09 Jun 2021
Cloud of Skin The Fabric of Appearances
by Tony McKibbin
While watching Maximilian Le Cain’s The Cloud of Skin various things may pass through one’s head that have little to do with the story the narratively expectant viewer might be looking to find. What those thoughts might be will depend partly on how immersed one may become in the experience, or how one might muse over the properties the film utilises to forestall feeling and generate affect. In an essay focusing on Ingmar Bergman’s A Passion, Gregory Currie makes great play of a moment at the end of the film when the camera shows the film’s central character, played by Max von Sydow, disintegrating. But this isn’t, or is not only, the character who is falling apart: Bergman shows us the image steadily reduced to grain as Von Sydow slowly disappears into it. Currie reckons such a moment breaks with what he calls depictive fullness. “We see what is depicted in the image, and we see certain marks on the image that do not contribute to depiction. And there is the additional fact, already noted, that the marks limit, though they do not until the end entirely destroy, our capacity to see the thing represented: the man Andreas.” In a strict sense, no film is pure dramatic representation; how could it be when a camera is used to film the very thing? But most of the time the film doesn’t draw attention to the image but what is in the image. Usually, critics will discuss what the film is about rather than what the film is doing not because the film isn’t doing anything but because it is not transparent but opaque, containing its doing within what it is about. “Shots that violate Depictive Fullness, and hence are inflected, always do so because they contain nondepicting parts or aspects, and not because they contain parts or aspects that depict something nonobjective. The final shot from A Passion is of this kind, and its inflection is non-experiential. This shot provides an unusual occasion for surface-seeing; we notice what is represented and notice, at the same time, marks on the image that do not contribute to depiction.” (‘Bergman and the Film Image’)
Currie has little to say about experimental film, expanded cinema or the avant-garde, where surely what the film is doing is at least as important as what the film is about. Sometimes this will take the form of the inexplicable and the deliberate. Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls moves between black and white and colour, utilises split-screen and zooms in and out in what looks like an unmotivated manner. Hence, we have the inexplicable. In Michael Snow’s Wavelength, the camera very slowly moves into a photograph on the wall. It is edited: the film is forty-five minutes long and a reel could only contain ten minutes’ of film. But the point is to remain focused on the singular purpose of the zoom shot. Thus we have the deliberate, a deliberation and purposefulness that became vital to Structural film. As P Adams Sitney believed: Michael Snow, George Landow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, Ernie Gehr and Joyce Weiland have produced a number of films…[where] in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified”, evident for example when Conrad used no more than the twenty-four frames of a celluloid strip passing through the projector to create a flicker effect. Stephen Dwoskin reckoned in Structural film “the aim is to create a visual language that in no way refers to anything outside the film itself. The attempt to make the film an immediate object of perception and a self-sufficient experience represents a repudiation of the dictates of the photographic tradition.” (Film Is) The more Structural a film is the more the visual language in “no way refers to anything outside the film itself.”
However, Dwoskin also quotes Wittgenstein: “But this isn’t seeing but this is seeing it must be possible to give both remarks a conceptual justification.” What might this mean within the context of a work that eschews the centrality of narration but may not have the rigour of Structural film? When Ebert in his attack on Chelsea Girls says that as “you make a list like this [of Warhol’s use of split-screen, zoom shots etc], you realize that Warhol hasn’t missed a trick. With all of those underground gimmicks going for him, his film just has to be deep and profound and, best of all, fashionable. But the funny thing, when you stop to think about it, is that Hollywood has been using the same technique for years and years.” (RogerEbert.com) What Ebert misses here in his critique is that he has stopped to think about it. The purpose of Hollywood is to absorb the aesthetic into the diegesis, to turn camera movements, non-diegetic sound, split-screen and the presence of people pretending to be someone else in the story, into a work where one doesn’t stop to think about it. Structural film reverses that expectation by asking us to see very centrally the form over any likelihood of a story.
