Every technology offers gain and loss. This is my accounting, a personal arithmetic of screens and apps engaged with over one, exceptional year.
1. Face Control
In what quickly established itself as an everyday routine on desktop camera, Zoom kept my thoughts from the horror of the unfamiliar virus engulfing the familiar world. Zoom saved my job as a casual teacher of screenwriting during Lockdown.
In between Zoom appointments I took modest walks where I savoured most things.
Crystalline atmosphere and absence of fire smoke. (It was mid-2020).
Berms no longer summer-singed yellow & brown.
Beds of reeds my whippet yearned to get lost in.
A cactus tree that made the turn into a particular dead end worthwhile.
Stuffed bears in windows and trussed to fences that wore out their welcome but stayed put anyway, depilating with the months and turning to cliché.
It was so quiet.
Two children homeschooling in a downstairs rental who had tapped their paintings to the French doors.
How did I know the terrace was a rental?
I don’t know. I just did.
Each day I made sure to induct myself back into the non-pixelated real via those slow, suburban square dances, circumscribed in the days of the five kilometre radius and threatened number plate checks, but off screen! Off-screen in all senses, in the senses.
Even so, by that end of that year of social distancing and technology getting-closer, my face felt so exhausted, held so tight, I felt it might slide off. Or maybe I just wished it to. Teaching a miniaturised humanity as frightened and disoriented as myself who preferred not or, for reasons of bandwidth, were unable to switch on their cameras; mouthing at black squares instead, compulsively checking my enfeebled smile; astonished and embarrassed by the depressed but camera-friendly complexions of youth; the Zoom grimace of the one in nominally in charge (me) day in and day out. This was how I spent the greater part of the first plague year, 2020, in a state of urgent becalm.
I have read that the babies of mothers with post-natal depression are often unusually animated, facially expressive: an evolutionary ploy to capture their mother’s attention. In a reverse of our chronological ages, my students had become a proliferation of emotionally remote mothers (and fathers) and I, running the gamut of micro expressions, a rubbery visaged infant who couldn’t capture their attention. A grotesque analogy, but so was the situation.
Right before he turned off his camera, one production student said to his roommate, that really sucked. I thought so too. He had laughed through most of the workshop with his off-camera other in a way that made it clear that they were watching another screen. Even so, of a dozen or so students, he was one of only three who had bothered to make himself visible, to turn his camera on. Maybe he was referring to that salient fact. During second semester I had not and would not meet one of the new university students on my screen in the flesh.
I was unconvinced by online learning, but we all knew why we were there. To hold hands digitally through a terrifying historical moment that stretched on and on. There was the student in Minnesota, hastily restored from Sydney to the family home, who never missed a class even though it was midnight his time. Gareth was a digital enthusiast with beautiful manners who looked more and more wan as Lockdown stretched on. I made a point of asking him how it was going in his city each week, and he, of minimising the distress. Pretty soon only his sister was going to out to procure essentials and we stopped talking about it. I figured he needed an hour of escape, to take his mind off the burgeoning unknowns and self-begetting sameness, just as we all did. Like most of my students he was back at home, returned to a childhood he had only just left. There weren’t sentences to contain all this on Zoom, and even if there were I couldn’t elicit them. I tried to remember the validity of simply being there while fencing heinous levels of Imposter Syndrome. Sometimes this worked, when I showed up in the Zoom ‘breakout rooms’, Gareth was a shining light of participation. His passion seemed part native and partly an outcome of living under palpably higher stakes than most Australians.
By our final hour of the semester, a pedagogic intimacy had taken shallow root. Of a class of 26 only six turned up but everyone had a script idea to talk about, five had their cameras on, and only one had a failing connection that kept him stumbling in and out all class. My own image got darker and darker as daylight closed. It was winter and my lamp cast a poor sidelight. I was a filmmaker in need of a gaffer, or to reframe what I actually was these days: a casual tutor of screenwriting who hadn’t sorted her lighting. I got up to turn on the main light and returned to my only marginally better lit square. It was satisfying work because their script ideas had become, finally, articulate and quite suddenly these screenwriters actively sought my expertise. Useful at last! I had only ever met them as animate postage stamps and I would never see them again, but at 5:50 pm on Thursday, Week 11, the Zoom room was warm. We were going to miss the weekly assignation I had come to dread.
