Enjoy access to our current issue! For full access to our entire archive subscribe now

Social Distortions

Caught in the Act of Being Ourselves
Illustration by Pablo Amargo

The flawed image of a loved one can be painful to look at—more painful even than an image of oneself. A “bad photo” of me can still be an opportunity for remediation. I can train myself, maybe, to squint less while smiling, to stop craning my neck, to run a hand through my hair before it comes to look as clamped to my head as the calyx on top of an eggplant. There is the hope, however doomed or daft, that who I am, who I think I am, and who I seem to be might all magically converge, all glitches and discontinuities burned away. I can stop misrepresenting myself, this little hope goes. People will see what I am.

But when the image of someone I love makes them look awkward or unpleasant, complications arise. Telling another person to try displaying himself differently—to defend himself better against what the camera can do—would be both hurtful and presumptuous, while also revealing my own imperfectly concealed vanity. Wasn’t one upshot of the relentless proliferation of images supposed to be a greater insouciance about any particular specimen? And yet I care too much. If an overdose of photographs and videos has rendered me a mere “tourist of reality,” as Susan Sontag put it in On Photography, why don’t I feel the tourist’s snug security, the assurance that I can end my romp through the world’s visual circus whenever I want?

Something in the air—maybe the ambient pressure to construct, record, and disseminate an encounter between my child and a “smash cake” at his first birthday; maybe the request to aid in documenting my sibling’s “surprise” at receiving a proposal of marriage; maybe the current media craze for polyamory-adjacent narratives, with their moment de rigueur in which our three-dimensional protagonist notes with pleasure or dismay how they are transformed into a two-dimensional flicker on an app—has drawn me toward works of art in which one or both members of a couple must reckon with how the other person comes across as an image for the consumption of others. Chance helped: The formidable, generous, and brilliant website Le Cinema Club, which hosts free streams, with commentary, of one film every week, offered up Sophie Calle and Greg Shephard’s documentary/performance-art film Double-Blind earlier this winter. The Metropolitan Museum of Art currently has on view in its galleries Ilene Segalove’s video The Mom Tapes. And the Criterion Channel is showing the documentaries of Canadian filmmaker Allan King, including the landmark of cinema verité A Married Couple. There I had it: a bouquet of duos watching each other being watched, watching their images disseminate with varying degrees of gusto and varying degrees of glitch.

Double-Blind (sometimes known by its alternate title No Sex Last Night) is an experiment in road-trip auto-documentary, wherein the French writer and multi-genre artist Sophie Calle arrives on the East Coast to link up with the American artist and gallerist Greg Shephard, who agrees to drive her across the country and deposit her safely in California, where a teaching job awaits her. Calle and Shephard have half-joked about promising to marry each other in Las Vegas. They have decided to create dueling camcorder accounts of the trip and turn the two narratives into one film. The journey itself—the drive, the pit stops, even the stop at the wedding chapel—is a performance piece that Calle and Shephard enact first for each other and the camera, knowing that some future audience lies in wait.

Calle announces at the start that the trip will be “a double failure” if she cannot properly commemorate her friend, the French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, who has just died of AIDS. Shephard has promised Calle that he will drive her to the shoreline so that she can stand there at precisely the same time that other friends across the Atlantic are burying Guibert on the island of Elba. “It is the first promise he skipped,” Calle announces to the viewer. Calle still reaches the water, wondering if she is too late, and performs her rituals of mourning, which Shephard captures in grainy, somber video stills.

We can see from the first minutes of the film that the couple is doomed: Sophie has already decided to feel impatient and irritated with a man-child who is perpetually reluctant, lazy, and late. Because of this, she can’t see that he’s sensitive, devoted, patient, and curious. Greg’s diagnosis—“The problem is, I need her too much to like her,” he says in voiceover—seems to have led him to the strange conclusion that forcing himself to maintain a colossal indifference toward her is the only way to clear room for genuine affection to take root. Because of this, he won’t tolerate the pleasures of banter, flirtation, tangential rambling, or any of the other ways in which two people cope with the fearsome predicament of each other’s ultimate unknowability. He attempts to temper his love for her by calling and writing to other women throughout the trip. Over and over, she finds ways to tell him what a disappointment he is. In one scene, they film each other while having an argument. The two dark camcorders hover over their eyes and noses like the helmet visors of jousting knights.

