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What does it mean to watch, and to record, daily life? Can
plain, simple documentation, which would seem at times to be anti-lyrical, have
its own music? These are two questions raised by Lie Back and Enjoy It, Jessica Bardsley’s driven and dynamic video
essay about JoAnn Elam, an experimental documentary filmmaker who passed away
in Chicago in 2009. Much of what’s here will strike you at first because of its
intimacy: we are forced to look at a dress, or the shoes someone is wearing,
and then you begin to observe these things in a slightly more clinical way, and
then you begin to learn something, if slowly. This is what Chicago’s Logan Square looked like during the 1960s. This
is the way people dressed during the 1970s. This is the way JoAnn Elam smiled
when she was being filmed.
We learn, via printed lines that roll across the screen at irregular intervals, that Elam was a postal carrier for many
years, and that she worked on a documentary about the USPS for a decade. This
only adds to the luminous daily-ness of the film, as we begin to pay attention
to smaller and smaller things, such as the way someone smiles, the way they
tilt their head, or the way Elam delivers mail. Throughout the film, drummer
Tim Kinsella’s percussion runs at differing speeds, depending on which of the
entirely spontaneous and yet also personal images we are watching on screen.
This is an entirely perfect choice for the film at hand, reflective as it is of
motion, of a kind, and evocative as it is of the endless pushing forward of
minutes and hours. The grayness of the sound, too, each drumbeat maintaining a
tone and timbre identical with the next, reminds us that what we are watching
is a document—but also that documents have their own rhythms, and why shouldn’t
they? When, in its second half, the film goes into more abstract territory, as
we learn that Elam discovered she had cancer relatively early in life and then died
at age 60, leaving behind reel upon reel of film, much of which had never been
seen publicly, the drumming slows and we recall, perhaps by design, perhaps by
accident, nothing more loudly than our own heartbeats, nudging us forward. To
watch this piece is to be reminded of just how fascinating the things we don’t
see can be.–Max Winter

Jessica Bardsley is a film
artist and critical writer exploring experimental non-fiction forms. Her
work has screened across the U.S. and internationally at esteemed
venues such CPH:DOX, Visions du Réel, Antimatter Film Festival, European
Media Arts Festival, Kassel Dokfest, Rencontres Internationales
Paris/Berlin/Madrid, Images Festival, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival,
Rooftop Films and more. She is the recipient of a Princess Grace Award
in Film (2010), a Flaherty Fellowship (2011), Director’s Choice at the
Black Maria Film and Video Festival (2012), Grand Prix at 25fps (2012),
and the Eileen Maitland Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival (2013). She
received an MFA in Film, Video, New Media and Animation as well as an
MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of
Chicago, and is a first year PhD student in Film and Visual Studies at
Harvard University.

Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.

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