To Think With Hands: The Cinema of Josephine Decker

The cinema of the American independent filmmaker explores feminine desire through tactile impressions and formal experimentation.
James Slaymaker
Josephine Decker's Madeline's Madeline is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing May 10 – June 8, 2019, and a retrospective of Decker's work is showing May 7 – June 27, 2019.
With only three features under her belt, Josephine Decker has already established herself as one of the most exhilarating young American filmmakers to have emerged in the 21st century. An actress, writer, director, and multimedia artist, Decker rose to prominence as a performer in a series of films directed by micro-budget wunderkind Joe Swanberg, and although her own directorial work clearly bears signs of the mumblecore aesthetic—handheld DSLR camerawork, improvised dialogue, non-professional actors, frank sexuality, an emphasis on performers and their bodies, an infectious DIY attitude—it also rejects the movement’s slavish adherence to naturalism. Instead, Decker’s cinema occupies a strange position between narrative and experimental cinema, employing intricate strategies of pictorial, aural, and temporal abstraction to realize the subjective states of her wounded, complex female protagonists.
This brazen audio-visual experimentation has ethical and political implications. Decker’s filmmaking represents a sustained effort to construct a female gaze by not only upending traditional presumptions about the roles women are supposed to play in narrative cinema, but also by layering and subverting the very tenets of the continuity style which has historically been employed to support the dominance of the patriarchal male perspective. Like Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, and Valérie Massadian, Decker creates interstitial spaces between fiction, documentary, and experimental cinematic practices in which female desire can be formally articulated. Decker’s films are deeply attuned to the present moment, intuitively playing with focal length, composition, and motion to capture sensory experience through haptic visual language.
Gilles Deleuze wrote of Francis Bacon’s desire to craft images which exist “beyond figuration,” eschewing concrete ontological representation and instead acting “immediately upon the nervous system.” This emphasis on bodily sensation over visual certitude, on synaesthesiac experience over ocular information, on haptic perception over cerebral understanding, also characterizes Decker’s cinema. The radical obfuscation of visual perception through low-depth of field, off-kilter framing, close proximity with bodies, rapid camera motion, foregrounding of texture, and uncertain lighting results in a form of spectatorship academic Laura Marks calls ‘”haptic visuality.” As the body of the film is expressed in a manner that is markedly tactile, Decker therefore encourages an interaction with the experiences of her characters through embodied perception.
Decker’s female characters are layered, complicated women; often confused, often self-defeating, and always in deep contact with the sensual world. Appropriately, her aesthetic style is one of alienation, paranoia, and dislocation, an elliptical stream-of-consciousness in which immediate experience, memories, dreams and fantasies blend together. By incorporating and disrupting recognizable elements of classical form, Decker’s films seek to dismantle the male gaze and reform filmic conventions to create a radical, distinctly female mode of cinematic expression. Decker’s 2008 debut feature Bi the Way (co-directed with Brittany Blockman) takes the uncharacteristic form of a straightforward documentary, but its exploration of fluid gendered and sexual identities introduces an eroticism and an openness to alternative lifestyles that will become central to her mature work.
2014’s Butter on the Latch, Decker’s breakthrough feature, is a piercing study of female friendship, filmed at a real-life Balkan arts camp in the forests of Mendocino, California. Twenty-something city-dwellers Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) have embarked on a summer exertion to study Southeastern European music and performance art (which Decker, driven by ethnographic curiosity, devotes a great chunk of screen time to documenting). Sarah has just suffered a horrifically traumatic event, glimpsed in an abstract prologue, and the after-effects of that trauma hangs over the feature like an oppressive weight, causing strain on her relationship with Isolde and a bourgeoning romance with a musician she meets at the retreat (Charlie Hewson). The intricately realized friendship is characterized by the combination of rivalry and co-dependency, with the two characters constantly vying for attention while simultaneously attempting to put each other down. Shot by Decker’s regular cinematographer Ashley Connor, Butter on the Latch takes a relatively familiar premise but strips away so many of the expected conventions of continuity style that the result feel totally singular. Her preference for insert shots of nature, voice-over, and montage-based construction may suggest a kinship with the Terrence Malick-lite trend of calculated ethereal lyricism increasingly coming to dominate independent film, but Decker’s style is too willfully disorientating, too formerly audacious, and too enamored with the creative potential of imperfections in the digital image to be neatly categorized into any existing cinematic trend. The visual rhythms of Decker’s style increasingly descend into feverish surrealism as Sarah’s consciousness grows more and more fragmented—a mental breakdown tied to an immersion in the wild furies of nature, the exaltation of tribal music and the energies of Bulgarian legend.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) refracts Decker’s obtuse style through the high-concept genre framework of Southern Gothic horror. Loosely inspired by Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Mild and Lovely centers on a married farmhand, Akin (Joe Swanberg), who takes a job on an isolated Kentucky ranch operated by a father and daughter team who share an unsettlingly close relationship. The daughter, Sarah (Sophie Traub), immediately becomes enamored with Akin, leading to a turbulent affair which threatens to throw the harmony of the farm into disarray. Sarah is a carnal, spirited young woman with an intense, even metaphysical connection to the land, while Akin is an aloof, self-effacing lump who is deeply uncomfortable in his own skin.
