From the day when he lost his faith in the world, he has felt linked to it like a son to his unnatural mother.
— Louis-René des Forêts
In his splendid lecture ‘Philosophy as Biography’, Alain Badiou tells a story about, as he puts it, “mother and philosophy”. It concerns the moment when, as a frail, 81-year-old woman, Alain’s mum decided to unburden herself with a confession into her son’s ear. She told him the tale of the great, romantic, ecstatic love of her life – which was not, in the event, Alain’s father, her life-long husband. It was a guy before all that. Cue Doris Day as Calamity Jane: “Once I had a secret love …”
This was already a case of too much information for Badiou, even if he doesn’t quite describe his reaction that way. But what really disconcerted him was the revelation of his mother’s lover’s identity: he, too, was a philosopher (and an Algerian, as it happens). With a thunderbolt of recognition, Badiou realised that the vocation he assumed he had freely chosen was, in fact, in service to his mum’s long-unspoken desire: now and forever, and without knowing it, he was living out the wish she had kept secret all those years.
In this moment, the wise philosopher grasped, in short, that his destiny, perhaps even his very self, did not really belong to him at all. “I have done nothing else except accomplish the desire of my mother; I’ve done what I could to be the consolation for my mother’s terrible pain. As myself, in the most unconscious manner, I never did anything as a philosopher except respond to an appeal that I had not even heard.”
It is fairly unusual to find a guy telling an autobiographical anecdote as powerful and revealing as this one. Men’s memoirs tend to be set in the mould of the title that the Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden gave to his shot at literature in 1963: Wanderer. Of course, there are striking exceptions, including Karl Ove Knausgaard and Marcel Proust. But, in general, men like to think of themselves as epic voyagers, travelling far and wide. And they are the ones (or so they think) in control of their wandering. In Bob Dylan’s 2004 book Chronicles and Martin Scorsese’s doco biopic of the singer, No Direction Home (2005), a great deal is made of the decisive, archetypal act of leaving home – in some profound sense, never to return.
Many men define themselves by the distance they can put between themselves and the cradle, furiously downplaying any maternal influence on their psyches. This is the lesson of the remarkable 1970s non-fiction book The Mermaid and the Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein – a publication that made a big impact on the special generation of Australian women filmmakers that I’ll get to soon. The psychic process described by Dinnerstein leads to all kinds of latent—and frequently manifest—misogynies in later male development, when the looming spectre of femininity gets cast as (in the immortal words of Lesley Stern) Big Tit Turned Bad: overbearing, malign, castrating. Just shoot a glance at the vituperation poured upon feminism—and, in fact, women in general—in the torrent of words spewed out for six decades in all media by the recently departed Bob Ellis, whom the sentimental hypocrites of Australian Letters (many of them Bob’s old, male, drinking buddies) are swiftly anointing as a National Hero.
Without getting too rigid about the gender distinction, we can observe the exact opposite tendency in many women’s memoirs, whatever the medium (book, film, radio). Women go back, in their imaginations if not always in physical reality, to the past, to the family home, to Mum and Dad; they hunt the secrets of their identity there. To adapt the words of des Forêts’ mysterious prose poem Ostinato (1997)—another quite un-male memoir—these women look for “what no one has seen or known except the one seeking to translate the secret that her memory refuses her”. Often, a connection with the past is sought, even an intensely-wished-for fusion with it; this is an “intimacy huddled in a dream of renewal that would undo all distance” (Forêts again), both in time and in space.
And a dream it most surely is. For there is, frequently, nothing physical to grasp in this excavation of the past: no material traces, no letters or diaries or notebooks or midnight tape recordings to unearth … no solid truth. In those circumstances, the heart has to try to make its peace with the past without recourse to detective plots or melodramatic revelations. Sometimes, mums die with their secrets intact and unspoken – even as those hidden desires continue to haunt and shape the lives and destinies of those who come after in the generational chain.
Film and TV profoundly complicate the literary genre of the family memoir. Because film demands things to be seen, that can be recorded; and TV—especially reality TV—likes to arrive at tearful reconciliations, at-long-last proclamations of parental love, the laying-bare of all ambiguous mysteries, and announced promises that will hopefully hold all the players in good stead until they reach the grave. In Sarah Polley’s striking film Stories We Tell (2012), the agony of having no solid trace that might reveal the truth of her deceased mother’s secret life pushes Polley to a studied recreation of Super-8 home movies! Her entire movie elaborately circles the maternal void at its centre: Polley’s father writes a letter to his ghost of a wife, and the daughter films him reading it aloud in a recording studio.
There is often something grimly forced about these recoveries of and reconciliations with the past performed by movies and TV shows. They document, more than anything, a kind of projective fantasy: the wish that our parents (alive or dead!) should, can and will speak to us exactly as we want and need them to, in precisely in the same way, and with the same values, as we talk to our companions in our own time and generation. Reality, however, rarely works this way.
