The Queen is Dead: Introduction to Ann Marie Fleming

This article was originally published in MFJ No. 26 “Archaeologies”

Ann Marie Fleming is a prolific young filmmaker from Vancouver. Her work is a blend of personal anecdote and catastrophe theory–detailing an everyday devastation even as she conjures a metaphorical image practise that frame the temper of survival. Serving consecutive post secondary school sentences in literature and animation, these two disciples have been pressed into the service of an autobiographical project that is uniquely pitched. This is a cinema that moves to the rhythm of the word, wrought in a conversational confession which summarizes even as it reveals, cauterizing the loss of the past with the balm of speech. Derrida writes, “When something is missing, language speaks,” and it is through the death of relatives and lovers that Fleming has undertaken a motion picture practice.

Lacking a cosmology to negotiate the divide between living and dead, Fleming takes on mourning as an expressly individual concern, accompanied by a personal dream symbology and a first person recounting of circumstance. But this personal condition is then projected into the public sphere, recasting solitary notions into public appraisals. Her private encounters with all that cannot be represented revolve around the revelation of death–of all that cannot be seen or spoken. In an image world in which we are able to produce images with the push of a button, and where images of untold devastation, famine and war are part of our daily repast, Fleming struggles to speak of her own loss and mourning. She begins by displacing the tragic image–there are no bloody hands here, no wounds uncovered or gravesites visited. Instead, allegorizing both event and response, Fleming searches for an image that may stand against the voyeuristic spectacles that code the bulk of our image world. Sounding from the limits of representation, Fleming’s travelogues of disaster remind us that we the living are the exception, while death is the rule, that most of the people in the world are already dead, and that we bear the traces of the dead in our speaking, our dress and our imagination.

Waving (5 min b/w 1988) was made after her grandmother’s sudden death of an aneurism. A poetic monologue drafts the film’s narrative, the filmmaker’s voice impelling a succession of images drawn from a lifetime of family. Her text hinges on an identification with her grandmother that begins as an infant and carries on into adulthood. I was just like granny , she says but goes on to hint of a compact too closely drawn–of a bodily sympathy that relates the ills of one generation to the next. Their common ailments join the bodies of young and old beneath the sign of mortality, sharing the certainty of a body’s failure. If illness became the body’s way to manufacture consent between these two, then the history of their relations might be said to be written in flesh, as if on a living hieroglyph, the younger one carrying the physical traces of the older–inside and out. To be a son or a daughter–doesn’t this mean bearing the image of the dead like some living memorial–dead aunts and uncles resurrected in a nose or a thumb–each body owing its bearing to the past even as it plots to carry its own physignomy into the future. The body is already a site of mourning–for it carries the traces of those no longer alive. In its memorial attitude the body is the first tomb, and all those that can read its signs can see the history of our race written there.

In drafting images for this work of mourning, Fleming withholds an image of her grandmother until the very end of the film where she appears in a photograph. In place of her grandmother the filmmaker appears herself–extending the gesture of bodily correspondence that had united them in the past. Fleming stands in her place, floating beneath the waves in a sublime and watery oblivion. As parting waves transport light from the filmmaker’s recline to the outskirts of the diving pool she continues to sound over speakers, intoning the daily gestures that brought her together with a living history. Resplendent in her luminous garb, Fleming appears as the incarnation of transference, embodying that mysterious movement between generations. Her movements slowed through re-photography, her smock an iridescent glow, she resembles nothing so much as an angel of aqueous humours, reviving in this watery abyss the memory of all that used to inhabit this place.

A year later she finished You Take Care Now (10 min col 1989). Fleming’s travelogue recites, in first person voice-over, a tale of two cities. The first is Bridiski, where the patent sexism of her surround leads her to seek refuge in the hotel room of her unscrupulous tour guide. The second moves closer to home–where the simplest of street crossings becomes a nightmare journey of dark collisions, broken bones and ambulance drivers. While the stories she narrates are her own, Fleming relates them both in the second person (you), emphasizing the way in which film turns documentary into fiction, while implicating the spectator in the story’s unfolding. That one should speak of going to ‘see’ the movies narrates the way in which film privileges the sense of sight above all others. But Fleming reverses this convention by beginning with the soundtrack, laying down a weave of voice and music which triggers an associative montage. Her rapid fire delivery and sure sense of dramatic timing underscore images which bear the signs of retrieval and reprocessing. These reproductive sites are not simple illustrations of the events described in voice-over. Instead they provoke an allusive chain of associations which move alongside the filmmaker’s confessional narrative. Employing a variety of styles from sand animation, dance, animated photographs and dramatic reenactment, these images are set in the present while her sounds remain rooted in past events, and it is this tension that gives the film so much of its power. Between the story of the past and images of the present is ‘you’, the narrated subject of herstory, the audience itself made to shuttle between the demands of an impossible present and a tragic past.

