This same tension between truth and lies, reality and mythology, is also in the DNA of literature and film.
Multidisciplinary artist Johann Rashid curates a selection of films which have personally impacted his approach as a director, musician and performer, each through storytelling and narrative.
As soon as we speak we are telling a story. Narration is in our blood, our bones. We narrate our lives in so many ways. People choose to show the persona they want others to believe is true and even when everything we share is the truth it isn’t the whole truth and nothing but. We are telling ourselves our own story most of all. Our omissions turn it into a special kind of fiction. This same tension between truth and lies, reality and mythology, is also in the DNA of literature and film. Ultimately every story can be read like a mythological journey, whether narrated by a voice outside the text, a writer or a god, or by the hero of the journey. Some tales become meaningful to many, while others remain obscure, only known by the teller and a select few. We’ll never hear most of the billions of stories in the world, so we look to artists, writers and filmmakers to reflect our experience of being human.
What follows is a story of me and some films that have been significant to my perception of life and art. Films that came with me, and became me, on my journey. They are always somewhere in the background. Projected on my sky.
I am an 8 year old kid in a movie rental store that only stocks Laserdiscs.
My older brother is with me. I’m there with him. We’re in Malaysia. I remember us flicking through movies. I remember looking at a poster for the Ninja turtles movie on the wall, yelling to me in pictures with everything I ever wanted: pizza, skateboards, mutants and New York City. And yet we walk out of the store with David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me and the mini series of Stephen King’s It. My brother’s choices. Where are the adults guiding this 14 and 8 year olds’ selections? My mother worked very hard and my father never seemed to mind what we did or where we wandered. My memory of him is like a ponderous statue veiled in cigarette smoke and the smell of rich coffee stained clothes. My placement of time and location as a kid is less clear than these images, so the story has become somewhat non linear over the years. That’s why I start it here.
The first movie that made any sort of impact on me was Fire Walk With Me. It’s a film I always go back to when looking for answers about who I am and how I began on my own journey. I come back to it now in particular because of watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – The Return this year. Lynch’s fearless merging of the real with the unreal, and ripping holes through his narratives to let other worlds, including our own, flow in, has bought me back to the start.
Lynch loops these characters into infinite existence, dragging them through wormholes into the spirit realm and more confrontingly marooning them in something like this world, our world, that we believe to be real. Agent Dale Cooper, and even Lynch himself at one point (albeit in disguise as Gordon Cole), look back at us, stare into our eyes, asking us to question who is on which side of the screen, igniting thoughts about my own life and my own experiences. In the constant push and pull, squeeze and stretch of my own maluable memories, I have to question if I’m more writing my life than living it.
But let’s return to Fire Walk With Me. Laura Palmer is alive… although she is already dead in the series. It’s a prequel, yet in Twin Peaks’ elliptical world the past and future are alarmingly free of normal cause and effect. Fire Walk With Me takes us through the trauma and hallucinations of a young girl haunted by a man named Bob, a dark spirit who brings about her psychotic breakdown, her desperate grappling as her innocence slips through her fingers. Bob is an entity stuck in the body of Laura’s abusive father, driving him to act but not excusing his actions. My brother’s explanation to 8 year old me went something like this, “When the fan is on, Bob is out” and “the midget who speaks backwards behind the red curtain is the arm of the armless man”. To a child that logic is fine. It just is. I taught myself to say phrases backwards, recording my speech and reversing it on my brothers P.C. “Coffee is good” was my favourite line, and if you ask me I’ll say it backwards for you… “Doog Si Eeffoc”.
This backwards speech is another clue. Twin Peaks is a world of loops and layers, where nothing is objective or stable. The fact that it’s an FBI detective story is just more of Lynch’s disruptive sense of humour. There is nothing more dependent on demonstrable cause and effect than forensics.
Stephen King’s It is similarly layered, though a little more sequentially. It leaps from present to past and back, pitting connectedness against dislocation, innocence against cynicism and love against fear. A clown has one job and it’s not to make people laugh… it’s to disrupt reality. If you laugh at this release from the safety of logic, more power to you. If you scream, the clown has equally done its job. This ambivalence is at the core of why so many people are afraid of clowns. What lurks behind that frozen greasepaint grin?
