Panorama: Four Films by Barbara Sternberg by Rae Davis


Recently I spent time re-viewing films by Barbara Sternberg, films that I had seen over a period of years. I wanted to refresh my memory because we are working together on a collaborative project and because she's asked me to be part of a show of hers where she'll show her films and I work of mine that relates to them. We recognize in each other affinities of interest. I looked at A Trilogy (1985), Tending Towards the Horizontal (1988), Through and Through (1991) and Beating (1994).


A bird's eye view


The maker of these films is tormented by questions about identity, time, justice, victimization, violence, love. When I say 'tormented,' I mean to suggest the emotional depth and psychological cost of the probing, the need to embody ideas in a context made vivid by feeling, the anxious urge toward resolution, the frustration of coming up short. Sternberg's films are films of passion, hope, love and despair.


Words that describe the films: dense, full, seething, explosive, pushing the edges of the frame. In a way, it often seems that images are not selected, but caught, implying a world much bigger and infinitely more complex than what the eye of the camera can see. There is the knowable (or seeable, touchable) specific, fleeting, electric with moving light and shadow and the unknowable, all that lies beyond, around and under what is seen momentarily.


When I suggest that what is outside the film is palpable in a way that affects your experience of it, I don't mean to say that the films are haphazard and anarchic. Not at all. But Sternberg constructs her films in a deeply intuitive way, and the viewer is left to roam around in them until areas of interest and overlapping themes emerge. Like all works of art of enduring interest, a Sternberg film presents fields of force and energy, of multiple possibilities. It's a question of sinking into it, absorbing it viscerally, soaking it up intellectually and emotionally. A whole body/brain response. Nothing less.


The embattled intellectual and emotional ground of the films and their often hectic imagery is informed by two important facts: Sternberg is a feminist and Jewish. Both states of being pose intractable problems in specific ways related to personal experience. But what is important is that the paradoxical nature of these problems is intrinsic to all human experience. Sternberg is driven to confront the world from an informed place, her own, but that place contains us all. Her films go searchingly beyond a narrow focus.


Prominent in Sternberg's films is a formal presentation of language, sentences printed on the screen, as opposed to language as dialogue, description, personal letters, etc. (also present in equal measure and readily accepted by the viewer). The former is noticeable by its difference; it gains weight, as if, through metaphor or some kind of synthesizing statement, light will be shed, a definitive word will be given. But even though these statements, quotations from artists or thinkers (often on feminist issues), seem to function as intellectual context or ballast, I tend to see them as part of the conflicted energy so prevalent in Sternberg's films. As much emotional as intellectual elements. Often the viewer has time only to scan the quotation, picking up fragments.


The quotations and statements promote the overt recognition that language is power. It will persuade, it will convince; certain statements seems to be, and are, points of illumination. There is a wish to trust language, even when (or especially when) poetic, as a rational way to communicate. But what the film do is different: present a world so slippery, so filled with gaps, so basically resistant to measured phrases, that language is subsumed in the restless imagery and rhythms of the on-going time and space of the film. It becomes part of the general sense of yearning, of longing to show and to know that is palpable in the films.


Sternberg's rhythms, important to the experience of each films, are what I would call questing. Their pulse, change, and thrust reach for the viscera. Stillness and rest occur, particularly to frame a speaker (Through and Through) or a situation (the kitchen scenes in A Trilogy), often as a recognition ('this is it') or a conclusion (final image of house framed by tree branch in Tending Towards the Horizontal), but these restful moments are transitory. The camera is always on the move. It functions as searcher (what's here? have I see it all? e.g.. image of viewers with binoculars in Through and Through, doorways and roofs of Tending Towards the Horizontal), coming back to the beginning and starting again, re-traveling the same path but with a change in scale, direction, colour. Your body goes with it. You, too, wish for binoculars.


Our eyes shift, veer, and select from their environment, always failing to see it in its entirety. We experience these often violent shifts unconsciously as flowing and seamless, creating our ordinary view of the world. In the time span of Sternberg's films, the shifts and leaps are made conscious and palpable. We are made aware of the search and selection involved in seeing, and of its incompleteness. This phenomenon is important to the vital thrust of the films and lends poignancy to the effort: the need to know. The camera also functions as architect or builder: a pile-up of images (the houses, trees in Tending Towards the Horizontal), all different, all the same, until the accumulation suggests something beyond the material presence of the images (in Tending a merging of the natural and built worlds, the amber glow of houses lit in the dark suggesting a primal hearth in a black forest, a retrieval of our lost intimate spaces, an emotional return to the origins of shelter, comforted by the warmth of the home hearth, but also exposing our vulnerability. What first appeared as stone fortresses, substantial houses, safe homes, melts into the edgeless dark where only the hearth fire burns).