Right before we signed off my eye flicked to frame right and there, on my closed wardrobe door, hung a bra of the most transparent lace. A cartoon signifier of, well, a bra. Setting up, I had tilted the frame upwards to a position immaculate of bedroom furniture but a last-minute costume change, followed by a nudge of the laptop when I reached to adjust the lamp and – here was my bra. I surveyed five sets of eyes. All lowered to their scripts. I told myself no-one had noticed. That if they had that this was a souvenir of Zoom akin to the child in a tutu who crossed unobserved behind an older-brother student at his desk and, later, back again, absorbed in her sweetly purposeful domestic business plunging those of us that noticed, unbeknownst, deeper into the incongruity of the Zoom Dream: a realm that is strictly business, but which can trip the passive observer into the unfiltered and private without warning.
By the time I was back in a staff room, I found I was not alone. There were others chewing the inside of their cheeks at night, busy making scar tissue that hung conveniently low to be re-gnawed, or breaking molars from clenching and grinding (I was a grinder), checking our plague privilege then going to bed to clench and grind or chew again. Nocturnal bruxism is a ’parafunctional activity’, apparently, which I take to mean pointless but not meaningless. Bruxism escalated during Covid as we parried fear by day, passing it around like the object in a dread game of pass the parcel. By night the parcel landed, and we locked it firmly in our jaws. Michi, a cinematography teacher, had discovered a pressure point that acted as an ‘off switch’ accessed from inside the mouth at the back of her jaw. I could never find it. I practised licking my lips, clockwise then anticlockwise when no one was looking, unconsciously replicating my whippet Nestor’s gesture when nervous. Lick-lipping, apt that it is a tongue twister.
This year, Zoom has been replaced by commutes on trains, by lecturing in rooms or consulting in an ex-sound recording room that is no longer hermetically sealed – it leaks sound – and whose walls are battered by acting students doing warm-ups and vocalisations across or down the corridor.
Fuck you Fuck you Fuck you!
No Fuck you Fuck you Fuck you!
My face has not forgotten. It continues to hold on for dear Life (life is dear) and I don’t know how to make it stop. I blame the technology of screens and its proliferation. I blame Zoom for scraping my job off the Lockdown floor and, here’s the catch, reconstituting it on a small screen that has turned into more screens. Everywhere, screens.
Irena, a psychotherapist, recently told me that bruxism is a concentration of energies that we express and circulate as we move through the day. At night, in the physical stasis of sleep, this energy lacks the release of movement and concentrates fear, anger and other unexpelled emotions in the jaw. This simplest but most organic of explanations has helped more than magnesium supplements, mouth guards or going to sleep with my tongue between my teeth as if wedging open a door. Irena’s offering feels apt because it fits with a sensation of outrage, deep seated in the body, that so much time spent at screens is suppressing the expressive language of our bodies.
Since talking to Irena, I get up and write or drink tea in the kitchen when I wake in the night. Just that tiny bit of movement seems to help. On those occasions I am less likely to awaken with the woozy face ache that is the legacy of 2020.
2. iPhone Hieronymus
I am straining to enlarge tiny figures in a Hieronymus Bosch painting with the two-digit splay that I have thought of as squirrelly since I first became conscious of train carloads of commuters doing that and the swipe circa 2016. After a shuttered morning spent in three live screenwriting tutorials, I hold the device inches from my masked face. The writing and its projection into the visual have a trance-like clarity. Against the wonder of the fifteenth-century painter and admiration for his twenty-first century critic, however, I feel the physical pressure of narrowing and loading my focus into this flat, radiant, tyrant of a space. It is tiring being wet tissue to a screen. That makes me sound like a mussel; a muscle attached to a machine.
The phone battery, set to Low Power Mode, is down in the teens. Enough.
Exhausted, my eye passes effortlessly through the carriage window and along a ramp-like road into the shadowy balconies of sandstone-storied Central Station’s upper eastern façade. If you were writing this for a moving camera, the movement would be one very long tracking movement or dolly, although this would fail to capture the full sweep of the thing as the gaze becomes aerial. But I am out of date, my technology is as rusty as my directing – a drone could do this.
