The Films of Meredith Monk
(originally published in Ballet Review, Summer 1991)
Meredith Monk’s films and stage pieces contain visions of the past, particularly visions of her own Jewish heritage, which she uses to make sense of the present. Her early films Quarry (1975) and Ellis Island (1979) are silent, poetic meditations, using spare, black and white images, almost devoid of movement, to convey visions that are both thoughtful and urgent. In Book of Days (1988), her new film (released in two versions, one for theaters and a slightly shorter one for television), she tries to take the concerns and techniques of the earlier films and expand them into a full-length narrative with color and sync-sound. Her techniques do not make the leap into the feature-film format, and the formal devices she adopts do not convey her visions quite as powerfully as the ones she used in her earlier films.
Each of the three films seems to have been inspired by her reaction to a particular site. Quarry is set in an abandoned rock quarry partially filled with water. One scene shows an enormous wall of cut rock, empty, hot, and dry looking. One tiny figure emerges from behind a boulder, then another, until we see that what we thought was an empty quarry is in fact filled with a large crowd of people, who subsequently disappear again. I can easily imagine Monk coming upon the place by chance and thinking, “what a neat place to make a movie! There could be a group of people hidden behind those rocks and you’d never know they were there until they popped out…” The site’s odd, abandoned, and isolated feeling seems to have suggested the film’s other evocative images, such as the grids of still people floating in the water holding on to logs. The rocks feel hot and dry, while the pools are wet, cool and murky. The image gives the feeling of uncovering hidden feelings and characters. When I saw the film in its original context, as part of the stage piece about the Holocaust, also called Quarry, it reminded me of all the bodies piled up in American Jewish memories. Ellis Island, too, seems to have sprung from Monk’s response to a unique site. The immigration center, before its recent renovation, had been abandoned since 1954. Its crumbling offices, docks, etc., easily evoked the ghosts of immigrants and officials, and it was also a visually spectacular location for a movie.
In Book of Days, the site that inspires the film is the French medieval town of Cordes, which, besides being austerely beautiful, is one of the few places one could make a realistic-looking film set in the twelfth century. Again, while watching the film, I could picture Monk walking around the town, where every street and square seems to conjure up the ancient inhabitants and their lives. Because of her strong Jewish identity, she was especially fascinated by the usually undocumented lives of medieval Jews. These visions shaped themselves into a story, one that also conveys her sense of wonder at feeling a connection with a remote century.
Book of Days tells the story of a young girl living in the medieval town, who repeatedly has visions of the future. (She sees airplanes and automobiles.) When she describes the visions to her grandfather, he interprets them as being from the past. Finally, she goes to see the town madwoman, played by Monk, who slowly instructs her in the cultivation of her visions. The plague comes, wiping out most of the town’s inhabitants, including the girl and her grandfather, but not before the town’s Christians have had time to blame and persecute the Jews as the cause of the disease. (While watching the film, I couldn’t help thinking of the persecution of gay men and IV drug abusers during the AIDS crisis, and indeed Monk acknowledged that this was on her mind when she introduced the film at its theatrical debut.) As a narrative framing device, the film begins with the image of modern construction workers, filmed in color, who use explosives to knock down a wall. Behind the wall we see the medieval world of Cordes, filmed in black and white. At the end of the film, we again see in full color the construction workers, who enter through the hole in the wall into the modern remains of the town, and there examine the room where the girl and her grandfather died. They find the girl’s drawings of her visions on the wall.
Like most of Monk’s full-length stage works, Book of Days does not tell its story in a conventional, sequential way, but rather through a collage of images. Some convey the general feeling of life in the medieval town, such as a woman shaking out a sheet or shopping in the market. Some show ordinary moments from the lives of the main characters: eating, washing, sitting, in order to give the texture and pace of their daily existence. Some, in color, show equivalent, contrasting moments from twentieth-century life. Some show key conversations or exchanges from which we can infer the story, such as the moment immediately after the little girl has found the madwoman. Some use dance or music to convey the emotional or spiritual underpinnings of the times, such as the dance of the Christians who blame the Jews for the plague.