I am by myself, a kid, enjoying wandering around my little part of an infinitely large world. In the bushes opposite my house, up to the train tracks and a big abandoned building.
When I spent time with my father, it was like watching a man internally struggle. My Memories are framed as cinematic visions, like the low angles, dutch tilts and wide lens caricatures of a Terry Gilliam film. I hated his absence, physical and mental, at the time but now I see the freedom I was given, to think what I wanted to think, to imagine anything to populate my world. Him a man who sits and thinks. Me a boy that enacts the same distance. I become the observer. At peace (I have altered my memory to feel and understand this peace) I sit in a smoke filled TAB (gambling center) watching lonely men bet on horses. Like Gilliam’s seasick dutch tilts my memory is shaped by cinematic device, encased in a stylistic skin. Smoke shrouded faces, mumbling coughs and harsh angled navigation as I’m knocked around and ignored. The floor is filled with losing tickets. Men in demise, my father most of all. He walks out the door and does not return home.
We give our own memories these cinematic skins to deal and compartmentalize. They help us cope with the shapelessness of life. The horror of that freedom makes us run for the cover of narrative. Of narrating our own lives so we feel they make sense. So that we are not lost. Not abandoned here.
Some of us respond to homeless people with a similar fear to that of clowns. The ambiguous story, the lost plot, that homelessness represents is horrifying to most. What lurks behind the face, behind the dirt, behind the dumpster, in the gloomy park, under the bridge? How can they live outside of the story we all cling to?
Side by side the next two films explore the trauma and rapture of men and women living in their own reality and seemingly outside of ours. The Fisher King and Dark Days are both films about homelessness, but they’re even more about humanity’s inescapable need for story. They both evoke a radiation of thoughts for me.
In The Fisher King, Gilliam starts his story in a world apart. We are in the skyscrapers of New York City, high above the streets. We meet Jack (Jeff Bridges), a rich and notorious radio DJ high on his own ego-driven narrative. He doesn’t give a shit. Cynicism is his church. But he’s about to make a terrible mistake. His cavalier attitude to humanity is about to have mortal consequences for one of his listeners. Jack’s burden of guilt for the gross insensitivity of his words to a person who needed a voice to guide them from the edge, not push them over it, will become murder-by-narration. But first Jack must fall from one narrative to another far below it.
“As I make things, music, film and art, I leave versions of myself behind me. One day those versions will be extremely distant from my present, but they’ll also be just as real as I am. I’ll look to them to show me who I am."
He escapes into drink and descends to the dark, lonely streets of the city. Without his power to narrate, he loses the plot. In his vagrant state he meets a luminous being, a person he would once have considered inhuman. Now that he can’t locate the humanity in himself, he is open to the utter magic he finds in a homeless man. This man, Parry (Robin Williams), has freed himself from the chains of reality to find a new purpose, a quest, that is more real than anything Jack has ever experienced in his own life. Right before his fall from grace, Jack is dancing around his plush apartment to Snap!’s I’ve Got The Power. The fool. The power of narrative is stronger than any material power in this world. The strength that a sense of purpose brings to a human being is greater than any riches.
Being a Terry Gilliam story though, we are led through the carnival of imagination to find the most brutal of truths.
This film makes me romanticize New York City every time I watch it. Something about the way the city can be subverted within its seemingly impervious structure. The way its myths reshape it’s concrete and steel as though it were made of clay or liquid, or ideas. Up high in the sky, down low in the streets (or beneath them), we can find infinite stories to live.
The documentary Dark Days reveals a truth rarely seen, of a world living under the structures and strictures of society. A place to disappear within when facing the struggle above becomes too great a burden to bear. The film is a black and white 16mm study of the lives of a group of homeless people living underneath Penn Station. As we literally pass through the cracks in our above-ground world and into their subterranean village, we find ourselves questioning what it is that makes up a fulfilling human life. Their world is almost medieval (though they have ingeniously pirated electricity), and they’ve found a sense of meaning and camaraderie in the shadows. A new story.
Concealed behind the brittle illusions of their ramshackle society, behind this new narrative of hiding and letting go, lurks a world of pain. DJ Shadow’s score for the film punctuates transitions but the sounds of their lives, the scraping and trudging, the way they weave self-justifications in their brave new world, are allowed to stand amid a brutal silence. Documentary is interesting because it is still narrative. Documentary is not journalism, it’s filmmaking. The filmmaker chooses what to show, what to diminish, enlarge and exclude. Although a documentary is made of truths, it’s forming a tale from these true fragments. The filmmaker takes chaotic life and makes a story.
