1-2 February 2008
Before I go over a few notes about Victor Man, the art fairs, Chloe Piene’s drawings, which always amaze me, Rosson Crow, and – speaking of the fairs – a late, very late discovery that is really a re-discovery, but either way, so bizarrely lagging behind the rest of the world, you would think I’d just crawled from beneath a rock where I’d been trapped for the last five years. That apparently is when the Farmani Gallery (on South Robertson) had a show of the work of Lillian Bassman, photographer of fashion, fantasy, and the ephemeral glamour, mystery and sheer joy of their intersection in the gritty grisailles of urban life. But more of that in a moment.
I mentioned that I might have a few words about Schnabel’s Le Scaphandre et le Papillon – and I do; except they’re mostly en français. Le Scaphandre is one of those movies that, as essential as language is to the film, to the story as Jean-Dominique Bauby writes it, seems to sweep away conventional grammar and syntax, indeed all the linguistic structures that comfortably occupy the mesh of neuro-synaptic networks that are the springboard for our verbal communications. And maybe that applies to visual language, too. Before even two minutes of the film have elapsed, you’re aware of a radical shift in the narrative and purely visual priorities of the film. That the film is intended to be told from the point of view of the “locked-in” Jean-Do Bauby is a given. But the film doesn’t lock itself into that framework but floats freely through and around it and, when necessary, entirely away from it – much as Jean-Do would have liked to himself. It is as if, having one destroyed one set of experiential filters, Bauby – from the conrfinement of his diving bell, his scaphandre (which nevertheless might be considered an implement of discovery) – and Schnabel behind his own two eyes, that of his camera and his seemingly limitless imagination, are continuously engaged in discovering (and rediscovering), reassembling, imagining another. Writing these words, I suddenly have an image (from Robert Polidori?) in my mind of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – a scattering of old family photographs and mementos and pages of handwritten letters and journals floating on the dirty waters amid broken furniture and other flotsam flowing in and out of a ruined house. What of the past, the markers of identity, of residence, can be recovered from such disaster? Bauby’s actuality has nosedived into a dark murky full fathom five and reemerged bobbing on the surface, grasping for anything familiar, unfamiliar – trying to find a compass, a paddle (visual, emotional, physical, intellectual) to navigate a course back to himself, to his life. Irony fails here, at least initially. Outrage, indignation are what we viewers and Bauby grasp at; obliteration – even of self, to make peace amid this ‘sea of troubles’ (to the initial despair of his earnest ‘speech’ therapist, Henriette (played by Marie-Josée Croze); to sweep it all before us as we swim towards an ‘undiscovered’ surface. Light itself, in endless variations, unlocks the reserves of irony, however cruel, perverse. Sensually appreciative, even sexual within his scaphandre/sarcophage, Bauby laughs and bemoans simultaneously the cruelty of his fate. Schnabel’s task is to navigate a perceptual channel to and through this imprisoned Bauby, and to reconstruct his imaginative – liberation is too strong, too large a word – reengagement with a world that can never be the same. Light fades by degrees (or ’blinks’ closed) to darkness, returns fitfully to close on an image – the actuality, a memory, a schematic view of something that might or might not be happening – we are aware even within the first few frames that this is an image-maker of astonishing power. As self-pity gives way to acceptance, a process of transformation – out of light and darkness, memory and imagination, a projection or superimposition of one reality over another (or its subtraction, but more often not – Bauby’s realism, his poly-pragmatism is re-made into something more malleable, something that will admit the participation of its sidelined, paralyzed narrator/composer) – begins. Bauby ‘surfaces’ and the composition of his book (and recomposition of self) begins.
Without going into detail about the beauty, originality and power of the film (which I may develop at more length for artillery), let if suffice to say that, regardless of what Academy members are voting for in the Best Picture category (I’m not sure if Schnabel’s film is eligible; at the very least, it should have been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category), this is the best film of 2007. I know it sounds absurd to make such a sweeping and categorical judgment. But – like the best films of Welles, John Ford, Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, etc. – it has changed (or should change) the way we look at and the way we make movies. (The film itself is a liberated and reengaged kind of film-making, if you will.) Can I be allowed to change my mind? (Well, my artillery copy will or won’t bear out my thinking about it.) I’ll admit I wasn’t as detached a viewer as I would have liked – I wept profusely through sections of the film (too many end-of-life issues, etc.). Let me see it again. Though I think it can be recommended without qualification to anyone who likes movies. I feel as if, just as Richard Strauss was able to say upon his deathbed that death was “just as I wrote it” (in Death and Transfiguration), Schnabel may one day be able to say much the same thing. Speaking of music, the film (not surprisingly) has a fantastic soundtrack. That I will state firmly and categorically. With respect to my own emotional response, almost ordeal, I would say to Schnabel – quoting from the film (and Bauby’s book) – in English this time: “I don’t mind you dragging me to the bottom of the ocean because you’re also my butterfly.”