There is a strange tension between film and death. As the medium which is the best at representing real life, at this point anyways, film allow us to relate to figures who are not there, and have often already passed. In this way it functions as a part memorial and part invocation, an impossibility where we are able to see people who have passed as if they were still alive. These images are artificial and fleeting and this reunion is always one sided; I am moved by an image as if it were a real person, but the image has no sense of me.
Mary-Helena Clark’s The Dragon is the Frame is a tribute to her friend, the late artist Mark Aguhar. The film is uneasy, a sort of mystery, but the crime and the criminal are notably absent. The frame of the film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but Hitchcock’s work only shows up in fragments, with use of the score, static shots of buildings, amongst other things. With these images, as well as fabric and shadows, Clark interworks some of Aguhar’s video, poetry and spoken word pieces. Using the structure of Vertigo, the film is searching, but as Aguhar’s image comes into the frame as the answer, it is clear that it is searching, much like with Hitchcock’s film, for something that is not there.
With Vertigo the latter half of the film is all about trying to bring someone back from the dead, creating a double for the initial one is absent. At the end of the film it is revealed that what was initially loved was the double, but the protagonist was attempting to find an impossible original. Vertigo is a mystery film, and its ending is a circular loop back upon itself. The Dragon is the Frame does something similar. It has found the work and image of Aguhar, but it is only an image, only a copy. The film searches for its lost friend, but it cannot find them. This attempt to search for the departed friend is a means of mourning, of coming to terms with the loss and the impossibility of these images bringing them back.
A lot of the film is opaque, but as a personal tribute to Aguhar, how the filmmaker chose to remember her friend will always remain opaque to the audience, which is as it should be. Mark gazes back at the audience with their piece “Gay Gaze,” and there is the knowledge that they survive in their work, but also the knowledge that it is not really them. Aguhar’s gaze is especially potent in this piece, for the film is searching for them, and all the film finds is an image gazing back at us. Clark’s work opens up both the connection we have with film and the images that form it, but through her own loss, and the desires that we have that can never be fulfilled.
On a personal note, I want to add that the audience I saw this with was atrocious. A lot of people laughed at Aguhar’s voice and work, and the homophobia was palpable. Considering that Aguhar committed suicide, it was especially distasteful. Most likely the audience did not know this, the TIFF write up did not mention Aguhar or suicide, but that does not make their reaction any less awful. Audiences at experimental film screenings are usually terrible (I don’t know why you go see something in public to be the only one laughing at it), but this was notable. I wish I’d said something to Clark after the screening, but didn’t, so I’ll write my laments in a blog a month after the screening.