They were screening Opening Night, the John Cassavetes, at the Royal. It was Cassavetes’ birthday. Also my birthday. After the movie we were ushered out into the bitter December night and none of us could bring ourselves to leave straightaway. We huddled under the marquee, stiff-shouldered, rocking on our heels, producing crystal plumes that vanished on impact. Opening Night exhausted us: we needed to talk about it. The way people careen. The way the cameras and cuts carve out blinkered geographies. The way exposition blooms in elision. Of the three of us it was Anna who had the most to say. She proposed that Gena Rowlands, the Rowlands character, that is, was destroying herself to become a character, the character the Rowlands character, an actor, is playing on stage in Opening Night, alongside the Cassavetes character. Anna’s comment cut to the heart of something worth huddling about: we all, or me, at least, but let’s say we, destroy ourselves, wholly or in part, to fulfill roles set for us by us or by another or in collaboration, whether out of aspiration, projection or desperation. Though a self is a hard thing to kill. Opening Night is in part about acting, in part about aging, in part about being present, which in part involves accepting age, which might also be regarded, in part, as a thing that destroys us. “And now we’re destroying ourselves by freezing to fucking death out here,” Dov said, shaking his eyebrows for emphasis. Dov was going home with Anna. I was going home to be alone.
There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps exaggerated, about Laurence Olivier’s Othello. Olivier had been performing alongside Maggie Smith as Desdemona for four or five months when suddenly, for one magic night, everything seemed to come together, that perfect communion between actors collectively discovering the truth of the thing they’re making and an audience capable of receiving it. After the show, Maggie Smith found Olivier in his dressing room sobbing. “What could possibly be wrong?” she asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “It was perfect.” “I know,” Olivier replied. “It was perfect. And I don’t know why.”
Why does that night at the Royal keep coming back? It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Opening Night or the last. Dov is an actor, a wonderful actor. I was once an actor. Anna is not an actor. That screening, our exchange after that screening, forged an aperture, a punctum, as Roland Barthes put it. I saw something through Anna’s eyes I cannot now unsee. I see it all over the place. I see it in life’s muddle. I pass the first part of the pandemic revisiting films and see it clearly, exquisitely, in stories of actors (in one case a dancer), all of them women, inhabiting roles with varying ratios of ambition and repulsion, hubris and humility, desire and dread.
“Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.” This is the impresario Lermontov summarizing the ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes that will catapult his ingenue to stardom before toppling her headlong into the abyss. It’s also a summary of The Red Shoes, the postwar British film where Lermontov lives forever, which is also based on the Anderson. It was written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and photographed in Technicolor by maestro Jack Cardiff, its every frame rich, almost fibrous, its reds and blues especially, its shadows like velvet: it’s beautiful. The sequence where we see the titular ballet is both theatre and cinema: a stage expands endlessly, inanimate objects get animated, edits compress space and time while allowing choreography to luxuriate. This Red Shoes is about an extraordinary young ballerina named Victoria Page, played by Scottish ballerina Moira Shearer, who gets discovered by taste-making tyrant Lermontov, played by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, and is nurtured to become a great artist at the expense of virtually all else that might occupy a life. This Red Shoes is about spiritual seduction, romance without intimacy, ambition as narcotic, art as eros. Victoria possesses the depth and discipline to embody Lermontov’s vision, but when she falls in love with the company’s resident composer, when she attempts to cultivate a space that doesn’t surrender to dance, when she attempts to forge a boundary between art and life, she’s exiled. She’s eventually invited back, but a terrible, irreversible triangle has been drawn. Early in the film, in the scene where they first meet, Lermontov asks, “Why do you want to dance?” Victoria responds, “Why do you want to live?” So it’s a zero-sum game, yielding a tragedy that’s fabulous and truthful. In the end the curtain rises, the spotlight is empty, the red shoes dance alone.