Though as Wittgenstein says, there is seeing and not seeing simultaneously. In filmic terms, one sees one thing by ignoring another. One of the vital components of experimental cinema, and not only Structural film, is that an emphasis is placed on acknowledging the process rather than hiding it: the absence of a drama, or the formal intrusion on the drama, leaves us unable to ignore the making of the thing. In a typically impressive but very conventional work like Claude Sautet’s Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others Vincent looks like he will lose his factory after facing bankruptcy and we watch as a potential buyer turns up. But at the same time, we are seeing Yves Montand playing someone going bankrupt and we hear non-diegetic music when the actor playing the potential buyer moves through the factory space in a single shot, with the dialogue inaudible due to the music over the top of it. One can be aware of this brief single take, well aware that Montand is not Vincent but only playing him, and conscious of the non-diegetic music, but that doesn’t alter the fact that our purpose is to concentrate on the awfulness of Vincent’s predicament. There is nothing that asks us to pay attention to anything other than the story and is this not the purpose of smooth, engaging craft?
We needn’t denigrate the emphasis on story and many films that are ostensibly narratively focused are also determined to create a sense of liminality between the story that we follow and the form that contains it, whether it happens to be in work by Godard, Antonioni, Bunuel and Resnais, or Tarr, Sokurov, Haneke and Lynch. In such directors lies a tension that will be inclined to lead to frustration rather than boredom, perhaps a useful distinction in understanding an aspect of experimental cinema as opposed to art film, cumbersome categories that we offer only for the purposes of a point that needs to be made. One reason a viewer may be frustrated by Hidden or The Eclipse rests on a story that appears to be central which increasingly becomes subsidiary. What are we to make of the last shot in Hidden where in another film we would hear the two boys talking and potentially revealing their role in the film’s mystery? Why have we deserted the two main characters in The Eclipse and instead find ourselves focusing on empty shots? Antonioni and Haneke may have constantly been implying that the form is as important as the diegesis but the frustration will lie partly in that the former absorbs the latter. In experimental film that is rarely the case: the story is so clearly and completely absorbed into the form: as Dwoskin says, what experimental film, and more specifically Structural film, wants to do is avoid the “tradition [which] transposes forms and actions from outside the film (ie. from life) on to the film…” (Film Is)
One of the interesting things about Le Cain’s Cloud of Skin is that he wants to create a dissolution between the story and the form by his attention above all to texture, a textural fold that needn’t prioritise the story or the form because both are absorbed into a visual tactility that may cross the boundaries of narration and experimentation, evident too in the work of those who are surely influences (Lynch, Dwoskin and Carmelo Bene) and those who probably are not: Matthew Barney, Ken Russell and Derek Jarman. What they all share, though, is a textural attentiveness that asks us to focus on the fabric of appearances. “Deeply haunted by the memory of his dead lover, a man wanders through the sites of their encounters. The dead woman, a blind visionary, has transferred her perceptual powers to him as part of their undying bond.” So goes the blurb as the film focuses chiefly on these two characters (played by Eadaoin O’Donoghue and Dean Kavanagh) but it might be more accurate to the phenomenology of the viewing experience to speak of a couch that is mustard yellow, cushions the colour of jam and amethyst, walls of egg blue. Sometimes the colours match to create a giddy vertigo; others clash to produce a visual nausea. One locale has egg blue walls with a more or less matching carpet and ceiling, even the Formica topped tables and the painted radiators are egg blue. Other locales (which often seem part of the same disused or at least empty building) have carpets of wine red and walls of watermelon pink, surrounding a bed with a duvet cover of violent violet. The colours clash so aggressively, or match so insistently, that they suggest both a fractured mind and the monomaniacal. Kavanagh may be that figure, unable to get over the loss of his lover and unwilling to escape far enough for memories to fade. But that would be an interpretation the film is so loose in its plotting that to build a story out of the rubble of its mise en scene could pass almost for a presumption.
