What the Center Holds: On Carl Elsaesser’s “Home When You Return”
By Hannah BonnerMay 18, 2023
In his experimental documentary short Home When You Return (2021), which came to the Criterion Channel in April as part of their Prismatic Ground festival series, director Carl Elsaesser interlays melodrama with archival footage as tenderly as an actress blotting lipstick on a handkerchief. Home’s guiding motifs—sweeping scores, domestic interiors, female protagonists, ornate opening credits—visually and sonically recall auteurs such as Douglas Sirk, who made Hollywood melodramas and woman’s pictures of the 1940s and ’50s, colloquially known as “weepies.” Film historian Linda Williams defines melodramas as one of three “body genres,” alongside horror and pornography, because it involuntarily moves audiences physically, in this case to tears. There is a temporality to this genre—of yearning for what might have been but never was; of lovers who attempt to reconcile but who miss their chance by minutes, moments; of characters cloaking themselves in melancholy when confronted with an unattainable future and an irrecoverable past.
Elsaesser’s film embraces such temporal friction by bringing the past to bear on the present. Throughout its 30-minute runtime, Home juxtaposes three women’s lives: Mary Patricia Wuest (Elsaesser’s deceased grandmother); filmmaker Joan Thurber; and Carrie, the protagonist of Thurber’s low-budget melodrama A Change of Scene (1957), played by Thurber herself. Home intersperses footage and sound from Thurber’s A Change of Scene with scenes of Wuest’s now unoccupied house. The camera lingers in Wuest’s living rooms or bedrooms, while audio from A Change of Scene chronicles breakups, domestic quarrels, and reconciliations. And Elsaesser does not just juxtapose these three women but also visually links them through a recurrent blur or smudge across their faces and names.
A summary of Elsaesser’s film might look like this: a woman introduces the picture we are about to watch and the credits roll; various shots show the deceased grandmother’s empty house, worn with use—an avocado kitchen with a lazy Susan, a carpet imprinted from what might have been a side table; the contents of a family letter scroll across the screen, while instrumental, ominous music plays; a smoke alarm sounds off-screen, crying out for a new battery replacement, the beep, annoying but rhythmic, sonically stretching the present moment as we wait, poised for it to end.
In other words, this is not a narrative film. Rather, Home When You Return is a film about silences, gaps, liminal spaces, and absences freighted by the passage of time. In an interview, Chantal Akerman said of her oeuvre, “We sense time, so we sense ourselves.” Like Akerman, Elsaesser embraces the attrition of time through his soundscape, his smudge, and Thurber’s archival footage. If the etymology of melodrama is melos, the succession of musical tones constituting a melody, Elsaesser’s film adheres to the strictures of the melodramatic mode through overwrought scores, heightened emotional situations that involve death or the possibility of divorce, and the centrality of domestic spaces run by matriarchs. Yet, it is through juxtaposing his own documentary footage and Thurber’s fictional film that Elsaesser orchestrates an experimental dialectic. Combining melodrama’s legibility and performative documentary’s intrusion of the director’s voice, style, and subjectivity, Elsaesser links these modes of visual storytelling through the smudge.
Elsaesser’s decision to smudge Carrie, Wuest, and Thurber’s faces formally groups the three matriarchs, while erasing their visages from view. The smudge becomes a site of visceral intensity, a mark that threatens to both obliterate and connect. It is the smudge that I can’t scrub out of my mind months after first watching the film. Like a thumbprint or tear, the smudge touches me. It suggests a hand or a handling, imbuing the viewer with affective possibility.
What is the effect (and the affect) of the smudge-as-signifier? What does it express that a sharper image would obscure? The smudge is softer, gauzier than a redaction’s blunt black strip. There is an inherent violence to the effacement of a person or document, while also, paradoxically, such erasure “renders a certain visibility to redacted information,” writes Anthony Downey. Rendering the everyday life of an ordinary woman as special is central to the allure of the woman’s picture, and in Home, the women become more visible to us due to their lack of legibility. Their ordinariness, erased by the smudge, transforms them as objects of mystique.