In a recent Spanish-Brazilian documentary, On Football, we witness the quietly desperate attempts of filmmaker Sergio Oksman to forge a bond with his long-absent father – in part, by once again attending football matches (or, at least, parking near the stadium and listening to them together on the radio), as they did when Sergio was a little boy. The quest of the film, however, becomes a crumbling ruin: all it grasps at are false memories, illusions, voids, vain hopes for a cathartic psychodrama between father and son. And the inexorable march of time puts an unnegotiable full stop, midstream, to this filial fantasy.
Enter Margot Nash. She is among Australia’s finest filmmakers – and also, for many audiences unaware of her, one of its best kept secrets. Her directorial career crosses documentary (For Love or Money, 1982; Teno, 1984); experimental shorts (We Aim to Please, 1976; Shadow Panic, 1989); a vivid, dreamlike feature (Vacant Possession, 1995); and a superbly intimist telemovie (Call Me Mum, 2005). She’s a singular auteur, but also a recognisable part of a generation of Australian filmmakers that includes Gillian Leahy (My Life Without Steve, 1986), Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert (Landslides, 1987), Martha Ansara (The Pursuit of Happiness, 1988), and Susan Dermody (Breathing Under Water, 1991).
If you’ve never seen or even heard of most or all of these movies, you are hardly alone, alas. Australia is especially bad at circulating the past achievements of its more adventurous artists, or maintaining them in productive, ongoing careers. Like many filmmakers of her generation, Nash has spent long years developing unmade projects, and teaching.
Her new film, The Silences, is a family memoir that unravels a secret. It begins from Nash’s memory of being a rebellious daughter—feminist, avant-garde artist, actor at the Pram Factory theatre in Melbourne during the early 1970s—faced with what seems to her a cold, cynical, taciturn mother, Ethel. It’s a generational war, a complete clash of sensibilities – hingeing precisely on vastly differing conceptions of a woman’s role, and her destiny, in society. But Nash’s memories, coursing backward and forward in time, bring up troubling possibilities and a darker legacy of hidden trauma.
Vacant Possession had already treated (in a fictionally reinvented way) the matter of the filmmaker’s father’s mental illness, and his sudden propensity for violence. That is part of the mosaic again here, but The Silences decisively shifts attention from the dysfunctional patriarch to the secretive, privately hurt and grieving mother. What she is hiding is something that Nash stumbles across as a child, but only comes to really understand—and investigate—much later.
The Silences could be unfairly tagged a documentary, but it is more like a personal essay. Its elements are very few and very simple, and they are elegantly, eloquently arranged into a form reminiscent of Corinne Cantrill’s minimalist masterpiece In This Life’s Body (1984): a narrating voice, music composed and performed by Elizabeth Drake, still photographs, a few well-chosen quotations from writers such as Marguerite Duras or Margaret Atwood. As well, there are clips from Nash’s previous films, wielded (as in Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman, the 1996 self-compilation by the great filmmaker who died in October last year) as reflections, or refractions, of her personal history. Sparingly throughout, and only really in the closing stages, does new footage (shot modestly on a digital camera) make a crucial appearance – when some attempt at genuine commemoration, at laying to rest the traumas of the past, begins to seem possible.
Nash’s own sense of peace comes from a commitment to ‘telling one’s story’, no matter how painful and difficult that process may be to arrive at. Oksman’s On Football, by contrast, leaves us with less satisfaction, and more of an abyss: the filmmaker gazes at the thousands of filled-out crossword puzzles his father left behind, as if in hope that some cryptic revelation might emerge there; it never does. Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, another ‘domestic’ essay-doco about a mother who speaks little of the past (in her case, hell in a concentration camp) and a daughter who tries, through love and through cinema, to reach her, offers yet another shade to this contemporary panorama of sophisticated filmic memoirs.
Akerman’s way, ultimately, is to respect the often chilly silences, and to find a way to dwell within them, to make audiovisual poetry from them. Her subsequent suicide has left us with another, tragic kind of silence. Nash manages, mercifully, to reach a more affirmative end point. Like Badiou, Nash shapes her film as way to “respond to an appeal” that she “had not even heard”, at least not initially. The Silences is heartbreaking, soulful – and finally, in a measured, richly earned way, uplifting.
The Silences is released nationally on Thursday 28 April. The film also screens at the Melbourne Cinematheque on Wednesday 18 May as part of a special focus upon Nash’s cinema.
Adrian Martin is Adjunct Associate Professor of Film Studies at Monash University, and lives in Spain as a freelance writer and audiovisual artist. He is the author of seven books including Mise en scène and Film Style (Palgrave); and co-editor of LOLA and the book Movie Mutations (BFI).