Thursday 29 July 2010

Shed Your Tears and Walk Away (Jez Lewis, UK, 2009)

In the documentary Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, Jez Lewis takes us by the hand and leads us through the streets and parks of Hebden Bridge… all in an attempt to discover why his friends are dying. At the beginning of the film he states his purpose: ‘I left my hometown of Hebden Bridge twenty years ago… but I’m coming back for yet another childhood friend’s funeral… this valley is paradise for some people, but purgatory for others… dozens of my old friends have died young… it’s as if the town’s lost its survival instinct’. The deaths are all due to drug and drink dependency, Lewis’s friends have all become junkies and alcoholics. During the film there are three more deaths. Overdoses, suicides, drink and drug related accidents… it is this that is taking his friends away… and their kids. As the graffiti has it on entry to the town… ‘Welcome to Hebden Bridge… the place for alcoholic children’. But why?

The film focuses predominately upon two former junkies, now die-hard alcoholics, Cass and Silly. Both are in their early forties, they spend their time in Hebden Park, drinking special brew and hanging out with a cast of younger binge drinkers and smack heads. Shed Your Tears operates through Lewis initiating conversations with his subjects from behind the camera. And the camera unflinchingly captures the lives and thoughts of Cass and Silly by focusing upon their faces. And it is the state of the faces that captures our attention: faces with enlarged capillaries, puffy faces, blotchy skin, red cheeks, bloodshot eyes. Shot on video, there is a rawness to these faces, marked as they are by alcohol, drugs, poor food… old before their time. This is a film of faces, of faces looking away from the camera, and faces crying…

Gilles Deleuze, in his taxonomy of cinema, describes this kind of film as an affection-image. Rather than concentrate upon a character’s actions, affection-image films are organised through close-ups of faces which express intensive forces: internal emotions. Close-ups express power and quality. Powers mark the way in which the face changes and negotiates a series of states (anger, confusion, resignation, etc) and qualities are faces immobile (caught in thought and so essentially unreadable). When organised in definite states, these powers and qualities are icons: they define moments of consciousness. In Shed Your Tears, however, it is as if we are watching while powers and qualities dissolve... the effects of drink and drugs, the affects of drink and drugs...

‘Ordinarily’, writes Deleuze ‘three roles of the face are recognisable: it is individuating (it distinguishes or characterises each person); it is socialising (it manifests a social role); it is relational or communicating (it ensures not only communication between two people, but also, in a single person, the internal agreement between his character and his role). Now, the face, which effectively presents these aspects in the cinema as elsewhere, loses all three in the case of the close-up’ (C1:99). In other words, the affection-image doesn’t simply present individuated subjects, but rather, intensities in-and-of-themselves, expressed through faces… the ‘face and its effacement’ (C1:100). In Shed Your Tears the faces are numb with drink and drugs, eyes hooded... What we discover is not only the person, but the entity of a disease.

Finally, it is by looking at the film through the affection-image that we encounter the central paradox of the film. Cass and Silly are alcoholics. Both are dying of liver disease, which will take them if they cannot change their lives. Alcoholism is a chronic disease, a nexus of social, genetic and psychological factors. And Lewis explores each in the film. Hebden as a 60s drug haven. Hebden as a place where the locals are being squeezed out by bourgeois newcomers. Hebden as a place where there is no work and nothing to do. Hebden simply as a place where people drink and take drugs. Then: the way in which parents drink, and so do their kids, and their kid's kids... And to forget: Cass his bullying stepfather, Silly his experiences as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion. It is this nexus of determining and retroactive causes which means they feel they have no choice.

This is crucial, affection-image films explore choice. For Deleuze, ‘there are choices that can only be made on condition that one persuades oneself that one has no choice’ (C1:114). This is the state of both Cass and Silly. However, this is a ruse, rather ‘there is a choice of choice or non-choice’ (C1:114). Thus ‘the alternative is not between terms but between modes of existence of the one who chooses’ (C1:114). In other words, we choose not to choose in having a choice. And we can choose to choose in having a choice.

While Cass and Silly believe they have no choice, strangely enough, it is with Lewis where we encounter choosing choice. The most startling aspect of this documentary is that the director comes out from behind the camera and enters the frame. It is in this sense ultimately overtly interventionist. He breaks the unwritten commandment of the documentary. He becomes involved. He helps Cass into rehabilitation in Hebden… and when that does not work takes him to London. He engages with Silly on the path he is taking. The title of the film Shed Your Tears and Walk Away comes from a line Silly delivers about the suicide of his brother. The title becomes exactly what Lewis cannot do. So, in the end, the original purpose of the documentary is abandoned. There may be answers to the ‘why’ (genetic, social, psychological). But none are definitive. The documentary thus gains another, far more powerful purpose. To intervene…

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