Each of the subjects of Dark Days has arrived here to the caverns beneath Penn Station, down the rungs of life’s ladder, because the specter of agony roars at them like a beast from their past. This is the reality of what trauma can do to the human mind. In every day life we take pleasure in fantasy through fictions and the imposed meanings of religion or other social ideas. We watch TV. We get married. We insist there is life after death. For the people in Dark Days, this refuge in a new narrative is complete. There is no going back. But is our life or their life more real?
As I make things, music, film and art, I leave versions of myself behind me. One day those versions will be extremely distant from my present, but they’ll also be just as real as I am. I’ll look to them to show me who I am.
I’m 77 years old and I’ve returned to the jungle in Peru. Nothing has changed here. There’s a woman holding my hand and I can feel information flowing from her.
Today we narrate our own lives through social media. In our own voice we choose to be truthful or untruthful with the world. We share selectively. Our prettiest angles. Our proudest days. Our biggest nights. We lie, by construction or omission, because we need a sense of purpose. A feeling of destiny we edit in post. Our own lives have become our careers, and our resume is this online self. Do we rate? Do we get the job? We can make daily memories of happiness and joy so that when we look back our disappointments are obscured, almost erased. We can feel broken when someone else is having more fun or hanging with cooler people, and we struggle to remember that their online selves are fictions too. You can even ask for sympathy if so desired. A breakup or the loss of a loved one can be warmed by little ready hearts floating up the screen. The only rules (aside from restrictions on nudity) are narrative ones. Maybe your story is a tragic one of loneliness and longing, but it’s still a story. There’s power in telling it.
Narration always stands out for me. It can be a lazy way to compensate for weak structure, but I won’t accept this low status as absolute. Narration can add more sophistication to a film, deepening and complicating it and introducing new ideas and misdirections. It can be poetry. Music.
Just as we look for story in our own lives, as an audience we listen and ask guidance of the narrator. We give over to his side of the story as ultimate truth, even though it’s one sided. When other narrators surface in a film, or when the voice we hear clearly contradicts what we see on screen, we question that truth. We question truth.
One amazing use of voiceover is in John Smith’s Girl With Chewing Gum. He uses voice in a very mischievous way. Reversing the usual application of narration (to describe the story we’re seeing as it once happened) he instead uses it to fool us into believing he is the director on a set calling out every action as if it were planned and choreographed. The film is a one shot take. The camera finds people, cars, even two pigeons flying across the screen, but the narration comes before the actions, seeming to tell the banality of real life how to unfold. Though we know we are being tricked, and we are seeing the trick play out in its complete nakedness, we still buy into its magic. We want to be fooled because story is one of humanity’s most defining instincts, and that’s why voice is powerful.
Now I want to step back a little, to the Nouvelle Vague. Using similar techniques to 1940s-50s American Detective movies, the French New Wave often seduced with the narrator’s voice. Images were matched or juxtaposed with narration to create the feeling of being both inside and outside the characters, and to lead and mislead our sense of story.
In Last Year At Marienbad we are guided by the voice of a man, mostly in flashback, trying to convince a woman that they know each other and shared a relationship of some sort. Perhaps they were lovers. Like American Noir we are guided by memories, though in the case of the New Wave the reflections are more poetically structured, but still a ghostly echo. Dead or alive the narrator may be misguiding us, fooling us even as we trust them, even as this speaker from beyond the moment, or beyond the grave, reshapes the story of their own temporal decline. Like the voices in our heads, from our parents, teachers and the books, films and songs that have influenced us, narration can both clarify and confound a story. The narrator in Last Year At Marienbad may be irrevocably altering realities, purely through his blind attempt to remember a crisis. He may be changing his past because a non linear self is freed from causal forces. The film is a story that unfolds like a floating enigma.
Like a prophetic dream, the past dictates the future, but the future in turn reinvents the past. The past is a VHS tape being watched over and over, slowly degrading into static and fading in color on a physical tangible level. The past is no longer real. It is now a medium. A story. We only know the new movements of our past.