Spatially, the overwhelming impact of the films is one which opposes far and near, veering from one to the other, with much less interest in the middle distance. The close-up, near, often highly activated surfaces invite examination and questions. They demand attention in the present moment. Time is collapsed. Views in the distance are more relaxed; 'far' somehow allows more time for reflection. But these more ample spaces can also be agitated (in Beating, the turning bar over the landscape and setting (or rising) sun.


I think of 'breathing' spaces. The close, unroomy space is like the indrawn breath, which can even be a gasp or constriction; it has tension. The far, open space (the view at the other end of the binoculars), like the exhaled breath, releases tension, creates time. The spatial 'feel' of the films (always tied to movement and rhythm), as I see it, fits exactly the larger architecture which sets out opposing forces which, in turn, are indelibly intertwined, parts of the same organism.


In fact, to move to a smaller scale and a different analogy, Sternberg's films constantly remind me of the human body where all the parts can move in different ways and at different speeds, where the mind questions, seeks direction and yearns for: what? Resolution, insight, justice, love - all as transitory, changeable and flickering as the film's frames moving through projected light or the dancer moving through space with the goal of moving through space.




First a swimmer ready to dive, then a runner on a country road begins and (almost) ends A Trilogy. The camera follows him, varying the angle of viewing; we understand him as goal-oriented, pursuing a horizontal path in a defined direction. You wonder if this is a life path; if so, it is anxious and difficult. You realize that the film medium can keep him running forever. The rhythm is regular, though coloured by the strain of the run, heavy breathing and footfalls. Time is present tense.


Then there are kitchen scenes where two people, the wife pregnant, are observed in their morning rituals over a period of time, until at last the baby appears in a highchair. Architecture here is more complicated than in the long opening scene of the runner. The place doesn't change, but movement within it, though predictable, is more varied. The mix is more complex. there is dialogue, clothes change, objects in the environment change place, appear and disappear. The radio news relate details of the ongoing Air India disaster and other calamities. Birth, separation, and death emerge as significant themes.


The third set of scenes involves a young boy, about twelve, investigating ancient English burial mounds, rolling down a hill and climbing up. Separated form his mother at boarding school, he writes to her and she responds, missing him. But now the mix has become much more volatile and potent, driven by a fierce energy. Images of birth, water, blood, of the ancient mounds, of the boy reduced to a silhouette on top (echoed in the last phase of the runner as he becomes a blur at the top of a hill), all of these and more are layered and folded into one another. The mound, a death monument, looks like a breast or pregnant belly. The boy repeatedly rolls and rolls, his spiraling motion conjuring up the image of a life force that is almost uncontainable. A coiled spring. A whirlpool. A vortex. The history of human kind is before our eyes in the primal rituals of birth and death, made to exist with and inside each other.


Experiencing this film is much richer and more mysterious than any description can suggest. It shifts from line to fold and twist and back again. It carries all with it, almost breathlessly, increasing in complexity on all levels rhythm, images, sound/language, themes and then exhales in the steady pace of the runner who disappears in a blur. And then: a long series of questions rolls up, black words on white ground. The austere format a surprise demands mental effort. The questions, formally arranged and presented in list-like formation, strike out in all directions. So many concerns, so much to solve, so much to learn.


Is this list another model of complexity, layered like the imagery of the body of the film? Is it a statement about the familiar sanity of language, even in the interrogatory mode? Is it there to encourage an intellectual interpretation of the film we've just seen? Is it some kind of coda which give a final twist to the whole emotional experience, as if it had a flip side composed of articulate questions without answers? Is it there, so close to the very fast cutting and framing of the earlier parts of the film, in the hope that the questions get coloured by the visceral drive of what we've seen, thereby going beyond the confine of language? In other words, does the list imply that consideration of these questions deserves the same kind of energy and passion, a whole body energy, not just intellectual investment? Or is the list a combination of these? Or something else altogether? The overwhelmed viewer is left with a potent puzzle, direct and indirect at the same time.


