The new short film from Ellen Frances, “Old Theme,” follows her 2011 short “Very Beautiful Woman” in a series of intense self-portraits. Her control and exactitude become more apparent with each release, and while this series departs from her music video and other creative work, the same instinct for evocative composition pervades these first two entries. Collaborating this time with Jason Lescalleet and Jenni Hensler, Frances expands on the motifs introduced in the earlier short.
The title comes from a track on Lescalleet’s 2012 album Songs About Nothing, and together with another track (‘The Loop’) from same, the tape musician’s musique concrète comprises the majority of the soundtrack. Frances opens with audio from her own ECG looped over spinning gears—blood circulating, heart in constant rhythm, my pulse as yours doth temperately keep time—then crashes it into ‘Old Theme’ and appears herself as a dancer wound in Hensler’s sheer red and blue silk.
Hensler has designed costumes and outfits ranging from Zola Jesus’ white-LED spiral collar to dresses for Chelsea Wolfe and styling for Crispin Glover. The silk she uses for Frances’ costume frames the face and billows in directions from which the half-hidden body withdraws. Constriction / flow and opaque draping are coordinated and shot by Frances, but the costumes themselves seem like burning auras flung outward to track her body.
Marc Masters and Grayson Currin wrote a brief but thorough piece on Lescalleet and Songs About Nothing as a whole. Tiny Mix Tape’s review is as enthusiastic as my own would be. The first track gathers its roughness into itself, grinding to steady repetition over uneven ticker. An abrupt switch to ‘The Loop’ nine-tenths of the way through also shifts the visual flow into fast-cut shots whirring past each other—unlatched breath, readout of cardiac cycles, a spasming human heart, four mirrored heads at beatific tilt, the dancer also gathering the red ‘back’ into her chest.
When I asked to write about Old Theme back in May, Frances sent me a rough cut and we began talking about panic attacks and the side effects of anti-anxiety medications, both of which had been deeply affecting her when she began work on the film with Hensler’s help. She described a build that originated during Very Beautiful Woman, and continued through production of Old Theme into a spike and trough during production of her next film, already well along in development. “Maybe I should have made them more alike,” she said.
That comment sent me back to watch both again, as well as search for the post that Jimmy Chen wrote about Very Beautiful Woman. He noticed “a repeating circular motif” that “functions as a distancing viewfinder,” particularly a blush mirror’s increasing prominence in-frame with each recurrence, culminating in an enormous Moon. Visual progression from that short to Old Theme is clear in several shots, which I sent to her [L: VBW / R: OT]:
“I guess I’m drawn to the same shots,” she said, adding that “some of these films I shoot myself, and there are limitations to shooting on your own with no budget versus having tons of equipment and a DP.” But the third in the above set, in which something is gathered back into her body, is unmistakably revisited. On the left of another side-by-side—
—the Moon is the resolving image. Frances’ body completes, is completed by the lunar cycle while the rings of Saturn echolocate. The similar framing of the Old Theme shot, a macroscopic view into her furiously pumping heart, is very much not that completion, but drawing and redrawing the circle, the unrest behind the serene surface. Here, Very Beautiful Woman’s object-centered motif increases and repeats via the dancer’s motions, which distance her neither from us nor from what’s happening to her. The extreme closeness of ECG footage pushes past merely being naked in front of a camera into divulging the interior of her body, exceeding and doing away with appraisal of body or act: this is what’s happening without any input from “her.”
Returning at the close to the same spinning gears combines the Moon/Saturn cycles/rings and the third eye of VBW, also closing the film’s heartbeat brackets. The bracketing establishes what occurs between opening and closing as iterative, the seeming inevitability of this sequence repeating indefinitely its own sort of heartbeat: expel and gather back in, everything inside you is terrifyingly vital.
A 2002 article in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry says 83 percent of patients being evaluated for heart transplants due to cardiomyopathy already suffer from some form of panic disorder, compared to 0-6 percent in transplant candidates with other diagnoses. Whether their PD is the cause or the result of the heart’s weakening, the two exist simultaneously inside them and in a sense feed off each other. Submitting to a transplant evaluation on its own is an instance of expulsive will—cut this out of me + put something new in.
Frances showed me footage from her next film, a collaboration with Tao Lin using his poem “when I leave this place.” What I see coincides with that laying open and tearing out: it opens with hospital sounds, disembodied blue gloves rooting through a purse, sorting and bagging its contents. A passport, money, a doodle, gears (!)—I think again of her seeming ability to build out on any motif she chooses between these moving self-portraits. “Though they’re completely different,” she said, “the subjects covered in this video were precursors to the subjects covered in the video I’m making right now.” That project will explore “the feeling of what each of my things mean, what their ‘worth’ is in ‘this’ world versus my inner world, and having this sense of entering some unknown plane on some level—naked and powerless.” Endpoint of this self.