Double-Blind refers to the collaborator-antagonists’ inability to see each other head-on. Their blindness arises in part because they’ve already decided what the other person is, and perhaps from looking too much at the image on tape and not enough at the person beyond the camcorder’s plastic defenses. The film’s title also hearkens back to Calle’s earlier project Blind (1986-1989), a multimedia installation in which she assembled photographic portraits of blind people alongside text from interviews in which she’d asked them to talk about things they find beautiful. She is doubling back on her fascination with the extreme poles of perception and imperception (or misperception), now substituting a psychological inability for a physical disability, a colloquial “blind spot.” (In the film, Greg is frequently in sunglasses even when the surrounds seem far from bright, one more wall against the intrusions of feeling that also dissolves his own particularity into a more generic effigy of “cool.”) 

Disability activists and scholars have questioned Calle’s motivations and execution in Blind, noting that the surface-level empathy of the project disguises the massive imbalance of power between artist and subject, creating a final product that says more about, and speaks more to, Calle and other sighted people—what “we” find poignant, or ironic, or strikingly disjunctive—than it does about the subjects, whose relationship to the images that their words conjure might be entirely otherwise. Fair point, though a lesser degree of that same problem might plague every still or moving-image documentary project. That Calle and Shephard could later view, and in fact edit, how Sophie and Greg come across onscreen does not erase the possibility of dramatic irony, of our knowing something they do not or interpreting them differently than they interpret themselves. They can see the film they’re making, but the viewer might have more insight as to what they’ve actually accomplished.

A double-blinded trial, of course, is also a classic experimental model in which neither the researchers nor the participants know whether a given participant is getting the stated intervention—the real thing—or a control, a substitute. This kind of experiment is the sine qua non of scientific dispassion: no one’s yearnings, no one’s biases or beliefs interrupt the steady aggregation of data. Except, insofar as it is also one of humanity’s most powerful achievements, it is the opposite of love. It relentlessly accounts for, and essentially subtracts out, how you might happen to feel or what you might suspect is happening. What’s left is a bare comparison of effects.

In The Mom Tapes, the artist Ilene Segalove performs a similar feat in her method of portraying her mother Elaine—not as an entire person, but as the character she plays in her daughter’s life. She films her mother at home in their palatial suburban house, offering patient advice to the unseen Ilene on how to handle boredom, where to buy things like raincoats and steaks, and how to obtain money (“Ask your dad”). The house is shot to play up the sense of endlessness and redundancy: Elaine walks into a room and a second Elaine appears in the cold expanse of the mirrored closet doors. She mounts an odd, shoulder-height mini-mezzanine or half-landing alongside the living room. (“The view from here is great. I can see the downstairs area as well as the entire city.”) 

Elaine’s lines have both a naturalness and a quirky particularity to them such that I can’t help believing that every single phrase is something she once spontaneously said. (On her thwarted creative ambitions: “I would take a drawing class and right away they’d stick a wine bottle and some plastic fruit in front of me and tell me to draw it. Maybe I went to the wrong schools.” On the size of her house: “I sure do a lot of walking here. But they say it’s good for you, whoever ‘they’ are.”) Yet her intonation in the film—sometimes singsong, other times halting at syntactically bizarre moments—suggests she’s often reading from a script or cue cards. The total effect, an artificial method of redelivering her own natural speech for a camera, bleaches away any of the protective, reassuring coziness of hearing a loved one’s patter, the familiar aural shape of its curves and edges. Instead, the mother’s image and gestures alone remain, intact but stark, like pieces of coral picked clean on the beach.

There’s a muffled sorrow in The Mom Tapes that seems to come from Ilene, the daughter-director, as the camera takes note of the enormity of this gilded cage, the sense of smallness and futility that settles on the people within it. Watching Elaine slowly adjust the incline on her motorized bed, or diligently handle the layers of glass door and screen door between house and veranda, feels a bit like watching an animal or a small child handle the kind of “toy” meant to curb fidgeting or deliver food and water at a glacial, restrictive pace. Ilene commits to every second of such acts, never cutting away until the superfluous gesture is fully accomplished. Tapes is also curious about Elaine’s artistic propensities, allowing her to air her disappointments and frustrations about not having developed a latent talent, while showing, with rigorous dispassion, enough of her attempts and her surrounds that the audience doubts that Elaine’s only problem was inadequate teaching. With her Pat Nixon hair and her flower doodles, Elaine appears to be the kind of person who enjoys order, convention, and ease—hardly the archetypal artistic temperament of her historical moment. Ilene’s intentions in showing us all this are never quite clear. Is there something a touch malicious in showing us her mother’s limited gifts, her slightly pathetic self-conception as an artist manqué? Or is it a mark of Ilene’s tolerance and compassion that she allows her mother to display herself in full, a bundle of flaws and idiosyncrasies perhaps the more lovable for them?