The journey of my naked eye in this sudden, deep perspective is like a sigh or an exhalation, a kinaesthetic empathy for the unfurling of the climbing road to Central Station. Unleashed from the suspended time-space of a very small screen, I experience a minor ecstasy of the real and of real time. Ah, movement again. Ecstasy for the Ancient Greeks was ‘to stand outside oneself’.
A life lived via screens is a generator of great emotional and physiological tension, of suffering even. And yet. Refreshed by my recent drift, I am free to…look down at my phone again. At a detail of a jester hunched over his cup in the fork of a tree in Bosch’s Ship of Fools (c 1505-15). There’s something about the jester’s outfit. Are these light-beaded outer layers transparent or threadbare, T J Clark wonders:
Dazzling as they are, [they] don’t seem to be deployed just to dazzle. I think they’re meant to float the figure into a realm of fragility, vulnerability even pathos—anyway, somewhere different from the idiocy below.
For a moment that’s what I am, bedazzled, floating, fragile, as technology unfolds the magical, the human on a homebound train.
Sometimes when a film student fails to show up with a script to a one-on-one consult, I get lucky. The student doesn’t have a story idea yet but is thinking about screen language. That is their idea and so we talk about editing or camera technique and I remember that once upon a time I was a filmmaker. Even better, that technology can be a vehicle for creative thinking.
The students sometimes bring me golden thoughts, ideas not quite clean of psychology – which, as we know, can get surprisingly trite – but almost.
Jack wants to discuss transitions. The way you can be watching a close-up of a character, studying their expression, then there is a cut to a wider shot and you find that the location has changed. The character is no longer where you thought they were but somewhere different. The filmmaker has seamlessly transported you through time and space in an unusually disruptive way. Perhaps the stealthy relocation signifies a dream leap or thought jump, a psychological effect, after all. Perhaps it indicates genre, a thriller or crime story that keeps you, the audience, running to catch up. Sidestepping expectations of continuity editing, a time-space paradox ensnares the viewer. You feel disoriented and quickened.
Niall doesn’t have a script either but comes armed with that rarer thing, an aural imagination. Is this why he tends to look Off rather than make too much direct eye contact – Off as in offscreen, although he has the pallor of a night-owl, too – as if he is listening to peripheral frequencies?
It is to Niall I owe the journey back to Thomas Edison and earlier for, in the small hours of the night, he has come across the inventor’s voice recording from 1927. This was thought to be the first of its kind for the longest time until, in 2008, a lab in California restored a man’s voice singing the nursery song Au Clair de la Lune from a ‘waveshape on stoveblacked paper’ made and patented in 1860. A waveshape on stoveblacked paper? A kind of sound drawing, then.
Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s goal was to make ‘daguerrotypes of sound’. Niall had been listening to the result, lost to history for only a hundred and fifty years. He tells me he prefers the uncleaned-up ‘original’ version, wavery and at the wrong speed, which makes the voice sound eerily feminine, semi-submerged in noise. A mushroom-like glow concentrates his face as he attempts to capture the moving effect this voice from another time had on him. He looks off to the side, smiles, shakes his head, smiles again.
When I track down Scott’s recording its effect is overshadowed by my experience of Niall’s face listening in recollection. ‘He had a great show on his face’, the infant daughter of a flatmate once reported back from her day at preschool. Impressed by her linguistic insight at the time, today I can find no other way to put it better.
Sunday morning, I prefer to be at Lina’s in Ramallah, where the view opens onto a building-encrusted hill: mid-century apartment towers gentled by uniformity of ivory palette; at hill’s crest the more ancient shapes of distant spire tips; in the foreground a scattering of birds taking off from, circling and landing on a house. With instinctual good taste they have chosen the one fanciful piece of architecture available—pagoda rooftops, a covered balcony, two satellite dishes, a geometry that refuses symmetry. The sky is faintly overcast.
I can visit Lina’s thanks to WindowSwap, a website comprised of the pre-recorded views of contributors from around the world, launched as a quarantine project by Sonai Ranjoit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam in Singapore.
