From time to time in my old life, I found people exhausting and just wanted to avoid them. Can you imagine?! I now see how spoilt I was.
I also realise how inspired I am by other people's presence: their quirks, their particular mannerisms, even just their features. In real life, features are more mobile and revealing than they are on Zoom. You need to be with a person to see them truly, to pick up their particular habits, their way of being. One upside of this experience is that the real presence of other people is now slightly magical – more uncanny, somehow, than a series of lights on a screen.
I also miss people as background: the murmur of voices in a crowded space, the way people you will never see again become, for an evening, familiar as furniture. I find the company of strangers inspiring – the presence of these other worlds next to your own. It puts you in perspective. I also think it might be an only child thing: my parents kept having to tell me not to stare, and I still need reminding.
Michael Haneke, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher)
Based on Elfride Jelinek's novel, La Pianiste is about a young man, Walter (Benoit Magimel), and his repressed middle-aged female piano teacher Erika (Isabelle Huppert). It's also about feeling and sentimentality. To me that's more important than the film's sexual storyline, which concerns her "extreme" tastes – it's a bit silly in places (and has dated).
What really moves me is that there is this charming person offering a lonely woman an emotional and sexual affair but, in her eyes, his desire stops short of real feeling. It's just sentiment; just sentimentality. It cannot be real feeling until the seduction is stripped away, and whatever is genuine remains.
The same, for her, goes for music: music cannot truly be a vehicle for feeling as long as the audience or performer is thinking, "I am feeling this thing. How wonderful. How extraordinary." Nor when they're just intoxicated, which blots out the value of the experience. We should be humble before extraordinary things, and not try to make them part of our armoury of charm, or a source of status.
So we have two different kinds of idealism, and the film shows us how they meet. In fact, both characters fail to practise what they preach – her aesthetic puritanism and his generous-hearted affection – and it is also about that hypocrisy.
Murder, Mystery and Makeup with Bailey Sarian
People may be horrified or sceptical, but I love this YouTube channel. Bailey Sarian narrates a true crime tale while doing her make up. At the end, the whole story is told, and her face is finished, too. It's appallingly unethical and I have to take a shower afterwards – but, in lockdown, I feel a lot can be forgiven. She's a talented make-up artist and the way she paces the storytelling to match her progress on her face is masterly. It's like watching someone pat their head and rub their tummy, or conduct with one hand and write with the other, and, for someone whose brain seems to have leaked out of his ears the last few months, it's been a godsend. All hail BS. Also one of the mysteries is so weird I can't stop thinking about it.
Francois Ozon, Le Temps Qui Reste (Time to Leave)
Spoiler alert: I'm going to give away almost everything that happens in this film. I've always loved Ozon's movies, especially Le Temps Qui Reste, because I saw it when I was young and it was the first film I'd seen starring an LGBTQ character where their sexuality is a given, rather than a source of personal crisis. Instead, the protagonist Romain (Melvil Poupaut) is an accomplished man who fluently inhabits a certain world – the Parisian gay underground, especially the club scene. Then one day he collapses while taking some photos (that's his job), and he's diagnosed, at thirty-one, with a terminal brain tumour.
Ozon allows history to haunt the film; we all know which illness gay men normally die from in cinema, but it's never mentioned. Refusing to explain what's happened, Romain abandons his family and lover in Paris and goes to see his grandmother, played with painful intensity by Jeanne Moreau. When she asks him why he has been able to open up to her, he replies, "Because you will also die soon".
The film's brilliance is in its lightness of touch. Under stress, Melvil becomes emotionally cruel. But there is a shift to tenderness in the middle of the story, when two strangers come up to him and say they think he's very handsome, and would he like to father their child? He agrees to give it a go. An uncomfortable and potentially exploitative situation is treated with compassion and even wit. In its calm attentiveness to a range of motives and feelings, this is a very non-judgemental film.