It is as though there is too much in the way for the story to gain access, if we return to Currie’s comments about depictive fullness. If Currie can say that the moment when Von Sydow crumbles is captured by the film in its form and at the same time moves beyond the limits of depictive fullness to do so, then in Le Cain’s film what is in the story and what is in the form obstructs rather than conforms to the telling. It is constant not so much as tension but as violence. The form keeps insisting on its presence all the better to make sure that no emotion can gather when an affect can be produced. When Currie sees a twofold expressivity in The Passion, he notes that though the shot with Von Sydow in it disintegrates the image, it confirms the meaning of the event it shows. It isn’t of the diegesis but it still reflects it. Another well-known and slightly clumsy example can be found in Three Colours Blue: the music that we hear on the soundtrack is the central character’s late husband’s work and she throws the written score into a garbage truck. The music we have been hearing starts to sound as mangled as the score itself. It isn’t of the story but it clearly alludes to it.
But what of Le Cain’s constant audio and visual assault on the meaning of his own film? Here is a list of just some of the techniques deployed: empty frames of black and white; flicker effects; silhouetted figures reliant on back-lighting, jump cuts, sudden shifts from colour to monochrome, different film stocks from one shot to another, undersaturated colour that comes close to black and white and shots so saturated they remind you of the Fauvist colours Godard adopted in Eloge de l’amour. Ebert would not be happy at Le Cain’s wilful need to produce a work that exhausts cinematic technique without invigorating narrative necessity but that is surely Le Cain’s point: that so often films utilise the tools he adopts to become absorbed into the expressive demands of meaning. When a filmmaker fades from colour to black and white after a loved one dies we can say that the form serves the content: we see the colour bleeding out of the film as it has disappeared from the life of the mourning characters. When a director uses jump cuts to give us a sense of accelerated time during a heist sequence, again the form can be absorbed into the meaning of the content. Often the device so fits the form that it becomes cliche: when a zoom shot zeroes in on a face in a crowd in late sixties cinema or when a montage sequence shows a couple falling in love. Great filmmakers will often play with the form to generate new expressive meaning without quite falling into the ostensibly arbitrary: Scorsese’s lap dissolves early in Taxi Driver for example. Usually, a lap dissolve shows a passage of time passing yet here we see Bickle has only moved slightly further along the street. Then there is Godard using a pan in an argument between the central couple in their apartment when a shot/counter shot would be expected, or Wong Kar-wai using changes of clothing to suggest a passage of time rather than a montage sequence as intimacy develops between the two leading characters in In the Mood of Love. In each instance, the technique retains meaning but refuses cliche. Yet one way of looking at much that passes for the properly experimental is to see that the logic of the expressive is resisted. This doesn’t necessitate an absence of meaning but it does indicate that the purpose of the images cannot be found in representational explanation. The brilliance in our examples from Scorsese, Godard and Wong Kar-wai is that they can but in a way that makes the image fresh rather than stale.
However, if we think that works have potentially both a meaning and a purpose, the more cliched the film, the more its meaning is clear and its purpose absorbed into that meaning. In this sense, the cliched work doesn’t have a purpose; the filmmaker hasn’t thought too much about the purpose of the shot because the meaning contains it. When a director uses a camera drone looking down over a city the probable answer for its use will be that it is what is done, that it establishes the locale in the broadest, most ambitious way and that it shows production values. As one film site says, “Drones in more recent years have allowed all filmmakers to capture amazing establishing shots like Kubrick’s [in The Shining] that can shoot expansive landscapes and settings. This type of drone shot is one of the most common and most practical that can immediately level up your film’s production value.” (StudioBinder) Now filmmakers can do what the greats did but whether there is a purpose to the shot is another question. When Wim Wenders used aerial shots in Wings of Desire, he told his crew “to seek continually the angel’s point of view, the camera becoming his gaze” (‘Camera Movement in Wings of Desire’) but that was just the beginning of a very complex sense of cinematic purpose that Wenders and his crew (including Agnes Godard who was assistant DP) were seeking. Meaning couldn’t be taken for granted not least because what is an angel’s eye view on the world? Where does one place the camera once the coordinates of conventional perception have been opened up? Yet here