Elaine is matronly, a bit prim, artistically ineffectual—and yet, somehow, she has raised the artist who is making The Mom Tapes. As the performance unfolds, she at least occasionally appears to be in on the joke. Toward the end of the house tour, she clambers back indoors through a hip-high window, turning to grin at the camera, while a hiding but visible assistant helps her over the sill. In another section, she complains in voiceover about how tiresome it is to wear sun protection and care for one’s skin—then, abruptly, the on-screen Elaine dons a Halloween-style rubber mask over her bathing suit and starts swimming across the backyard pool. (The mask’s face, too, is that of a comically exaggerated pinup girl, with cigarette and spiraling black beehive—a conventional image of glamour, made wildly unconventional by medium and circumstance.) Whoever may have devised these abrupt departures in tone, they require a willing collaboration between filmmaker and subject. 

The moments in which that dance is apparent come as a giddy relief for the viewer, and perhaps for the two Segaloves. Both women have permitted a strangeness and a silliness to steal over the project, and in these moments we no longer quite feel that we’re watching an Ibsen heroine who doesn’t know she’s in an Ibsen play. The pathos of the mother’s desire to have been an artist is mitigated, at least a little, by the consolation of participating in—truly participating, and not just being passively caught by—her daughter’s art. 

The dissonance between the prim and the more freewheeling sections of The Mom Tapes feels just tenable enough within the confabulating vortex of Hollywood and all the caprice and contradiction it stands for. (Segalove repeatedly shows us the view of Los Angeles sprawling off in the distance below the family home.) For Canadian documentary filmmaker Allan King, shooting A Married Couple in a well-to-do neighborhood of Toronto posed a different challenge of place. In a late-career interview, he offered his theory of Canadian “repression,” citing the outsized historical presence of immigrants from Ulsterite and Scottish backgrounds, for whom finance-related industries were traditionally major sources of employment. “For accountants, bankers, and insurance people,” King says, “fiction [is] close to lying and much disapproved of.” Since all art is artifice, imagination itself can reek of cooking the books. Why say or show something that isn’t quite verifiable truth? 

Setting aside whether King is right about his home (twentieth-century titan of fiction Mavis Gallant, among millions of others, might disagree as to whether Canadians can productively confabulate), his interest in sorting and then shuffling true and not-true gives us a way into understanding one of his most famous works. Filmed over the summer of 1968, A Married Couple follows Billy and Antoinette Edwards as they gain comfort with the camera (King’s two-person crew shot over seventy hours of footage across ten weeks) and lose their tolerance for marriage and each other. This being well before the advent of reality television (King called the project an “actuality drama”) or even the home camcorder, Billy and Antoinette are at first figuring out whether, and how, to be theatrical. 

Some of their routine arguments, such as Billy’s half-kidding, half-spiteful complaint that he alone earns money while Antoinette spends it profligately, are such clichés of the patriarchal household that they feel lifted verbatim from I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners. Yet they seem to come up too often to suggest two comics in control of their sketch material. Antoinette seems to perpetually believe she’s one purchase away from becoming an attractive, interesting, and happy person, and Billy is perpetually ready to remind her that she’s incapable of meaningful change. (“I know you—and cookie, you’re not going to get any of them learning-French records in. ’Cause I know what’ll happen: your vocabulary would not increase as much as the thickness of the dust that would fall on the covers of those albums.” “You don’t need a harpsichord. I’ll get you a harmonica.”) They are both hamming it up and in real pain. The first time they’re seen naked in bed together onscreen, it’s viscerally uncomfortable to watch Antoinette scoot away inch by inch while Billy tries out various jokes as pretexts to move closer. She’s waiting, perhaps, for the cameramen to go home. Or maybe she does just want to read and then sleep. He seems eager to press his point while the cameras, and the men behind them, are there to bear witness to how diligent, how funny, how winsome he is. 

