"I bent forward, suddenly conscious of my legs in new blue trousers. But how do you know they're your legs? [...] For it was as though I were looking at my own legs for the first time — independent objects that could lead me to safety or danger."
Reading the above passage from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man a few months ago instantly reminded me of Marina de Van's In My Skin — a film I hadn't seen for a couple of years. Thematically, the excerpt and the film are similar. De Van's movie centers on a woman (played by the director) who scrapes her leg at a party, an incident that sends her on a journey where she obsessively investigates the disconnect between mind and body (perhaps the phrase "scrape of chairs" preceding the above excerpt also helped trigger the connection). Much like Ellison's protagonist, de Van becomes conscious of her body as some separate, foreign thing. On the one hand, yes, that's my leg; on the other hand, it's just a slab of meat and bone. Exploring this mystery becomes more important to her than anything else.
In My Skin's great strength is that it doesn't try to intellectualize (or even verbalize) these questions. Quite fittingly (considering its subject), de Van's excellent horror film bypasses the viewer's mind altogether, opting instead to take us on the same visceral journey as its protagonist.
It explores its ideas simply by showing.
The value in connecting the above passage from Invisible Man to In My Skin is scant (at best); nevertheless, it's part of a mental process I want to briefly explore.
When I'm in the middle of reading a book (and for a few days after I've finished), I tend to see everything in the book's terms. It acts as a prism that filters the world around me, and it even works its way into my memory from time to time, illuminating and distorting distant thoughts through its lens. A few weeks after reading Obedience to Authority, for example, it seemed to me as though everything in the world could be explained and understood in terms of Milgram's book.
The prism also tends to cast the book all around me, causing it to magically appear. I'll hear it referenced in an overheard conversation, see it in an article, notice it on a shelf or table in a film; it'll even turn up as an answer to a question on a game show. All of this is part of the effect of the prism, highlighting what I previously wouldn't have noticed. (Of course it's not really possible to consciously note the numerous times this doesn't occur, but it's more fun to pretend that the Universe is smiling on me.) Until I've absorbed a book more fully, it remains on the forefront of my mind, defining the world in its terms (oftentimes with a disproportionate or unwarranted influence).
Below, I will continue using Ellison's Invisible Man to explore the prism through which I briefly viewed the world several months ago.
The following, which occurred in August while I was reading Invisible Man, is strangely similar to Ellison's text. It's almost as if the novel had somehow started to bleed into reality...
First, some set-up.
At one point in Invisible Man, the unnamed protagonist walks past an angry crowd and looks up to see a group of anxious people standing around the home of an elderly black couple who're being evicted. He sees — piled on the sidewalk and spilling from drawers — some of the couple's various belongings: their portrait (when young), potted plants destined to die in the snow, a curling iron, a card reading "God Bless Our Home," and another with the message "Grandma, I love you" written by a child.
These objects take on significance for the protagonist and connect him to the couple, as well as to his own past. After being moved by a vision of his mother "hanging wash on a cold windy day," he gives a speech to the sympathetic crowd, hoping to prevent the situation from boiling over into violence.
The following day he picks up a newspaper:
"On the subway people around me were reading their morning papers, pressing forward their unpleasant faces. I rode with my eyes shut, trying to make my mind blank to thoughts of Mary. Then turning, I saw the item Violent Protest Over Harlem Eviction. [...] It had lasted for two hours, the crowd refusing to vacate the premises."
The very same day I read the following in an electronic newspaper:
"In New York City, an 82-year-old resident of Brooklyn facing eviction was allowed to stay in her house on Friday after more than 200 people gathered in front of her home to block the eviction.