I detect Lina’s presence, standing at about the same point I am sitting in relation to the screen as she subtly reframes, nudging a grey moiré curtain, faintly unsettled by the breeze, further into view in what I imagine, is her apartment. It is moving to be in Ramallah at 6:22 on a Sydney morning even though I cannot tell what time it was for Lina at the time she stood there, steadying her horizontal phone to record her view, in a territory that has imposed on it a variety of perpetual, cruelly involuntary lockdown.
After a while, I realise I have been listening to roosters, muffled by glass. It is early, then. While I am writing this a musical horn surprises me. A quick harp strum. My ear tells me it belongs to a bus, but I cannot find one on any of the three roads that snake in and out of Lina’s view behind the buildings, and on which a man in a black thawb strode earlier. It is as Walter Murch suggests, offscreen sound can trigger a subliminal perception of worlds and plots unfolding beyond the limited film frame, an effect the sound designer likens to the ‘kind of thickness a novel gives off.’
The vistas uploaded with recorded sound certainly offer the deepest perspectives, the more literally transporting affect. When I flick back between screen windows to check a detail, the sky over Lina’s has cleared, is luminous and high. I leave the view to its own devices to describe it instead but keep an ear on its aural business. The constant dull traffic is like the roar of the sea in a shell.
The view out my window is comprised of potscrubber trees above a lichen-tiled roof; stands of olives and lemon trees planted as a ‘functional garden’ by our landlords, the Jabbours, who grew up in this building and who were clearly thinking of an earlier home in the Lebanon hills; pink ombré suffusing to palest blue as I write.
The day in Ramallah has aged. The sky, looking less new, more seen-it-all -before, tells me so. Here, too. I hear Nestor’s exclamatory toenails on the kitchen lino. In a second, he will pass me on the way to the yard. It’s breakfast hour. The view cycles to the next window. The ten minutes of the website’s allotted timespan are up – more, because I kept returning, could not go past Lina’s, perpetually re-unfolding in real time even though that time is long past.
5. Russian Nights
But Face Control, I first encountered the phrase after midnight in the backstreets of St Petersburg, down towards the river, when it had at last fallen dark. It was 2005. The club was nothing much plus a bouncer on the door, a brutalist archetype who I watched refuse a young local. Hanging back, a small group of us set up shop on a couple of crates outside. A middle-aged Russian scholar with the wily build of a wit and an extremely tall, young American post-grad in tow to prove it, explained that this was Face Control at work. If you were judged attractive you got in. Not, not. The American who was collecting stencil graffiti for his American supervisor and writing about electrical motif and metaphor in early modern literature for the Russian, got in. That he was beautiful was beside the point. He was male. He was American. Inside, a couple of low-ceilinged rooms throbbed with smoke, death metal and dim. He came straight back out. Outside was where it was happening.
One glimpse was enough to convince me of my solidarity, to return outside where the scholar and his acolytes drank warm beer from plastic cups. We fell into a conversation about Days of Eclipse (1988), a film tinted with irradiated yellow light, made by Alexandr Sokurov before he got famous for his much lesser, one-shot hit Russian Ark (2002). Set in Turkmenistan, I’d seen Dni Zatminya, as it is called in its mother tongue, at the Chauvel sometime in the nineties. I might as well have stumbled upon a piece of asteroid in the streets of Paddington. The scholar quizzed me about why I liked Sokurov’s lesser-known film. I muttered something about tobacco filters…like a yellowed daguerreotype…and the slippery consciousness of the filmmaker as his narrative melted distinctions between the real and magical with such casual unaccountability, such oblique can-do. I loved films like that. Still do. Even so, I felt self-conscious extolling a Russian film to a Russian scholar, and annoyed that he sat back so comfortably in the power relation. I kept up a good face (another kind of face) while despising my reflexive desire to please. The scholar remained tacit, gnomic even. Maybe the whole world was his student.
Earlier, on the Moscow International Film Festival’s opening night party barge on the Volga, I had witnessed Face Control in action without knowing its name. There I observed that whatever the code was it did not apply to the bloated grey flesh of organised crime persons who appeared to double as festival friends and patrons but that it did apply to a fellow filmmaker. Georgina was a first generation Mexican-American from Arizona who was later to take out a big narrative prize at the film festival, one of the only non-Russians to do so. I took her exclusion by the forbidding blokes on the door as racism pure and simple. The sexism was so intrinsic it passed, as it so often does, without comment.