Cassavetes says, “We’re making a picture about the inner life and nobody really believes that it can be put on the screen, including me, I don’t believe it either, but screw it.” Rowlands says, “Actors will do anything they have to do to get the part right.” Rowlands also says, “You know you’re not being lied to,” with Cassavetes’ films. As precise and composed as Cassavetes’ films are rough and tumble, The Red Shoes shares with Opening Night an excess of attention to behaviour that registers as tenderness. Cassavetes says his films are about love. Most all of us want to be seen. We’re terrified of being seen. Film directors, good ones, they see you. They see the you the film needs.
There’s a scene in The Red Shoes where Grisha, the choreographer, tells Lermontov, “You cannot alter human nature.” Lermontov replies, “I think you can do better than that: you can ignore it.” On a day when she and I were struggling to negotiate something that had long seemed unfathomable, a day that in retrospect presented itself as the start of a parting, a parting meant, in part, to recover something annihilated but instead resembled annihilation, Laura turned to me and said, “You have to accept your nature.” My friend Heidi says that our friend Carol says that there comes a point in every long love story where each lover must forgive the other for being who they are. There came a point in the middle of my life where I found myself working to recover the thing I’d worked to conceal during the first part of my life. Nina Simone sings, “Don’t you know you’re life itself?” Leonard Cohen sings, “Looks like freedom but it feels like death. It’s something in between, I guess.”
I work weird hours, writing, delivering food. I revisit films, records, books. I rearrange furniture. Françoise Hardy sings, “Et ton silence trouble mon silence. Je ne sais pas d’où vient le mensonge. Est-ce de ta voix qui se tait?”
Here’s what we know about Elisabet Vogler. She’s a prominent actress. In the midst of her last performance as Elektra, she suddenly fell silent and looked about her as though a shadow passed over her grave. After a minute of this silence, Vogler continued with the performance and afterwards made light of the incident with her colleagues. The next day, however, she remained in bed, did not go to rehearsal, and has not spoken since. She has a husband and a child. As Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s bottomless mid-sixties masterpiece, begins, Vogler has been admitted to a sanitorium. Vogler’s doctor tells Vogler’s nurse, Alma, that Vogler is perfectly healthy, both physically and mentally: she simply will not speak. We know what we know about Vogler because Vogler’s doctor tells us. And because the film shows us: we see Vogler, in close-up, on stage, in her minute of silence, eyes wide and fearful, surrounded by darkness. We know what we know about Alma, the nurse, because Alma tells it to Vogler, unsolicited, because Vogler doesn’t speak so Alma needs to speak, or because Alma, at least fleetingly, believes herself to be of interest. Alma is twenty-five and engaged to marry. She completed her nursing certificate two years ago. Her mother was a nurse. She rarely goes to the theatre, but she thinks theatre is important. When alone with Vogler, when Alma’s not around, Vogler’s doctor suggests that Vogler is suffering a crisis of faith in her capacity to apprehend truth on and off stage, that she has a desire to be unmasked, even annihilated, that she’s not speaking because she cannot bear to speak another false word. When alone in bed and unable to sleep, Alma tells herself that her life is sorted, her future determined. It is as though she is reading her life as a script and all she needs to do is follow along. Later Alma says that Vogler could become her, could enter her, study her, like a role, but that Vogler’s soul would be too big for Alma’s body. Alma is Spanish for soul. When Alma offers Vogler a photograph of her child, she tears it in two.
As a boy I had no talent for sleep. I spent wee hours in front of the television with the sound down. I never napped. My mother napped every day and, on occasion, would take me to nap with her. She would drift off to sleep almost instantly. Not wanting to rouse her, I would lay beside her, rigid, immobilized, waiting. Later, sleeplessness arrived with thoughts of annihilation.
