By Sarah Turner, Lis Rhodes and Sarah Pucill
republished with kind permission from Vertigo Volume 2 | Issue 2 | Spring 2002
Sandra Lahire 19 November 1950 – 27 July 2001 in Memoriam
By Sarah Turner
You kept laughing
So did you
But it wasn’t funny
Then why were you laughing?
I was laughing ‘cos you were laughing
But it wasn’t funny
No, but you kept making me laugh
So why were you laughing?
Because she looked like a Bridget Riley painting with egg on it
You can see it now can’t you? A striped vertical monotone, subverted by a kind of yokey blob. Sandra Lahire and I had just come out of a meeting at the BFI. Before your imaginations run with this, let me be clear; I’m describing a jumper not a person. I can’t remember now if it was a policy or a production meeting as it’s Sandra’s irreverent humour that reverberates. A clear and haunting echo. And, as I write this I’m haunted not only by the loss of Sandra but by the loss of her laughter echoing through those spaces: I mean BFI Production in Rathbone Street, the London Filmmaker’s Co-op in Gloucester Avenue, Cinenova distribution (formerly Circles) and the Lux Centre, the monolith that formed through the merger of the LFMC and LEA. The haunting isn’t just for the fabric of those buildings, important though they were, as the loss that echoes in our current traumatised but atomised silence is the loss of collective practice; of thirty years of dissent and debate. For we didn’t, of course, just giggle in those meetings; we lobbied and discussed and produced collectively.
Sandra was the only person who could have persuaded me to put maggots in my eyeballs. I performed in Lady Lazarus for her – then later that evening we’d stay up all night recording a soundtrack for one of my films. We’d go up to the LFMC to work on her optical printing and there we’d find Alia and Tanya Syed negotiating the Print Processor, then Lis Rhodes or Tina Keane would drop by to discuss all of our editing strategies.
Sandra’s output was prodigious; her films are as exacting as her use of metaphor, and if her approach to form was irreverent her content was deadly serious. From her brilliant first film Arrows, a meditation on anorexia and cultural constructions of body image, through to her Plutonium films and the Sylvia Plath trilogy, Sandra’s vision as a filmmaker was as precise as a scalpel cutting down to bone.
When Sandra died this summer from complications that arose from her long struggle with anorexia, I was forced to think again about anorexia and all the attendant cultural assumptions that it has. Many of these are so explicit in their negativity I won’t digress into listing them here because I still find myself thinking of something else. That ’something else’ is the work of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre we are only truly ‘present’ in what he calls extreme ‘moments’; individual or social crisis, the first flight of love or impending death. Call it crisis if you will, but Sandra lived that intensity in ‘moments’ that spanned her work, her friendships, her loves. And in that, I’m sure of this: it wasn’t a death force, it was life affirming.
Extracts from Sandra’s Letters to Lis Rhodes
By Lis Rhodes
July 26th 1990
Another chapter in the pulp novel? Have been to my sister these days, and getting a reception from her children which, considering my moods, I don’t deserve. But maybe because they are so raw they don’t see or remember these things, maybe being with them makes one pleasanter in the first place. I love the summer sunlight. It is very super 8 inducing. In fact today I will sell my original old Beatles record and get some super 8 in Camden.
Smith College have sent me a welcoming letter, opening the Sylvia Plath collection for me and my camera. In fact the only remaining obstacle to making this film (if you don’t want to sell records to buy super 8) is the BFI who have still not handed over a penny, even for all the pre-production. Their continuing bureaucracy, whereby you must be on call, has made it impossible to do waitressing etc. On the bright side, however, everyone else gets paid union rates.
May 16th 1991
If this film did not contain the voice of Sylvia, I would not get so steamed up. But I am hardly in the ‘mine-all-mine’ auteur bracket here, and I’d better carry out my job properly. In a sense the BFI will be buying Plath’s voice off my back. I did the negotiating, collected all the material and of course all the overtime. Of course I love the editing etc. But the point is there are no royalties for Lady Lazarus for us girls who made it. Horrid and ironic, isn’t it? May the curse of Plath descend on 29 Rathbone St. If they do not handle her with respect.