we have Wenders still seeking meaning out of purpose; what happens when purpose so clearly imposes itself on meaning; how does one make the film rigorous rather than arbitrary? Structural filmmakers could take a specific aspect of film and follow through on the logic of its purpose: hence Conrad’s The Flicker (which Le Cain’s short film Dead or Alive finds a variation upon) or Michael Snow’s Wavelength. In this sense, Cloud of Skin is closer to Chelsea Girls, a constant disruption of a logical purpose but one that we believe has an underlying principle nevertheless and that is there in other Le Cain works too, like Solo for Water and At Large Under the Sun. It will be wateriness of water, as he shows flooding in the former film with no interest in its dramatic qualities, or the stoniness of the stone in the graveyard in the latter, without an interest in the drama of death. Or it might be the crumbling quality of a wall in Forgotten Films. Things may have meanings but they chiefly have textures and why shouldn’t a filmmaker reverse this sense of priority? Here we might think of the difference between the primary and secondary features of film to try and understand the usual cinematic sense of emphasis. Cinematically, primary features would be story, situation and character; secondary features how to make these primary features present: camera movement, sound, set design. In Le Cain’s work, frequently the secondary features take primary significance as he seeks to show how things are texturally present rather than textually meaningful. It isn’t that the films lack purpose but that we need to find the purpose in a comprehension that attacks our senses instead of affirming what is in our minds. Thus the problem with cliches in cinematic form is that they are so in our minds that they hardly need to be on the screen at all: we know exactly what the film is thinking because like an idiom in language it has been used over and over again, becoming dead to our senses. How to bring our senses back from the dead is a useful way of looking at a type of cinema so wary of meaning, one suspicious of a ‘meaningfulness’ in the image that has become visually sclerotic. It is a cinema that seems to be saying that we must stop looking at objects for their use value and instead see in them their grain, their weave, their finish and consistency. Thus it isn’t only the secondary means by which to access the primary features that are usually ignored. It isn’t only that films make invisible to us the shot choices and the sound design but also the very texture of things within the filmic space. Think of the many objects that pass through a film’s running time that fail to receive attention; the context removes the textural not because the texture of the thing is absent; more that its function imposes itself on its texture.
One can watch a marvellous horror film like Rosemary’s Baby and fail to notice the materiality of the film since that is part of Polanski’s genius: to make us see what we don’t notice, to observe what we don’t quite comprehend, whether it is the fleshiness of the meat, the cottony quality of Rosemary’s dresses or the clashing colours Minnie Castavet wears that may leave someone wondering why they have a migraine. Obviously, these things are far from invisible but their purpose is to give us an uncanny sense that all is not right in Rosemary’s world. The uncanniness serves the narrative; Le Cain would wish the image serve ‘ostronenie’, that famous notion of defamiliarisation where an artist can offer something familiar to us in an unfamiliar way, though here in a specific sort, in making things texturally strange.
Le Cain once proposed that in his earlier work ” I felt I was trying to pulverise the ‘audio-visual unit’ (I call it this because it was often beaten into something far less integral than a ‘shot’) almost in an effort to tear at the fabric of reality itself.” That hasn’t changed, with the fabric of reality also the reality of the fabric if we accept that part of Le Cain’s determination to pulverise the audio-visual unit lies in giving back to it not its given actualisation but its ongoing potentialities. In other words, if the image is constantly reduced to its narrative component then the texture becomes the textual, its manifold properties become manipulated into storytelling purposefulness. Now of course many a great filmmaker allows that possibility, seeing while narrative business needs to be taken care of, the story facilitates the objects that become vital to their vision of the world. Our Polanski example isn’t entirely arbitrary: Le Cain writes very well on the filmmaker, saying of The Tenant, “the building [in which central character Trelkovsky rents an apartment] is the primal howl of terror inscribed in matter and that which takes place within it an attempt to arrange the howl into events, to give it form in time.” (The Cinema of Roman Polanski) In the same paragraph, Le Cain invokes Tarkovsky, a filmmaker who might not always be an obvious influence on the Irish director but whose interest in the grain of our being, in our awareness that things are there and yet not usefully there, not narratively there, shares a few similarities with Le Cain’s.
