The Importance of Being Gariné (a fiction)

I met her at the Toronto International Festival, in a program reserved for difficult movies, and when we made our way to the front of the theatre I was filled with relief. Unlike the other specialists she was way young, and I was beginning to wonder whether that was possible anymore, that anyone with a functional set of chops would ever decide to chase the slim margins of fringe movies. I kept hoping for a new generation of makers that would find a groove all their own, and kick our collective asses all the way out of the museum afterthoughts, the microfests and backroom members-only screenings. I woke up every day longing for it, this brave new emulsion, only to find the same old keeners. Small tribe. Small dreams. And now there was Gariné, who was not a movement but a new kind of hope, soaked in the materials of film but not a slave to it, not yet, there were stories that had to be told first.

This is how it always starts in the fringe. You say no. You learn to say no in your own way. There may be celebration, indulgence, drenching transcendence, oh sure bring it on. But lurking behind all that is no. To the movies. Parents, old friends, new friends, heterosexuals, monogamists, whites, the neighborhood. Brando still set the tone somehow, slouching into his Harley while the young bystander, the one who will never be beautiful because he couldn’t bear the cost, asked him, “What are you rebelling against?” Marlon’s size ten mouth filled with distraction, restless. “What have you got?”

When she showed her movie at York University they said, “This isn’t a film.” She had threaded it up with a mountain of nerves, and when she heard what the instructors, the ones who are paid to know, had to say about it, she knew it was time to go. This is the story she told over and over again that week. “This isn’t a film.” Followed by the sweet revenge of a film festival invite. Even a level plain looks like high country when you’ve been cut down far enough. And the Toronto film festival, at least in those days, was a whole lot more than sea level.

As usual I was waiting to hear the end of her story, always impatient, skimming over the moments. What about the next movie, I wondered? The voice of the superego, something relentless dressed up as conscience. Never mind about this film, tell me about the next one. And the one after that. Serious. Was she serious? And of course she was.

She was a refusenik, someone who had learned to say no in her own way. And while she wasn’t exactly a chat machine, she didn’t seem like one of the social cripples that appeared in fringe scrums, the lonely ones, the ones who had a knack for saying the wrong thing, the ones who couldn’t stop blinking when they hit sunlight. No, she looked like she’d settle right in between the ravers and the suits, some bit of old world elegance hanging off her, a curtsy wouldn’t seem out of place. There was style in her movies and in the way she carried her dress, even then. It was as if she was always looking at herself, and we along with her. Like an image.

I finally met Barr on a late night Queen Street crawl with Carolynne, he was the one on the other end of the phone with Dennis while we edited Ford and In My Car and In the Future, and then with Robert while we edited Secret. During the day there was work, and at night the consolation of Barr. The happiest man I’ve ever met. He has taken on joy as a sort of duty, and you want to stand up close just to get a little bit of that on you. A year later I met him again at an impossibly hip baby shower he helped swing (all over the floor there were small stick’um signs reading ‘baby’, in case we forgot, all pink and blue of course. In a rare moment of restraint, the handsome, very pregnant couple refused the ultrasound, they’d find out boy or girl soon enough). When Gariné arrived we were outside smoking cigarettes, never mind the minus twenty, Barr’s out in his elegant Hawaiian ensemble, when you’ve got that much deelite squeezed up inside you there’s no place for cold to attach itself. When he sees Gariné he swings his martini glass wide and kisses her once twice and asks her through the smile that never stops, “How is the most beautiful woman in Toronto?” Or was it: Canada. North America. Barr’s joy allows him to pronounce like that, making everyone around him feel as good as possible without ever sounding low rent, in fact, as soon as the words are out of his mouth, you wish you’d said it, because as she stands there, refusing a nip of his martini, she does look like the most beautiful woman in the world. Here is one of the infinite varieties of happiness: to be told what you already know.

