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Film First, Articulation After: a Personal Reflection on Violet Nights

Olivia Blyth

I have noted in myself an incessant need to put things in images before I can fully understand them. This is a personal essay about how this presented itself in my experience of writing, directing and producing a short absurdist film on a micro-budget earlier this year.

I’m apprehensive about a personal interpretation of my own film mostly because it feels self-indulgent. And perhaps it is, yes, being the film-maker and critic simultaneously is undeniably enjoyable but that is not my sole intention. Instead I’d like to discuss the cross-influence between my own life and the film. The ‘’art-life imitation’’ discussion has been through the wringer and back but it’s something I’ve very rarely seen in the context of amateur artists. This is my small recognition of the value in doing that.

In response to the casual mention that I made a short film this year, the police conversationalist will ask ‘’Oh, what was it about?’’. I know exactly what it’s about of course, even still that question causes an odd panic. It’s about clowns, I’ll say. It’s about identity and isolation. It’s an almost-silent lesbian-clown love story and ragtime surrealist film about social performance and Lacanian desire. That one is a joke. These answers are usually sufficient but the truth is my own understanding of the film has shifted hugely through the 6 months it took to complete. It plot is simple: an unnamed main character (Isabel Murgelas) meets her acquaintance/neighbour (Catherine Manwaring) in the hallway of an apartment building. There’s an uncertainty and awkwardness. They hold eye-contact for a bit too long, exchange a small dialogue then go separate ways. She continues her evening alone in detached contemplation, and the neighbour becomes an emblem for the escape out of loneliness. Watching the sun set over London, she closes her eyes. The sequence that follows takes up the rest of the film: the same character dressed as a clown wanders carefree through London at night. After a while, the novelty has worn off and she feels deflated and lonely again. At this point the swing-time score stops (South Sea Rose, originally the score to a 1929 comedy-drama by the same name). Only moment later she looks up and is shocked to see the neighbour who is now also dressed as a clown, sat opposite her on the train. They get off the train together and dance through the night.

During preproduction I mostly saw Violet Nights as a film about dream and escapism through fantasy which, on one level, it undeniably is. I opened the written pitch with ‘’film is a practical tool for the visual expression of both desire and dreams’’ making these themes the very basis of my vision. Now the film is complete I’ve been able to watch it detached from the original blueprint, I’ve found myself totally sidestepping this initial approach. Originally, I wanted to use the dreaminess to leave the ending open – is she dreaming or is she really dressing up as a clown at night? And what are the implications there, is this fantasy a satisfying escape or is she delusional? I find this pretty boring in retrospect and in several ways I think I was hiding behind this ‘intentional ambiguity’. What I personally think redeems Violet Nights is viewing it under the pretence that she isn’t dreaming. Or rather, that it doesn’t matter because this is a film. I renewed this understanding during the post-production for two entirely separate reasons, but found they became interwoven by the film itself and I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to detangle them. The first reason was a technical limitation, totally dependent on the unedited footage itself. The second is related solely to a development in my own identity and interpersonal relationships. They are folded into each other, making it difficult for me to separate my life from the film.

Violet Nights was the first film I directed, at least directed and took seriously. It hadn’t fully occurred to me that the role of a director was to, well, direct. That is in its most basic sense: giving clear and concise instructions. I feel myself to be neurotically inarticulate at the best of times so this efficient communication doesn’t come naturally. The ‘intentional ambiguity’ which I’d been levitating the whole idea on only made things worse. I knew the aesthetic inside-out and could easily prompt the small cast, I was just unable to express the emotional and ideological core of the film. Why? Because I was purposely diluting it.

Here’s what I wasn’t saying: this is a gay film. This is a film about isolation and the fear of making yourself vulnerable specifically in the context of same sex attraction. At the start of the year when I was writing the script, I wasn’t openly referring to myself as gay. I’d spent all of my teenage years rejecting labels and hiding behind the same sense of ambiguity I functioned the film around. While writing Violet Nights I was dealing with some remnants of shame about same sex attraction; living in London but having grown up in the rural North East (which by my own estimation is socially functioning in approximately 2004). For a while I’d had the strong visual idea of a 1930s clown in contemporary London, but the first scene of the awkward interaction is what prompted a real storyline. A few weeks prior to writing the script I’d watched the Kelly Reichardt film Certain Women (2016) and found an acute resonance with one scene: two women stand for an uncomfortably long time before parting, awkwardly and unsure of each other’s feelings for each other. It doesn’t sound like much because it isn’t. Despite this the scene had such a powerful resonance for queer encounters which rarely have the luxury of assumed-potential-mutual-attraction. Violet Nights is not merely referencing LGBT history as I claimed in the initial pitch, it’s about my personal experience of queer identity and it’s nuanced loneliness. The characters in Certain Women, not by coincidence, are ‘’united by their isolation and their emotional exhaustion’’, as said by Catherine Weatley for Sight & Sound (vol 27 issue 3)

After filming, I put off editing for a while to focus on university work and other aspects of my life. I returned to it a handful of times over a month or so, feeling frustrated that the footage from the 3 days of production wasn’t fitting together perfectly with my initial narrative. In the script I had divided the ‘’night world’’ from the ‘’day world’’ to be repeatedly switched between, like a reoccurring dream, extending its internal film-time over several days at least. Again, with a strong focus on the likelihood it was a dream. In the edit, I decided this wasn’t working. I felt like I’d walked the whole thing into a dead end. I reluctantly cut the film by over a half and reduced the plot to just a simple linear cut from one day to the following night. This was the technical change in which it became far less dreamlike, and the first way I distanced myself from the ambiguity which I’d associated with that.

Did I make these changes to the plot before or after I’d realised it’s explicit autobiographical element? This is what I have been trying to detangle. Over the course of those weeks of editing, I was finally addressing the question of my identity, which filled me with a sense of incredible vulnerability for the first time. Ultimately this only strengthened me. There was an eerily direct reflection here: Violet Nights’s lead character is successful in solving her problem of isolation by making a literal fool of herself. With the same mechanism, I recognised public vulnerability as a tool of empowerment, a way solidifying identity, fully accepting the possibility of ridicule and being honest anyway. These ideas had been mulling around in my head in their foetal-forms for a while so I’m not claiming Violet Nights was any sort of premonition. But almost as outlandishly, I’m saying through the logic I articulated first in the film, I was able to establish a clear principle of honesty which I could reintegrate into my life. Because in turn I found removing the barrier of thematic ambiguity in the way I talked about the film was another means of overcoming this small amount of lingering shame. This is a gay film. Saying this is part of the power it has itself given me. This is a film about being a queer woman and feeling like a fool. This back-and-forth between the film and my own life has been incredibly illuminating.

I want to make it clear: I don’t consider myself a filmmaker but this realisation is the main reason I consider Violet Nights a success. It’s disgustingly postmodern to claim art to be solely for the artist, which I am not doing by any means. I do, however, recognise the works themselves to be an immense source for growth and self-reflection available to amateur or small-scale artists. I want to suggest this as just one of many reasons for all other creators, filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike, to make and keep making.


October 2018

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