What does it mean to watch, and to record, daily life? Can plain, simple documentation, which would seem at times to be anti-lyrical, have its own music? These are two questions raised by Lie Back and Enjoy It, Jessica Bardsley’s driven and dynamic video essay about JoAnn Elam, an experimental documentary filmmaker who passed away in Chicago in 2009. Much of what’s here will strike you at first because of its intimacy: we are forced to look at a dress, or the shoes someone is wearing, and then you begin to observe these things in a slightly more clinical way, and then you begin to learn something, if slowly. This is what Chicago’s Logan Square looked like during the 1960s. This is the way people dressed during the 1970s. This is the way JoAnn Elam smiled when she was being filmed. We learn, via printed lines that roll across the screen at irregular intervals, that Elam was a postal carrier for many years, and that she worked on a documentary about the USPS for a decade. This only adds to the luminous daily-ness of the film, as we begin to pay attention to smaller and smaller things, such as the way someone smiles, the way they tilt their head, or the way Elam delivers mail. Throughout the film, drummer Tim Kinsella’s percussion runs at differing speeds, depending on which of the entirely spontaneous and yet also personal images we are watching on screen. This is an entirely perfect choice for the film at hand, reflective as it is of motion, of a kind, and evocative as it is of the endless pushing forward of minutes and hours. The grayness of the sound, too, each drumbeat maintaining a tone and timbre identical with the next, reminds us that what we are watching is a document—but also that documents have their own rhythms, and why shouldn’t they? When, in its second half, the film goes into more abstract territory, as we learn that Elam discovered she had cancer relatively early in life and then died at age 60, leaving behind reel upon reel of film, much of which had never been seen publicly, the drumming slows and we recall, perhaps by design, perhaps by accident, nothing more loudly than our own heartbeats, nudging us forward. To watch this piece is to be reminded of just how fascinating the things we don’t see can be.--Max Winter
Jessica Bardsley is a film artist and critical writer exploring experimental non-fiction forms. Her work has screened across the U.S. and internationally at esteemed venues such CPH:DOX, Visions du Réel, Antimatter Film Festival, European Media Arts Festival, Kassel Dokfest, Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin/Madrid, Images Festival, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Rooftop Films and more. She is the recipient of a Princess Grace Award in Film (2010), a Flaherty Fellowship (2011), Director’s Choice at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival (2012), Grand Prix at 25fps (2012), and the Eileen Maitland Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival (2013). She received an MFA in Film, Video, New Media and Animation as well as an MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is a first year PhD student in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. www.jessicabardsley.com
Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.