Ella Longpre

Walking a Spiral, a Loop Approaching a Star

By Ella Longpre 
for Katie, JH, J’Lyn, Jaclyn

Circumamubulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. —Melville

Imagining excerpts of films, on a loop. More specifically, openings of films, on a loop: an interrupted beginning returned to, perpetually. Films that open for several minutes with no dialogue at all, a subtle story told and retold, without words, a figure wandering in vivid color away from a past the audience knows it will never see but somehow ending up back there again.

Such as Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964).

(RD still)

A green coat, auburn hair, with a boy, wandering through industrial landscape, rust. Again, green coat, auburn hair, industrialized decay. And again, is she wandering from city to city, repeating the same gestures in different but identical locations around the globe.

(RD still)

She is Marco Polo in a world of visible technicolor cities. The boy is what she remembers.

Or Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984).

(PT still)

Steel guitar with a slide, desert landmarks, birds of prey, passing by.

(PT still)

Red hat wandering, dropping an empty jug in one spot, picking up a new jug in another. The mirage is the desert, reiterated, while the boy (not present) is the real thing.

To imagine these two excerpts, played back to back, on a loop. Twenty years apart, compressed to an instantaneous interval. A cut is enough to create a dialogue. Red hat addressing green coat over there, What event are you walking away from. Green coat responds with a question but doesn't say anything.

A cut is enough to put two spaces in dialogue. (Maya Deren: “unexpected simultaneities.”) Industry is introduced into desert landscape. Would this dialogue adhere to the 180 degree rule.

 The 180 degree rule is a tenet of classical continuity editing. If two characters are in dialogue, the camera must capture them as though it were a third party, stationary, silent, watching the exchange. There is a line (the axis of action) drawn between the two speakers that the camera cannot cross. If the camera suddenly changes position between lines of dialogue and crosses the line, the viewer is disoriented. The viewer can't tell where the two speakers are standing in relation to each other.

(A line is a collaboration between two points that can’t be severed, only repositioned.)

But can't the camera move— that is, doesn't the listener sometimes meander while the stationary speakers stand their ground. Why isn't she looking at me. This is the erotics of the camera. The listener moves between desert plateau and industrial crane, as red hat and green coat exchange histories without speaking. The listener, ignored, absorbs the time of both speakers: their specific present moments in time, as well as the past events they walk away from— all while the listener travels between times, the time of the desert, the time of the industrial landscape— as time passes in each of these locales.

Chris Marker writes, in his essay, “A Free Replay: Notes on Vertigo,” that a character from Hitchcock’s Vertigo manages to “overcome the most irreparable damage caused by time.” How is this possible? The character in question (Scottie, Vertigo’s tragic hero) overcomes time’s damage by "recovering" a lost love. But how can time be undone? The voice-over that narrates Marker’s montage/ essay/ dream, Sans Soleil (1983), quotes Samura Koichi:

Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound... disembodied. (Koichi, San Soleil)

A mathematical limit is approached by a function but unreachable, such as the divine is unattainable, such as dictates erotic desire—if the hurt of separation has a limit, then we may say that we desire loss, in some way—the outer limit or the fullest extent of sweet pain (or, as Anne Carson provides an ancient Greek definition of eros, the bittersweet). We are not supposed to reach that limit. But if, like Koichi says, time eradicates the limit of separation’s hurt, does this mean that the edging around the hurt dissipates—or does it mean that we cross the threshold of that limit, exceed it, and plunge into the pain, annihilated or sublimed. For Marker, I think it’s the latter. But how, exactly, is it possible to overcome time, when time is capable of annihilating the self in pain? This is a real war.

Marker re-visits annihilation—or at least the act of hiding, of the sublime (the scientific definition of sublime: transformation in an act of disappearance)—in his films, even in the text, the voice-overs. For instance, when he notes that censorship “points to the absolute while hiding it. That’s what religion has always done” (Sans Soleil). Or the absolute, the self, that becomes a nuisance, and thus goes into hiding via neglect, such as in La Jetée: “The man doesn't die, nor does he go mad. He suffers. They continue.” Suffering, here, does not plunge the self beyond the limit of separation, but beyond the limit of concern—beyond the notice of even a spectator.

