i would find my way
around this evergreen
-Assotto Saint, “The Language of Dust”
It’s time for Round 2 of “But is it an essay?” In this series, I ask writers and essayists to consider whether or not a work of art qualifies as an essay. Catch up on the first round here if you missed it.
This month, we’re looking at Last Address, a short film by Ira Sachs. It is available on this website, and is described by Sachs as follows:
“The list of New York artists who died of AIDS over the last 30 years is countless, and the loss immeasurable. Last Address uses images of the exteriors of the houses, apartment buildings, and lofts where these and others were living at the time of their deaths to mark the disappearance of a generation. The film is a remembrance of that loss, as well as an evocation of the continued presence of these artists work in our lives and culture.”
Cities, essays, and films can all hold memory differently, with different tools. Likewise, New York City and San Francisco hold memory differently from each other, as do Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and The Rings of Saturn, as do Hiroshima Mon Amour and How to Survive a Plague. Yet all strike me as objects whose substance is memory, and whose memories accrue with each walk, each viewing, each reading.
Sachs describes Last Address as both a “remembrance” and an “evocation of the continued presence.” In this way, I think of it as a film that honors the wayward ghostliness of memory, which makes me want to call it an essay.
Read what other writers had to say, and contribute your own thoughts and arguments in the comments.
This video-work is an essay. The intention with which it sees tells something. It is rigorous in its stillness.
I’m not shown the interiors of these homes, only the outside of buildings. I’m left to imagine the private: an argument, the whistle of a teakettle, an affectionate squeeze in passing, the indignities of a failing body, terror. I can also assume that for the most part, the scenery—sun, traffic, people, wind—of the exteriors have remained the same. Buildings outlast their tenants. The world goes on, and part of that is remembering.
I am reminded of the video maker, Ira Sachs, as the camera shakes slightly in its framing. He is witness, rememberer, mourner. He seeks clues, contact with these artists he respected or loved. He loves the idea of their existence. Who is the one who remembers? Who tries to see through walls and touch the actuality that someone, a specific someone, was here.
I live in the city that is captured or depicted in this film. New Yorkers have an acute sense of place and temporality. For most of us, the concept of home is not so fixed. We move from one street, neighborhood, and borough to the next. But to cease to exist in this city is its own thing. There is finality in a “last address.”
Buried in every granule and angle of the city’s architecture are moments, gestures, love, unremarkable incidents, memories, death. Places are events of living, of people and moments, no matter how hidden their imprints become. There is hope in the thought that there might always be someone who is left, willing or burdened to remember.
Usually, our generic category names for works of visual art identify its medium. Painting, sculpture, video, photography. Performance art, dance, installation art, drawings – these refer not to material but to activity. In writing, we tend to identify works not by material (but that’s an interesting notion, everything being known only as “paper”) but by genre. Poem, novel, play, memoir. The trouble being none of us can agree on what belongs to which genre. I think part of the reason we are all still mystified by what “essay” means or can mean is that “essay” can refer to the thing but also to the activity that made the thing; I can’t think of any other literary artwork’s name being so slippery.
Anyway, we already have a perfectly solid name for the category of “Last Address.” It’s a film. (Or, more precisely, it’s “video art,” as it was likely not imprinted onto literal film.) But it was filmed, and we watch it. In order for us to claim that it’s an essay, we have to first assume that “essay” doesn’t refer only to things on paper. Is it a “video essay?” Just like a focused series of photographs can be called a “photo essay.” Why don’t we refer to essays in print as “paper essays?” Probably because we like picking things up and putting them into boxes so much. And we like a thing to go into the box that has the thing’s name on it. Sometimes I wonder if we have too many boxes and not enough things.
I watch “Last Address” and I don’t want to call it only “a film.” The artist might have accomplished the same stated intention of this artwork by pushing thumbtacks into a map. Or taking a snapshot of each of these buildings and pinning them all to a wall. In both cases, we’d be able to stand before a list of addresses and be informed that they represent the last known address of 30 artists in NYC who died of AIDS. But because it’s a film, and I watch it, and what I watch in each shot is a building set in moving time—a white van skimming by, a loiterer leaning on a car, birds chasing each other, and somehow, most wrenching of all, a cloud’s shadow moving over the flank of a mid-rise—I also experience the activity that made the thing. I’m aware instantly that the moving time I’m watching was recorded later than the artist lived. I’m invited to think about how a building can survive its inhabitants, and why. How a city is made up of buildings. How an address is only a number on a street until you know the name that goes there – the box where the thing belongs. I’m made to wonder what happens if we forget the names.