Later that evening, Exene tells me, “Well, everyone falls in love with Gariné,” like she was reading the news, and I must have double taked because E gave me one of those Don’t-make-me-spell-it-out-for-you looks. “Well, I guess,” I said, thinking of that five foot powerhouse that had held the floor at some dismal high school event designed to cure those of us whom the rules had left behind. They announced her name from a podium that towered above her, she was so tiny and nobody clapped and the talking in my row was so loud no one could make out a word anyways. But then she started talking and never let up and before long she was the only one left standing. She said her name was Smith but I found out later that was her husband’s name, she was flying undercover that night, and a lot of other nights besides. Her real name was Oates, Joyce Carol Oates, the one who wrote novels between bathroom breaks, you wonder how someone so small could have that many words in her but there she was, filling the room with them, as easy talking to fifty of us or five. She told us about her friend Gene, a woman so beautiful she would stop party chatter dead when she walked through the door. Four husbands later Gene was still the most beautiful woman Joyce had ever seen, a prisoner in her own skin, everybody always wanting to talk to her for the wrong reasons, trying to see if there was anything underneath that poreless surface she wore like a mask. “Her beauty ruined everything, like Helen,” she said, and I wondered if that was a friend of Gene’s, or the daughter of the Prime Minister or who exactly.

I was seventeen going on seven, never imagined that beautiful was anything but win win, not that I thought of it all that often, after the bomb hit beauty wasn’t going to matter much, right? But when Exene said that Gariné was so perfect and lovely and altogether I couldn’t help thinking about Gene who had made a choice between beauty and happiness, and as I thought about Gariné’s films I wondered if she didn’t feel just the same some mornings, dragging around her damned beauty with her everywhere she went. Condemned to it.

Here is the image. That’s what I think when Gariné steps into the room. Some just appear beside you, or across the floor, others have entrances and exits. Here is the image she seems to proclaim. We are all pictures, some better composed than others. My movies, my face, my hands. And behind each moment of greeting, each stage appearance, each act of art making, this unspoken, insistent question: Who will love me?

Something doesn’t fit. I think that’s how it starts. Something doesn’t belong in the world they see, the artists, the ones busy making useless things. I exclude the museum honchos, avatars of the visible, the Warhols and Boltanskis, their returns are clear enough (and besides, most are already dead). But for the rest, labouring for their meager returns, say no to the car, say no to the house, say no to weekends out with friends. There is work to do, useless work.

This is what I wondered when I met her the first time. Sniffing for the mark, the sign, some indication that there was no choice, not for this one, that she would have to go on through the lonely nights. Making things. Is it damage? I think that’s what Freud would say. It’s what Jubal told me when I’m over at his lean to of an apartment, squeezed shut with old vinyl and new ideas, “I can’t see any reason to leave here anymore,” he tells me, and then later, “Artists make work because there’s something wrong with them.” Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe nothing else matters. But Gariné is one in a steady line of artists whose parents are immigrants, old worlders whose eyes have grown used to somewhere else, bringing it on every time they look out the window. They marry the old world and the new in their children, like Gariné, who never see what they see, but never stop feeling it either. Her inheritance is a double vision. Things aren’t quite what they seem, the tragedies have not quite been left behind, so here we are, in a place that is neither there nor here. And this between state is the root of some new personality, some new world dreamer. The artist, for instance. Or the mechanic, the door-to-door salesperson, the legal secretary. But sometimes: the artist. The one who thinks, “No, something doesn’t fit.”

I was born in Beirut and came to Canada in 1979. I’d visited three years earlier, when I was six, and didn’t like it. The landscape, the weather, the people—everything was cold. In Beirut there’s no mask, everyone says what they feel and we all missed that.

She talks about the myth, the legend, the image. The storied childhood, and of course, about us. Us in Beirut.

In 1978 civil war broke out for eight days. There was a lot of bombing. We couldn’t sleep in our rooms because it was too dangerous, so everyone went to the centre of the building and camped in the hallways. From the kitchen you’d see fires in the hills. I’m very used to the sounds of gunshots and bombs...

I couldn’t make any sense of the first film I saw of hers, Visions. The program was, as usual, a motley collection of all-sorts, unwittingly designed to make some brief shudders of emulsion visible, while erasing others. Imagine eight poems read at high speed, one after another, each in a different style. How much would you hold onto by last call? It wasn’t until I saw it again, a few months later at a back alley soirée, that I got up to speed. I leveled out the movies around it, never mind never mind, and lit up inside when her turn came. Visions came right at me like an express, no stops here thanks, a wailing scream of a film, with pictures that were shattered, taped by hand onto emulsion, scratched over and painted, the whole threatening at every moment to fly apart but held together by a rending cry that is birth and accusation, torment and ecstacy. There is an artist being born here. The one that can’t help it. The one who is not here tonight, because they’ve got work to do.