We’ve witnessed such paradoxes around visibility and invisibility both on- and off-camera. A ray of light completely obliterates the subject’s face in photographer Duane Michals’s “The Illuminated Man” (1968), as if the figure is a redaction’s negative. The glare of light suggests looking too hard, while the smudge suggests loving too hard, touching an object without careful consideration. In Home, the smudge serves as redaction and remnant, a tactile quality to it unlike the precise geometry of a line. After the initial frame of black, enriched by atmospheric noises, Home opens with Thurber’s archival footage. It is in this second shot where we encounter the smudge across her face. Dressed in a tawny turtleneck with black slacks and a red belt, Thurber checks her wristwatch as the camera zooms in on her blurred face. The celluloid flickers, flashes, and cuts to an establishing shot of Thurber’s study. She walks into the frame and begins to speak, leaning over her cluttered desk and gazing directly into the camera.
But we cannot return Thurber’s gaze, nor can we hear her voice. In addition to digitally blurring Thurber’s face, the soundscape is nondiegetic. Elsaesser amplifies prerecorded creaks of a chair, as well as footsteps across a hardwood floor. A clock ticks lambently but persistently in the background, as noises from the present overlay images from the past. Just as Thurber’s face is “marked,” Elsaesser brings his mark to bear on the soundscape, a sonic and visual ghost from the future quietly returning to the 1950s.
An intertitle reads, “My name is — as you probably know. I’m here to introduce the film you are about to see.” Through this announcement, Thurber becomes a metonym or conduit not just for Elsaesser’s grandmother but for Elsaesser as well. Thurber introduces her film (which is also Elsaesser’s) with a set of budgetary restrictions familiar to any contemporary working artist, intimating a metatextual affinity between the two directors.
Gilles Deleuze writes in The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1988) that “if two really distinct things can be inseparable, two inseparable things can be really distinct.” Elsaesser embraces this fold, as figures become both “inseparable” and “distinct,” his own spectral presence holding the edges of the diegesis in place. Ergo, when Thurber concludes that “[this film] takes place in a quaint house that looks a lot like yours. And like any film about a woman, it’s centered around a man. But what happens when the center cannot h—” we are primed to read the subsequent domestic spaces in Home as interchangeable. Thurber’s introductory remarks cut on a half-finished thought, the famous adage from W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” written at the end of World War I, that “the center cannot hold.”
Like the tension between modernism and antiquity in Yeats’s poem, Elsaesser’s film blurs 20th and 21st-century spaces and individuals. However, under the artistry of Elsaesser, such blurring does not suggest that things fall apart in toto, but that there may be many centers, not just one. To wit, Jonathan Goldberg notes that “[m]elodrama is a genre that is not one.” Elsaesser visualizes an aggregation of feminine identity and the paradox of melodrama as being singular stories that remain emotionally universal. The “center” of these women is multiplied but tenuous: we know them in the context of the smudge. As Goldberg elaborates, “Melodramas may convey the message that ‘you can’t escape what you are’ […] but what you are is not one thing.”
When Thurber states that her film is “centered around a man,” the statement becomes pronged, addressing both the love story in her narrative and Elsaesser’s presence on- and off-camera. While three women serve as the protagonists for Home, Elsaesser is the spectral fourth in his own movie, the man who tells this story and who blends all the elements—fiction and documentary, faces and names—into an impressionistic meditation on decor, domesticity, and gender. Toward the film’s conclusion, Elsaesser’s rear-projected shadow walks through Wuest’s house, a shadow of the patriarchal archetype putting the children (who are now adults) to bed. The sequence is both ludic and mournful, a cinematic technique recalling Classical Hollywood aesthetics, as well as an idealized nuclear family unit that no longer exists. Elsaesser’s body playfully undercuts and underscores Thurber’s claim that this film (hers and Elsaesser’s) is centered around a man. Yes, the frame foregrounds Elsaesser, but he is only a disembodied shadow within his own family’s history.
While in Home Elsaesser’s body is more spectral, in his 2020 love letter to domesticity, Itinerary of Surfaces, he is corporeal, viscerally realized as a body that can cum, spit, or sweat. And yet, if we think of both of these films as queer domestic dramas, Elsaesser’s approach matches a summation of Ron Kirby’s (played by gay icon Rock Hudson) adage in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955): home is where you are yourself. Historically, the home for women has been a place of confinement, but Elsaesser follows what Goldberg defines as melodrama’s “sameness in difference”—that is, the home as a historically feminine space now allows for burgeoning new futurities. Elsaesser imbues this home with his own desires, narratives, and possibilities for transcending the gendered restrictions of the matriarchs who came before him. In these same spaces, Elsaesser’s body connotes repetition of these previous narratives, but with a difference. When a queer ancestor positions himself at the hearth of the home, at the heart of the story, what does that telling look like? Is it clear or smudged? Can the center hold, or is it all just too late?