I hadn’t met her yet but after that night, Georgina and I fell in with each other in the way of travellers in a city where the Cyrillic street signs never became less foreign. I quickly discovered she shared my family disposition for moaning, a tendency that was at first startlingly exotic—the freedom to moan so much!, almost Chekovian in this geographical context—as we tooled around, peevish with jetlag, giant floating pollen and White Nights, on barges and through vegetable markets thronged with gold tooth grins. Outgunned, I no longer had the desire to complain and, besides, I was having too good a time looking at everything. Georgina’s verbal fretting finally became too circular, fixated on a film program curator, a bespectacled Muscovite in a boxy short shirt (everything about him ironically square) who had offered to take her around but kept cancelling, further inciting her speculative romantic attachment. We discussed our mutual failing and she confided that everyone in her large matriarchal family moaned. Her movie was like this too, she said. About nothing but full of people talking and moaning.
That’s one of my definitions of art, made of overlooked materials, right under the nose of the everyday. The non-celluloid moaning, however, was the making then breaking of our too-quickly plucked friendship that, like the fruit of the aphorism, spoiled fast.
That night on the docked barge I whipped in to see what I could find to eat and to take back out. There was a second barge, well stocked with vodka but little else, on which the festival hosted the opening night reception for the filmmakers and where the Mexican-American returned to wait out this hungry, estranging night in the rain. The other barge, I discovered, was a fairy tale scenario: trestle tables with engraved silver samovars served tea but were otherwise laden with empty bread baskets, dishes that bore the scud marks of dips or had been licked clean of caviar, and platters piled high with chicken bones. It was as if I had strayed into the den of ogres, of short, wide, suited men who had done their work in the company of the ‘Night Butterflies’: statuesque blondes with strapped-on trays of Smirnoff. It was a venal enchantment.
As for Georgina, the curator finally came through and we parted company on Tverskaya Street. She was off to rendezvous at the Yeliseyevsky store. We had wandered its aisles of unalloyed imperial glamour just that morning and came dully out with a tin of tuna each and handfuls of beautifully-appointed Turkish sweets made of shitty compound chocolate. Now she was going back there to meet him, the promise of another party in the air in the company of this elusive debonair wafting her spirits.
I never got to see Georgina Garcia Reidel’s How the Garcia Girls Spent their Summer (2004), but I last saw the filmmaker with her suitcase in the reception of the Green Apple Hotel. The curator was there too, poised to drive her to the airport. She looked fluffed, replete and, despite so recently finding we didn’t get on, I found I was pleased for her happiness. We smiled at each other, a quick exchange of regretful self-knowledge, and didn’t speak.
Unearthing the festival catalogue, searching for a face, a name, a title, I find that her film:
explores the terrain of longing, loneliness, and self-realisation among three generations of single women in a Mexican-American family as they struggle with lack of romantic exercise.
It is the sardonic ‘lack of romantic exercise’ that gets me.
In the Petersburg alley the scholar was hatching a plan to take us to see Palace Bridge raise itself up and split into two halves so that ships might pass under along the Neva between 3 and 4 am and asked me along.
The group was comprised of the two American friends, Max, an autodidact theorist of tragedy interning at the film festival to improve his Russian, and post-grad Ben. Plus, a local girl Max was tutoring in English, and her buddies, passing a bottle of warm champagne to celebrate high school graduation and keen to kick on to another death metal club that might let them in.
I have since regretted that, glimpsing that elusive destination Sleep, I went back to my hotel bed instead where, after having passed the execrable Face Control and done absolutely nothing with it, having blagged my way through the alley-way oral exam, I failed to sleep once more.
Like the flatmate vampires in Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows (2014) who find themselves able to watch the sunrise on Youtube and not suffer the consequences, I have since visited the famous foot and traffic bridge, lit violet and underscored by Russian consonants and tourist din, opening online. Unlike the vampires, I would rather have seen it in the flesh.
Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. (Bloomsbury: 2002.)