In Cloud of Skin, the pulverisation Le Cain achieves is the destruction of the depictive fullness Currie discusses. The audio-visual field doesn’t express anything within the diegesis but instead dilapidates the image. He offers us an image-rubble in both form and content, in both the numerous properties he gives to the images as we can never know from one shot to the next whether it will be in monochrome or colour, will be a long shot or a close up, a desaturated or over-saturated image. If this may seem to border on the arbitrary then that would be the lesser of two evils if the alternative happens to be convention. By untethering the film from a plot, and refusing the strictures of the Structural, Le Cain is left with a film that is free but that is then in a constant state of tension with its own arbitrariness. We can see how Le Cain works that tension. Around five minutes into the work, in desaturated colour, the film appears to be establishing a space, what looks like the edge of a town, and offers us shots from a highway overpass and a smaller road below. He offers us an abrupt zoom that indicates a need to zero in on a detail but there seems nothing in particular that is revealed. A moment after that, he shows us a series of houses on what looks like an estate, and again uses the zoom, less abruptly, but again nothing is revealed as a consequence. During the sequence, we hear too on the soundtrack a car horn that becomes an extended sound. Form stubbornly refuses content, leaves us bemused over the camera and the sound design’s purpose. One could knock these images into shape without much difficulty, but that is the sort of narrative metalwork Le Cain resists, as though pulverisation is the refusal of that type of shaping. Imagine if Le Cain wanted to tell a story in these couple of minutes where a wife awaits her husband’s return in one of the houses he shows us and we discover he won’t be making it home because the zoom we have witnessed has shown us the car having crashed, and the sound we hear is the drivers’ head pressed against the steering wheel and the horn continues as his head collapses on it. We cut to the interior of the house. The wife has heard the noise; she waits anxiously even if she doesn’t yet know it is her husband in the car. We might not know either but the construction of the images will offer this inference. Out of such moments, a story starts to build but while there may be in Cloud of Skin a tale about a young man returning to the locations of a love affair, we cannot construct the narrative as we have just done with the few images Le Cain gives us.
Fifteen minutes into the film, the male central character passes through the countryside near the sea. The colour is saturated, the angle wide and the body language ambivalent. The next shot is in black and white, a pan where we have in front of us the sea, framed from behind what looks like hotel windows. Is this the same stretch of sea we witness in the background of the previous shot? If so, is it taking place on the same temporal plane as the previous shot? Is Kavanagh, when we see him taking a walk around the countryside near the sea, going for a walk in the same temporal zone as the hotel room we witness? Many a filmmaker will use categorical markers to make clear what temporal zone we are in (a change of hairstyles and clothing, a date on screen, a character comment that makes it clear what year it is, or how much time in the story has passed). When we move back into colour, the blind woman appears alone in a room; might we assume that his walk through the nearby hills is no more than taking time out while the blind woman he loves is back at the hotel? Perhaps, but that would be to impose the need to read the images in a conjunction that would lead to narration. Le Cain resists such an attempt as the film offers black leader, a shot of the sea and a return to black leader. The leader feels like a curtain pulled over the potential for reading the images; a formal resistance that refuses our expectations.
Described as Le Cain’s first feature after many years working on shorter projects, Cloud of Skin wonders how far formal experimentation can be pushed temporally. While the bulk of narrative films are feature-length; the majority of experimental works are short. They usually aren’t described as shorts while narratively focused shorter films usually are: as if once narrative comes into play, length becomes a question. If narrative is held in abeyance then temporality is perhaps harder to quantify. When people ask the rhetorical question how long is a piece of string then actually it often depends on how clear is its function: a hangman’s rope, a mooring rope or a lasso will have a useful length and the same is usually the case in narrative film. But the more experimental the work, the less narrative happens to be its focus, the harder it might be to answer the question of the running time’s appropriateness. Ben Hur or Lawrence of Arabia at two hours would seem too short; a four-hour His Girl Friday or Philadelphia Story monotonously long. Douglas Gordon may in slowing down Psycho to 24 Hours and expanding The Searchers to almost seven weeks have radically played with film length but he did so within a new dispositif: within a gallery context where people were not expected to watch the film through but to pass in and out of the experience. Warhol’s Empire in the mid-sixties was of course vital to turning a cinematic experience into a ‘galleristic’ one: cinematic punters paying to watch it in the cinema threatened “to solve the question of the new vision and the new cinema by breaking chairs on our heads” (Village Voice) Passing through a gallery watching it for free would have been unlikely to have lead to physical threats. The notion of a gallery experience created out of a potentially violent altercation perhaps tells us something about what the cinema is as a viewing experience and how far one can violate it, especially if the viewer feels that there is no answer to the length of the piece of film.
