The imagination can accumulate sense?

I’ve always got my ear out for people who love speaking and thinking about the imagination. In a conversation between filmmakers Chantal Akerman and Catherine Breillat an evocative phrase emerged: ‘The imagination can accumulate sense’. Pow! But also a question – how do filmmakers convey a subject’s imaginative life in a way that lends their imagining or their hidden and interior world a sensory function or impulse in a scene?

I thought about Ackerman’s La chambre (1972) when the camera pivots again and again around the room.

Still from La Chambre 1972

We feel the subject’s very meditative and attentive state through duration, determined by the consumption of an apple, plus the domestic space and objects around her, and the light that brackets all of this. We don’t know what the subject is thinking exactly, or have access to hidden images, or her imagination in any literal sense. But we get a sense that these surroundings, habits of identity and possession are all part her thoughtful sensory life.

I also found a connection between Akerman and Breillat’s phrase, and Paul Greengrass’ thoughts about ‘procedures’ leading to ‘emotional power’ in his 2014 David Lean Lecture:

‘…a lot of it is about observing procedures. But that’s because that’s something that I’ve always been interested in. I think that procedures rule our lives. Our procedures define our modernity. You know, most of us don’t get up and think about what happened to us when we were children, most of us get up and think I’ve got to get on the bus now then I’ve got to be at work at 10 o’clock and I‘ve got a meeting at 11 o’clock, that sort of procedures, and if you can tap into that in films you can actually develop a lot of emotional power, oddly. You’d think it would be dry but it’s actually not, because you get to a very, a very rich place, which is what happens when procedures start to be threatened.’

This reminded me of something I talked about in one of my first blog posts: Dave Hickey describes a moment in Floubert’s ‘Shining Heart’ where two women from different class groups step over the threshold of social order to suddenly embrace. When they embrace the women push away any immediate ability to identify internally and externally through (socially-sanctioned and prescribed) habits alone. Perhaps the embrace takes them further into a moment in which intimacy simply exists, unprovoked, as joy and sadness in its coming and going from the immediate scene. In that moment it is a truth that has no strict negative – and in the extreme it illustrates, or hints that ‘all social interactions lead to non-linearities’*… quick glances between impossibilities (and instabilities)… or possibilities (and stabilities)…

On the one hand we have Akerman’s portrait of a sensory life in La chambre (1972) where intimacy with the subject is achieved strangely through objects, space and distance, and on the other hand, the risk we feel in Greengrass’s case (and in Floubert) when a character’s habits and procedures are disrupted, leaving them to confront the phantasm of an ordered and stable identity. Both approaches seem to work from the outside in, though perhaps if we take this idea of  the imagination accumulating sense we see these approaches are as much about glances between people and their instabilities, even between the instabilities organised (or disorganised) in a particular subject, and how these glances play out in a particular time and place.

*(Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy, The Chaotic Universe, Mystic Fire Video)


Internet notions

So, there is this thing where sometimes I am thinking online. Here are some recent examples:

  1. Metro Magazine round-up of their reviews of NZ Post Book Awards 2014 fiction finalists, including my review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.
  2. Technically Greg O’Brien did all the thinking on this occasion. He spoke on Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning radio show about One Human in Height and Essential New Zealand Poems.
  3. Minarets Journal published two of my poems in its Autumn issue alongside great new writing by Hinemoana Baker, Craig Foltz, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Paul Cunningham (USA), Alex Mitcalfe Wilson, Rebecca Nash, Erena Johnson, Shane Jesse Christmas (Aus), Elizabeth Welsh (NZ/UK), Darian Woods and Lauren Strain (NZ/UK).


Minarets autumn2014

The cats in the padded jackets

Late last year I visited the Dowse as part of their Guest Voices series to draw a selection of ceramic cats in their collection created by Bronwynne Cornish. The cats are stowed in one of the Dowse storage cabinets and are wrapped in sumptuously utilitarian padded jackets – they look like very comfortable straitjackets:

Cat3 crop web

I spent most of my time drawing one of the cats in the series that had a pout-nose, and a smokey grey splash of colour down one side. I was surprised by how challenging it was to draw a clay object. The ceramic material, the hand-plied quality of the dimensions made it difficult to find the edges, the precise shadows and contours of the object. I like the thought that ceramics maybe elude translation into pen on paper or, at least, that the translation requires some sort of negotiation:

Cat1 web

Cat2 web

My aim in drawing these cats was to put objects in the forefront of my mind as I was writing a screenplay for a short film. How can objects help build or contribute affect to a character or dramatic scene? How can they advance plot?