The smudge is not just proof of touch but also evidence of cinema’s corporeal life, a celluloid body capable of demonstrating wear and tear. As French film critic Serge Daney writes, “There is a dimension to cinephilia which psychoanalysis knows well under the name of ‘mourning work’: something is dead, something of which traces, shadows remain.” In constructing a film as much about temporality as it is about grief, Elsaesser is as attentive to the materiality and historicity of melodrama as he is to the mundanity of funereal rites. Halfway through the film, Elsaesser’s hands reach into the back of a painting to pull out a letter from his mother. It chronicles, in real time, the rapid decline of his grandmother’s health. The sound of wind fills the diegesis; in the background, an autumn tree quakes. As the contents of the letter become progressively bleak, fake snow falls on the tree, and the leaves blow off one by one.
This moment recalls Thurber’s opening credits sequence in A Change of Scene (which becomes the opening credits sequence for Home), in which fabric leaves fall into the frame in varying shades of ocher, carmine, and gold. Only a year earlier, Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) opened with a tree thrashing against a brick facade and windswept autumn leaves scattering across a marble foyer as Frank Skinner’s score soared. If the temporal structure of melodramas is “too late!” as Linda Williams would have it, then these women in Elsaesser’s film are in their autumn years, nearing the cold casket of winter but still clinging to their vibrant colors, similar to Cary in All That Heaven Allows, Emmi in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and (to a lesser degree) Cathy in Far from Heaven (2002). At the start of these films, each woman sits in the doldrums of domestic familiarity, waiting for a new chapter of her life to begin. Autumn, as John Keats writes, is the season where we watch “the last oozings, hours by hours,” and Elsaesser renders the oozings as stains or smudges, at once indeterminate and multivalent across his protagonists’ faces.
The brooding, instrumental score in Home plays as Elsaesser’s mother’s letter continues to scroll across the screen. The melodramatic music, coupled with heavy visual symbolism, culminates with the words “Sweetheart, as I was writing this — took her last breath.” A sound of paper rustles, a sonic signal of the present tense, of reading the letter in real time. When the letter concludes, Elsaesser cuts to himself, sitting between his parents as they hold a painting of Wuest’s and gaze directly into the camera. These faces, open, accessible, and clear to the viewer, look forward in an exchange of reciprocity Elsaesser denies Home’s three female characters.
Shortly after a series of shots of family members posing with Wuest’s paintings, Elsaesser features real-time shots of his grandmother’s body in rigor mortis lying in a nursing home bed under a floral coverlet. The blur becomes, in some ways, a mercy. The shots, captured shortly after Wuest’s death, spare us Wuest’s eyes, while refusing to cut away from the verity and diachrony of her death. We are protected from the empty gaze of a corpse, concurrently troubled by Wuest’s doubled effacement from both death and the smudge.
If effacement can both protect one’s identity and violate one’s ipseity, what is the responsibility of the viewer in bearing witness? We understand ourselves through exposure to the other’s alterity, but Home troubles the concept of exposure to another, as the women in the film are faceless. We cannot face the other’s face—and, in turn, know ourselves. In his notes while making the film, Elsaesser writes, “I can’t shake this idea of a witness to the film. I want to make a film with a witness.” In making the film, he has arrived just in time to bear witness, but we, the viewers, are too late.
Early film critic Béla Balázs posits that words are more time-constrained than facial expressions, because their meaning is contingent on sequential logic; the face ruptures time’s linearity in ways that words cannot. In close-ups of facial expressions, we see not a singular expression but a multiplicity of thoughts, feelings, and affects bristling under the surface before solidifying into being. It is the close-up, Balázs posits, that is “the naturalism of love.” If we take Balázs’s assertion as gospel, we must again consider what the close-up smudge does when it supplants the face. Whether a watermark, a stain, a tear, or some other bodily secretion, the smudge suggests perpetual touch across time. Objects wear down from (over)use; research, labor, care, and love are just some of the ways that such corrosion might occur. Touch is not always borne out of love or violence, nor are these two impulses mutually exclusive. It is that very indeterminacy of the smudge that accentuates Elsaesser’s film, evoking touch and touching the viewer in return. Ever-present, ever whorled, the smudge is a center that holds but does not foreclose meaning, mourning, or some revelation at hand.
Hannah Bonner is currently a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Iowa.
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