Sophy Romvari's Still Processing is playing exclusively on MUBI starting May 20, 2021 in many countries.
"Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw," announced Robert Lowell upon winning the National Book Award in 1960 for Life Studies. He characterized cooked poetry as “marvelously expert” yet "laboriously concocted," almost as if the only place for it were graduate seminars. The raw poetry meanwhile is not found in classrooms, it is not to be studied, it is meant to be “declaimed,” a brief inflammatory appearance to fade out. Raw poetry is “huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience,” it is read aloud at midnight and while it avoids the pedantry of the cooked, the assumption is that it courts scandal, produced purely to arouse the disgust of its listeners. Robert Lowell, in his own way, tried to imagine himself (obliquely) as not so cooked to be tough and tasteless but not so raw as to gush onto your lap. One of his former students, Sylvia Plath, acquired that balance. Lowell claims, in his foreword to her posthumous book Ariel, that the poetry she wrote as a student never made much impact upon him; indeed, a fellow student in that seminar Lowell taught also described Plath’s poetry as “very tightly controlled, formal, impenetrable,” a backhanded compliment just as sure as “cooked poetry.” She also said, however, those early poems of Plath’s were “without the feeling that was later to enter them.” Influenced by her friend and classmate Anne Sexton, whose poetry always veered towards the raw, Plath imbued her late poetry with an emotional vigor that never overwhelmed her formal control. On the first page of Ariel, from the poem “Morning Song”:
I’m no more your mother Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow Effacement at the wind’s hand.
This is Plath, or an anonymous mother, rejecting her child. She sees her child as nothing more in this moment than as a carbon copy, a duplicate cloud, made only to show her aging, her weathering, her decay.
Years earlier, in one of her journals, Plath wrote, “I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.” No such lazy mimeticism here. The imagery is potent, the metaphor precise; the line is original and finely wrought. And the emotional turmoil beneath, just barely submerged, is ready to snap at the reader. Plath has taken her experience, seasoned it, cooked it, prepared it perfectly.
In a letter to Warren Plath, her brother, Sivvy (as she signs her name), writes about teaching James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which in its mix of autobiography and fiction straddles the axis of raw-cooked, she writes:
I must say that in teaching a book one learns it by heart, and gets a really amazing insight. However, this kind of organization and analysis is not the kind I'd use if I were reading the book in the light of my own writing: it is much too conscious and analytical.
Any genuine artist will always be caught in this Chinese finger trap of "authenticity" and "artificiality." The danger of the first is its moralistic reliance on the "real," on the idea that just because you've felt something, you've lived something, that it merits the time and attention of others or that it will be interesting or engaging. It is the confusion that Nature is authentic rather than subject to the same thousands of years of processes of editing and shaping and defining that in a compressed period we would call craft. But to extend that metaphor a little further, Nature can be artificial all it likes: it will always retain its relationship to the world. Art, however, can dislocate itself from the rest of us, become an alien object with nothing to share. Whether you bore your audience or obfuscate them, communication is the thing that is lost either way.
The two apparently warring qualities, authenticity and artificiality, will always converge into "artistry" when mediated well. That's what makes making art worthwhile, anyway. It would be pointless to just vomit up the raw that our stomachs reject and expect others to be able to digest it, just as it would be pedantic to sculpt away at something with no passion for anything but the sculpting.
Whereas poetry lends itself to the raw, the cinema lends itself to the cooked. A poet can easily retain control of their verse, for better or worse. In cinema, however, rarely is man an island. Most films are indeed continents, made by a group. The director, if we call them the author, relies on others. When they shoot live-action, they rely on the cooperation of what’s occurring in front of them.
Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing is as open to the rest of the world as it is located in herself. Appropriately, it feels like one long opening. Autobiographical or autofictional, the film is occasioned by the opening of a letter and a box of old photographs of Romvari and her three brothers as children. Since the taking of the photos, several decades earlier, two of her brothers have died. This trauma of loss is the grief through which Romvari (and her family) “still processes.” Although Romvari intercuts fragments and close-ups of the photos throughout, and although we see her react to the photos frequently, it is not until the end of the film that she shows for us more or less in full the collection of photographs. In the midst of this, we are given little details, whether from the letter she opens with or via subtitles (a “letter” to the audience?). Details like the onset of panic attacks that began after the death of one of her brothers, or the nature of her father’s training in cinematography and the proliferate photographic recording of everyday life when she and her siblings were children.