"The woman, Mary Lee Ward, gave a speech to the crowd:
" 'We're not slaves anymore. My grandfather was a slave, but I'm not. And they're not going to force me to do anything against my will. You've got to put up a hard fight for the faith, and that means the fact that you have to stick with it when you know you're right, you know you have the evidence, you know you have the facts. Don't let nobody walk over you. Don't let nobody make you a slave.' "
Now, the "Mary" mentioned in the Ellison excerpt is not the woman being evicted but a maternal woman the protagonist is staying with, and it was Mary Lee Ward — not an unnamed man from the crowd — who gave the speech in reality. But seeing the name "Mary" mingled into the mix of New York, evictions, an angry crowd of onlookers, a speech, and evocations of slavery... Well, it was pretty bizarre to read on the very same day I finished a similar section of Invisible Man! Serendipity, obviously, but odd enough to give me the very brief feeling that my imagination was leaking.
An exclamation point was added later by the fact that Mary Lee Ward surrounded her house with a chicken-wire fence as an "imagined security blanket of sorts." Chicken-wire, I found out 40 or 50 pages later, is also evoked symbolically by Ellison. And in a section related to the Harlem eviction, no less:
"Outside, the audience had begun to drone; a distant, churning sound that brought back some of the terror of the eviction. My mind flowed. There was a child standing in rompers outside a chicken-wire fence, looking in upon a huge black-and-white dog, log-chained to an apple tree. It was Master, the bulldog; and I was the child who was afraid to touch him, although, panting with heat, he seemed to grin back at me like a fat good-natured man, the saliva roping silvery from his jowls."
Not a conclusion but a digression:
What of this? Shall we draw a comparison between Mary Lee Ward using chicken-wire to "keep the dogs at bay" and the above excerpt? Shall we make a feeble remark about art mirroring life, life mirroring art? How about the cliche "the more things change the more they say the same"? We could think in these terms, sure, but if we dare for a moment to step beyond the limiting views that imprison us in the tower of What Never Could Be, we'll notice something else entirely. I read, and it was so! Yes. Call me biased, but that's the insight I took from the experience... (Now, if you'll excuse me I'm going to go test this hypothesis by fervently reading the Marquis de Sade's Histoire de Juliette ou les Prospérités du vice.)
Putting "invisibility down in black and white" in order to "make music [art] out of invisibility" is exactly what Mark Singer did in his documentary Dark Days (pictured).
The film follows some of the homeless inhabitants of New York City's underground subway system, specifically an area dubbed Freedom Tunnel. In the prologue of Ellison's novel, the unnamed protagonist is living rent-free in an underground room in New York City, somewhere that's been "shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century." His ceiling is covered with 1,369 light bulbs powered by electricity that he's siphoning illegally from the city's power grid. Likewise the residents of New York's Freedom Tunnel siphon electricity from the city's grid, and once — as Greg, one of the homeless men tells us — they even had running water down there. "When you have lived invisible as long as I have," Ellison's protagonist tells us, "you develop a certain ingenuity."
Unlike the homeless in Dark Days, Ellison's protagonist withdraws purposefully, though he does so largely because of something he cannot control — the racism and indifference of the world above. There's a scene in Dark Days where some of the people come up from the tunnel to look for food, sifting through huge piles of trash that have been stacked in bags on the streets. Usually they were completely ignored by passersby while doing this (people wouldn't even look in their direction, let alone look at them) — in other words, they had become invisible. However, as Singer notes on the DVD commentary, when they were being filmed, people would crowd around to watch (which understandably annoyed and embarrassed them).
"I'm an invisible man and it placed me in a hole — or showed me the hole I was in, if you will — and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done? Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint. Perhaps that's the way it had to be; I don't know."
After spending months living with the homeless, Marc Singer decided to make Dark Days with the explicit goal that the money generated from the project would go towards getting everyone out of the tunnel. He was someone who decided to integrate himself — whether through curiosity, compassion, or some variation of both — into the lives of the people in the tunnel, not a filmmaker who came there to exploit them. In fact, he didn't even have the slightest idea how to make a film when he first came up with this idea, and since he had no help, he ended up asking the homeless people — by that time, his friends — if they would like to become the makeshift crew for the film. It's in this beautiful idea that Dark Days becomes something rare: a work of political art in which the process itself becomes a form of DIY activism. Not only did Singer offer everyone the chance to help themselves, he also gave them the opportunity to take part in the telling of their own story.
