This Is Not Your Life
Let’s rearrange the messiness of our lives to be like a set: color-coded and choreographed, staging our mistakes to music and tragedies with deliberate visual design.
We will always have soft light and enter on queue from stage right. Our daily backdrop will be a perfectly painted patina, our conversations arias, and our mornings studied in film school. There will always be a round of applause.
In a cozy Paris apartment overlooking the canal, wrapped in the warmth of blankets and red wine, I spent a Thursday evening with a dear friend and a lesson in film classics, watching Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. The 1981 thriller stars John Travolta as a Philly sound tech, who in capturing low-budget movie sounds accidentally captures high-value murder evidence. The film’s structure is inspired by one of my favorites, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, swapping the slasher sound guy for a fancy fashion photographer and a sound clip for a snapshot.
Both films, in their structure, use the medium itself to tell the story, as if the set was the star, the context the character.
They employ the mechanics of movie making and photography to show the two artists in their respective attempts to salvage their humanity by working frantically to produce something ironically so symbolically empty: a stolen image and disembodied sound.
We watch Jack Terry’s studio sessions and then his frenetic mixing, editing, and rearranging and Thomas’ sexy photo shoot scenes leading to furious film development, showing the characters’ obsessive focus on using and changing the output of their medium to construct truth. In the end, they can’t seem to overcome themselves even as they work to employ their craft for substance, not just style, in a quest that they believe will save them from the depths of the shallow. Too late, sell-outs.
However, despite all the critical theory sloshing around that pretty Paris living room, like so much water in the nearby Saint-Martin canal, all I could think about was that every scene sequence had a perfect pairing of red and blue: his blue and red apartment; her red sweater, his blue shirt; the blue light of the screen, the red light of the neon sign; blue studio wall, red fire extinguisher, room spinning to red-blue-red-blue; red and blue fireworks as he holds her dying. Here I was, obsessed with style, wishing my life to be color-coordinated and its scenes to be so visually coherent. If only I could always match my co-star and the wallpaper.
I felt the same way at Paris’ beautiful Bastille Opéra, watching Michieletto’s Barber of Seville, wanting to be placed in their spectacular spinning stage set of a sanitized Seville street. Okay, so it was the new opera house without Chagall’s ceiling, but still, there was the music, the movement, the charming story, raindrops and champagne at intermission, the absolute magic of stage… and I was still stuck on longing to superimpose the superficial. Perfectly colored rooms, perfectly placed objects in a matching mismatch, everything carefully picked and planned. Sigh. I love a good set. And this was a really good one.
Instead, our timing is off. Costumes don’t quite fit. The prop isn’t there when we need it. Our voices crack. We are late for meetings, ruin relationships, lose our shit, and say the wrong thing when we want so desperately to get it right. Sometimes we are all sloppy substance. Style is so simple. But, the pretty picture and satisfying sound doesn’t give it all meaning. No script or score: we don’t live our lives on paper. No plot, no pattern. Not a dry eye in the house.