The present’s acknowledgment and accommodation of the past is accomplished through an imaging which is neither nostalgic or transparent. These are images ‘at work’–images which show the signs of their making, and whose collision to produce an active spectatorship. Like the rest of her filmwork, they do not illustrate the events described in voice-over, but move in a contrapunctal weave that might be described as an allegorical synecdoche, drawn together through rapid pastiche and levels of overlay. It is the unrepresented that lies at the heart of her filmwork, and if her films have achieved a sophistication and maturity which bely the length of her involvement with the medium, it is because she understands that death is both the first subject and the final limit of representation. That images are as important for what they don’t show than what they do show. That our images are a way for us to mediate the experience of our own ending. Fleming’s images cluster around this unseen centre while she joins with her mouth the language of the dead and the exigencies of the present.

A year later she finished another short film about catastrophe and death, a film which would be accompanied by a longer, extended version sharing the same name – New Shoes (5 min 1990). Its subject is not the filmmaker but a friend–Gaye Fowler. After breaking up with a lover Fowler is subject to phonecalls, sudden visits and threats. One day just before going to work he arrives at her front step waving a shotgun. She tries to run back inside the house but he shoots her in the back. He walks over to her and shoots himself. The ambulance speeds them both to hospital. He is dead instantly while she is left behind–to speak and to remember. While Fowler recounts her horrifying experience in a conventional documentary talking head, numerous cut-aways show the filmmaker dressed in fairy princess garb performing many of the events described by her friend. Coloured objects dance through the air around the princess, lending her a whimsical, fairytale air.

Like Waving, this work hinges on an act of identification (as she insists “I’m a disaster magnet and I related to this story completely because it was so much like nightmares I had myself.”) It’s this identification that allows her to assume the role of her friend, now transfigured and allegorized as the fairy princess. Laughing, she plays alone in the emptied fields and beaches of Vancouver, shot only by the camera. When Fowler speaks of being shot the princess falls to the ground several times, but the look on her face is clear–her falling is clearly a put on, she is only playing a game. Her isolation and dress clearly mark this image as a childhood fantasy, now cruelly juxtaposed with the obsessively psychotic behaviour of the boyfriend. It answers the oral images of Fowler with the visual vocabulary of the filmmaker. But beyond the relation of these two, the image of the princess is most expressly aimed at the audience, as an allegory for the spectator. Our stories of disaster are popularized in tabloid form, typically aligned in rows of print that homogenize tragedy and hardship. The princess is the tabloid reader, or the cine audience, who have vicariously experienced the end of life thousands of times. If the princess is always shown laughing and mugging into the camera, it is because she knows that the games she plays won’t hurt her. Even as she assumes gestures which illustrate Fowler’s narrative, she refuses to grant them any more importance than a reader would flipping pages in a newspaper. Experiencing catastrophe vicariously she is secure in the knowledge that these things will never happen to her. As Fowler’s story comes to its climax the princess falls three times to the ground before the screen goes black, the only sound a chain link fence. The last time she falls the coloured parts which float through the air follow her down, drowning her in these wonderland colours. The princess never reappears. Instead, the image of Fowler returns, speaking of the way her boyfriend put a gun into his mouth and blew his brains out and they hit the fence. At this point the filmmaker, who is seated across from Fowler as she speaks, but out of view of the camera, bursts into hysterical laughter. Foler says, “I don’t think that’s very funny.” It isn’t. But this laughter joins with the laughter of the princess to reframe Fowler’s narrative in a meta-narrative of voyeurism and media spectacle.

