On Negation: Susie’s Ghost and Dead Youth

“If walls could talk” is the proposition posed by Bill Brand’s camera in Susie’s Ghost (2011), made in collaboration with his friend, filmmaker, and performer, Ruthie Marantz. Brand frames his love for his neighborhood of Tribeca, and his longing for what it once was—and somehow still is, even if now camouflaged by earth, paint, cement, mold, and money. He shoots the walls that hide the life behind them and closed doors now covered by modular shapes, patches, rusty metal, and layers of unstuck or torn paper, like old skin burned by the sun. More than emphasizing the physicality of familiar streets, these doors attain the spatial consciousness of uprooted debris, and become a passageway to the past in an attempt not to forget. The film was shot six years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, while the city of New York remained territory of ghosts, of daughters seeing visions of their fathers, disappearing promises, and whispered voices of last words.

Cheap from Susie’s Ghost

Bill Brand offers a view of long shadows; a map of straight lines, triangles, and squares of light. He scans the streets with his camera, like a tourist moving his eyes down and then up to the sky, creating codes of personal meaning. In Brand’s hands, the camera renders cinema in trance, forging a dream-like sense of outsiderness, undoubtedly in search of a poetic truth. His heart is in his eyes as he reveals the mystery of all kinds of passing: the marks we leave in others and the inscrutability of these traces.

Brand’s film is a reflection on memory, an examination of how it is built by an accumulation of layers of time and meaning. With this memory comes responsibility – personal, social, and moral decisions about the “what” and the “how” of the things we leave behind, the consequences of what we do, and the memories we leave for others. Only someone who has something to hide would defend or promote the act of forgetting. It has been the motto of dictatorial politicians, biased historians, and strategists of all sorts to contrive to either erase the past, or to remember in a way that works to continue an unsustainable system that will never apologize for its atrocities. If silence is the loudest sound, for Brand absence is the most palpable presence, the elephant in and outside the room.

Brand’s film looks through the bespectacled eyes of memory, and speaks with a faint, murmured voice. It deploys a rich soundtrack of female mumblings, rapid steps, and the constant agitation and controlled chaos of a swarm of bees. There is something in the mere act of looking and listening that has a lot to do with Brand’s personality. This one-of-a-kind artist and film preservationist once told me, “You love film because you are brave enough to care.” While restoring and protecting damaged and unique films, he certainly cares too. When he shoots, he is aware of the fact that whatever is hidden beyond the faces and façades is frequently overlooked. Only a few, like photographer Walker Evans, are interested in the truth behind slanted expressions, in working to document the disappearing vernacular architecture around us, and in showing human bodies not only as part of the landscape, but as landscapes in themselves.


A clip from Sound Strip / Film Strip

Susie’s Ghost is not the first time that Brand has explored the cinematic possibilities of space and performance by inviting friends to improvise or intervene in places of his choosing. Brand captures the stoic beauty of things happening in front of his very eyes, the visual and aural surprises that beguile the senses. Before shooting, he likes to spend significant time drawing portraits of the people who will engage with him, before placing a camera between them. He is a man of rituals, and he will vacuum every tiny manifestation of dust from his studio before handling the films of others. Even in the films in which Brand turns the camera on himself, he seems to follow a rather ceremonial and musical choreography, provoking cinematic sensations that exist between inner feelings and exterior reality.

Brand has also already dealt with feelings of loss and longing in earlier films. He made My Father’s Leg (1997-98) at a time when he had become older than his father at his death. From his first completed film in 1969, made while he was still a student at Antioch College, he was already trying to animate organic shapes, to bring them to life. His beautiful, black-and-white Tree (1970) reflects upon an old tree’s rooted elements with a metrical montage and persistent repetitions derived from structural paradigms—which take on metaphorical meanings of life and memory.

Bill Brand’s world is built around film shrinkage gauges, sync counters, film guards, wet gates, spacers, spring clamps, swizzle sticks, molecular sieve acid scavengers, optical printer creakings, latent edge numbers, and critical ends. Soon his work would become more meta-cinematic, as he became intrigued by the possibilities of light variations, frame reordering, and mathematical constraints. In 1971, Brand collaborated with visual artists and avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits to create the installation Sound Strip / Film Strip. A film loop of colored, scratched images that show the sprocket holes running horizontally, instead of vertically, the installation gives each frame an acute sense of time and place. Brand became a pioneer of in-camera and optical printing experiments (eventually using computer generated patterns), by inlaying geometric and random shapes to obstruct, and add color, texture, and meaning to the images underneath. Split Decision (1979), which reflects upon the lives of artists in Lower Manhattan, consummates Brand’s audio and visual idioms, exploring the tension between sexual and political performance and its radical, fragmented, visual representation.


A clip from Split Decision

Brand’s older sister, Susie, passed away shortly before he shot Susie’s Ghost, and, in it, performer Ruthie Marantz resembles not only her, but also everything else that has vanished from sight against our wishes. It doesn’t matter if Marantz is a real character or just imagined: a memory is more real than anything else. With their big cracks or subtle fissures, the walls captured in this film look like body paintings that wrap up the preoccupied, distracted souls of lost gazes. The space between walls could represent a view of things gone, and also the tear ducts that respond to the memories brought back to us. Brand shot the film with expired—out of date, out of time—16mm film, giving birth to a snowy, grainy, melancholic image with infinite color dots, as in a piece by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. The vivid texture of the walls mirrors this very quality of the film, shifting our attention from content to context, giving us a mental image of the world turning backwards. His is an attempt to grasp the past, since the most important people and experiences of his life may still inhabit it. The film becomes a message to living artists: write down what you want about your films, how you want them to be shown, and how they should be preserved, so that we can all remember the way they were.


