[ToC]

 

BIOGRAPHY OF A FILM

Colleen Hollister

 

 

  1. A moon places itself under a dark sky. A camera slides dizzily: town, sand, ocean, buildings building themselves on beach, sea creatures, tide. The camera takes in sky, sky pulls itself down, sky drifts, sky slams, immediate dark.
  2. In the film, there is a mother. There is a villain who juggles oranges. A girl jumps into puddles then jumps back out, dripping. Wooden airplanes. Bathtubs. Glasses full of water everywhere left on bedside tables.
  3. A girl wraps a snake around her arms and sings, crackly and light.
  4. In the film, there is a comet. It circles the earth calmly. Millions of people in rowboats come out to see it. It is spectacular.
  5. The film is often silent. Often all you hear is the sound of the projector and the night outside. It is summer and filled with bugs and the humming of electric lines, the train in the distance. The projector is warm and snapping, the film a pop and spark, watery specks, crackly edges, crackling.
  6. The plot is murky, sometimes confusing, sometimes implausible.
  7. A prison. A girl hit by an ominous car. The car made out of pieces of blackened wood. The people look up at the sky. Fishermen sitting on the docks have all forgotten about fishing.
  8. I feel something like heartbreak. The film encourages this. I don't believe it's only me, though I suppose it's possible.
  9. The comet is like a building that has been strung up quickly. It sways in the wind. Its tail streams tapestry, blackberries, china.
  10. The mother rides a bicycle. The film watches her, how she seems uncertain on these wheels, at this speed. She rides on sidewalks over bumps, over large black grasshoppers and small green wings of dragonflies and birds. Her face doesn't ever fill the screen: for the mother, unlike the other characters—the menacing woman, the diving boy—there are no close-ups. Her body is a shape: flapping knees, lifting arms away from handlebars like a girl, or like a mother in trouble. In the film, her hair is braided, done in front of a mirror in front of a sink with combs and rubber bands and wet fingers pressing down the hairs that were escaping. She, unlike the others, is concerned with being careful, with moving slowly and deliberately. This is why the image of her on the bicycle is terrifying—it's in how wobbly she is, how fast she is moving, how reckless among the chickens, and at the exact moment when we know she will fall, when we know she will come crashing to the ground and become a mass of tangled pieces, she is gone.
  11. Here is where they drop the children into holes. Here there are scabs and red marks marking skin. Here the men collect old eggbeaters, new strips of wire, all manner of clocks.
  12. The ocean is each individual triangle: outlined, paint. Triangled cardboard, a new kind of motion.
  13. In the film, the people disappear.
  14. The streets are tunnels. Dark. Flat. The boards of floors rip up and break. Vines grow in through windows. Roofs of houses fuzz with grass.
  15. On the beach a boy throws things at the moon: a feather, chairs, china. The feather floats back but the others hit their target in a puff of powdery dust. The moon winces at the impact.
  16. More comets, a swarm of them. They tear through sky. Light so bright that no one faints.
  17. The mother is first. A pop. Gone.
  18. And we believe it: this is ocean, thick waves the color of salt, the color of blue-green glass, the color of mornings when the world is empty. Pools collecting urchins, anonymous crabs. The plants are seaweed seabrack bladders to pop.
  19. Here is a catalogue: in the film, there are beetles, the lines of wings fine in pencil, the lines of jaws and claws and mandibles, commercial signage, etching of bumblebees. There is a skeleton of a small and gnarled squirrel. The skeleton looks old, like it had been dragged around for years before its dying. I am still haunted by the Hungarian taxidermy. I am still thinking of the boy who holds the leopard by its teeth.
  20. The film has caught on fire more than once.
  21. Where the children cry out at the violence of this action, at the surprise of being dropped, at the pain of being missing, but in a way that is more broken than just poof.
  22. Under the stars, the flowers open. They are bright soft orange with dark hearts that reflect the sky. A girl holds up a flower. Her smile is dazzling.
  23. The film is volatile. The chemicals, the celluloid. Simply containing it in vaults is dangerous.
  24. Diagrams. Everywhere, there are diagrams. Arrows point out passages of escape. Blue lines point out streams in the midst of cities. Red draws all the seams of all the children.
  25. When the girl walks into the forest. When the father. When the small child on the swing.
  26. There is an amusement park with a brightly lit Ferris wheel, fading metal signs and lightbulbs. There is a grocery with a tower of radishes. There is a girl who walks the streets between the buildings holding a flag that says STOP. The colors fade here. The buildings are dark and the windows broken, but there are bright things inside, if you crane your neck just right.
  27. The plucking of a mug from atop a stack: suction, clink. The swish rattle of lizard feet. Stars pruned down to brightness.
  28. There are those who watch it constantly, rig their projectors so they loop.
  29. Do you think we will ever understand the villain's movements with the knife? The way the killing is like killing but no one dies and it becomes instead a slow pop bright light smells like metal and motor oil.