We lay down a cloak over something to make it unseen. The cloak is often language. Calling something good, someone a hero, cloaks the unsavory parts, the interesting parts. Changing your name, what are you hiding. When you can’t bring yourself to return but continually orbit home aren’t you constantly returning. Bad behavior is a term invented to describe boldness, to ensure that only the bold are attracted to subversive acts. Pulling back the cloak, we fail when we assume that one revelation is the final revelation. There are multiple folds in any cloak, and we think we've uncovered the truth, it's just the shape of something else underneath, something unseen.

I go walking to be not seen.

In a class on film poetics, Sara Veglahn points out, in Sans Soleil, the statue of Rousseau on the Isle de France; she mentions Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Rousseau writes a series of promenades, reflections on past confessions in the open air of a “solitary walk”: “These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones of the day in which I am fully myself and for myself… where I can truly say I am that which nature has designed.”

I thought about W.G. Sebald while watching Sans Soleil, this time around— especially the chapter in which Marker imagines the walker who loses time in a hypothetical science fiction film he calls Sunless. I thought of Rings of Saturn and its ambling time traveler. What about walking is cosmic. Besides that celestial bodies exist somewhere between a past we see and a present we can't.

A figure wandering in vivid color away from the past but somehow ending up back there again.

Clockwise, from top left: still from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962); W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo (cover image by Semadar Megged); poster image from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958); aerial view of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970 (photo by George Steinmetz).

Susan Sontag, in “A Mind in Mourning,” describes W.G. Sebald's ambulatory narrator as a promeneur solitaire, "a solitary, even when a companion is mentioned." The solitude is necessary to the endeavor, so that "the narrator is ready to undertake journeys at whim, to follow some flare-up of curiosity about a life that has ended" (Sontag 42).

But when the life that has ended is your own. (Thinking of Blanchot's The Last Man, the man who was dead, is now dying.) Attracted by gravitational pull to the flare-up of your own supernova.

Or when the walk is interrupted by an encounter: a binary star system on the brink of immolation.

It's been a few years since I read Rings of Saturn. The ferryman at the end. What happens with the ferryman. Is he not there. A star that has ended.

Originally appeared in Tract/Trace, October 23, 2014.



By Ella Longpre

for Tomaž


next time I think you and I will be inside the building when it goes up
like inside a bell where the threat of its sound keeps you from growing out
the walls make sure you don’t join it
instead now we drive away toward the stables where the maria are asleep, cold, walking
along the peninsula in a dream there’s a field where we crashed
and the blood from your palm on the bathroom sink
I waited in the woods under some immeasurable hour that recurred at different levels of brightness
where the pipes stood in the outline of what used to be the house
and rang sometimes in the wind
moving through the bell
there is a new constellation because we changed our names
return to me my eye, under it, at the spot
where you usually spot the doe
I don’t see the wolf, either, just
the mountain and the snow pulled tight
across the hollow where the ribs stop holding nothing
the horse or the bell’s

breaking off a geranium leaf, something indiscreet in the scent

Originally appeared in The Volta's Evening Will Come: Tribute to Tomaž Šalamun, February 2015.

Poet Tongues

A scripted dialogue for Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion

JD: Jasmine, growing at the garage of the house of my girlhood. The flowers were heavy, hanging from limp bushes. We had to guide them with white trellises. I used to climb up the back trellis to sit on the roof and watch the street through the orange tree, smoking cigarettes. Not many cars went by. When I was old enough, I went for drives instead. But jasmine doesn’t grow along the highway. Once, I passed a Pinto with a steaming engine, and a sign, “Will be back.” A little further down the road, a young woman and a little boy. The sweat was visible under her arms, and he carried with him a wooden stool. I stared at the way he held the stool as I passed them. I’ve lost the scent of that bush by the garage. But I can recall it like no other taste or smell, and could tell you about jasmine.

HST: Sitting in his hotel in Cozomel. The jasmine came in through the walls, the whole building was built with it. He’d lay on this rickety cot, sharing a cigarette with a bed bug the size of a Boston terrier, needing to get the fuck going. But the lazy cloud of light hung over his room in a sticky fog with the oppressive jasmine.