I cycle back toTwin Peaks – The Return. Lynch plays with this static, this interference, this meditation of truth melted with fantasy. He plays with the 25 year gap since the original series and film as though it’s a loop, uninterrupted even when we weren’t watching or remembering. The return of the title is not just a return to a town in the mountains. We are safe in our dimension, this reality we hold so dear. This literal place that non-fans of Lynch use as their whole argument against his way of constructing fractured, open ended worlds. Incredulity is Lynch’s stock and trade. He is interested in extreme subjectivity, in the psychic internal, not the mythic objective realism peddled by conventional narratives. Life is but a dream.
Why shouldn’t his characters find their way into our world? Why shouldn’t they assert their own reality over ours? The drama and mayhem we face as this diabolical human race are our own invention, even as we bring our imagined selves into reality through action. Love, sex, war, industry. We too are just amalgams of truth and fiction. Of the story and the storyteller.
“I want to say so many things but I don’t. I can’t always find the words, or maybe they don’t exist in that scene. So I find ways in actions, movements and mantras. In violence too, but a magical kind of violence."
I am looking at a photo of myself as a child. The child is looking back at me.
In the book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes talks about the term ‘the punctum’. The example he gives is of looking at a photograph of his dead mother. Only he himself feels a true connection to this picture. To a stranger it’s just an exposure of emulsion on paper, a familiar image of a time, a place, a woman recognizable only in being of our species. To him it is the spear of truth itself. The music that it plucks on the strings of his memory, vibrating into history and back again, is resonant and expansive. The punctum is explained as a sudden jolt to the senses, triggered by the recognition of something personal in an image. It’s a kind of subtle beyond, as if the image launches desire beyond what it permits us to see. It shows no bias for morality or good taste. It is meaning without structure.
In cinema these punctum triggers stimulate more than just the eye with imagery. Film also uses sound, in some ways more powerfully, to shape the viewer’s perception. Narration is not only a textual layer in film, it’s also a sound layer, and the tone and musicality of the narration is vital to how the audience receives it. Music itself is another essential part of the seduction, and can run parallel to thematics or cut across them with jarring violence.
We find soundtracks for our own lives in the same way. Songs that remind us of the greatest or the saddest day of our teens, or music we retrospectively expand to encompass a whole era in our lives, when in truth it was only heard sporadically, or even after the fact. Often when songwriters make music, they have a range of life’s scenes in mind that we might adopt the song as accompaniment for, because it fits. When I make music it comes from a disruptive kind of magic. All music sets a mood, and all music, no matter how experimental, is compatible with life. I prefer my music to shatter the moment and the mantras in the lyrics to create a momentary but intense sort of meditation. That way the expected narrative is forever altered.
Now I’ve let film overthrow my mind, it feels good to talk about music. I’m both a filmmaker and a musician and each is a wave that takes me from, but also washes me into, the next. My film with Nick Murphy, Missing Link, brings together what I feel about these concepts of narrative, narration and elliptical storytelling. The idea of the self as a malleable and fractured thing that we choose to shape with our story. My own music videos will explore all these triggers too. Collaboration is so important to me. It makes the layers that much richer. I’m a member of a creative collective called Lovecraft that will be bringing our new visions and stories to light.
With live performance (Promiseland) I can get frustrated. I want to say so many things but I don’t. I can’t always find the words, or maybe they don’t exist in that scene. So I find ways in actions, movements and mantras. In violence too, but a magical kind of violence. It can shine like anger but it’s not. It’s the girl who appears in my room at night, the ghosts that whisper in my ears, the uncontrollable horripilation. The frightening truths of a strong yet vulnerable mind and its ability to fall and sink within its collapsing self, and to drown gratefully.
I’m floating in a vast ocean in a pitch black night. The water is perfectly still. I know it’s vast because I can hear nothing but emptiness and my feet feel cold and lost as they tread the water beneath me. I can’t see beyond the circle of light surrounding me, beamed from the still clouds above. I am profoundly alone to the point of being nobody and nothing.
Despite all this, I feel ok.
Rashid has since shared his first music video for the single ‘Take Down The House’ via NME Magazine and Cult Records.
Edited by Peter Savieri
Photography by Martha Zakarya
Live Photography by Nick D'Orazio