Monday nights with Leslie, BAM’s remarkable retrospective of the pioneering filmmaker and artist Leslie Thornton, are coming to an end. All told, it will have been possible to greet Monday’s doldrums with a back-to-back slate of avant-garde cinema for six straight weeks — seven if you count the Migrating Forms screening of Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding. Week after week, the series has chewed through Thornton’s five decades of work, sometimes with rather particular, fun screenings that paired her films with those by contemporary filmmakers or directors that influenced her: Su Friedrich, Werner Herzog, Andy Warhol, Kaneto Shindô and The Wooster Group. Accompanying these screenings, Thornton’s talkbacks have been reliably freewheeling. The series has had a generous, loose, yet weighted feeling about it: long-lived and so welcoming to casual attendance (by experimental filmgoing standards), but also featuring seldom-screened films and therefore critical and unmissable. It’s been an opportunity to dig into a richly dynamic, challenging oeuvre with the director right there in the room. It’s also been a chance for Thornton to try to set her record straight.
The series concludes May 8 with There Was An Unseen Cloud Moving (1988) and The Great Invisible (2016), two films Thornton made on the life of late-19th-century adventurer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt. When that’s done, Monday evenings at BAM may never be as predictably experimental again.
Intellectually speaking, these two final films form a kind of anti–double feature. Of course, each has a lot to do with Eberhardt. They both deploy reenactment — no budget, anachronistic, and reflexive — as a strategy of pleasure and critique, and they share some of the same archival footage (repeating scenes, for example, from a 1930s Orientalist education film, The Moslem World). And both do a tricky, taxing sleight of hand, destabilizing the facts each builds itself up with and the images each enrobes itself in, throwing them up to an arrested sort of perspective that questions their underpinnings, their authenticity, and their historicity. That two films doing this work would add up to a double feature seems at odds with their embrace of contradiction and distrust of accumulated fact. They also make for quite a demanding, hefty pairing, since both films oblige your attention and effort. But this series has, time and again, been far more in favor of linking things and raising connections than saying no — even at the expense of burning viewers out with difficult-but-rewarding film slates.
Oddly, for a subject that Thornton has said she “[doesn’t] even care for … particularly, as a person,” Eberhardt has become another one of her decades-long quarries, thought this 15+ year engagement is dwarfed by Thornton’s 30+ year Peggy and Fred in Hell project. Still, it’s a long time to read, film, and follow a person, to shadow someone’s shadow. Through her own journeys, Thornton has come to wend through the facts that are told about Eberhardt, to question how what is known is told, how a life is narrativized. As Thornton has put it, “Unseen Cloud was a kind of anti-biography — working from the premise that historical reconstruction is based on pretty arbitrary, chance data and interpretation. It was an attempt to foreground the arbitrary by not going for one coherent image of Isabelle Eberhardt.”
Other accounts of Eberhardt — there has been a narrative movie and an opera, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt — have focused on her dressing as man and traveling the Maghreb, her becoming a revered member of a Sufi Islam sect, the assassination attempt on her life, her losing all her teeth and drowning in a flash flood at age 27 in 1904. So there are plenty of facts to go around. But Thornton is more interested in the gaps in the data and the masses of contradictions in the story and its place in history — both what is not known and what is unknown. It’s not an academic plunge into epistemology, though; Thornton also has her sights set on Orientalism, the exotic, portraits of women travelers, and the way we tend to develop a sense of connection to those we follow — particularly relevant for Thornton, who traveled to Algeria and Geneva on Eberhardt’s trail. She also traveled to the archives, snagging photos of Eberhardt and footage of astronauts on the moon, collaging them with reenactments (some featuring Su Friedrich as one of four Isabelles) and title cards (“The End” at the end) to make this digressive, serious, self-undermined account. It’s not all so oblique, though. One of Unseen Cloud’s best scenes comes from an Isabelle impersonator sitting in front of a wavy, color-washed TV screen. It’s effortlessly dense: an entrancing portrait of a mediated figure, seductive and enigmatic not in spite of, but entirely because of its assertive indeterminateness.
Thornton would keep up her Eberhardt hunt for more than two decades. But The Great Invisible doesn’t quite pick up where Unseen Cloud left off, so much as pick up what Unseen Cloud didn’t. It’s a subtle difference amid a fair bit of the same, but an important one that permeates the film. There’s an allusive, searching quality to The Great Invisible. Less about the facts of Eberhardt as Unseen Cloud, The Great Invisible is engaged with the more encompassing, spiritual matters of her and her times. It’s an impressionistic inquiry into representation, into mystery, into what can be captured, documented, understood.
Here Thornton connects Eberhardt to the technological advances of her times, those that allowed her to travel and to be recorded — in photographs, French government documents, and her posthumously published journals — but largely just in fragments and, oftentimes, exaggeratedly.
Eberhardt was born in 1877, the same year as the invention of the phonograph, a fact emphasized in The Great Invisible with a playful archival recording of a man grandly presenting Edison’s great invention. Eberhardt’s voice was never recorded, but it could have been in this new era, is the point. Was something lost, then? Maybe, but Thornton doesn’t seem so worried about historical oblivion.
You can imagine things, after all, and reenactments are richer, more reflexively affairs in this film. A slideshow sequence helps sum up Thornton’s approach to presenting the past. “This is a young Trofimovsk with his first wife,” a narrator says, as a photo of Eberhardt’s father, an anarchist who ran off with Eberhardt mother, a married Russian aristocrat, is shown. “And here he is taking taking pictures around the house.” The narrator and slideshow continue, except now the photo is a video and Trofimovsk is being played by an actor, and you start to question whether those first photos were recreated, too. Thornton also includes scenes in which she speaks of making the film, traveling to Algeria from Marseilles on a ferry, meeting friends. You can recreate something of the past, she seems to be saying. But how was the past created? How was the Eberhardt story, the Orient, and the West’s (mis)understanding of Islam created?
Looming over all this is a sincere question about inspiration. It’s echoed in both the film’s title and its opening and closing scenes. Beginning with a red-dyed close-up of a sea at sunset, the film features a woman (seemingly a scholar) relating a story that’s attributed to a 12th-century mystic. It’s a parable about God’s search for connection between the divine and the everyday. “We look for our truest being outside of our self, without knowing that it’s inside,” she explains. This sounds like a commentary on Thornton herself or on the viewer, but it’s more than that: gesturing at the mystery of Eberhardt and her exceptional life, but also, in Thornton fashion, at how we look distortedly to another’s life to discover something about who we are and where we want to be.
Closing out her retrospective, There Was An Unseen Cloud Moving and The Great Invisible show that Thornton is still moving ahead. Bold, recursive, and absorbed, they’re the work of an artist who does not settle — and sho hopes for the same from us.