It’s a premise with the simplicity of a fable, lending the central farm an Eden-like grandeur. Even more so than Butter, Mild and Lovely pares down details of plot and characterization to a bare minimum, unfolding as an oblique tapestry of tactile images and sounds. The first two acts of Mild and Lovely unfold as an impressionistic symphony of stolen glances and longing gazes, of burning desires and whirling passions lying beneath the placid exteriors of inarticulate, repressed characters, while the climax unleashes these emotions in a flush of melodramatic release. Decker’s visual language expresses an incredible sensitivity to the nuances of emotions and the physicality of body language; the agile camera eschews a grand, distanced view of events in favor of breaking action down into minor details, with a particular focus on fingers, arms, hair, shoulders, the fabric of clothes and the textures of the land (Mild and Lovely is mostly composed in very shallow-focus, with typically keeping a small element of the frame in sharp depth while rendering the rest of the frame a blur of color). Dialogue is drowned out to near-silence by the foregrounding of ambient sounds—the squelching of mud, the whistling of wind, the ruffling of clothes. Delicate and multifaceted emotions are distilled into bold, potent impressions, masterfully controlled by Decker’s masterful command of tone and mood.
As Marks observes in her article “Video Haptics and Erotics,” haptic visuality actively serves an erotic function, as embodied perception encourages the viewer to surrender “own sense of separateness from the image.” Whereas voyeuristic spectatorship is based on a distanced, disengaged form of vision that has traditionally been employed to serve unequal male-female power relations, reducing the desired other into a passive object, haptic erotics turn the viewer into an engaged participant and hence dismantle this power imbalance. From this perspective, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a deeply erotic film, as exemplified by the scene in which Sarah watches Akin shovel manure through a crack in the barn wall. The scene begins with an extremely abstract shot, as the camera faces the pale, scratchy wood of the barn wall frontally, the bottom part of the screen obscured by shadow at the top bathed in a beam of light emanating from an unseen source. The entire image is out of focus, abstracting the environment into an indistinct wash of shape and color. After a beat, Akin enters the frame from the right, bending down to untie a bale of hay; the camera roughly tracks his movements from behind, before abruptly moving in to focus in on an extreme close-up on his arm as he fondles the knot. Once that action is complete, the camera rapidly tracks outwards and pans to the left side of the barn, leaving Akin out of frame. After a moment, Akin then crosses the screen with the rope, but only his torso is in frame. Decker then cuts to an image of Akin shoveling, caught framed from the torso-up in a medium-close shot, drifting in and out of focus as he steps between background and foreground. The next cut abruptly tracks in on the side of the barn, accompanied by a rapid focal shift and we see Sarah’s eye between a thin slit in the wood. Just as the image resolve into focus, Sarah, apparently having been spotted by Akin, runs out of sight. The camera holds on the empty wall for a beat, before tracking back outwards into a wide shot, the image falling into soft focus. This sequence arouses and frustrates desire in equal measure, the obfuscation of clear optical vision eliciting a haptic response which aligns the viewer with Sarah’s bourgeoning sexuality.
Decker’s latest, and thus far greatest feature, Madeline’s Madeline (2018), returns to the idea of life as performance central to Butter on the Latch but relocates its action from the natural world to the streets of Brooklyn—though Decker’s immense cinematic imagination transforms this mundane location into a similarly dizzying realization of a headspace. Clearly influenced by the films of Jacques Rivette, Madeline splits its runtime between sequences of actors rehearsing and scenes from their private lives. Madeline (Helena Howard) is the youngest member of an experimental theatre group run by the veteran director Evangeline (Molly Parker), which occupies their rehearsal time with experimental, theoretical improvisations; life experiences of its individual members are regularly integrated into the act to be transformed into an interpretative symbolist language. The film is orchestrated around two major relationships in Madeline’s life, the first concerning her overbearing mother Regina (Miranda July), and the second involving Evangeline. Sensing Madeline’s preternatural acting ability and her desire for guidance, Evangeline latches onto her in a way that registers as an uneasy combination of genuine maternalism and professional exploitation; as Evangeline loses grasp on the project (which seems to be in a perpetual state of vague preparation, never evolving into a coherent idea, let alone a finished piece), she re-centers it by incorporating a high level of details drawn from Madeline’s personal life.
A young virtuoso eager to explore the extent of her talents, Madeline engages in myriad psychological and physical performance exercises, drudging up painful memories in public forums, pretending to be a cat or a sea turtle, using dance to translate abstract concepts into physical forms. On stage, Madeline demonstrates an incredible ability to regulate her emotions, off-stage, she is a wreck, gleefully playing with the feelings of those closest to her. She has suffered with severe bouts of mental illness in the past, which leads Regina to exert an intrusive degree of control over her life. Madeline is Decker’s most fascinating and complete character to date, and the camera orbits her perspective as if a gravitational force, plunging us into the ecstatic highs and painful lows of her affective experience as she undergoes the artistic, sexual and intellectual awakening of adolescence. The line which divides reality from fiction becomes increasingly permeable and open; emotions that are stifled in private life find expression under the guise of performance, leading to a searing climatic scene in which Madeline fiercely unloads her repressed anger on Regina in the form of a semi-fictionalized monologue performed to the rest of the group. The intensely emotional audio-visual flow of images—seemingly free-form, but actually carefully modulated—approximates the workings of a dynamic, artistic, youthful mind in motion, not reflecting on their past but perpetually transforming immediate sense experience into cogent interpretation. 

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