For Monk, film is a composed, framed world, and she wants the audience to be constantly aware that she is choosing what they will see and when they will see it. All three films use the camera’s absolute control over what we see, and its compression of a three dimensional space into two dimensions, as a metaphor for the limitations of perception—visual, emotional, and intellectual. When, in Quarry, the rock face that we thought was empty turns out to be full of people, we realize that it is only our point of view, dictated by the camera, that created the illusion. Later, we see a group of the white-clad figures crouching together, but it is not until the camera slowly pulls back that we discover they are balanced precariously in a crevice, halfway up an enormous wall of rock. In Ellis Island the camera slowly does a 360° pan in the starkly empty ruins of the immigration center. At the last moment we see a large crowd of people in what we had assumed was a deserted building. In Book of Days the camera pans slowly past a long row of plates and spoons bathed in light, each casting a deep shadow to the right. At first it seems like an artfully photographed catalogue of artifacts from a past culture. Then hands come into the frame, showing how the utensils are used to serve, eat, etc. Soon we hear the sounds of a family meal, and at the end, the camera pulls back beyond the world of the table to reveal the people who are eating, talking, busily engaged in family life. It is a visual equivalent to the archeological process, extrapolating backwards from the artifacts to the life that created them, with the limits of the film’s frame representing the archeologist’s slowly enlarging vision.
In Ellis Island, Monk has made the ambiguity of our view of the past the main subject of the film, far more emphasized than the story of the immigrants themselves. In the film, we do not see the immigrants pass sequentially through the naturalization process. Instead, we see them in groupings that tend to evoke Monk’s process of imagining them; they are either standing still or performing highly stylized repetitive movements that represent generic activities such as playing, worrying, etc. A woman sweeps one spot over and over in a circular pattern to represent working, without literally cleaning anything. As in the eating sequence from Book of Days, the broom itself, as well as the immigration building, seems to have given Monk this very generalized notion of the woman’s life.
She uses the flat, framed quality of film, in which movement itself is an extrapolation that the eye makes between one frame and the next, as a metaphor for the limits of our ability to know the past. One image in particular crystallizes this metaphor perfectly: the immigrants pose, patiently, willing to do whatever they are asked in order to be admitted into the country. They are so still that for a moment we think we are seeing stills, in the familiar black and white of historical material, until we notice the breathing, the occasional blinking eye. Then, one of the women pulls a loose thread off of her husband’s coat, and quickly returns to her pose. The figures in the photo try to help us make a more orderly composition. They collaborate with us in creating a respectable image of the past. In one neat image Monk shows our human urge to document ourselves, to be thought well of by future generations, as well as our struggle to pull a sense of real life out of the documents from the past, a struggle that both fails (the picture is “cleaned up”) and succeeds (while meditating on a still photo we can almost hear the subjects’ heartbeat, see them breathing, feel their desire to look nice for the camera). By filming the impulses that are missing from the frozen space of still photography, she shows us how to see them even when they are absent. When we look at photographs of immigrants, of our parents, of ourselves at earlier times, we hope the images will stay still so we can draw our own conclusions about the lives of the figures, but we also long for them to breathe, to blink, to step out of the frame and talk to us. The full content of their lives cannot be expressed in a photograph. Photography, like historical knowledge, gives only a partial view.
Ellis Island captures our ambivalence towards our ancestors through the juxtaposition of past and present in a single image. Immigrants are examined by doctors, while behind them, dancers dressed in black tee-shirts and jeans (cousins of the white-clad figures from Quarry) try to imitate their movements. They are like the little emissaries that rush from our brains into the frame when we are staring at a photograph, projecting ourselves into the image, trying to know what it would feel like to be those people. The camera pans back and forth between the immigrants and the dancers in black, who are always running as if trying to observe the immigrants while staying out of range of the camera, but always just failing to do so. In the same way, the “objective” historian tries to remove her own needs, judgements, reactions from her subject matter, but can never run fast enough to get herself out of the picture.
Another juxtaposition that symbolizes the absurdity of the “objective” quantification of people’s lives is the ubiquitous architect’s measuring stick, which is placed along plates, beside people, and even tossed to one boy in knickers who holds it for the photographer. The subjects of the historical scrutiny cooperate in their classification good-naturedly. But what choice do they have? The camera is the documenter, the historian, with as much power to define the immigrants’ lives as the INS officials had. A hand writes on glass in front of the immigrants’ faces, using the flat plane of the movie screen as a metaphor for the objective view of history, which squeezes the life out of the three dimensional space we really live in, circling a Jewish nose, writing “SERB” over a man’s face, literally juxtaposing an abstract, limiting, verbal world on top of a living, breathing person. And we feel just as imprisoned by the camera as the man behind the glass does. It is the screen’s very flatness that prevents us from moving around and getting a better view.