Does this mean that Cloud of Skin is a failure or a different type of success; can we expect clashes in cinemas in which it is shown or polite exchanges in galleries where it may be viewed? Le Cain’s feature is only 84 minutes and will require only modest patience even in the cinema seat but we might wonder why so many ‘art house’ filmmakers have chosen a modicum of narration while creating new perceptual possibilities. Film is not a narrative medium; that is a useless prejudice masquerading as ontological fact. Film is a temporal one, which distinguishes it fundamentally from photography, even if films have of course used only still images in which to tell their story – from La jetee (more or less) to Ano Una – as the photograph passes through film time. But as a temporal art form what expectations are placed upon it and how easy is it to keep pulverising the image the longer the film happens to be, the more it conforms to the sort of length that appears consistent with narrative?
It isn’t as if such questions wouldn’t have occurred to Le Cain. He is a cinephile as well as cineaste, an excellent critic with a great knowledge of film and a great interest in non-experimental cinema, for its characterisational, ethical and narrational possibilities. Here he is on Kill Bill and his reservations about the film: Tarantino “arbitrarily appeals to values that he assumes are so strongly present in the audience a priori that he doesn’t have to bother working them into the ethical mechanics of his cinema.” (Senses of Cinema) Here he is on Haneke’s The Seventh Continent: “The dinner is a fine example of Haneke’s formidable mastery at creating memorably powerful scenes of emotional distress and violence. The apologetic relative’s failure to suppress his grief alienates him from the falsely jovial atmosphere surrounding him and makes the rest of the family uncomfortable for highlighting the festering, perhaps wilfully undefined malaise undercutting their own existence.” (Senses of Cinema) Here we have a sensibility that is concerned with the diegetic properties of film but who chooses in his own work generally to make them very secondary to the properties of the medium. However, if we are right to assume that what so often fascinates Le Cain in his work is the fabric of things, the textural aspect that is both in the objects and of the form, then there is no reason why that preoccupation might not find narrational purpose in time. One in no way wishes to suggest that Le Cain should change direction; more that there is within his interest in film other directions clearly available. By consistently resisting images that play like common phrases, by refusing to put together images and sounds that arrive at cliche, Le Cain has usually also resisted putting them together so that a story can develop. It is the case that many images when pressed into narrative demand become visually rigidified, a hardening of perception means we can predict the shots because the options available have been narrowed by the necessity of the telling. But Le Cain knows better than most that this needn’t be the case, that Jess Franco, Bela Tarr and Garrel, as well as Polanski and Tarkovsky are all filmmakers he greatly admires and who have been to varying degrees far from impervious to telling stories.
