After last year watching and loving a version of his Work in Progress (USA, ongoing), I was particularly glad to see Adam Sekuler’s latest and remarkable film, Tomorrow Never Knows, at Flare, the LGBTQ+ film festival run through the British Film Institute (BFI).
Like Steven Eastwood’s equally profound Island (UK, 2018), which is set to enjoy a theatrical release in the UK in the next couple of months, Tomorrow Never Knowsis a documentary that looks at death, specifically here the build-up to the passing of Shar Jones, a transsexual living in Colorado with her partner, Cynthia Vitale.
Shar has Alzheimer’s and wishes to take her own life, but this is not legal—certainly not with assistance. And so, Shar prepares to die in the only legal way possible, which is by no longer eating and drinking, i.e. by starving herself to death.
Shar is a Buddhist who is interested in the passage of time, as is made clear by her love the Beatles song, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ from which the film takes its title and the lyrics to which we hear Shar repeating/singing several times.
In particular, we might note that the song includes the line ‘it is becoming.’ That is, we live in a universe that is not static, but which always is changing. We cannot control the flow of time, and so perhaps one thing we might do is to accept it.
What is interesting about this interest in the flow of time is the tension that the film sets up both thematically and formally.
Thematically, the fllm invites the viewer to consider how death itself is a form of becoming; it is a passage of our bodies (if not a spirit) into another non-living realm, and in which—at the very least—our bodies are dispersed into the universe.
However, so also is Alzheimer’s a cerebral deterioriation that also involves, in some senses, the dissolution of the self into multiple selves—with some memories at certain points in time and few to no memories at other points in time.
There is no intention here to make light of the disease and the devastating effects that it has its sufferers and those around them.
Nonetheless, while death becomes Shar, she does this in particular by attempting to remove Alzheimer’s from her life—refusing what we might call a passive becoming (the disease) for an active becoming (choosing to die).
Paradoxically, this happens via Shar also refusing both to eat and to drink. In other words, in order to be open to death and in order to close out Alzheimer’s, Shar has to close off her body.
These thematic paradoxes extend to the film’s form/style, as I can explain by making reference to something Sekuler said in the Q&A session after the Flare screening that I attended.
Sekuler spoke of some moments featuring Shar that he had shot, and which we remarkable, but which he did not include in the film because he did not get a clean enough recording.
It is not strictly Sekuler’s aesthetic choices that I wish to question. But I use this anecdote as a way of showing how Sekuler is something of a formalistfilmmaker. That is, he aims for and very often achieves spare shots, in which there is little if any camera movement.
In other words, his style searches deliberately for a certain aesthetic, one that is, like Shar’s body as it progresses from life to death via starvation, one that seeks to shut out the outside and to demonstrate control, in particular through static long takes.
But as the human cannot fully close off the outside, and as the Buddhist might seek becoming, nor can Sekuler close off the outside from his film.
Indeed, in some senses Sekuler cannot make the movie that he might ideally want to because of the very reality that consistently invades his film.
Because Shar and Cynthia’s home is quite small, Sekuler cannot achieve distance, the frame is often cluttered, and in greater close-up, with people leaving and entering the frame a lot. Sound regularly must come from offscreen, and, in the form of traffic and other noises passing by their home, there is nothing that Sekuler can do about this.
Likewise even the light that streams in through Shar’s window.
The effect of these interruptions, though, is remarkable. For, as we see a man dying, we also hear the unstoppable nature of the world outside. The world of Shar seems to be one increasingly defined by containers, including her home and the coffin in which she will be buried, and in some senses, too, both her body and her disease are containers.
And yet these cannot be shut off from the world; the becoming cannot stop. The outside always come in.
The philosophical ramifications of Sekuler’s style hopefully here become clear: it is as if Sekuler is striving to stop the outside from coming in by making a technically flawless and aesthetically beautiful film… and yet he cannot achieve this, meaning that in some senses his film is an exercise in failure… just as every human life, as a result of its mortality, is an exercise in failing to stop death—even if one aid its advent through various measures like those taken by Shar (willed starvation).
A couple more things.
Firstly, some of the more remarkable moments of Tomorrow Never Knowsinvolve the outside and a loss of control from both Sekuler and his subjects. For example, when on a hike, we see Cynthia fall over, before Shar also needs to catch her breath.
Sekuler wants to do his static frame, but really cannot. He wants to keep his distance to film aesthetically pleasing shots, but cannot. The couple want to carry on as if unobserved, perhaps, but neither can nor do, as they talk to Adam, who in turn talks back, a voice entering the frame from offscreen.
In its imperfections, I would suggest that Tomorrow Never Knows shows most life, perhaps even most cinema, even if its struggle with the outside and its struggle for aesthetic control (its struggle to control death?) is equally a sign of life and cinema. But in both cases: cinema is not total control, but an absence of it…
But in this sense, cinema is not unlike Shar: she cannot control her disease—and this is just a fact of life. But she can control her death. So we reach another paradox: to be alive is to choose to die.
Sekuler shows us Shar’s dead body several times—at the start and then at various other points in the film. By starting with her corpse, Shar thereafter is reanimated, as if cinema could bring the dead back to life.
Cinema is thus a record of a world now dead, and it is both beautiful and haunting later to see images of Shar dancing in the countryside, a bridge (the bridge between life and death?) in the distance background.
But in contradicting death (Shar is brought back to life), Tomorrow Never Knows only reaffirms its inevitability—as a classical tragedy will depict its dead protagonists before the action unfolds: we know how this is going to end, with a key ingredient of tragedy being that one cannot escape one’s fate (and is perhaps hubristic to believe that it is possible).
Cinema is becoming, Life is becoming. Death is coming, if not becoming from the perspective of the self (which ends with death). But cinema also makes death becoming as it creates memories—an absence of becoming in that it creates something enduring. But even memories are, like cinema, fragile—as Alzheimer’s makes exceptionally clear.
The beauty of life and the beauty of cinema alike, then, lies perhaps in the shared but inevitably flawed attempt to exert control, to stave off the inevitable, to outlive it, both to become with it and not to become at all. To try to create in the face of destruction is perhaps to show spirit, to show that we have a spirit, a spirit that dances across the screen, before once more fading into nothingness.
As an addendum, I might say that while I will struggle to find time to write about it, Jason Barker’s A Deal with the Universe (UK, 2018) was also a highlight at Flare with its tale of attempts at transexual pregnancy.
Meanwhile, I would also like to give a big shout out to Siân Williams, who managed to have not one but four shorts feature in the UK Film Industry online section/selection at Flare. These included Montage of the Mind (UK, 2017), Bedside Surgeon (UK, 2017), DJ Pygmalion (UK, 2017) and Girl Under You (UK, 2017).