The failure of historical method is not presented as tragic or absurd, but more as a touchingly incomplete method of reaching out to people, like all human contact. The immigrants do not seem to hate the documenters for trying to reduce them, but seem in a tired, resigned way to want to be helpful to them. They don’t want to cause trouble, but also they would like, if possible, to reach out to the future, too, and have their grandchildren understand what they went through.
The new film is about the same subjects and uses the same techniques as Monk’s most successful work. It has an enchanting setting, uses veteran performers from Monk’s company, has a beautifully written and sung score, and gorgeous cinematography. So I wondered why it didn’t work for me the way the previous films and performances did. Perhaps the very seductiveness of the setting and the lush response of the grainy black and white film to the town’s stone textures itself worked against the film’s deeper intentions. It’s as if Monk, like the woman in Ellis Island, had pulled off all the loose threads before shooting Book of Days. All we get to see are pretty pictures. When, towards the end of the film, we see red marks on a map, indicating areas of the city wiped out by the plague, we feel oddly unaffected. When we see the characters listlessly dying in the streets (without the buboes or mad fits of bubonic plague, even this has been tidied up), we do not mourn the passing of these people whom we never even remotely believed in, although the music clearly indicates that she means us to. When a group of Christians do a dance meant to show their anger at the Jews, we do not feel the threat of violence. Unlike the scene in the stage version of Quarry in which a large group of dancers performing simple calisthenics in hysterical unison made us feel that the whole world was about to be taken over by a mindless army, we see here a pathetically small and cold-looking but beautifully costumed group of dancers in a stone piazza, weakly impersonating a mob.
Her use of character in the three films serves to illustrate how she loses my empathy. In Quarry the people are “figures.” Someone climbs from behind a rock. Bodies float in water. Dressed in neutral white, they are like the inhabitants of an Escher drawing. They are there to demonstrate formal and spatial ideas, or poetic one, yet they are not automatons. They have a dab of identity, which helps them to lead us imaginatively into the space, to ask, what if I were up on the rock? What would it be like if I found a body floating in the water?
In Ellis Island, there are real characters, the immigrants, dressed in real, shabby nineteenth century clothing, as if lifted out of our grandparents’ photo-albums. In their faces we read vivid and not at all sentimentalized characterizations. Two women pose for the camera, an architect’s measuring stick between them, and we feel, watching their faces, that we can measure the distance caused by an immense family history of arranged marriages, shifting allocations of meager resources, trust, betrayal, personality conflicts, all lived out in cramped circumstances. A man, patiently being photographed in the orientation center, has in his face amazement at having survived pogroms, flight, disease, an ocean voyage, and the mixed excitement and fear of the New World, all hidden by a need to please and not upset the strangers who are deciding whether or not to let him enter the country.
Monk is aware that the inhabitants of medieval France will not have the built-in emotional resonance for us that immigrants of our grandparents’ generation have, so she spends more time on exposition, gradually bringing her characters to life. But she, too, seems to lack a clear picture of their lives. Walking through the town and dipping into her imagination, she comes up with a sentimentalized vision of an innocent girl and a misunderstood visionary woman, and she tries to pass it off as real, but without the benefit of knowledge from her own family that she used in Ellis Island. The medieval sections are an unconvincing portrait of a vanished way of life. They don’t create believable characters that I care about. While she doesn’t aim for naturalism, she doesn’t use the distilled, emblematically repeated movement phrases of Ellis Island either. Like the Duke of Berry’s Belles Heures, the film uses flat, pageant-like depictions of medieval life, as if in a passion play in which real problems are transformed into allegorical characters called Faith, Family, Fear, etc. Yoshio Yabara’s costumes contain the historically accurate yellow circle required of medieval Jews, but they are beautiful, stylish glosses on “medieval clothes.” They look as if they’ve never been used for eating, cooking, working. Everything is smoothed out; natural movements are performed with the ease and grace of dance steps. All the scenes are clear and easy to watch, although what is being portrayed many not be pretty. (It includes religious intolerance and the plague, the two main evils in the movie.) The medieval Jews’ faces contain none of the vivid inner conflicts of the faces in Ellis Island. Family life in this community really is made to seem prettier than it was: harmonious, brave, communal.. Even a scene that shows a family bickering (the grandfather claims he has never been drunk and his family disagrees) is stylized enough to become part of the allegory (…and in the old days, sometimes a good family would have a small disagreement…).