Is it an essay? Yes.
A friend of mine, Jim Hennigan, is a retired homicide detective in Chicago. At first look, he’s what you might expect—the strong, silent type, with a stern brow and a mustache, the tough stuff of Irish immigrants and Vietnam vets—but get to know him and he’ll constantly surprise you. He’ll start talking about the opera or instinctual behavior in cats or the architecture of downtown Kyoto. And when you go for a drive with him, he might casually mention the gunshot victim on this corner or the decomposing body found under that overpass.
Once, after breakfast, when my wife and I were heading back to the Loop with him, we passed a hotel and he told us about a guy who tied the sheets together, tightened them around his neck, and leapt from the window. The suicide didn’t work. The sheets didn’t manage to choke him. Not, that is, until his girlfriend came back into the room, saw him, and panicked. In trying to pull him up, she managed to cut off his air supply and kill him.
My point is that Jim sees an entirely different Chicago than I see. Among the everyday people going about their everyday lives, he sees the bodies, the lost souls who never made it home. He’d give me shit for romanticizing it like that, but I’ve always found something reassuring about him being there, remembering these deaths, these moments nobody else will or wants to. In him, something about the city—maybe even something about these victims—lives on. Memories, after all, reside in us and so, perhaps, do the those we remember who are otherwise gone.
(Here’s a work of graphic nonfiction called “Two Little Girls” about Jim working a case everyone else wants to forget: http://harrisonfillmore.tumblr.com/.)
Has anything changed more in the last fifty years of literary studies and creative writing and and and and than the essay?
Let me recall your attention and your memory to a few past definitions:
the essay feasts on doubt
the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt
the essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are full aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief
the iron law of the essay is heresy
what do I know?
essay = attempt, trial at self-portrayal
a literary device for saying almost anything about anything
an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance
There was a time in which the essay was only seen as a text. And there was a time in which text meant letters scrawled or printed or etched in ink or chalk or marker or pencil or pastel or toner. But now there are multiplicities of texts, of writing instruments, of surfaces on which to display those texts.
So, today when I am asked, is Last Address an essay? I would like to first say that I think of essays as bodies. Another way to say this is to say that I think of essays as bodies. And what that means is that an essay can be an actual body. And an advertisement. And a logo. And a dance. And a gesture. And a shoe. And a buzzfeed post. And a lipsync performance. And a song. And a string of facial expressions. And the silhouette of a ballgown. And the tailoring of a well-made suit. And the opening credits of a television show. And a culinary concoction. And a photograph. And. And. And. And. And.
But, I would also say that there is a place where a body ends, and that place is like a paper cut-out. Can we identify a paper doll without the negative space defined by the implied pair of scissors? Can something be an essay without the construction of space, without embodying the physical and figurative form of the container?
Ira Sachs’ has taken the liberty of creating a last address of the many figures who died of AIDS (or its related casualties) by naming their corporeal bodies (first name / last name) and their residential bodies (street number / street name). Sometimes the stills are unimpressively expected of New York habitual life. Sometimes the stills evoke their absence, either through an address that no longer exists, or through the haunting feeling that comes from some other place. If you visit www.lastaddress.org, you will find that we are not simply asking if the film itself is an essay. But we are also asking whether the box of the website which displays a list of hyperactive names above a Vimeo video embedded within this box is an essay. And we are also asking whether the bio and list of hyperlinks and portrait, which is where you arrive when you click on those hyperactive names, is also an essay (a group of essays). The website itself is like a Russian nesting doll, and is an essay, in an essay, in an essay. In other words, Last Address is a body in a body in a body about a body about a bodilessness. Ira Sachs has given form and organization to a number of bodies that, in their connections, lost control over their own individual bodies, both the ones they inhabit and the ones that they created. And isn’t that what essays do? Reflect the unreflectable, organize the uncontainable? For the most part, what wonderful housefronts are filmed here. Can you imagine how disheveled and heartbreaking and painful the contents? How far can you travel inside what’s not pictured? How many fluids and how many heartbreaks and how many messes must have been contained within those addresses?