in Profiles | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

Between You and Me

Jaki Irvine

in Profiles | 09 AUG 95

A camera circles shakily round and around an enormous crystal chandelier, catching its jewelled magnificence in mellow soft focus, as if seen through a smoky haze or the eyes of someone tipsy. A narrator recounts a story in a sonorous, Dietrichesque voice. 'This is a dry story with a lot of wodka' she says, resting an instant on the word. The romantic strains of Prokofiev accompany her narration. A strange tale of intoxication, indifference and intimacy, Jaki Irvine's Super-8 film, Star (all works 1994), continues:

'Two people, a man and a woman

meet each other in a pub.

They enter and then they sit down.


they don't sit down close to each other,

they just take their place on the opposite side of the bar.

And then the woman is shouting to the man.

Hey handicap, would you like to have another wodka?

Hey Handicap, would you like to have another wodka?...'

The music (a waltz from the 'Romeo and Juliet' Suite), the lights, the mittel-Europa voice, the film's title, all suggest the glamorous mise-en-scène of a Hollywood romance. But this fantasy scenario is shattered by the real: by the actual dialogue overheard in a pub and remembered by the artist.

'Hey handicap, would you like to have another vodka?

And she asks this several times.

And after a while and she has drunken a lot

She fell down to the floor

like a star.'

The film describes a puzzling exchange between two people. Their physical distance, on opposite sides of the room, is mirrored in the narrator's distance from her subjects, as she soberly reports their encounter. Yet this space is closed by the strength of the insult, a private slur acted out in a public, which, like the narrator's foreign pronunciation, suggests something incommunicable. Repeated three times, it is left hanging in the air, unexplained. Intoxication, that romantic cliché, is cruelly twisted into inebriation. But who is to say that these two are not drunk with love, the Romeo and Juliet of their own story, protagonists of their own heroic misunderstanding? Irvine leaves us tantalised yet troubled by our inability to understand the couple and the nature of their relationship.

The contemporaneous Sweet Tooth, another short, similarly combines narrator, moving image, and musical score. Set in a sculpture restoration studio in Vauxhall, the film is shot in timeless sepia. The camera roams, in one long take, around the interior. It caresses the delicately chiselled forms of classical statuary and gothic gargoyles, friezes and bas-reliefs, their dusty plaster and marble surfaces perfectly in harmony with the powdery soft focus of the lens. The same accented voice - more lyrical here - delivers the story to the notes of a second Prokofiev waltz, the lapidary 'Waltz of the Diamonds'.

'When I met her she was 19 and had no teeth.

She said she'd had a seriously sweet tooth

that led her to the dentist one sunny day

where all her teeth were pulled out.'

The camera lingers momentarily on the restorer's heavy tools, as the pincers and pliers, polishers and files of the girl's dentist spring inexorably to mind. The imagery effortlessly coincides with the narrative, not in illustration, but to enrich the happy congruity of teeth and sculpture.

'He fitted her for a new set

but somehow she just never got around to using them.

...Somehow, she said, she felt freer

without them.'

The girl's damaged smile - 'the strangest smile a 19 year old girl had ever give them' - is brilliantly evoked by the damaged statuary: both are somehow still beautiful, despite their missing parts. The girl's laughing reaction to those disturbed by her physical incompleteness belies the anxiety of loss (the extraction of teeth is inevitably linked, in the Freudian scenario, to castration.) Liberated from.her false teeth, released from the tyranny of wholeness, she is reconciled with her desire (for sweet things) and leaves even the narrator happily pondering the fate of the girl's discarded molars.

A fable of flawed beauty, Sweet Tooth finishes enigmatically, as the camera rests on an antique male posterior and the snout of a medieval boar.

Margaret Again completes Irvine's recent trilogy of short films, also existing as an overture to a longer, more complex video installation of the same title. The Margaret of the title is a fictional character taken from Beat novelist Richard Brautigan's melodrama In Watermelon Sugar. Oppressed by a male fantasy, she is never allowed an image or a voice by the text. Its narrator spurns Margaret for a new lover, Pauline, and is then mystified as to why Margaret hangs herself from an apple tree. Irvine's piece is made in homage to this silent woman, an attempt to 'reinvest in her as a heroine' by imagining a happier fate - by inventing two of her.

The film is composed of five discrete video sequences describing the beginning, middle and end of a narrative but which, displaced from each other in the gallery, force the viewer to elide the gaps both perceptually and conceptually, in order to make the narrative flow. The piece opens with the magical image of Margaret standing on a London rooftop, dressed in a frothy tulle dress, unfurling a silver foil banner in the breeze, to the climactic chords of Katchaturian. Margaret descends from the roof, down a rope, to the living room of some surburban house, and there meets herself. Irvine uses barely concealed filmic tricks to suggest that Margaret is in two places at the same time, in order to establish a dialogue between the two. They talk - but we can't hear their words - and as they do, the room gradually and inexplicably disintegrates around them. Chairs are overturned, objects are in disarray and finally, the two Margarets appear to have become unified: the legs of one gymnastically straddle the shoulders of the other, and Margaret is, it seems, whole at last. She leaves the room smiling and closes the door behind her. It is a happy ending, but is Margaret truly at one with herself?

Margaret Again poses a perceptual riddle. It asks us to believe that we are looking at two players, when we know there is only one Margaret - and then asks us to believe that the two Margarets have become one, when rationally we know there must be two people involved in the illusion. Gloriously unhinged, the film nevertheless supplies its own strangely coherent logic. It is a fantastic reverie on the nature of difference and similitude. The two Margarets' silent dialogue, Irvine reveals in an accompanying text, is lifted from another romantic melodrama: Leo McCarey's 1939 film The Awful Truth in which Irene Dunne and Cary Grant struggle hopelessly to reconcile their differences '...You're wrong about things being different because they're not the same. Things are different, except in a different way. You're still the same, only I've been a fool. Well, I'm not now. So, as long as I'm different, don't you think things could be the same again? Only a little different...'

Like Star, Margaret Again meditates on that mysterious space between two people, the space in which a necessary tension between distance and closeness, between difference and similarity, is acted out. If you're too close you become the same, caught in an autoerotic tangle with nothing to activate desire - yet too distant and you sacrifice communion with another. (The conundrum is perhaps the dilemma for all politics of difference: how to conceptualise difference without forsaking 'sameness', or equality.) Margaret Again is a deliberately less resolved work than Sweet Tooth and Star, and in its openness, is able to lay bare a paradox of film itself: how the medium constructs a similar pattern of closeness and distance in the mind of the spectator. Although filmic fantasy absorbs us utterly, drawing us closely into its illusion, we also know that what we perceive can never be truly present. As onlookers, we simply imagine our participation - in a way, perhaps, analagous to the illusions of understanding which underpin our relationship with others.