I assume that Monk was trying to create a tension between the loveliness of the images and the horror of their content (plague, religious intolerance). But in order to make us feel this tension actively, there either has to be enough real horror for us to experience the contrast, or its absence must itself signify the tension. One must feel the stifling pressure that has forced people to depict themselves as picture-perfect, the way we feel the immigrants’ fear as they pose for the American cameras in Ellis Island. Here, that tension is missing. It just looks pretty.
In performance, especially in a non-proscenium space such as the La Mama Annex where both Quarry (stage version) and Recent Ruins were first performed, space is naturally abstract. It is easy to see that we are all in a theater together. Single, naturalistic costume elements, set pieces, or behavior placed there look quoted, part of an abstract scheme. But in film, especially a film set in an unusually well preserved medieval town, a sense of naturalism swamps everything. We are so used to the idea that the camera can take us anywhere on earth that, in order to achieve the sense of abstraction that Monk seems to want, the sense of moving in a conceptual space where we mediate between the desire to touch and the desire to understand the past, between beautiful surfaces and painful subjects, one would have to go to extraordinary lengths to denaturalize the filmed image. (In Ellis Island this is achieved by the presence of the immigrants in the modern ruins of the immigration center.) Otherwise the setting forces the film to look like an historical drama that the director tried to do naturalistically, but was too uptight to let the actors move and talk like real people, a genre that we’re all too familiar with from Masterpiece Theater.
Unlike Ellis Island, Book of Days does not highlight our response to history, although the inclusion of contemporary images suggests that she wanted it to. Because we do not see any representation of Monk’s process of imagining the characters in the film, any equivalent to the black-clad dancers in Ellis Island, the emphasis is on the real daily lives of the characters, as imagined by Monk. She has said that the film is a meditation on time, and takes place “both in medieval times and in the present.” In Book of Days the technique of juxtaposition that worked so well in Ellis Island and in her stage works Quarry, Recent Ruins, etc., is replaced by a technique of alternation. Black and white medieval scenes alternate with brief color images from our own century. But in film and, especially, television, alternation does not give a feeling of juxtaposition or even of connection, since we are inured to the jump-cut and the disjunction of cutting to a commercial. The segments from the present do not seem connected to the medieval sections. They do not link disparate times as in Ellis Island, but are simply elsewhere, either fragments from an unrelated film, or obvious comments that technology has changed while human nature remains the same.
The film really comes alive for me in two scenes that do juxtapose the past and present. The town storyteller, before an enthralled crowd, tells a tale that starts off sounding like the medieval Jewish legend of the Golem, a clay man who comes to life. Then it becomes clear that the story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He switches on a radio and his voice, a “ghost in the machine,” continues the tale. The magical appearance of a radio in the medieval space provides both the necessary distance from the real and the excitement of making the strange relationship between us and our past come alive. The fascination of the villagers while listening to the radio is analogous to how they feel about the supernatural, and about the artist who pulls visionary tales out of the air, out of the future.
The other such scene is a strange medieval public entertainment that is performed for the villagers in the town square, filmed in washed out tones midway between black and white and color. It is hosted by two Soho-style MCs and looks like a chic, downtown Nativity. The structure of the choreography is equivalent to that of Monk’s music. New dancers with simple repeated phrases are continuously added to an essentially static image that grows larger and more completely radiant, like the Christmas show at Radio City. This fantastic vaudeville show makes us feel Monk’s elation as she wanders through the town, mixing her own sensibility with the past. Both of these sections come alive because they contain real juxtapositions of past and present, not just alternation. It is in these risky, inventive mixes between past and present that her special point of view lies.