Vogler’s doctor sends Vogler and Alma away to the doctor’s cottage by the sea. Vogler and Alma traipse the beach, read, take photographs, write letters, harvest mushrooms, compare hands. Because Vogler doesn’t speak, Alma speaks. Because Vogler remains opaque, Alma turns ever more transparent. There’s a scene in which Vogler, seated on a bed, smoking a cigarette, wearing a white nightgown, listens, without expression and with great attention, while Alma, tipsy, tells of an episode in which she and her fiancé were holidaying at a remote beach, but the fiancé was away and Alma was sunbathing with a strange woman, and both Alma and the woman, aside from their broad straw hats, were naked, and both were approached by two boys and a spontaneous sexual encounter, which Alma describes in detail, ensued between the four of them. This scene, in which one listens while the other speaks, is among the most erotic scenes in the history of cinema, because of the story and because of the listening. You wonder whether anyone’s ever listened to Alma. Soon after this scene comes another that is also erotic, eerie-erotic, brimming with little mysteries, though it involves no story. In this scene Alma, too, is silent. It is a Swedish summer night, the light silvery. (Persona, photographed by the maestro Sven Nykvist in black and white, is largely a two-hander, its every interior sparse in furnishings and devoid of décor. It is almost exclusively interested in faces and light.) Alma, in white nightgown, is in bed sleeping or not sleeping. From behind transparent curtains, Vogler, in white nightgown, silently appears. She enters Alma’s room like a ghost. Alma rises or is compelled to rise. Before a mirror or a lens, Vogler stands behind Alma, sweeps her hair from her face. Vogler and Alma peer into the mirror or lens together, as though their two faces are but two facets of one face: a Janus face. As Persona continues, the boundaries of the two women turn porous. Small, meaningful acts of violence accumulate. Vogler removes her voice because she cannot speak truth. Alma can only speak truth. Vogler listens. Alma gives and Vogler takes. Until Alma gives more than Vogler can take.
In Persona’s prologue a boy reaches out to caress a screen on which the faces of Vogler and Alma, which is to say the gorgeous faces of actors Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson, dissolve one into the other in soft focus. Bergman says Persona grew out of the image of two women comparing hands. Hands, we come to understand if we live long enough, are one of the parts of the body that betrays age. Laura used to perform a joke: she raises her hands in the air so the veins recede and says, “Princesa,” then she lowers her hands so the veins engorge and says, “Monstruo.” In the first part of Persona is a scene comprised of a single close-up of the face of Vogler, the face of Ullman, who Bergman fell in love with while making Persona, while looking at Ullman, and the light fades so slowly as to render that face a landscape. When we become involved with someone romantically, we say we’re seeing them. In Opening Night, an actor gets into a car and an ardent fan outside the car reaches out to place her hand on the window that separates them. Cassavetes says a great shot makes you want to reach out to touch the skin.
I revisit films. I listen to records, read. I work weird hours. I rearrange furniture, find things to get rid of, take unexpected naps. Tom Waits sings, “All the lies that you tell, I believed them so well. Take them back, take them back to your red house, for that fearful leap into the dark.” I think about actors and acting and actors playing actors. Anne Carson asks, “Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you?” It may be true that we all destroy ourselves to fulfill roles, but that process is typically so incremental as to be undetectable, an emergency so gradual it consumes whole regions of a life. Stories of actors greatly accelerate this process: showtime waits for no one. Waits sings, “Who are you this time?”
Opening Night is about the slippage between staged drama and personal drama, a wild, precarious, wayward slippage, a headlong topple to find truth in artifice. Myrtle, the Rowlands character, is playing the role of Virginia in a play called The Second Woman. The play is in previews in New Haven. At the start of Opening Night, after one such preview, an ardent fan rushes to Myrtle, embraces her, tells her that she’s seventeen, tells her she loves her. The ardent fan follows as Myrtle gets into a car. Ardent fan places her hand on the window of the car, the transparent curtain separating ardent fan from Myrtle. Ardent fan follows the car on foot in the rain as it pulls away, then is struck by another car, and dies. Myrtle sabotages rehearsals and performances of The Second Woman. During one rehearsal, Myrtle lays on the floor and says, “No more.” During one performance, she goes off-script to remind the audience that they’re watching a play. Myrtle is haunted by the ardent fan, who died at seventeen, exactly the age Myrtle was when she felt that all her emotions were available to her. Myrtle hates the role of Virginia because Virginia is overtly middle-aged and feels some essential part of herself slipping away. Myrtle says Virginia is “very alien to me.” During one performance, Myrtle says to the audience, “Time’s a killer. Isn’t it, folks?” Myrtle hates Virginia because if Myrtle does a good job playing Virginia Myrtle fears she’ll forever after be seen as older. Rowlands was forty-seven when Opening Night was released. Virginia is Rowlands’ given name: Gena is short for Virginia. Opening Night was written by Cassavetes, who was also Rowlands’ husband, father to her children, and co-star in Opening Night, which was also directed and produced by Cassavetes. Cassavetes and Rowlands’ body of work together constitutes one of the greatest collaborations in the history of cinema. They saw each other. With its fascination with actors, process and theatre, with its invocation of a ghost as a means to explore internal torment, Opening Night, which was released as Bergman’s most productive years as a filmmaker were drawing to a close, is easily Cassavetes’ most Bergmanesque film. With his unruly, catch-as-catch-can approach to shooting, his meandering narratives and disregard for standards of craft, Cassavetes is not what you’d call a Bergmanesque film director. Bergman and Cassavetes are two of my favourite film directors and Opening Night is where they meet.