J: That’s you, the “him.”

H: It could be.

J: It could be “he,” “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” it’s always you.

H: Like you.

J: The story comes out of the voice, and the clearest voice is mine. I make a bad decision and lose the voice, lose the story.

H: Bad decision?

J: While you’re writing. The good ideas you have that ooze through the afternoon at your desk to become major problems.

H: You should get a program on your computer for a fist to jump out of the screen and punch you when you are about to make such a mistake.

J: Actually, I try to write my first drafts on real paper, with some kind of ink, right in front of me, to touch and sift through. Even on a typewriter if I have to.

H: I didn’t take you for an old fart.

J: Poets used to write their lines with their tongues. Then, smudgier ones with drippy fingers. The saddest invention is the invention of the pen, because now the words don’t come from our bodies, they come from some other place. Who knows where they come from?

H: Yes! he shouts. I am so glad you said that. Fuck! The word is no longer us, we are no longer the word! We’ve become part of this whole writing process, part of a mechanism of writing, as if we’re pulling the words out of the air, or from a script, from a source of predetermined meaning, and not out of our guts and throats—like we’re a press, a machine, churning out what someone else authored. I want to write “Snakes!” on this floor, in red, with my ass.

J: My god.

H: Don’t you? he shouted.

J: Ha. I mean, I’ve heard these things.

H: What things have you heard?

J: The way you walk into rooms, a low voice. Boastful, like you have the walls of the universe in your belly. Your voice fills these rooms. Then you destroy these rooms. You extend your acidic tentacles out into these rooms and gather every lamp, every dark corner, every splinter of a chair, to your gaping blue mouth, and you gobble them up. So then you have these rooms in your belly, too. Underneath your crusty, flappy brown jacket. And then, what you spin out of the contents of your belly! Long, voluminous, luminous threads, wound from strands of poison that could pierce a man’s nostrils, or his thigh, and fill him with words that could crush his lungs. Words that could crush a coffee cup sitting next to them on a table. And at first, the man is terrified—he can’t breathe. But then he finds he is breathing new breath. And you, your hulking figure leans back in your chair and has a good, long laugh.

H: Jesus, Joanie! Oh, the whale fat of my soul! I want you to do more talking.

J: What I want is for you to gather that purple afghan up to your chin, look out that window and think about whatever it is that you’ve never let us read. Then I could talk for hours about your face.

H: I’d rather swallow a fire that’s consuming a box of screws, screws crusted with lead paint sucked from your dead grandmother’s fingernail polish. You want everybody to be still. You eat still, silent rooms to taste their silence.

J: And you eat them just to chew them up. Like cud.

H: Chewing tobacco! I love spitting them out. I can’t stop spitting them out. I’ll spit them into the air and catch them with my waistband, a cartoon clown with oversized pants.

J: Here, take that tobacco of those rooms and roll me a cigarette with it, I’m dying to smoke.

H: That lamp. Do you see that lamp?

J: No. Where would it be if it were?

H: There.

J: I see.

H: There’s a lighter by the base of that lamp, there. I would love to sit and have a smoke with you, Joanie. Joanie D and me, having a C. Let’s sit on that roof you used to hide on as a girl, with the jasmine. My god it’s been so long since I’ve held that fibrous, bountiful stench in the hairs of my nose.

J: Nothing moves behind the orange tree. On a day like today, it’s so quiet. Everything is distant, you can hear the thoughts of strangers as they walk by, if they would walk by.

H: Yes! Yes dammit.

J: They’re so heavy, their thoughts. You can hear the suffering of the world.

H: If I could hear the thoughts of the world, I’d shoot them into the sky for us all to lay eyes upon. Then we’d be in on it. You might say, free.

J: But I wonder how we could be free with all those messages pressing down on us. New strata of sadness in the atmosphere.

H: For us to investigate, for us to know!

J: Ha! To lock us down in a vice.

H: To embrace us, to be fucked. To fuck so hard until you can’t tell who is being fucked. The words—the words you want to touch—and yet you shrink away from them!

