Thou Wast Mild and Lovely director sparks new ideas, fresh thinking

By Caylah Coffeen || Contributing Writer

    I stagger out of the dance studio closet in my socks, heaving a stack of chairs across the room. My film professor hurries in, also shoeless, and mouths a “thank you” to me as I set up the chairs with some other students. We are about to receive Josephine Decker, a celebrated independent filmmaker, for a workshop regarding her film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

    We wheel a small TV to the center of the room and try to hook up a laptop. Unfortunately, we do not have the correct cable. One student offers his laptop, which would connect, but it is out of battery. Another student offers his charger, but realizes he forgot it. Someone dashes off to ITS to find an HDMI cable. But another student offers her laptop and it connects, with nearly full battery. We are ready to go!

      We re-watch a scene from Josephine Decker’s experimental film. A young woman lies on her back in the dewy grass, grasping for the sky. Her feet rub sensuously against the earth as she imagines scissors, pliers, spoons, and other tools appearing in her hands. She gasps and clutches at the grass, picturing hands surrounding her. We hit pause and laugh uncertainly.

    Not many in the class loved her film and one student could not even finish it because she found it so disturbing.

      However, Decker does not intend to form an instant connection with viewers, or she would conform to Hollywood’s methods. Her films are challenging, illusive, and unconventional. She plays with viewers’ sense of space and time and conveys the subjective experience of characters through blurry shots and dizzily detached camera motion. This makes her films difficult to watch, but they serve as an excellent example of the diversity of film and the creative ways the medium can express the internal states of the human mind. As a campus, we should seek to engage more deeply with strange, rich material instead of just passively receiving the entertainment of the media.

      Josephine Decker arrives and leads a fascinating discussion about the ideas and images in her film. She shares that she often lets events on set unfold naturally, filming dialogue invented spontaneously by her actors, and giving her director of photography freedom to design her own shots. This results in a surprising, roiling rhythm that complements the quiet yet internally turbulent scenes from her characters’ everyday life.

      She chooses to demonstrate these concepts through an uncomfortable activity. We all pick a partner and one of us closes our eyes, while the other places hands on our body. The blind actor hums, causing his partner’s hands to vibrate, while the other guides his partner across the floor, steering clear of the other shoeless students bouncing around the edges of the small room.

    While this exercise highly confused most, if not all of us, I can now appreciate the abstract demonstration of how sounds and bodies physically collide or miss one another, creating intimate yet strange connections. Her talk pushed me not only as a film student, but as a thinker, to look at experiences and the world in new ways. Our entire F&M community would benefit from welcoming more innovative artists like Josephine Decker, to challenge the limits of our minds.

      After a subsequent lunch and equally pensive conversation between Decker and the upperclass film students, she gave me a poster depicting her characters’ faces and hair swirling together. On it she wrote “I cannot wait to see your unconscious fantasies realized,” then signed her name.

    I left with my thoughts full, eager to push myself past conventional visual expressions. I felt like lifting my camera high into the sky, above fields and creatures, to capture the reeling motion and vivid colors of lifeforms. How ironic then, to return to the film program’s one dimly-lit basement classroom, and cram ourselves in front of four lab computers. Perhaps fantasies need no room but the mind to expand and leap into reality. But we should give them the space to roam and meet others, perhaps in shoes.

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