Myrtle says, “I seem to have lost the reality.” Like Vogler, Myrtle despairs that she’s lost touch with truth. Like Vogler, Myrtle is terrified by truth. The Second Woman’s playwright, a woman in her sixties, promises Myrtle that if she says Virginia’s lines, Virginia will appear. Which makes Virginia sound like a ghost by whom Myrtle is seeking to be possessed. Myrtle is already possessed by the ghost of the ardent fan, or by some internal other. Myrtle says, “I’ll do anything I can to make a character more authentic.” Which in this story means pushing violently against the seams of artifice. Which means submitting herself to the violence of the furious ghost of ardent fan, or a furious internal other: a second woman. Which means sleeping with the play’s director, Manny, who is also Myrtle’s ex, who is also re-married, making his new wife another kind of second woman, who is played by Ben Gazarra, who co-starred with Cassavetes in a film called Husbands written and directed by Cassavetes. Which means flying to New York to visit a spiritualist, played by Cassavetes’ mother, and then abandoning the séance the moment the lights go out. Which means drinking alone or in company in her hotel room, which is so vast it resembles a stage set. Which means wandering the city alone on the day of the show’s opening and drinking until she can hardly crawl, much less perform, but performing anyway, leading to the final section of Opening Night, a nerve-wracking, riveting high-wire act that, as Anna put it, feels like watching a woman destroy herself to play a role. “Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods,” Carson says. “In crisis their souls become visible.” A stagehand who adores Myrtle tells her he’s seen a lot of drunks, but he’s never seen anyone get as drunk as her and still perform.
I drifted away from acting when I was twenty-four. I continued to perform in a couple of my own plays, but I stopped auditioning. I felt unseen. I’ve since come to the conclusion that I was not capable, or rarely capable, on-purpose capable, of showing something of myself, of letting myself be seen. I only felt seen in quiet places, in intimacies, hidden from view but for a precious few. To be seen, I needed to be hidden.
Laura Linney says, “You struggle to find the play and then, one day, the play finds you.” I listen to records, revisit the films, push around the furniture. In love, one ‘you’ gets seen, while another ‘you’ gets hidden. Bob Dylan sings, “I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide.” Waits sings, “Time’s not your friend.”
“Not to know yourself is dangerous, to that self and to others,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “Those who destroy, who cause great suffering, kill off some portion of themselves first, or hide from the knowledge of their acts and from their own emotion, and their internal landscape fills with partitions, caves, minefields, blank spots, pit traps, and more, a landscape turned against itself, a landscape that does not know itself, a landscape through which they may not travel.”