However, what is important isn’t that one cajoles Le Cain into more narratively inclined filmmaking but instead to propose that within his work (and certainly in his criticism) there is an interest in people, in what they wear, what they think, how they move, what grieves them and moves them, that could benefit from a less radically ambiguous presentation. When Currie discusses depictive fullness he sees the exception that proves the rule but in experimental filmmaking it is the other way round. The sort of shot Currie finds so exceptional is a common enough occurrence in works defying narration. But partly the force of it in The Passion is how exceptional it happens to be, how it forces us back onto the form after involving us so immersively in the content. At the beginning and near the end of Cloud of Skin, Le Cain shows a photo, covering the entire frame, the burning of a holiday polaroid that curls at the bottom as the flame absorbs it, disintegrating the image we are watching. In the opening shot, it burns against a grey background until it goes out, leaving a small circle a quarter of the size of the frame and invoking the iris shots of silent cinema. We might be reminded too of the ending of Two-Lane Blacktop, another film, like The Passion, that turns the form against the film we are watching as the celluloid catches fire. In Two-Lane Blacktop it suggests a certain cine-nihilism, cinema at the end of its tether. It would seem for Le Cain that this cine-nihilism is an opportunity to say that the image is always under threat in one form or another and central to that threat is the filmmaker who may fall into audio-visual cliches but who, at the same time, is constantly capable of replenishing the image and renewing it with experimentation. If we are right to assume that Cain seeks to show the photograph burning as a variation of the iris shot, while also paying homage to Two-Lane Blacktop we can see too that it passes through the New Wave interest in the iris shot’s renewal (as we find in Godard and Truffaut) yet less in Le Cain’s case as a nod to cinema’s past but as a further pulverisation of the image into the future.
But what if Le Cain finds he cannot pulverise the image further; will he turn to narration and try to find the renewal in chronicle? There is a story in Cloud of Skin even if we cannot easily find it, there is a sense of grief in the film that works to find its affect on the most tentative terms, and there is as we have noted a running time that coincides with narrative cinema. There is a moment in the film when Kavanagh is walking through some grass and above him is the motorway. He looks up; what is he looking at or for? If we think about it, if we speculate upon it, we might assume he is looking for a body, or inclined to stumble upon one as Jeffrey Beaumont comes upon an ear in Blue Velvet. But why look up? Has someone thrown something over the motorway and he is trying to recall where exactly it may have fallen? As he then beds down we might assume he was looking for the best spot to protect him from the rain even if the sun shines so strongly that a beam of light splits the screen. A minute after that another shot reminds us of Lynch, a point of view shot as someone turns a corner (Mulholland Dr.) and then shortly after that Kavanagh burns some photographs showing an orgy that might remind us of the footage projected in Lost Highway. What makes Le Cain an interesting filmmaker is the tension between his knowledge of film, his imposition of form and his fascination with the components of narrative that he then resists. Will that resistance fade a little with time so that the tension between the three elements becomes more balanced as he seeks to find his interest in texture not only in the cinematic means and the vivid mise en scene but also in the story that he still presently so tentatively tells? Part of a generation in Irish experimental cinema (Dean Kavanagh, Rouzbeh Rashidi, Vicky Langan) producing engaging, innovative work, Le Cain may not feel the need to become more narratively focused. Yet it has been the path taken by a filmmaker Le Cain admires immensely, the already name-checked Philippe Garrel. Writing on Garrel in Senses of Cinema, Le Cain quotes the French filmmaker saying he saw his work as “Freud plus Lumiere” but as William Giraldi observes, Freud was also “the never-ending storyteller.” (VQR) Garrel’s films moved from the narratively minimalist to the narratively pre-occupational: from making films that were close to a primal scream and later works that were elaborate dramas which felt close to a confessional, arriving at such great works as L’enfant secret, La Naissance de l’amour and J’entends plus la guitare. Speaking of two 70s Garrel films, Les hautes solitude and Le berceau de cristal, Le Cain says: “what Garrel does in those films is place the viewer in an intensely intimate proximity with the women he films, creating a profound affective link with them. Yet what makes the films so unbearably powerful is how mysterious they remain – we have little or no sense of what causes the pain they are going through even though we witness its results.” (Moving Image Artists) It is a wonderful encapsulation of Cloud of Skin as well. Whether one wishes for a little more sense of what causes the pain in early Garrel (as we find in mid-period works like L’enfant Secret and J’entends plus la guitare) needn’t at all negate the Garrel films that came before it and we might find ourselves saying the same of Le Cain’s work if he does find himself moving in the direction of the French filmmaker. If he doesn’t then he will no doubt continue to search, in the properties of film, for the fabric evident in a certain type of reality.
© Tony McKibbin