night, like mourning, remakes space through absence: forms at the threshold of perception heighten sound and touch. when someone dies there is a pull towards the concrete and tangible, but disbelief creates a world of unreliable objects.

FIGURE MINUS FACT draws and redraws coordinates between spaces, senses, and objects, groping in the dark, desiring to see something that’s not there. spaces become evidentiary yet deceptive in a subjectless portrait of loss.

the following is a conversation between COURTNEY STEPHENS and MARY HELENA CLARK on figure, touch, bells, and clark’s latest sketch, SIX IN ONE, featuring natalia paruz, and presented here in 3 iterations.  

COURTNEY STEPHENS: watching your film made me think a lot about touch. it’s there in the glass note as well, this way of thinking about the body as an instrument and the nature of all sound as arising from touch, even glottal touch inside the throat. we think of the voice as something ethereal and wholly different than the sound of rubbing something with a squeegee. but ultimately, the voice is a record of touch happening somewhere...

MARY HELENA CLARK: yes! you’ve hit on something essential to all my films. like the way the coupe glass is rubbed in the glass note creates the tone that becomes the voice for the silent singer. or in figure minus fact, my mom holds a cricket for the camera, and by pinching it, she mutes it. it can’t thrum its own body to make its sound, the sound we equate with silence. so these relationships, these exchanges of touching and sounding and muting, fold onto each other and sometimes negate.

it’s also about vocal range, about masculine and feminine registers of the voice or just the broader human register, and where the sound of other sorts of movement start to sound like a voice and almost our desire for there to be a voice, for a voice to emerge.

in other films i’ve used ventriloquism as a metaphor for cinema, so there’s always been an emphasis on source and projection, particularly with the voice. in figure minus fact, i’m more interested in inversions of sound relationships, amplifying the “wrong” sound. how can an alternative tuning articulate the threshold of perception, to make us think about our limits and capacities, what can’t be perceived or understood. and more formally, within a film, sound’s ability to re-animate an image or when used as counterpoint how it can unravel a sense of liveness or presence in an image.

CS: this question of liveness is there in the title as well, this question of “figures,” and whether this refers to living organisms or the flattened concept of one. when we see the word in the film it’s in reference to animal photographs, which seem to be in some kind of dated biology textbook, and we can assume that the individual animals pictured there are almost certainly now dead, though these “figures” stand in for their species, it’s contextually irrelevant whether the particular animal is still alive, unlike a person we love. the film is also bookended by these funereal flower settings - the bouquets at the beginning that might as well be frozen figures in a textbook, and then we end with these planted flowers, which have a totally different resonance because they’re in the wind and subject to the currents of the world. so it feels like it moves from a memorial space into a living space of growth.
MHC: i find it easiest to describe the film as a memorial to an absent figure. but when i rewatch it, it’s clear that that’s not entirely what the film is up to. and really, it frustrates that project almost immediately. there are these artifacts and evidence of a person’s life throughout the film, but they’re probably only legible to my immediate family. grief is described by the longing impulse that ties together the film’s different subjects. so the marble paper, a careening horizon line, a nursing baby, my sleeping husband felt like the necessary means to think through the pervasive, expansive, nonlinear nature of grief. you know, there was a body, a day, a location, a departure, but to have the intimacy of my partner in my bed in the same film that’s conjuring my father’s death, or these different kinds of inter-species touch or parental touch twined together felt like a more finely honed portrait of grief, because of its sensorial confusion. instead of something more biographical.

CS: or ritualistic.

MHC: or ritualistic. i wanted to find new ways of approaching the cliches of mourning rituals - the flowers, the bells - to give them life in a sense inside my film, despite the emptying out that has happened to them by being so well-worn, really.


CS: this comes through in the sermon that we can just barely hear, the kind of warble of a sermon, as though happening in the next room. its content is abstracted, we get a bit of the accent, but it feels almost like a background exercise, it’s part of the flow, the atmosphere. one thing i’ve thought about in terms of grief, is this question of whether it is more adequately acknowledged through stopping or through continuing with life. in my experience of losing a parent there was this impulse to halt everything, and to sort of wish for the whole world to halt. and then there’s this parallel instinct, of hoping that life will pull you forward. and neither are somehow satisfying. the film feels like it grasps at both.