J: Not my words, the words that hold too much, I want to touch my words on the page.

H: Fuck the words. You’re worried about being separated from the page, that beige emptiness. That’s what you love.

J: Get your fucking boots off my roof.

H: I’ll smear my boot shit on your roof until you tell me some words that don’t come from your own body. You have to take them in through yourself from the outside and then belch them up, or you’re just spitting up untruths.

J: I’m sorry, but there’s no method to the way I spew my thoughts.

H: There is, there’s the method of never giving yourself to anyone but yourself. You have no great loyalties!

J: And where are your loyalties? In your faxes and telegrams, your packets of reds and joints wrapped in pouches of tin foil? Drugs wrapped with gold ribbon.

H: His voice becomes breathy and he says, I put on every skin of this earth. I put on the dirt, I put on the moldy sand and all the fish shit that sits at the bottom of the ocean, I put on the boring blue carpets of office parks and vacant linoleum church halls, I put on bingo balls and bongo bags, I put on every ugly and mundane and brilliant shining jacket of this world. But you. Even when you walk through someone else’s house, you wear your own skin. You’re ripening in it, and you taste yourself. I’m rotted, and you are so mellow.

J: Mell-lell. Mellooooo.

H: Mellon mellow, mellow mellon.

J: Yellin. Yellow mellow. Well-oh.

H: That fucking song played on a jukebox in Vladivostok as I sipped my final 10c glass of vodka.

J: That song played on the record player the last time I made love to my first great love.

H: What a fucking stupid ass song.

J: There you go. Did you put something in the tobacco.

H: Just a little mary jane, for flavor. He exhales.

J: Why do you keep narrating your speech, like that, like a sportscaster?

H: It's the addiction. To ESPN. Haha!

J: Are you just so used to fictionalizing yourself?

H: You mean that all of my writing is thinly veiled autobiography. Sometimes, I don't even veil it. Again, like you.

J: But each time you do it, you're putting a distance between you, number one, and your self, number two.

H: How do you mean, he grumbles.

J: You talk as if your voice has no body, just a fist. Or like your body is always thinking.

H: Jesus, Joanie, are you kidding me? Jesus fuck. My voice has no body? Of course my voice has no fucking body. He pauses. But a writer never has a body, anyway, to start with. A reader has no… concern for a writer's body--

J: I'm not interested in a reader, here. I'm not talking about writing. I'm asking you about your fucking body, man, and your voice.

H: My voice! My low voice that occupies space only to fill it with words.

J: Your voice that is a projected void! An extension of your gut, a voice that hungers!

H: Bullshit. At the end of the day all I am is a pile of words. And that's all you're interested in. You don't want my body, you want me to have one so I can write about it, and you can absorb more of my words, lay your flat palm on more pages.

J: Your words? Your fucking words? You don't understand. I don't want anything to do with your words. I've never cared about your words. What about your chest cavity, your jaw. I own your body, I love it so much.

H: You crazy bitch, you can't own something you have no responsibility for.

J: And you do? You offered your body up to the earth and the sky and I fucking grabbed it.

H: My body.

J: I know your body, I know what you drink. We come from the same time and place, don't you see? We both gravitate toward the sun. Tepid, fetid humidity, baking rotted orchid nectar into our skin.

H: No, no-- you might want the sun to photosynthesize your inborn misery into writer juices, but I follow the sun to find the sand, lifted by the wind. I've only ever wanted to be flayed by the wind.

J: For whatever reason we rise, we emerge.

H: Sometimes, an open empty well will unsettle you.


J: You're not even shaking.

H: I'm gonna roll another one. Dig?

J: Sure. You know, I can almost hear the blues coming on over the PA.

H: I told you, you are so mellow.

J: Mellow can be swell you know?

H: It isn’t the blues, by the way. This is the last jazz song they ever played before God invented the blues.

J: Christ, your face is a pallet of shadows in this twilight.

H: Look at your arms. If we stitched cheesecloth to your fingertips and your elbows, I think you could glide.

J: If I could glide, I would glide over you.

H: Ha! Ha. We’ll see, Joanie D. We’ll see.

Originally published in Everday Genius.