Illuminating the Ancestors: Grandparents
Milo Masoničić’s hauntingly poetic 11 minute video portrait of his grandparents comes at you in waves of sound and light. Each shot begins in darkness. A light sweeps into the scene, illuminating an isolated moment in their daily lives for a few seconds, and then sweeps away again, returning to darkness. Watching the video, it’s like we’re archeologists exploring the world of the grandparents, as one might explore a dark cave, with our headlamps briefly illuminating first one, and then another of the hidden details: the grandmother putting in her dentures, lighting a cigarette, the grandfather enjoying a meal. We are privy to intimate, daily acts. One by one, the light uncovers the objects in their home: a vacuum cleaner, a cell phone, a bottle of water, a collection of religious icons. The format suggest that, in exploring his grandparents’ world, Masoničić is exploring a strange, remote way of living. Because the light sweeps across the frame, it also evokes time-lapse photography of the sun’s pathway, so the image suggests as well the succession of days which make up the grandparents’ lifetime. The music perfectly matches these waves of light: waves of vocal arpeggios rise and fall repeatedly, punctuated by gritty percussion. (The track is constructed from the vocals of two Egyptian singers, mixed with Masoničić’s original percussion.) The music creates a mood of wonder, of suspended strangeness.
Close-ups of the grandparents’ faces show the layered depth of their expressions: a lifetime of disappointments, frustrations, anxiety, as well as joy and intimacy; all seem visible at once. There is a wonderful closeness to this couple; towards the end of the video, they literally cling together as they dance, entranced by the miracle of a lifetime spent together. The video is carefully structured, so that the images build slowly from the mundane to the emotional peak of the dancing. The video gradually builds intimacy between the viewer and couple.
In the end, we are left with just the fuzzy, out-of-focus shadows of the couple, thrown onto a white wall, like the shadows in Plato’s cave. We see a third shadow, one that looks like the Grim Reaper, but then, startlingly, we see a mysterious figure in their kitchen, wearing a gas mask and boxing gloves and carrying a pickax.
A commonplace death-figure would have been merely an obvious comment about the fact that the grandparents are old, but this strange, ambiguous figure is much more powerful and interesting. The pickax reinforced my impression that Masoničić, as grandson/filmmaker, is a “miner” digging in a “cave” for clues to his grandparents’ lives. The gloves indicate that this exploration involves struggle, and the gas mask implies that the air of the grandparents’ past might be harmful to the grandson, or at least strange and different. The appearance of this otherworldly figure is truly shocking and poetic; feeling both bizarre and inevitable at the same time.
Grandparents invents a sophisticated and poetic visual language for this portrait of an older couple, and Masoničić succeeds in showing us the deep strangeness of ordinary life. In a sense, it is indeed profoundly strange to be old: knowing how little time you have left, while still fully engaged with all the cares and joys, small and large, of daily existence. Grandparents illuminates that strangeness for a moment.
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