Thursday, January 27, 2011

Scenes from a Separated Life (2010)

Scenes from a Separated Life is an erotic film. Metaphorically, and nearly literally, its minute-worth of images imply sex—sex happening, or having happened, or possibly about to. Nothing is certain though, not even the relationship between the couple onscreen. They are together because the film puts them together, but if they’re lovers, or ever were, it’s because we’ve imagined them to be.

Imagination is a powerful thing.

Scenes was screened this past September as part of the Toronto Urban Film Festival (TUFF)—run, with other TUFF films, in loops on the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC’s) platform-level information boards, operated by OneStop Media. The boards have no speakers, so any film shown on them must run silent. This one, directed by Toronto-based artist Tara Cooper and her husband-collaborator, Terry O’Neill, won its TUFF category: ‘The Emotional City.'

TUFF films are typically atypical, but still, Scenes stood out to me. It is two stories at once: two frames, showing two different sets of scenes, attached to make one, but still wholly distinct. On the left, a young women dips her toe in a quiet swimming hole; slips in, glides through water; reappears, dressed and sitting on a log, thinking; fades to black and then, a car drives down a road. On the right, a man about the same age sits in a bar, alone; checks his cellphone, still alone; descends a staircase to the bathroom, urinates, washes, and ascends.

We do not know these people. They seem so down, but we don’t know why. The man, by his actions, may be waiting for someone who should have arrived already. The woman, in her contemplative moment on the log, seems guilty, as though she ought to be elsewhere. But this is speculation. We read into it what we will.

I asked Tara Cooper about this. She replied that there was no backstory to these two; nothing for me to miss, at least, in the cut submitted to TUFF. In its original form, Scenes was longer; five minutes, and had dialogue, and a score, by Toronto composer Ken Myhr. “In many ways,” she told me, “I prefer the silent version, which asks the viewer to fill in the gaps.”

And something else: The original piece was shown on two separate monitors, in a gallery setting. Though I haven’t seen the film presented that way, I imagine the effect would be a bit different: a pair of images set close together but still, by virtue of appearing on separate screens, literally distinct. Cooper’s TUFF cut, on the other hand, collapses the boundary-line completely: distinguishing left from right at the centrepoint, but not with a literal line, or for the sake of visual balance, but because that is where the images become discontinuous for the viewer. There is a division, but we have a hand in drawing it.

It is a line we can choose to ignore. That’s what I did around the 30-second mark, when the woman, seated, turns her face to the right and the man gets up and walks to the left. She’s doing something with her hand, below the frame—we can see the motion of her shoulder—and Cooper gives us not the man’s whole body as he walks, but only the span between his neck and his knees. This sequence, lasting about ten seconds, begins with the man daydreaming and ends with him heading to the bathroom.

The couple, if they are a couple, are not together in this moment. Perhaps the moments weren’t even simultaneous; they’re just depicted so here. But it is the only time in the film when two images seem to flow naturally, end to end, one to the right, the other to the left, as though a singularity. It is an act of union, provided by the director and consummated, I suppose, by us. “Ultimately,” Cooper told me, “[the film] is about longing—wishing, hoping and waiting.” But whose longing?

About that: “The viewer,” says Cooper, “is positioned in a place of suspension—a place where he or she wants something to happen… Desire remains present only when it is unfulfilled, thus the action within the film is really about inaction.”

I get it, but I do think something happens in this film, even if we, the viewers, are the only ones who make it happen. We are more creative, even interactive, in our viewing of Scenes than we might be toward a film with a clear story. We tell the story to ourselves. This isn’t so strange to someone who watches as many silent films as I do—it’s the core of the silent viewing experience: when you’re called upon to give voice to moving lips onscreen and names to the swirling emotions on actors’ faces. There are clues, even cues, but your input is required. In Scenes, there is a woman immersed in water, and a man who drinks, relieves himself, rinses his hands and shakes them dry. She is suspended in the same stuff he consumes, absorbs, and disposes of. These may be clues. And from them we conclude—much.

We are Westerners: we live in a culture where images are legion, and sex, or the communion of person-and-porn that is its surrogate, is easy to attain. Yet Scenes from a Separated Life, a film without sex, is still erotic. Not because its characters have sex, or had it, or will have it; but because they have doubts, and those doubts give us reason to make the film’s offhand scenery and diptych structure into something more. Scenes reminds us that the sex act itself is not the end of anything—it is one moment in a continuum of befores and afters: among other moments of flirtation, hesitation, exhilaration, love and dread. The emotional burden of sex (had or not had) is great, and no mere moment of physical ecstasy can release it for good.

Where to find Scenes from a Separated Life:
Scenes from a Separated Life can be viewed on TUFF’s website.

You can also find Tara Cooper’s first silent film there: Tara and Terry’s Summer Vacation, AKA Staycation (2009).

Check out Cooper’s website to see a, two-and-a-half minute version of Scenes, which includes Ken Myhr's score.

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