Film and Presidio
Today I saw a movie at the Haifa International Film Festival. It was not my first of the week, but certainly the most noteworthy. The title was Opium: Diary of a Madwoman; a lush art-house parable set in a women’s insane asylum in 1913 Hungary. A blocked writer/psychoanalyst named Brenner arrives at the institution and becomes obsessed and entwined with his patient Gizella, a psychotic graphomaniac who begs him to cut out her brain. I found the film well-paced, well-acted and viscerally stunning. The aesthetic is so powerful, I was able to watch unblinkingly the tremendous suffering of the asylum’s patients in a state of (to my own horror) sensual titillation. The film was savagely beautiful.
Why is it that beyond the minor thrill of car accidents and natural disasters, normal people do not like to watch the naked suffering of others, and yet the right aesthetic can make the ugliest onscreen brutality not only palatable but oddly satisfying? Can any grotesquity prove fulfilling, even enjoyable, when viewed through the lens of a ripe and carefully chosen aesthetic? What are its limits? Perhaps the bloodbaths of the Roman arenas, normally described as mere ecstatic savagery, were somehow designed to pluck at this aesthetic string within us. The question is not what is bearable when necessary; the question is what becomes bearable when beautiful? All of life is a knife game with a bombshell.
One weird aspect which I noticed early on in the movie was that the film had been dubbed into Hungarian, but was clearly shot in English. I assume that this was a fortuitous distributor’s error. In a movie as disturbing as this one, watching the actors’ lips speaking my mother tongue, hearing the Hungarian, and reading the spectral English in the subtitles only augmented the effect of Gizella’s schizophrenic monologues. I never thought I’d love a dub-job, but this was a unique experience in its own right. I wonder how it was released in the States.
Meanwhile, my apartment is becoming both comfortable and sedative. Distractions are everywhere, the cupboard is full of booze and the ocean has the eyes of a young lover. The city here is daily trying to convince me that it is not a city. In the last week I found a lizard hunting flies in my living room, a tropical moth in my kitchen, an industrious but misguided union of ants in my barest cabinets, all manner of pollens and buds floating in on the wind, and a chameleon teetering at the entrance to my building like some demensiatic ex-resident wandering back here from their rest home. Recently I bought pomegranates at the corner fruit seller, only to find a whole bushel growing in a neighbor’s tree.
Somehow I’ve separated my rural and urban selves, so that now the most sensible and natural facts continue to amaze me. These are things I wouldn’t think twice about if I’d been in the woods for three days. For example, while picking out houseplants at the nursery, I asked whether tomato plants were perennials. The flower-girl told me that they are annuals, but that I could simply plant one of the tomatoes to seed the next season’s plant, and I was suddenly astonished by the logic of this: that food could come out of food. It seems terribly sad that I can get to the point where the anthropogenic (i.e. manufactured, distributed, source-less) seems natural, and what is truly Natural (regenerative, growing, native) becomes wondrous. Then again, at least I can retain the wonder.