Sometimes husband and wife are both preening, for the camera or for others. Each spends a remarkable amount of time topless, pants-less, or both. The crew follows them to a summer party in a house full of artists, where Billy poses in a toga for a painter’s vast canvas, while Antoinette accepts the attentions of a man who peppers her with questions about her and Billy’s sleeping arrangements. Throughout the film, King and his team often favor giving us a shot in which the more contrivedly theatrical spouse is unseen or only partially seen, the better for the audience to hear just how hard he or she is trying to captivate our imagined attention. (When the camera accedes to this trying and puts that person squarely in the middle of the frame, we are less likely to notice their effort as something peculiar or artificial: the conventions of movie-watching have trained us to largely accept that if a shot is focused on a particular person, they must indeed be doing something that ought to captivate us.) One night they confess to each other just how much they want to be famous and universally beloved. “And then I’d like [people] to say, ‘Why couldn’t I be like that?’” Antoinette adds with a bashful smile.

The project gets more painful to watch the more the couple forgets the cameras. Earlier on, self-consciousness seemed to stifle both the upper and lower ranges of their characters, the dire and the sublime, often leaving us with the gaudy middle reaches of everyday patter that feel half-plagiarized from sitcoms, shopping catalogs, and self-help books. Later, their growing disinhibition gives us the full extent of who they are. Watching them do a goofy interpretive dance in their living room to the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” is painful in its exaltation because it’s the kind of thing many of us (certainly I) have done with someone loved and trusted enough to be silly and unguarded with. If even this kind of open-hearted playfulness can’t save their relationship, I find myself thinking, then God help the rest of us. 

Watching Billy grab and shove Antoinette by the neck provokes a different but related form of suffering in the viewer: If these people play Beatles records and bicker about kitchen renovations and flirt at house parties and pose in silly costumes for a friend’s art project, then being grabbed and shoved can happen to anyone. The delightful, the frivolous, and the monstrous do not live in different zones or respect each other’s territories; they are cohabitant. Antoinette’s longed-for “Why couldn’t I be like that?” becomes, for the viewer, “What stops me from being like that?”—to which the answer is precisely nothing.

Not long after A Married Couple premiered to great fanfare and attention, garnering Billy and Antoinette the fame, if not the universal love, they craved, the couple divorced. Remarkably, King had given them daily rushes of the documentary in progress and veto power over the footage. But neither knowledge nor power is enough to sustain a real-life couple in the absence of something more. The charge leveled at the film upon its release—that the act of documenting this couple actually undid their relationship or hastened its demise—strikes me as just slightly off the mark. A camera mutes or sharpens various aspects of self, sure, but it seems to me that the bigger behavioral nudge was not the time spent in front of the camera but rather the experience of watching their life flipped back upon them. 

Is there such a thing as too much seeing? In Apuleius’s narration of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche is allowed to keep her husband as long as she doesn’t get a good look at him during his nightly visits. Of course she can’t resist. “O rash and bold lamp, the vile ministry of love” as William Adlington’s Elizabethan translation has it. Illumination is the pesky bane, as well as one of the chief operations, of love.

We will, in the future, perhaps have fewer instances of being startled by how someone we care for shows up on film or in other forms of visual reproduction. Already I have the option of receiving automated recordings of almost every meeting I attend; there are over twenty-five thousand known surveillance cameras on the streets of New York City, where I live; 3.2 billion new photographs are added to social media each day; Psyche’s Cupid and we ordinary humans alike are bombarded by photons at every turn. Digital impressions of the light rebounding off our bodies are accumulating at an accelerated clip. In my work as a hospital doctor, it became commonplace during the pandemic for patients, even unconscious ones, to be put on FaceTime or other forms of video call so that family members outside the hospital could see what was happening. The same holds true in many day cares, classrooms, zoos, known hawk and owl roosts, and more, often for motivations purported to be adjacent to love and care. Perhaps seeing such things all the time will inspire a kind of wise equanimity; perhaps not. (Apuleius repeatedly tells us of Psyche’s “trembling” during and after her gazing.) Until and unless we achieve that sangfroid, artists and filmmakers will continue to wield the ambivalent, uneasy power to unsettle by making us witness how love reacts to its object’s reproduction—with great brio, ardor, and distress all at once. 

Share —
Published: June 13, 2024

Pablo Amargo’s work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Jot Down Magazine, and National Geographic, among others. He has also designed book covers and posters. Amargo has received several significant illustration awards throughout his career, including the National Spanish Award, the...