When I first read the Plath verse above, I did not understand it. Its verbal dexterity was impenetrable to me. It took several rereadings to unfold it. Still Processing confused me in another way. I was confused at the seeming disjunction between form and content. How open it is, yet how closed. Transparency is a formal motif of the film: photograph negatives, projections, and windows recur prominently throughout the film. We see through these images and these screens (if you'll allow me to call a window a screen) and catch glimpses of Romvari without any sense of self-consciousness. In the letter from her parents that opens the film, it's mentioned that the four children were filmed so often that it became natural for the camera to be around. It's a moment like this that defies interrogation: this detail could not have been manufactured and yet it feels as though it is foreshadowing and placating any doubts audiences might have as to the emotional authenticity of Romvari's reaction to the photos and film.
As Fiona Apple reminds us, windows may be clear but there's still a barrier between us and whatever's on the other side. Almost halfway through Still Processing, there is a scene that shows Romvari having a panic attack. Spliced throughout the scene are glimpses of the photos she saw for the first time earlier in the film, photos of her and her brothers. The scene is at night, she is in bed, looking at her phone––it’s unclear to me whether she is just scrolling, trying to distract her mind, or looking at the actual photos we see. As the scene develops, subtitles on the screen explain she began having panic attacks nine years ago, one year after the death of one of her brothers. The subtitles clarify the unsure nature of the relationship between the panic attacks and the death. The film is composed, then; intersplicing, curation, attempting to bring us closer to Romvari's emotional experience rather than the camera's "objective" one. This tension between artifice and authenticity is so deliberately courted, as if the filmmaker is saying, I'm going to try something, I'm going to introduce art, but trust me: this is all real. It threatens to make the audience wonder, is this a performance?
The entire film, really, courts that question, dangerous as it may be in regard to a film so brazenly forthcoming with personal matters. This is a totally sculpted film. The cool color temperature, the looming windows, the modernist architecture, the stable camerawork all speak to a highly formalized art object, even as it does deal with "raw" materials. Indeed, the entire second half of the film documents the technical and industrial process of developing film. Romvari declines to “document” this, however—she declines to posture “objectivity” or the “fly-on-the-wall” attitude that so many mistake for the former. Instead the process is made poetic, mystical. In its flashes of light, emerging from darkness, in its result, it is like a rebirthing process.
Early on, the subtitles––whose purpose are to articulate things too difficult to say, a cliché whose truth is more emotional than factual––say that the Romvari has been working on the film for three years, and that she is unsure whether it is finished. Most artists will admit that a work never feels really finished until they are forced to finish it––Orson Welles, for one, admits that he hated rewatching his films because he couldn't change anything in them. Still Processing is finished, it has been screened. It may change in the future (I thought I noticed a few differences between when I first watched it and the second time; indeed there was a music cue added), but it is a finished product and while the impulse to feel as though Romvari is trying to communicate directly with the audience by this message is a nice one, as a formal element it is totally integrated with the rest of the work. The film is called Still Processing, a serious pun on Romvari's developing relationship with the trauma of losing her brothers, and on the act of developing film––that the film should suggest itself to be unfinished is appropriate, and in accord with the multiple scenes of transit––scenes of Romvari traveling, moments on trains, walking, cars driving by.
The title also brings to mind the photographic term “still,” like a movie still or a Still-Life, a literal processing of stills. Or simply the juxtaposition of the word Still with its invocation of motionlessness and the gerund Processing, active, changing, developing. It echoes outward into the film with its formal surface so placid and calm and controlled and its depths so churning with emotion that may never be reconciled. It also suggests the tension between the unchanging and the changing. Romvari juxtaposes at one point the images of her and her brother with their photographs as children, along with empty chairs with photographs of her deceased brothers. There is the double weight of mortality, both in absence and presence in these images: whether gone, or present, reminded of, as Plath puts it, your own effacement by the wind.
Robert Lowell finishes his acceptance speech for Life Studies, whose title uncannily feels similar in sound and texture to Still Processing, at least to me, with the following lines:
Writing is neither transport nor technique. My own owes everything to a few of our poets who have tried to write directly about what mattered to them, and yet to keep faith with their calling’s tricky, specialized, unpopular possibilities for good workmanship. When I finished Life Studies, I was left hanging on a question mark. I am still hanging there. I don’t know whether it is a death-rope or a life-line. (emphasis mine)
Still Processing demonstrates that the challenge Lowell describes is still with us, still relevant, and still a source for rich, refined, and powerful art.