012), Filming the Body in Crisis: Trauma, Healing and Hopefulness (Palgrave, 2015) and Joanna Hogg: Female Expression and the New British Art Cinema (EUP, forthcoming in 2020). Davina is also working on a monograph which explores the intertextual work of author Deborah Levy and she has recently set up a research network on Venice and contemporary female moving image artists.