One of the film’s more superficial devices for juxtaposing the past and the present is the use of interviews with the village’s inhabitants in the manner of a TV show like 60 Minutes. The off-camera interviewers are played by familiar radio personalities. These interviews do have some effective moments, especially when Monk gives the actors a chance to show us something about their characters, such as Pablo Vela’s Grandfather and his gentle acceptance of the persecution of the Jews, or Gerd Wameling’s Storyteller with his artist’s sense of irony, or Monk’s own Madwoman, who does not feel safe enough to answer the interviewer at all. But if the interviews are intended to reveal differences between twentieth-century questions and medieval answers, the differences are usually ones that anyone without special knowledge of the period might guess. A peasant woman is asked the shape of the world and she replies that it is flat. The town doctor is asked how he treats stress and he does not understand the question. In fact, in Barbara Tuchman’s study of fourteenth-century Europe, A Distant Mirror, she reports that the earth was commonly seen as a globe, and that “mental depression and anxiety were recognized as illnesses.”
The silence of Ellis Island and Quarry contributed to their Buñuelish air of mystery, otherworldliness. Monk talks about admiring Murnau, Bresson, and Cocteau, silent filmmakers who treated film not merely as a way to record text but as a way of making poetic, magical images. She says she would like to make the image “musical,” by which she means an image with its own coherent form and rhythm, not just a vehicle for verbal ideas. We do not become immersed in these silent films the way we do in sync-sound or color films. The austerity of the black and white and the silence makes it specifically an image-world to which we have only partial access. The silent surrealism of Quarry and Ellis Island feels like watching someone else’s dreams, not like dreaming.
In Book of Days Monk uses a rich musical score. She wants this score to give emotional support to the images in the same way as it does in her stage pieces. In the film, unlike the stage works, the singers are invisible, and this goes a long way toward thwarting the emotional impact of the music. The simple repetitive structures of emotionally charged melodies, with new layers gradually added or changed, was much more effective when performed by her Vocal Ensemble in recent concerts than it was in the film. In concert one could see the bodies gripped by the musical lines, and the game-like interplay between singers. (Monk has talked about the significance of the fact that most of her Vocal Ensemble members are trained as dancers as well as singers, and the “whole-body” commitment they bring to their singing.) In most of Monk’s work the intellectual content per se is very slight. Quarry (the stage version) has a vague message about how fascism seeks to make us all behave the same and how we’d better struggle to maintain our true identities. But this is made irrelevant by the sheer physical and emotional impact of the dancing and especially the singing, the army-obsessed shouts of the soldiers, the blended harmonies of the chorus singing the final round, and Monk herself, her body seized by the music, just as the little girl she played was seized by visions.
In Book of Days the score is oddly ineffective. Our ears automatically dismiss it as “movie music,” which means by definition that it comes from somewhere else. We don’t expect it to have any relation to the action except to give it general emotional coloring, any more than we expect to see a full orchestra out in the desert in a western. It cannot serve the function it has in the stage pieces of giving a direct emotional connection to the story because the singers are not filmed. This is only made more obvious in the one spot where we do see the singers, where the grandfather teaches the little girl a song. Suddenly we feel the immediate identification with and sympathy for the characters that we expect in Monk’s work. They truly come alive for the only time in the film.
In attempting to make a full length film, Monk has used narrative, and a more straightforward narrative than she has ever used before. But narrative is not what makes her work compelling, any more than Education of the Girlchild showed how a shamanistic Madwoman instructed a little girl, or Paris revealed what had happened during Monk’s travels in that city. Monk’s strength, her special concern and genius, has always been not with stories but how we use stories of the past to tell and retell our present. And the Steven Spielbergesque tale of a girl’s obsession with the image of an airplane is a pretty thin plot to hang a movie on.
Monk’s film role as the visionary artist, the shaman marginalized from the marginalized Jewish culture who saves a little girl while her grandfather cannot, brings out a narcissism usually tactfully suppressed in her work and puts it uncomfortably in the foreground. Watching Book of Days, I felt as if someone had taken snapshots of some of Monk’s fantastic, fleeting visions of medieval life, and then asked her to make up stories about them, but the stories she came up with were hackneyed, patchwork guesses, no closer than you or I could come up with, and then she made the film out of these stories instead of letting us watch the visions that inspired them.
My articles on experimental film are freely available to all, but are supported by monthly and annual donations from readers. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to support my work. Thank you.