I can see your history in the way you move:  At Present by Karyn Sandlos


The scene opens with a storm followed by rain with no hail. There was expected to be a windstorm. But even so, there would be a little coldish air but not at present wind. They were quietly expectant but a little irritable.  (Gertrude Stein, History, or Messages from History)




A man surveys the landscape from the doorway of the house he has built. The boards that frame him are freshly cut and unpainted. It is cold. He folds his arms in a gesture of satisfaction. A woman sorts through fragments of glass; her hands a small study of danger's seduction. She buries the roots of a plant in soil, tending to the edges where earth meets pot. Another man seated at a table rolls cigarettes and smokes, slowly, methodically. The strike of a match momentarily illuminates the otherwise dimly lit room in which he broods. A woman pushes a broom across a wood floor, her arms and shoulders etching a rhythmic pattern against the pale light of a sunless afternoon. There is a sense of a day with no plans, of tasks accomplished, of people filling the emptiness of time. 


The first movement of Barbara Sternberg's At Present is preoccupied with interiors, both physical and psychic, and with the minute details of the present moment. Responding to films made by men on the subject of love, Sternberg aims to strike a different chord within a gendered discourse. Parables read over the solitudes of the four domestics suggest a new truth to be found about love or the application of a moral remedy. Yet the parable's paradox is that the specificity of its meaning lies in the universality of its embrace. Love, although house bound, resists confinement.




If only everything could fit under the tongue.  (Ann Michaels, Fugitive Pieces)


At Present opens with a silent cry; an image of a man recovered from a time long past. His mouth makes the shape of a sound in formation, but the sound itself is lost. In this silence an analogy is made between language and love which becomes thematic: Words both make and isolate meaning.     


Of course, it's difficult to say anything new about love. In keeping with the Western middle-class tradition, I learned that life's quest is to find the perfect other who will make me complete. With this union comes property, children, and summers at the lake. A simple recipe for contentment. But this lesson is fraught with contradiction, because desire fulfilled brings disillusionment.  Maybe that's why some of my favorite love stories are about what gets in the way of love. This affinity for desire thwarted is more than a cynical inclination. For me, optimism comes with the realization that while words can be persuasive and desire seductive, it's as if love and language meet their respective limits in mutual necessity. There are always more ways to want than words can say.


At Present is a film in which history complicates desire and sets language in motion. Here, the past haunts the present with a persistence that can be observed in the body's most intimate gestures; in the private rituals of grooming, in love and in lovemaking. In love, the body has its own cadence. But like brushing your teeth, desire can become a habit, a necessary routine, an empty gesture. 




She is not recording the history of a love affair but the instant of desire.  (Anne Carson, Eros: The Bittersweet)


"What is involved in love?"  A narrator poses this question with a pragmatic insistence. "Is it all the same stuff?  Power, control...? Is that what we are talking about?" That which can be named can be measured, predicted, controlled, perhaps even repaired. Hence the contemporary flood of self-help literature on relationships that reads like a library of 'how-to' manuals.  If I can fix my car I can fix my heart. Right? If I can figure out what went wrong last time, I can do it differently this time. Can't I?  "What is involved?" he asks repeatedly, while the film's trajectory shifts from the domestic scene to the street, and from the bathroom to the public beach. Women's laughter, gentle at first, but becoming increasingly derisive throughout the film, suggests that we've got it all wrong. There is no instructional manual available here, rather, a sense of the strange time of desire. I have a history of past relationships of which I can speak, yet I carry this history in my body and into each new relationship. The body writes its history in the awkward contiguity of relationship. In the way I stumble into you, I speak of where I have been.




     Language makes desire feel like a form of compliance. To know what one wants one has to play the game.  (Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts)


The expansiveness of a wheat field sweeps the threshold of an open sky. A small winding procession moves across the landscape. Up close, they are seen making preparations for the seasonal ritual of burning and regeneration. The small flame of an earlier match strike becomes a raging inferno. The fire-makers wander through black smoke, their clothing blown wildly by wind. This clearing of old growth is allegorical, for the body brings its effects, its accumulation of practices, into relationship. Up against one another, our ways of being collide, scatter, make way for an uncultivated articulation. Each new encounter invites a new conversation. From the seared ground emerge sharp green shoots. 


In this final sequence the rhythm of At Present changes, marking a kind of regression. A pulsing, staccato scene of a dimly lit living room replaces the camera's graceful circulations through domestic interiors. Images of men posing in various states of arousal punctuate the narrative of a film in which Sternberg herself can't figure out how to strike the right seductive pose. How do you want me? Do you want me like this? This chair, this room, this picture doesn't fit. And these men are burning. Women's laughter reaches a crescendo, and with it the narrator's agitated interrogation persists: What is involved in love? What is involved? Amidst this cacophony, an interminable question. Remnants of the past strain toward the silence which follows a storm. The muted immediacy of the film's final frame feels like a beginning.