When I was seventeen I met Atom Egoyan and Arsinée Khanjian at the Armenian Community Centre. Atom was giving a lecture on his films and I showed them my sketches and photographs and they bought three of them. He was the first person in the film community who really encouraged me. A year later I made my first film, Body and Soul. I videotaped myself in various costumes, holding fruits, or standing in water with plastic over me. I was living in Aurora, and spent a lot of time driving down empty highways. There were intersting churches where I would stop, set up, then step into the frame and walk toward the camera. When you’re living in a place like that, there’s nothing to do, so you end up creating. It was all shot in video, then re-photographed off TV using a super-8 camera. It was an incredible experience, seeing what you could do with film.

She began in high school with Body and Soul, upshifted to university where she made Visions, then cut herself loose to make her signature movie, the one that’s been seen more than all the rest. Call it her greatest hit, at least until the Sparklehorse duets. She named it Girl from Moush, after a song a record clerk pointed out to her. This is how she works, collecting, opening, following the trail, and when the heap is large enough, it’s time to start kneading all the material through those long fingers. These pictures need to be touched before they can be released back into the world.

Her signature movie begins, like everything important, by accident, with an invitation by friend and mentor Atom Egoyan. He’s just finished his new feature, Calendar, in which he plays a photographer hired to make twelve calendar shots of churches in Armenia. They have this between them, this Armenia, this lost country. Whenever I see Gariné she is toting around a new find, an old woman, a boy, a handsome man, and always they are from Armenia. She collects them though she’s hardly alone in this. When she meets Atom, they collect each other. When the film’s all wrapped and printed he approaches her for a poster, hands over the calendar shots, and that’s enough to light the fuse. She’s off and running on her own movie now, collecting pictures of Armenia. Of course it’s not village life, farm chores and markets, but the Armenia of her mind she’s interested in, most of all, the dream of Paradjanov, dipped in paintpot colours. She lifts stills from his Colour of Pomegranates, gathers moments from tourist books, Atom’s calendar shots, and begins to knit them together. She films the photographs, the decisive moments, then begins to cut out the frames and lay them on new strips of emulsion, taping, rending, weaving. She cuts the tiny, barely visible frames in half and grants them new horizons, pastes them over other frames or strips, or over black. Like her mother, and her mother’s mother, she is a weaver of threads, choosing now to work with emulsion instead of yarn, but it’s the same somehow in the end, the long hours of patience, the discovery of patterns, and patterns within patterns, that only the hand can discover.

This kind of work, like all forms of animation, takes time, and this is really the rub: all those hours sweating under the hot lights, patiently attaching yourself to the frame after frame of it all, is a kind of meditation. At the very least, it requires the same kind of detached engagement, the singular, obsessive focus, so prized by the old religious orders. In place of the monastery, the temple and the retreat: the cinema. Her eyes making their way slowly across the abyss of a single frame, fashioning the light.

Artists and men. And her face. Again and again.

This is how she works. She attaches herself to them, their way of seeing, a body of work. Does all art begin with this act of submission, opening the door, admitting the ideas of strangers? Their taste. She would turn, in years to come, to the Starn twins, no slouch in the collage department themselves, to make Drowning In Flames, her anguished recast of art history’s beauty queens, featuring herself of course. These ancestors are still alive in her face, and so she braids them together, the once and possible futures, conjuring the hopeless isolation of the meat, trapped inside it, the way they look at her.

Then it was on to the Brothers Quay in Shadowy Encounters (what is it about twins anyway?), Grimm Brothers of avant animation, their fantastical creatures busy in the shadows. Gariné attaches herself to them as well, and then she begins to rework and reframe, filming their film, finding new images in the details. New arrangements. It is an essay, kind of, told in pictures, which is the only way she knows how, a high impact collision some call romance, where the perfect woman is surrounded by suitors, though they long in the end only for themselves. Who will tell the tale of sirens, when the only writers are sailors?

In film after film she returns to her image, layered up with others, looking like a saint, the lonely one, the one who waits. What is she waiting for? In My Own Obsession she has a group of friends, actors and acquaintances speak about a mysterious woman, offering contradictory asides. The woman, who else could it be, is Gariné. Are we the sum of these impressions, these sound pictures, overlaid to create, in their addition, the beginnings of personality?

