February 21, 2013
Not with a bang, but with a whimper…or, rather, a whisper. So began the second event of the F.I.L.M. series this semester, a sneak preview of Jane Gillooly’s new documentary film, Suitcase of Love and Shame.
If one can offer anything definitive about the film, it would be to say that it is a tour de force of discomfort.
The origin story of the film gestures to the weird tidewater that the Web has become, yielding all manner of cultural detritus on our shores. In this case, the flotsam is a suitcase purchased by Gillooly on eBay. Inside the suitcase was all that remained of a five-year love affair between a married man and a woman in the early 1960s. But besides the usual blurry photographs and assorted memorabilia? Sixty hours of “letters” on tape, sent back and forth between the couple.
The film is a pastiche of those tapes, meticulously chopped and woven by Gillooly into the semblance of a narrative, cut from 60 hours down to 70 minutes of pain, awkwardness and, for the viewer, a fascination that made it hard to look away.
The story—no matter how Gillooly squared it—would not have had a happy ending. The experience is not unlike being third-party to a private phone line. In that way, this film might be closer to horror than documentary, just as squeamishly uncomfortable to sit through as The Shining. Lingering in the fuzz of the tape, you can practically feel the future turmoil and recriminations waiting in the air: Tom, recording messages from his veterinarian office; Jeannie, talking to the tape as she waits for him; the two of them, meeting for a breathless, passionate tryst in a motel room.
The film is also a case study of artistic constraint. Even thought Gillooly managed to track down the real people who sent the tapes back and forth—one of them dead and the other quite elderly—she resisted adding anything to the narrative.
“I decided that I would use what was contained in the suitcase,” commented Gillooly.
As such, everything we learn about Tom and Jeannie emerges from the tapes themselves. Although we see a foot or shoulder here and there from old photographs, we never see the faces of either Tom or Jeannie. While privacy was certainly a consideration, the ultimate effect is that these lovers are reduced to voices in the darkness.
In compositional terms, the film almost exists more like an audio track with imagistic accompaniment. Though the visual aspect feels tacked on at moments, it serves by and large as a valuable parallel structure to the audio narrative. Lingering on shots of lighted windows, kennels and tape recorders, reels spinning against black backgrounds, Gillooly provides a suggestive, subtle counterpoint to the painful obviousness of the lovers’ tapes.
The challenge and ingenuity of this film is something that the F.I.L.M. series looks to continue the rest of the semester. The curator of the series, Scott MacDonald, a visiting professor of art history, struggled to nominate a series highlight.
“I think they’re all highlights,” he said. “I don’t bring anything that’s not a highlight.”
On Sunday, May 24, the campus will be treated to a visit from experimental filmmaker Lawrence Brose, who has been under federal indictment for a charge of child pornography. He will be presenting De Profundis, the film that landed him in problematic legal territory.
MacDonald, who has co-created an online petition to dismiss charges against Brose, challenges viewers to find any problematic imagery in the film.
“It’s gorgeous, challenging, unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” said MacDonald.
The highlights continue from there. On March 3, Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich will be on campus to present the final film of his trilogy following an Indonesian family in the slums of Jakarta. Helmrich has won a slew of awards for his documentary work, including two Grand World Documentary Awards at Sundance.
On April 7, Su Friedrich, a renowned feminist independent filmmaker, will be screening her recent film Gut Renovation, which explores the gentrification of her neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The screenings will focus mostly on documentary cinema with a nod towards the experimental.
“Suitcase is a perfect example,” said MacDonald. “Almost all the work this semester is like that, right at the edge between documentary and avant-garde.”