MHC: i’m pretty ambivalent about what this sort of film can do, or should do, or even attempt to do. but i feel confident that its fate is to fail. that ambivalence continues and is heightened when sharing it. the first time i saw it with an audience was in zagreb at 25fps and my cab driver to the airport was asking me why i visited. i told him about the festival and my film. he scolded me and said, why are you making this film where you have to return to that place each time that you watch it? when he dropped me off, he said, make happy films, make happy films.

and i don’t think i will ever do that, but there’s always an interest in trying to forensically pinpoint a feeling and to use the film form to re-enact it. maybe it’s a return or a pause in order to move forward. to make a film that recognizes that grief can attach itself to anything, that it’s not a place or an event. and if it’s anything, it’s disorientation.

CS: you were also working during the pandemic?

MHC: yes, that was one of the reasons why the tele-church service audio felt so important, as a distanced social ritual marking that time. and i wanted to begin the film with an amen. beginning with an end, similar to beginning with the sound of the bells unwinding. we’re already in the wake, in the slip between what we see and hear. 

CS: yes, these bells we watch as they make rotations but fail to ring. not even a failure, more like a refusal to ring. there’s something about the ethics of aesthetics in your project, i feel. the taxi story reminds me of once being in a supermarket in the ukraine where a man was drunk and ranting about god. another man became very upset that this man was invoking god while drunk, or from a supermarket, i’m not sure. i wondered if you were going to say the taxi driver thought it was somehow uncouth to take on something as big as the loss of a parent, that the meaning can only ever be approached but never rendered. that to take a look at something big, it’s not always best to go big, or to try to actually touch it, because it’s worth protecting. on another note, there’s also something kind of sexual in the film.

MHC: i know.

CS: there was a section that felt like moving through the birth canal, and then a sound almost like rain but also like super rapid sex. but all of these felt like modes of intercourse with the world against these passages of stillness.

MHC: there’s a joelle mcsweeney essay what is the necropastoral? that’s about subjects that aren’t directly dealt with in this film but it impressed upon me the idea of the fecundity of death, feeling death through non-human modalities, inter-embodiment, and seepage. she writes “...for the seemingly singular-bodied human to be revealed as part of an inhuman multiple body. it is a sublime site: a site of soaring flights and subterranean swoons.” there’s a section in my film when we hear a baby babbling and the image of the child is warped into a passage. i wanted to use an image of the external world that would evoke the interior - a sonogram, a larynx, a birth canal. the blurred distinction of bodies is inherently sexual, earthly, and deathly. and it’s all teased through touch, like in the stingray scene. there’s a very basic human desire to touch to know and there’s a misunderstanding inherent in the interaction.

CS: what do you mean by a misunderstanding?

MHC: a misunderstanding because i don’t think that they want to be touched, but they curl up and rise to a hand like a cat wanting a pet. so it’s our mammalian projection or interpretation that’s the misunderstanding. but there’s a desire for closeness that extends over the touch pool images and my husband’s sleeping blue body and the empty side of my father’s bed. they coexist.

CS: yes, it’s the desire to find a natural order to grief through a set of tenuous connections.

MHC: there’s something so pathetic and touching about the book dedication in the film, that also serves as the film’s dedication: for mom and dad, who always encouraged my interest in living things. i feel like i need a little encouragement to be interested in life, you know? [laughs]

CS: it’s both tender and obvious. we also see a monogrammed pillow in the film. there is something hopeless about these generic or perfunctory sentiments, but they are still charged with love. and because there isn’t much text in the film, we really want them to communicate.

MHC: my friend described it as a film on the verge of speaking. or maybe, it’s that language is present in the film to fall short. but when it screened in france and they asked for subtitles, i watched the film thinking about what was the necessary language. and it was pretty revealing that the most important line was the note that i hold in the beginning of the film, a note that my dad kept on his bathroom mirror. it says, don’t talk unless you can improve the silence. and we made subtitles for the background voices at the touch pool, where they say, two fingers, only two fingers and cici got a little touch!

it made me realize their declarations underscore this desire to feel something. or groping to know.  

CS: and making an achievement out of something that is also a violation.

MHC: yes, and the night vision camera and day-for-night material allow me to play with that sense of violation. to see into the dark, or perform that experience through cinematic tropes. we can puncture darkness to surveil or be close to a sleeping person or a mother nursing her child. it’s equal part trespass and intimacy, which goes back to the erotics you’re talking about.

CS: those are sort of like technological erotics and then there’s the military component. so much of what we’ve developed was made to extend human capabilities in one way or another. but a lot of it is through extending it into areas that actually are other species special sensitivities or abilities. like flying.