I only remember what I like. It used to be the other way around. The terrifying accusations of love were what I craved, the smell that one left when she’d swept the room with her anger. Call it getting older, but I find it all less attractive now. The habit of pleasure was a long time coming, schooled as I was in the refusals of modernism, the necessary withholdings, the medecine, the stern asceticism of the faithful. Today, I only remember what I like, and what I like most of all is Gariné’s Babies in the Sun. It began as a home brewed pop song, a woozy confection of midwest Dada laid over looped slow waltz fiddles and record noise and a voice so quiet and warm you had to lean in close to hear it, and it made you feel better when you did. It was Mark Linkous’s project, better known as Sparklehorse. I guess Gariné was around the house when he laid it down, so when his lottery number hit, and the Sundance Channel agreed to spring for artist-made rock vids of his entire It’s A Wonderful Life LP, he turned to Gariné first.

The sound of your voice
Rose graves of cats
The pounding of your steps
Woke caves of bats
Babies on the sun.

Your first burning breath
Was a symphony
A ship full of horses
Was going down at sea
Babies on the sun.

Shot through scrims of glass with a hazy, it’s-always-summer-time feel, Gariné reaches through his desire to find her own, I mean, the small place you need to look out of when you’re busy making. It’s just not possible to make an image of everything, you need focus, a theme or idea could do it, or a colour, a feeling. This is the frame that is applied to the world. Whatever doesn’t fit is invisible, it doesn’t exist at all, while the moments that do fit might have been stepped over a thousand times already, but inside your new frame these moments are ten feet tall. They are what’s left of the world. So you pick them up. This act of choosing (or is it being chosen?) gathers momentum, all of a sudden there are uncanny coincidences, every moment a crossroads bringing you closer, leading you on. When she hears him sing the words she looks up and finds My Book of the Farm, a cartooned child’s primer of play. Welcome to a world of children and flowers, seaside idylls, horses and talking birds. No bruises in this landscape, no Jack fell down and broke his crown, or witches in gingerbread houses. While each of the pictures are still they flicker past in Gariné’s retake as if touched by the eye, melting, scratched over, rephotographed as colour fields off TV. And while the artist’s original encounters with these pictures were brisk, all jagged edges and hip hop hiccups, she’s slowed everything down, letting these fractured fairy tales take a waltz turn with Mark’s looping whispers. The lyrics are added by hand, two or three words crouched inside clouds or scribbled across horses, lending an affectless charm. Not laboured over. That’s what it looks like. One long bit of easy. Never mind the hours in between, the outtakes and missteps, this is love without trial or sweat. Gariné somehow manages to get her feelings all the way through the clichés and borrowed pictures, even the materials are dissolving to the touch, the song is fading, faded, gone, until there is nothing left but this feeling, heavenly feeling, exclamation point of their love.

Gariné and I meet occasionally, usually at specialist conventions, the afterglow of screenings, and always she speaks to me of love. “I know what I want,” she tells me, her eyes growing wide with determination, “I understand it now.” She’s still serious. So very serious, until she breaks out in that schoolgirl giggle, untouched by the long years between hopes. There’s something disarming in the way she speaks, her confidences arriving in blunt declarations, no need to hold back anything now, not after Beirut, the Beirut of love. Not that she’s screaming it from the mountain tops, not at all, she’s still searching, and every bit of ground that’s behind her she’s had to earn. She is time sharing her body with pictures of bodies chiselled out of stone and marble, egged onto canvas or splashed against church ceilings. The beautiful, the virtuous and divine. How much time alone do you need before pictures take the place of community? Or friendship.

The movies have been pouring out of her since high school. Body and Soul (1989), Visions (1992), Platform (1993), Girl from Moush (1994), Drowning in Flames (1995), My Own Obsession (1996), Passion Crucified (1997), Pomegranate Tree (1998), Red Brick (1999), Sparklehorse (1999), Death to Everyone (2000), Dust (2000), Hokees(2000), Babies on the Sun (2001), Shadowy Encounters (2002), Garden in Khorkhom (2003) and several more. And of course I wonder: don’t you have anything better to do? Is this how you want to spend your roaring twenties, your youth, bent over the emulsion, grinding out these so many movies (and remember, this isn’t like those feature honchos, sure they’re sweating over their producers, but they’ve got people to carry the heavy gear. Editing is for editors, sound for the sound designers. Gariné’s is a universe of one, if there’s a floor that needs sweeping, an errand that needs running, sorry, no maid service in the fringe.) Paul Schrader writes that film noir was a “moral vision based on style.” I think she’d give that a nod. She is condemned to her face, and the pictures her face make possible. No choice in the end but to go on.

Stitching and searching.

John Piekoszewski