There is something alien about Cornish’s cats that gives an edge to the qualities that are recognisably and definitively cat-like. Objects carry with them their own markers of strangeness, their own ontological presence or magnetism that infuses them with kinds of thoughtfulness. An object can work like a compass, pointing to certain coordinates of intimacy. An object can also be a decoy, the thing that attracts the characters and the action to a particular place and time.

A man receives a parcel. He puts the box on the kitchen table and leaves the room. He comes back with a beer and a knife. He sits drinking the beer and looking at the parcel. He picks up the knife and opens the box. The man puts his hand inside and takes out an object encased in bubble wrap. He runs out of the room with the object in his hand.

We see the man spit into the basin in the bathroom, he retches twice. The wrapped object is clasped in his hand. He looks at himself in the mirror, runs his hand over his mouth. He starts to pick at the wrapping. The object slips out of the plastic and lies in the man’s hand. It’s a cat, made out of clay. He turns it upside down, traces his finger over some marks on the bottom. ‘One hundred and thirty two centimetres,’ he says out loud, ‘he’s one hundred and thirty two centimetres’.

The man goes into the hallway and takes a small notebook from a drawer in the cabinet there. He writes down the date and ‘132 cm’ at the bottom of a long list of other measurements, incrementally increasing over time. 

A special thanks to Courtney Johnston for inviting me take part in Guest Voices, to the Dowse team who were generous with their time and assistance, and to Bronwynne Cornish and her wild ceramic cats.

Are fathers like prizes? Sketching a screenplay via The Dowse collections

The Dowse recently invited me to come into the gallery for a day or two to observe and learn and see and do, and then create a record of my time – all part of a Dowse initiative called Guest Voices. I love projects like this with plenty of scope, and also the way it could help energize something I was already working on.

At the time of my first visit to the Dowse I had been doing some initial work on a screenplay. On my way to The Dowse one of the characters asked one of the other characters ‘Are father’s like prizes?’ (the conversation was going on in my head, obviously).

I love and loathe when this happens.

One bit of wisdom I’ve latched onto as a beginning screenwriter is that it helps to have a solid scene breakdown on paper before you even begin writing the thing itself. (Trust me when I tell you, it’s a tough moment when you are 85 pages into a feature-length screenplay and you realize the vague ending you thought would work, is still 90% vague and actually only 10% ending). So, a strong sense of what’s going to happen, when and to whom, before you begin is a good rule of thumb. But sometimes bits of dialogue, images and plot ideas come as you write, think, or take public transport.

What do you do when they don’t seem to obviously slot into what the plan is, but are kind of more interesting than the said plan? What I find curious is that these things sometimes inspire you to raise the stakes. You’re only concerned with the particular reality of that story, so it’s a great challenge figuring out how an idea can work in that very specific reality.

Anyway, the good/bad thing was that I had a line that interested me (and that was potentially tangentially connected to the screenplay as I’d so far imagined it) while I was looking around The Dowse, wondering what I might do for Guest Voices. I was drawn to a series of cabinets on temporary display bursting with amazing ceramics from their collection store. A series of large ceramic cats by Bronwynne Cornish were on display as well as a few other works of hers, including some lovely heads with mouths that were to varying degrees open and closed. I returned again and again to the cats though as they immediately sparked some ideas in relation to the screenplay.

So in short, I will be doing a series of blog posts on the process of sketching a screenplay via my explorations of a few pieces from The Dowse collections. I’ll post images from my sketchbooks, and hopefully some drawings that I want to do of Cornish’s works.

To kick things off, here is something new from my sketchbook called ‘Are fathers like prizes?’


Early Growth on the Tuesday Poem blog

I’m feeling pretty chuffed that Wellington writer and reviewer Sarah Jane Barnett edited the Tuesday Poem blog today and posted my poem ‘Early Growth’, which will appear in One Human in Height. She made a really fantastic reading of the poem: “the image of the “rings on a tree stump,” which the father then calls “these the inseparable years,” perfectly evokes the way childhood tumbles away”…

Read her post on the Tuesday Poem blog

One Human In Height coming soon + thank you

A huge thank you to everyone who has pledged to support my debut poetry collection, One Human in Height, forthcoming from Hue & Cry Press.

With five days left of the campaign, 46 wonderful people have pledged $1635 – all pledges will help cover printing costs so that we can get the book out into the world looking its best. I’m thrilled that the design outfit International Office are designing the book!

You can find out more about One Human in Height and the PledgeMe campaign here: 

The campaign closes on 16 August at 5pm.

temp cover