MHC: i’m glad you brought up the final shot of the flowers in the gulch that we float above, as being sort of liberated from the funeral arrangements earlier part of the film where all the flowers are fake –

CS: they’re fake, not dead?

MHC: yes, the arrangements in the beginning are fake, and the wind is fake in that final shot too. it’s generated from the drone, which is exactly one of these technologies you’re talking about. militaristic in origin but now somehow translating a sense of spiritual extension, you know, or exceeding beyond the fixed body.

CS: i’m reminded of this video online of a drone taking a dog for a walk.

MHC: that’s good. you should program it with breers’ a man and his dog go out for air.

CS: what else is fake?

MHC: in the film there are these still images of sharks turned upside down. what you’re seeing is an example of tonic immobility, a paralyzed state triggered, in this case, by the animal’s orientation. biologists call it a form of camouflage, a form of self mimicry. so instead of pretending to be another organism or a part of their environment, they pretend to be themselves dead. i think it’s a beautiful idea, a retreat into stillness that’s playing with temporality, in that you’re performing yourself in a future, inevitable state of death. and it’s all triggered by touch, which is a big part of the film as you’ve pointed out. i tried to present this phenomenon more explicitly, but it never fit. so it simply appears as a surprising image of an underwater embrace, which i was ok with. just another instance of stillness, another embrace, residing alongside a woman nursing her child.

CS: i saw a museum exhibit about natural defenses against threat. some animals have poison in their fangs, and some animals have sharp things all over their bodies, some feign states, and others have, you know, the ability to build nuclear weapons. and i guess mortality itself is something that protects us from pain and suffering because, like, it ends. but it’s interesting how a defense can also pose as a vulnerability.

MHC: i’m attracted to this idea of disappearance as the defense to the feelings that accompany another’s disappearance or absence or loss. it’s cyclical. and it goes back to your original question about pausing or moving. we could think of it as the movie’s own self-protective stance, the desire to be still to be invisible.
CS: and a refusal to perform. i feel like there’s a lot of anti-dramatics in this film. and yet something is still felt very deeply, but not as a dramatized emotion. it’s sort of taking place in the negative space of the dramatized emotion. and this feels very honest.

MHC: it’s a strange form of honesty, though, to invite an audience into. i feel like there’s an audacity that i’m not quite comfortable with. i’ve brought you here with me, now what?

you’re playing dead for them and in that way. and that feels like an honest way of allowing a stranger to walk up to the fence, to represent the terms of suffering without representing your own personal suffering, exactly.  

MHC: and i feel like it’s one way of addressing the hyper specificity and the universality of the film’s broader subject of parental loss. did you ever think about or have you made a film about your father?

CS: i kind of tried to. i made a short that i only showed once. it was about characters in science fiction films sifting through transmissions and information, looking for signs of missing parents - films like contact. kind of about the hopelessness of trying to weed one’s way through an enormity that isn’t really siftable, but trying to be like a sensitive antenna through all of that.

MHC: oh, the antenna.

CS: i guess it’s an instrument too, a sensing instrument.

MHC: yeah, for sensing and transmission. but i feel there’s a specific kind of attunement or frequency that you’re a part of when–

when you’re suffering.

MHC: when you’re suffering, anything can be imbued with that feeling. and filmmaking, specifically sound-images relationships, is the perfect means to represent the projection or embodiment. and the quotidian and life-altering sitting together in a film. a shot like the water leaving a sink basin in the film, with the collapse of fabric, it means nothing, but it felt like everything.

CS: i think this speaks to the language of the film, and your question about its generosity. the film really captures that space, right after losing somebody, when you’re, you know, you’re waiting for transmission, you know what i mean?. and the film conjures that atmosphere of wanting to receive a transmission. for a certain sign. wanting to close the space between self and other when, when a person first leaves. wanting to be haunted, you know?

MHC: yeah, a haunting and an exorcism. a lot of these images are looking for order. like my nephew organizing these fossilized shark’s teeth is a parallel to the process of making the film. a reorganization in a world remade. or the marbled end pages that start the film was my way of thinking about image calibration, and teasing the book we’ll later spend some time with. i think of it as my twisted color bar and tone moment. it’s saying from the jump, in this film we’re going to be too close, our nose to the page, but at the same time asked to see. it’s asking, can we try to do the impossible together?