Through and Through seems to me to be about wounds, pain, and guilt. As if the body were pierced through by an outside force or attacked form within by exploding killer cells. Woven through and around this painful core, but never quite containing it, are scenes of exploration, people at the ship's rail scanning the barren Arctic landscape with binoculars. The camera's choreography again brings emotional force to these themes. All through (except for some staged scenes) it moves this way and that way and the other way - up, down, and sideways. Space expands (out to water and land) and contracts (in tight focus, a pair of red stiletto heels turning on a small square) and we see, as if through the changing focus of the binoculars, far out and close in. In one sequence, we are hearing about breast cancer; we are seeing skiers in a snowy landscape moving in opposite directions. Jump-cutting emphasizes the pulling away from each other. The surface scene is colourful, attractive, but the movement, combined with the text, has the emotional feel of tearing or rending. There is a lightness about it the sunny day, the snow, the graceful slides of the skiers in their brightly coloured gear. But darkness is there, too, under the surface, folded into the scene, expressed through movement and rhythm, as well as text.


The struggle embodied in the skier scene is confirmed with another of a tug of war where young men strive mightily against each other with no resolution in sight. All the energy and struggle brings only an impasse. And in one of Through and Through's most prominent scenes, characterized by violent camera movement, two young people, male and female, disagree and fight angrily. It's night-time; the Jewish star is seem (a reminder of the earlier holocaust scenes where guilt, denial, and pain are expressed by two present generation young people), the light suggests fire and burning. Faces, arms, bodies flash before our eyes in a whirl. Conflict and pain are highly visible. Not only that. New wounds are being inflicted.


Compared to the earlier films, Beating turns up the heat in every way. It's as if the third part of A Trilogy, with its volatile mix of images, rhythms, and thematic concerns, had been subjected to much more pressure and emerged as a higher density film altogether. Beating begins with thunderclaps. War, competitiveness, grief, self-questioning are introduced immediately. Silent statues, representations of conflict and conquest, and an opposing set depicting the female body, are animated by screams, drums, cheers and shots on the soundtrack. A particularly resonant sequence involves the stone monument of a stag (a sculptor's symbolic vision of male beauty and power) attacked by the camera rising, falling, lurching, veering - as if the stag were trampling someone or something to death. OR, as if the stag itself were being hunted and killed, writhing in turbulent death throes, backed by the loud, victorious drum beats of the conquerors.


Shortly after these passages of orgasmic fury are brief passages of release - a sunflower, a colour sequence of flowers, light, a bee. Then renewed passages of tension and rage. Cunt, bitch, bastard. The surface of the film is scratched. We hear a violent exhalation, the heavy breathing of orgasm, and yells of fear and anger. And following that, a calm passage (with dark undertones) of an eclipse before other angry passages about the oppression of women and patriarchal tyranny.


Beating exists as a fluctuation of layers moving in, out and around each other in a loose and unpredictable pattern of tension and release. The metaphor is one of mounting sexual excitement, orgasm, and release. 'Beating' suggests not only the gestures of sexual stimulation/masturbation and the themes of torture or conquest, but also the vital energy of the life force, blood coursing through the body pumped by the beating heart.


Beating attempts to represent the enigma of the life force in all its intensity and mystery. A particularly poignant and powerful image occurs near the end of the film. Water courses to the right and through the middle another finger of water penetrates it, coursing to the left. Positive and negative exposures are involved - a note of melancholy. Here the opposing forces are part of each other; at the same time they are separate. The penis penetrates the vagina in an act of union, the vagina enfolds the penis. But each is, always, a separate physical entity. In many ways, the image of the forward/backward aggressively flowing water embodies Sternberg's vision of the world, a vision represented in all her work.


Through the binoculars


In constantly presenting the struggle of opposing forces, Sternberg treats them not so much as polarizations, but as inextricably mixed, parts of the same continuum. This becomes truer with each succeeding film. Clash and closeness. Sternberg's complex investigation of this mystery, its endless repercussions and variations, is challenging and revelatory. The films are coreless. You don't go to the heart of the film. You swim in it.


Sternberg's films convey urgency. It's as if we lived in a world we haven't even looked at - as if, in an important way, we haven't even experienced its beauty and pain. I like to think of the films as dances, potently gestural - muscular - the body moving, totally engaged with its own effort, creating areas in space that are filled with human energy - changeable - pierced by light and colour, clothed in darkness and shadow, questioning sequences already created, re-working, informed always by a depth of curiosity and commitment that is somehow graspable in the ephemeral moment of its passing.


April 8, 1996