At the beginning of Clouds of Sils Maria, Maria Enders, a renowned star of stage and screen, is in transit. On a train going from Paris to Zürich, via her personal assistant Valentine, Maria learns that her old friend, Swiss playwright Wilhelm Melchior, who gave Maria her breakthrough role in a play and subsequent film adaptation called Maloja Snake, in whose honour she’s traveling to Zürich to accept an award, has died. What Maria and no one else will be told by Melchoir’s widow is that Melchoir, who was terminally ill, died by his own hand while overlooking the alpine valley where the strange phenomena that gave Maloja Snake its name, a serpentine cloud formation said to be a harbinger of bad things, occasionally, as though by its own caprice, appears. This valley, the site of Melchoir’s suicide, is near Melchoir’s house in Sils Maria, a remote settlement in the Swiss Alps where, some months after Melchoir’s death, Maria and Valentine will live as Maria prepares for a new production of Maloja Snake, more than two decades after the production of Maloja Snake that launched her career. In that earlier production, Maria played Sigrid, a young, single woman who is employed as the personal assistant of Helena, a woman who is twice her age and has a husband and children. Sigrid and Helena have a passionate, toxic affair that ends with Sigrid moving onto another job and another life, while Helena hikes out to the valley where the Maloja Snake occasionally appears, and there she disappears. In this new production Maria will play Helena. Maria is reluctant to take the role but is talked into it by its talented young director. “Helena scares me,” says Maria. “I feel too vulnerable for this.” While living in Sils Maria, Maria and Valentine spend a lot of time together, talking, drinking, eating, laughing, hiking, gambling, swimming, going to movies, running lines. “I wanna stay Sigrid,” Maria says. She says Helena is humiliated, pathetic, “defeated by age.” Valentine says Helena is sympathetic and complex. Maria weaponizes her laughter and talks down to Valentine, who is half Maria’s age. Valentine complains about Maria’s treatment of her, but Maria doesn’t change, or doesn’t change fast enough, and eventually Valentine hikes out to the valley where the Maloja Snake occasionally appears, and there she disappears.
I drifted away from acting when I was twenty-four. I felt unseen. Except in my own plays. At twenty-four I wrote and produced a play in which I played the protagonist, a protagonist who rarely speaks. He is a stranger, a traveler in an unnamed city, and everyone he meets believes him to be someone he is not, someone of great significance to their story, and in every case the protagonist, who is suffering from fatigue, hunger and a profound confusion, goes along with this, allowing others to believe he’s the one they’ve been waiting for. To be seen, I needed to be hidden in plain sight.
Maria is played by Juliette Binoche, who turned fifty the year of the film’s release. Valentine is played by Kristin Stewart, who turned twenty-four. Binoche is an actor of tremendous skill and insight who has become looser with age. She moves about more, her movements grounded in her core. Stewart was a fidgety actor and has become recursive and more interesting with age. Clouds of Sils Maria was written and directed by Olivier Assayas. When I interviewed Assayas and asked about the relationship between Clouds of Sils Maria and Persona, he said, “The moment I decided to make a movie about Juliette Binoche as an actress rehearsing a play, in this kind of rarified environment, I was already tiptoeing into Persona territory.” Persona, he said, “is not something you forget about or get rid of. It’s a ghost and it’s floating around.” Clouds of Sils Maria’s final image is one of light fading on Maria’s face, rendering it a landscape. As with Opening Night, Clouds of Sils Maria ends with the opening night of a play starring an actor who destroyed something to arrive at her performance, to apprehend some truth. The end of Clouds of Sils Maria reverses the end of Maloja Snake: the younger one disappears, while the older one moves on.
Let’s say we, all of us, but some of us more than others, at some times more than others, destroy whole regions of a life. The child, spouse or sibling; the inmate, pilgrim or citizen; the stateless, racialized or indentured; the solider, shepherd or revolutionary; the patient, prosecutor or politician; which part do you destroy?
You cannot unsee what you’ve seen. You cannot be unseen once someone has seen you.
David Berman sings, “Are you honest when no one’s looking?” »
From issue #90
Assayas, Olivier, Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014.
Bergman, Ingmar Persona, 1966.
Carson, Anne, Tragedy: A Curious Art Form, 2006.
Cassavetes, John, Opening Night, 1977.
Cohen, Leonard, “Closing Time,” 1992.
Dylan, Bob, “Most of the Time,” 1989.
Hardy, Françoise, La question, 1971.
Powell, Michael; Pressburger, Emeric, The Red Shoes, 1948.
Silver Jews, “Smith and Jones Forever,” 1998.
Simone, Nina, “Wild is the Wind,” 1966.
Solnit, Rebecca, The Faraway Nearby, 2013.
Waits, Tom, “Who Are You,” 1992.