If there is nothing in our lives which has prepared us to respond to this personal catastrophe, the laugh may be taken as a grotesque response to an impossible situation. But in the context of the endless litany of disaster the media depends upon for its broadcast attention, this story is just one more in a long line of consumptive spectacle. By laughing openly into the camera at first as an image, and then aloud, the filmmaker reminds us that she is in control here, that Fowler is speaking on command, surrounded by lights and cameras. The laugh turns attention back to the filmmaker, foregrounding the act of representation and thus implicating the voyeurism and manipulation attendant in any act of personal confession made public. But Fleming isn’t simply content to show herself showing, or to make a spectacle of Fowler’s tragedy. Instead, she insists on showing Fowler’s depiction of the event alongside the response this recounting will eventually engender. In a savage parody of audience indifference, Fleming laughs out loud, as if this story means nothing to her, as so many likeminded stories have passed all of us by without touching us. Pressing her point, she pulls out a watch and says We’ve only got ten seconds left–what about the new shoes? Fowler responds by saying that her boyfriend had shown up that day wearing new shoes, and why would he buy a new pair if he was thinking about killing himself? The credits roll with My Old Flame playing on the soundtrack. Fleming’s act of identification repeated in film after film permits an identification with her protagonists, but also reflects on the status of the audience, on the conditions of reception. By allegorizing her own response to a situation or condition, Fleming recounts both an event and its response, allowing the audience to shuttle between the two with a renewed awareness. These acts of identification are the entry point into a personal storytelling whose extreme and terrifying perspectives might easily lapse into an esoteric symbology or a didactic moralizing.

Pioneers of X-Ray Technology (15 min 1991) is a portrait of the filmmaker’s grandfather. A 91 year old Chinese man, his gravelly voice answers in response to the filmmaker’s questions–turning over the subjects of his schooling, profession, the war and his trips abroad. In each of these incarnations he is an insatiable producer of images–setting up the first public darkroom facility in Hong Kong, winning awards as an amateur photographer, x-raying potential immigrants and shooting miles of 16mm footage on his innumerable travels. Now, nearing the end of his days, he has been brought before the camera to tell the story of these images, the story in which he names himself. At the close of the film he announces, I like to shoot big buildings. I’m attracted to big buildings. In voice-over the filmmaker describes her search through thousands of feet of these buildings, photographed in countries around the world. But Fleming is concerned with monuments of a different order. Forgoing the architectural marvels glimpsed in a passing travel, she chooses instead to reproduce his home movies in a canon that alternates between two figures–the filmmaker as a baby, and her grandmother. These brief domestic interludes restate the relation between grandmother and granddaughter first figured in Waving. As Dr. To speaks with a growing warmth and humour about events in his own life we are not witness to illustrations of these events but to moments of his wife caught in passing, looking over her shoulder to greet the camera’s stare in Athens, Hawaii and Hong Kong. He never speaks of her but she is there all the same, looking back over a lifetime spent together, not so much accompanying his speech as emblematizing all that cannot be said. All that will never return. Her look is finally met by the filmmaker’s five year old stare, similarly drawn into the camera. This closed circle of matched gazes completes an identificatory figure that finally impels the filmmaker to take the place of her grandmother, now seen walking alongside her grandfather on the beach, sitting beside the old man on a couch, waving together from her new car. In voice-over she recounts, “When Granny was alive she used to always speak for him. And now it seems like I do all the talking.”

Pioneers is framed with an oral signature drawn from the family archive. While the filmmaker is just six months old, her mother and father coax her to sing, and then ask what song she would like to hear them sing. Her response is simply, Sing a song . Similarly, the first question posed to Dr. To by the filmmaker is simply, Just say anything . The details of narration are less important here than the fact of their speaking. This repeating family figure is bent on preserving a moment of address and arresting the flux which leads inexorably towards mortality and loss. Parenting the family archive, ordering the names and events of the past, Fleming recasts her own history through a matriarchal lineage whose aptitude for storytelling maintains a vigil over past and present. By consistently positioning herself alongside the subject of representation, Fleming foregrounds the process of authorial control, as well as insistently regarding her documentary practise as an individual expression. If her speaking relates a personal catastrophe, her imaging practise defuses its status as spectacle. Reasserting the place of private experience into the public sphere, her project asks simply that we remember those no longer present, that the media flow of the infinite present be re-marked into a place of mourning and memorial, lent an individual cadence and temper, the practise of the dead granted again a name and a place amongst us.


Ann Marie Fleming Filmography
  • Audition 1.5 min 1987
  • Waving 5 min b/w 1987
  • So Far So 2.5 min 1988
  • You Take Care Now 10 min 1989
  • Drumsticks 2 min 1989
  • New Shoes: An Interview in Exactly Five Minutes 5 min 1990
  • New Shoes 80 min 1990
  • Pioneers of X-Ray Technology 15 min 1991

Written by Mike Hoolboom

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