  30. Paint and peonies and broken glass and dishes. Birds left disembodied on the tracks. Bathtubs carrying vines, the plants pushing through walls, outside becoming inside, cradled by porcelain and plaster.
  31. The film is a chronicling of swimmers, a page-by-page list of strokes and the lengths of bodies.
  32. There are stretches of film so quiet I want to disappear in them.
  33. A woman opens doors and sees only meadows. The film pulls the sky down over buildings. It is real sky. These are real bicycles. This is real grass. The grass grows taller than the tallest buildings. The waves wave impossibly high. Stars etched into metal fall clinkily down. In the meadows, there is somehow light even though there are, also, ceilings.
  34. This is the part I love the most: a man walks up to the porch steps, walks up the porch steps, and knocks. When the mother opens the door he takes off his hat, itches at a mosquito bite on his neck. He pulls items from a leather bag hanging from his shoulder, piles them on the floor in front of the doorstep. You will need these now, he says, handfuls of weapons and letter openers, handfuls of sharp things so sharp they cut his fingers, handfuls of cuts. The mother liking to see her feet divided by the doorjamb, the mother afraid of the air of the street. To think, she thinks, of other stories, is unnecessary, even painful. Destructive. No one knows, she says, what happened in all these buildings, what has taken place on all these floors, in all these beds and sitting-room chairs, and how many pots and pans are left after she has counted them. She wants to buy the knives the man holds out, how they glint in the light. We see her face. This is a wild place, she says. In summers, it is gardens: lavender and mint. At the end, it's lonely, and there's no one around for miles.
  35. The people run, briefly maddened.
  36. A girl plants the ocean with lilacs, lets the fish swim between their lilac toes. The sky drops from the sky. A dark room. The walls are forested.
  37. The stars are drowned out. The people fear their extinguishing. A girl is wrapped up in a bag and carried away. Whales approaching, clogged with salt, outlined barnacles on outlined skin.
  38. I miss them, so much, when they are gone.
  39. On the day of the first showing, people crowded into the theater. I imagine there were flags. Posters. Searchlights crossing to announce the grand premiere. There were guards along the walls. The guards wore hats and carried guns. The people held their children's hands. The people walked up to the guards and stood in front of them. Please tell me what I'm in for, they say as they walk in, but no one does. They leave the theater with new full knowledge of how flat they can lay their bodies, how much they can look at, how much they can see. They have been sitting and watching flickering screens for hours. The film is long. It reminds them of new sounds, though it is mostly silent. It reminds them of dark hallways, third birthdays, and the days when they can only sleep, can only lie down, wait for what will happen to them next. They crane forward, again and again, hopeful, but it always happens, always.
  40. The film revels in the sky. A girl is a cut-out paper doll eating an apple. A wash like watercolors: deep blue, purple, green, flowers grow from walls, flowers open.
  41. There is a surgery, awake. The knife scrapes bone. The body emptied scraped out jagged and pulling and pulling. The sounds are excruciating.
  42. The comets are spectacular: glowing blue with long trails of dust. Attracted stars, small universes, their own kind of spinning.
  43. In the film, the mother disappears. Then others: the girl holding the shotgun, the grandfather, the small child on the swing. The disappearances are not the story, were not written into the script. Nowhere is there man in desert then man on beach surprised by brand-new ocean, that kind of trickery. There is the twist together of truth and falsehood, of storytelling and unplanned accident. Those who watch cannot decide if each disappearance is an accident. If it is magical. If it is a trick of eye or light or lens. They can't decide what happens, or how. The film is a shifting of images. They move too fast to rest your eyes on something else. The people in the film waltz and suddenly they are on a train without sleep.
  44. And suddenly they drift. And suddenly and suddenly. You could lose yourself in that greenish sky.
  45. There are blotches now, and missing pieces, scenes lost. The father behind a bloom of algae. The mother a tumble of bicycle wheels. The bakery only the ghost of what it smelled like, before, on its street where the gutters were made of bricks, where the people lined up for days to buy their breakfast. Take a close look at the colors. See, here? Here in the places where the chickens gather? They are different. This one yellowish, this one more orange, the border in-between, the gaps I try so hard to look at, to look into.
  46. The people trip. The stars have fallen to earth. And here they are, made for holding. And the sky is dark. And a girl gets out of a car. And here we are again: begin.

 

 

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This story only took on its final layers—comet, ocean—after I became fascinated by the life and work of the artist Margaret Kilgallen, years after I started the original drafts and the film failed to become as strange, and messy, and lost, as I wanted it to be. It seemed right to blend her into a story about color and handmade chaos and disappearance. The flat ocean waves are for her. The excruciating surgery for Fanny Burney. The magical film parts for Georges Méliès, Harold Lloyd, and my dad, who taught me about film.