Henry, for example, was a former railroad worker, so he was most equipped to build the dolly. After finding a shopping cart, he stripped off the wheels and assembled them to some plywood he found. Construction was underway. Once completed, the dolly turned out so well that Singer asked him to make a second one (which he did), but it was soon lost to the environment — someone found it and integrated it into their makeshift shelter. (Note: I thought this was interesting because it reflects an unspoken philosophy integral to this way of life. In a community built around scavenging, searching, finding, looking, and collecting, nothing can be taken at face value. If what others discard can be food, then certainly anything can be, well, just about anything you want it to be. Invention and ingenuity trump an object's typical, predetermined function. By not reclaiming the dolly, Singer is recognizing that it is NO LONGER A DOLLY; it has become whatever the person who found it saw it as when they looked at it. Instead of taking it back, he acknowledges the dolly's (now "dolly") new identity. This is a world made up of soft lines where "what you see is what you get" has never been more literally true.)
Singer, who had been staying in the tunnel with a homeless man named Ralph (who, in an act that demonstrates the film's true communal nature, can sometimes be heard asking people questions from behind the camera) shot 20 hours of footage without even knowing if any of it was going to turn out. It was so dark down there that he couldn't even see what he was filming most of the time, and, on top of that, the eye-piece tended to fog up. In order to know where to point the camera, he tried to make out the top of a person's head, aimed when he found it, and then simply hoped for the best... After awhile, some of other people involved learned how to use the camera as well as set up lights.
Eventually the shooting had to stop for 10 months so that Singer could involve himself with the social work that was underway. Much more than a snag in the production, this delay was part of the fruit that was created by the process finally coming to fruition. One can hardly imagine a shoot more in opposition to the mentality of Hollywood.
Marc Singer has yet to make another film.
"I couldn't return to Mary's or to any part of my old life. I could approach it only from the outside, and I had been as invisible to Mary as I had been to the Brotherhood. No, I couldn't return to Mary's, or to the campus, or to the Brotherhood, or home. I could only move ahead or stay here, underground. So I would stay here until I was chased out. Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet..."
For another example of Invisible Man as prism, see THIS POST.
Though I would consider Dark Days to be an essential documentary — that is, one everyone should see — it does contain, in the form of an editing choice, a very unfortunate mistake. Judging from what is known about Singer's process as well as the finished film itself, I'm confident that the cut is nothing more than an unnoticed misstep (as opposed to some kind of malicious editorializing). Nevertheless, for this oversight I am hereby forced to wrap Mr. Singer's knuckles until the blood flows a bit. Intentional or not, the cut is there, and the association it makes is very off-putting, especially when one considers how it could easily lodge itself in the mind of certain passive viewers and be used to subconsciously inform or buttress a prejudice.
The cut — which I present more or less accurately but not down to the frame — goes as follows:
So you see, here we have two homeless people rummaging through the trash to find food, and at the end of the scene they mention milk. CUT TO: a shot of two rats eating a discarded piece of trash that appears to contain milk or a milk product. Undeniably the film has drawn an association between the men and the rats.
I found out more details about this scene by listening to the audio commentary. Singer was interested in filming the rats because he wanted to give an impression of the environment the people living in the tunnel were faced with, but every time he put the lights on to film, the rats would scatter. They weren't afraid of people at all, just light; in fact, there were so many unintimidated rats down in the tunnel that, once it was dark, packs of them — hundreds and hundreds — would come out and cross the train tracks. Sometimes there were so many that you'd literally have to stop and let them pass.
One day someone (Singer, I think) was eating a bottle of Yoplait yogurt, didn't like it, and threw the half-filled (see, I'm an optimist!) bottle onto the tracks. Within seconds, hundreds of rats went for it... After seeing this Singer got someone to buy five or six bottles of yogurt for him to throw onto the tracks when he was ready to film. And once he did, voilà! Rats and rats!