An exquisite final sequence involves Romain on a beach. We watch the sun setting behind him as he lies there, motionless. The world of families and sunseekers disperses, until it is just him in the gathering dark. We don't know whether or not he's died, just that he has allowed himself to disidentify with the world, and so, in a strange way, is now at one with it, like a natural feature, or a piece of flotsam.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman (See above)
Hello, Maman. The confrontational name feels redolent of the neurotic artist of stereotype, working out their feelings about their parents. But if you spend time with the sculpture you can see that assessment is unfair.
Being near it is an overwhelming experience. Bourgeois was unafraid to take up space, which should inspire any artist. She didn't allow the indifference of the world towards her work – which she had to deal with through the middle of her career – to put her off. Maman is huge.
When you're underneath it, it feels like a forest canopy, a cave, a roof, a cathedral ceiling, or a tower. It's a kind of archive of our various forms of shelter, all of them reflections of our dependency on our environment, and our ingenuity in changing it. It depicts a weaver, but it also looks woven: the metal is so tenderly moulded it could be thread. It's a vision of culture as a kind of making, arising from our need for refuge and our impulse to shape and decorate the spaces we shelter in.
It also helped cure my fear of spiders. Bourgeois said of her spider that she was "dainty, subtle and neat". And you can feel that when you're standing there. Maman is very pragmatic, and helping me see spiders differently was a very practical gift.
Maman directly influenced a sequence in Medea in Corinth in which Medea weaves an enchanted wedding dress for Creusa, her love rival. She's praying to Hecate to help her weave this dress, and at the end Hecate obliges by transforming into a spider.
All her legs surround me now. I squat like a runt beneath a sow, stopped heart of her body's hurricane.
I am in a world I do not know, where knowing has withered to a reflex, the hand that pits itself against the blade.
Then it is over.
We settle; I rest against her. She is busy, every leg moving, her body the loom, muscles its machine. As she works, she hums and chatters, old woman, old mistress of trades, keeping herself going.
Betty Davis, the queen of funk, had an equally talented husband called Miles. I found her by chance on YouTube ten years ago and I'm so glad I did. Long before Nasty Woman was on T-shirts, Nasty Gal was the name of her breakthrough 1976 album. "I ain't nothing but a nasty gal", she sings over the chorus of the title track. "You said I was a witch... You used to love to ride my broom, baby... You said I was an alleycat... You used to love it when I'd scratch and bite, baby."
Another standout, "F.U.N.K.", is her tribute to the Black pioneers of soul, funk, r&b and rock and roll. Its roll-call of artists is lent drama by the charisma of her delivery, which writes her into the same history. She sounds like she's laughing, just a little, at her audience; she introduced Miles to half these people, and they all know it. What's more, she knew that she hadn't yet got the audience she deserved, and why.
This track, "The Lone Ranger", takes on an archetype of American history. The lyrics are among her most haunting and pointed:
"Hey hey stranger
I hear they call you The Lone Ranger...
I will take that ride with you
I'm mighty thirsty...
Well when I'm done with you
Your ridin' days will be over."
The song shows off her sense of humour – at the end, we hear the fading clip-clop of hooves. Has he said no? Or has she made off with his horse?
My favourite things about Davis include her attention to detail - is she laughing? Is she howling in fury? It can certainly shift in three bars. There's also her self-awareness. What's your fantasy about me, she asks her different communities of listeners, and are you going to own it?
Ben Morgan is a poet and academic based in Oxford, UK. His first poetry pamphlet, Medea in Corinth: Poems, Prayers, Letters, and a Curse, was published by Poetry Salzburg in 2018. It retold the famous myth through poetic letters, spells, prayers, sonnets and songs, as well as theatrical interludes. He has also published poems in Oxford Poetry and at The Sunday Tribune and The High Window. He has taught Shakespeare studies and early modern literature at a number of colleges in Oxford and is completing a monograph on Shakespeare and human rights for Princeton University Press.