Stills from Dead Youth


Two months before the day of the UnionDocs screening that pairs Susie’s Ghost with Leandro Listorti’s Dead Youth ( http://www.vnwtg.nl/?p=6673 Los jóvenes muertos) (2010), 25-year-old Ghousia Begum committed suicide. Every year, almost one million people die this way. Studies conclude that more Americans commit suicide now than during the Great Depression. In fact, there is a suicide every 60 minutes. To say that the causes are unknown is a euphemism. These fleeting headlines filled with numbers seem to say: “let’s forget,” like a wind that sweeps away dust. Well, let’s not.

Argentinian filmmaker Listorti made Dead Youth in 2010, as a reaction to the plague of deaths in the village of Las Heras (Santa Cruz). Liliana Patricia Rojas, June 26, 1995, 20 years old. He felt an urgency to search for what is left when someone disappears. Andrea Lorena Almendra, March 27, 1997, 18 years old. Listorti looked for metaphors of what is like to watch someone die when they are in their 20’s or 30’s, and the impact that it has in other lives. Juan “Juanchi” Pintos, November 18, 1997, 18 years old. He stares at the empty places they used to inhabit—the desk where they studied and worked, the swimming pool where they drowned, the hospital bed that cradled their last breath, their last hope. Miguel Ángel Orellana, November 23, 1997, 19 years old. Las Heras is known for its large number of operating excavator machines, bringing petroleum and contaminated dredged sediments to the surface of the earth. Cristina Mareira, May 13, 1998, 19 years old. In the area, black oil is feared and even considered an evil spirit. Karen Ruth Giménez, November 18, 1998, 20 years old. Pollution has caused many health problems in Argentina, but nevertheless the machines continue piercing the earth. Marcelino Segundo Ñancufil, April 26, 1999, 32 years old.

This is Listorti’s first feature film, made after amassing years of experience working as a film projectionist and, since 2005, as film programmer at the BAFICI Film Festival in Buenos Aires. Víctor Flavio “Chopi” Méndez, July 2, 1999, 25 years old. The film opens with the images of an abandoned and decaying amusement park, shot on Super 8 film. Claudio Williams, August 12, 1999, 24 years old. The rest of the film is shot in 16mm, a format also reminiscent of a bygone era. Alberto Názquez, August 23, 1999, 21 years old. Listorti uses black-and-white intertitles throughout the film to name 26 young people who vanished way too early, in the years that bridge the 20th and 21st centuries. José Fabián Vega, September 9, 1999, 27 years old. From a distant, static camera, the filmmaker captures with elegance and respect the almost invisible footprints, marks, and evocations of these people’s faded light. Juan Carlos Aparicio, September 13, 1999, 32 years old. In preparation for the film, Listorti made still images of the village that show the volcanic pressure of human despair, written on chairs and walls: messages like “I’m unemployed, with 18 years of experience” shout out the urgent necessity to work for a different form of cultural and economical development world-wide. Marcos Iván Barrientos, January 3, 2003, 12 years old. The voice-over that suddenly delivers a spoken narration creates a disconnect from the images. Adrián Carrizo, December 31, 1999, 27 years old. We don’t hear explanations or comments on these deaths, but a rather cold recitation of the succession of facts that preceded a son’s suicide. Jorge Alejandro Ruiz, April 28, 2003, 25 years old. Listorti avoids cheap sentimentalism, including instead these dry explanations that issue from petrified hearts. Jonatan Emanuel González, May 4, 2003, 16 years old. What we mainly hear are the sounds out of the frame: remote dogs barking, underground machinery, water dripping, subterranean forces. Ignacio Palacios, June 8, 2003, 25 years old. The shots are cut suddenly, without previous warning or justification. Martín Arias, March 24, 2004, 19 years old. – In the instant it takes to shred a love letter, to throw a burning match into the forest, to erase the voice messages from an old audiotape. Walter Fabián Cayumil, January 30, 2005, 23 years old. Just like these young lives were cut off. Order Marcelo Gustavo Rodríguez, July 28, 2005, 28 years old. Dead Youth passes on the memory of Argentinian cinema to a new generation. Fernando Andrés Coronel, February 26, 2007, 18 years old. Rodolfo Kuhn directed Buy The Old Young People in 1962, a time when filmmakers felt the need to visually condense the urban conflicts led and invigorated by the youth. Roberto Adrián Saccomani, June 19, 2007, 29 years old. Like Argentinian Lisandro Alonso in Los Muertos (2004), Listorti also looks for an intimate, paused, exploratory rhythm to match the surrounding reality. Sebastián Martín Chapalala, November 9, 2007, 18 years old. The filmmaker denies all artificial vitality—he knows that just by calmly listening and looking, one will start seeing, hearing, remembering. Héctor Baez, September 10, 2008, 20 years old. In his attempt to capture what is not there anymore, Listorti also questions how life will be without us. Rubén Darío Suarzo, March 7, 2009, 21 years old. His film is a call to attention, a reminder to leave more than just a few photographs of your younger self in the dumping ground, with no shade or resonance. César Vanquelín, May 14, 2009, 23 years old. The trunks of the trees of this doomed, dystopian town are carved with an endless list of names and dates, all different in color, size, font, and shape: “I live at night,” “Don’t limit your dreams,” “I was here…” Next name, next date, next story.