March 28th 1993
Lis, I might not have all your bluesy sound ready next week because I’m deeply, by my standards, investigating improvisations which I will record. I really wanted to say to you that I was brought up near a railway track, can’t get much more bluesy than that. It was the staff building for my grandparents as my granddad worked at the Clapham Junction of Copenhagen. They helped my mum when she had TB in the 1950’s. At first I wanted to go to Copenhagen to film there, still could stay with family, but now I know why I like the graffiti titles so much when I made Terminals. It was by the overground railway near Brick Lane. Ruth Novaczeck saw those credits on walls much later from the train.
Sandra Lahire Lady Lazarus and Johnny Panic
By Sarah Pucill
„Set against Sylvia’s readings of some of her classics, (Daddy, Ariel, The Applicant, Fever 103), as well as the title poem, the visual track travels through scenarios of the poems themselves.“ – Sandra Lahire
A fairground scene provides the backdrop and key to the film which spirals round in kaleidoscopic fashion. A Helter-skelter energy of visual and aural images with Plath’s poetry and conversational voice, and a lifetime’s skill of in-camera Bolex super-imposition is perfected to dazzling effect. High contrast effects of sparkling light reflected off glass or water, or direct from fireworks, candles or tungsten bulbs provide the hallmark palette of a Lahire film. This mesmeric and haunting quality is at its peak in this film, the first of the Plath trilogy. Sandra was interested in the magical power of film to entrance and hypnotise but equally in the way in which those who are dead come alive by their presence in the moment of the film’s projection. The poet comes alive through Sandra’s editing of Plath’s recorded voice, which is inseparably joined to the filmmaker’s hallucinatory choreography.
„Seven dreams of Panic/Phobias emerge from the hospital case-files kept by the poet who had herself been a mental patient in New York/Boston of the 1950s.“ – Sandra Lahire
Johnny Panic draws primarily on Plath’s short story of the same title as well as incorporating texts from Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, her journals, and poems. Sandra adds to Plath’s short story by staging her own seven dreams. This was the only film she made in a studio with sets and camera crew which gave Sandra the opportunity to explore a different way of working. Her former in-camera super-imposition effects are developed into stage sets with film projections.
As in Lady Lazarus, the film theatricalises a staging of inner conflict with a kind of camp, or Gothic self-consciousness. While both films tackle the taboo subject of suicide, Johnny Panic goes further in treading difficult ground. The desire both to have and to get rid of pain coalesce in an unnerving weave of unstable emotions. Fear, panic, loss and despair are given voice. The flight from pain by its re-enactment in representation as suicide and as poetry is articulated in carnivalesque side-show mood; horror awakening passion, that in turn evokes horror. Whether a theme tune, the poet’s voice, or scraping glass, the sound strikes a raw nerve. Yet Plathian themes of persecution are countered by her defiant speaking voice, looking back at the audience and telling how it is. Fear is faced head on, the demons being exorcised as the film threads through the projector.
Reading aloud was for Plath the optimum experience. Her poetry and particularly her reading voice is empowering to listen to in its assertion of a powerful female subjectivity. The sophistication of her language and its sardonic self-aware tone are commanding. In a similar way Sandra’s filmic language and ‘lived’ understanding of Plath’s texts are what make her films powerful. The films give a public voice to levels of despair that ‘healthy’ minds might hide or even censor. Easy binaries of good/bad, healthy/unhealthy are overturned in Sandra’s Plath trilogy. In particular, Johnny Panic unleashes an elaboration of pain, fear and loss that is exposed in its raw state. Suicidal desire is extreme. The film brings this into sharp focus. It shocks and disturbs because of its articulation of horror, yet through its formal elegance an authority and dignity is retained that is hauntingly beautiful.