“E, S, A, I, N, T, U, L, O, M, P, C, F, B, V, H, G, J, Q, Z..."
[ Essay published in Filmmaker Magazine — November 2017]
In a 1984 profile by The Paris Review, James Baldwin pinpointed a pedagogical bond between painters and writers. For example, the French poet Charles Baudelaire frequently peppered his prose with hagiographic references to the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. Similarly, the Argentine escritor Jorge Luis Borges pilfered the occult trove in Xul Solar’s gallery for the extraterrestrial imagery that would come to beset El Aleph. There was Jackson Pollock and Frank O’Hara, Rodin and Rilke, Fry and Woolf. Baldwin conceived of painters as prophets, citing Gertrude Stein, sitting for Pablo Picasso. Stein supposedly saw Picasso’s portrait-in-progress and said, "I don’t look like that." And Picasso replied, "You will."
It’s fitting then that Jean-Dominique Bauby’s improbable memoir, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, required the direction of a painter, Julian Schnabel, for its film adaptation. This was Schnabel’s third feature, each about an artist’s compulsion to create: Basquiat (1996), about the New York graffitist, and Before Night Falls (2000), about the persecuted Cuban poet Reynaldo Arenas, and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (2007) about Bauby, who, in 1995, at the age of 43, suffered a stroke and became a victim of locked-in syndrome. Although undamaged mentally, the former editor of French Elle was paralyzed top-down, stripped of all mobility except for that of his left eye, with which Bauby communicated, one letter at a time, by blinking as someone read the alphabet aloud. (This was two years before Intel would come out with the Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit that gave Stephen Hawking a computerized voice.) And so the memoir’s existence is itself a miracle: in 200,000 blinks, Bauby related his atypical third-act, a piece of contact so pure, so deliberate, so astonishingly perfect for film.
At first, we see only what Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) sees — obscured faces floating by in frightening closeup, like mothers and fathers above a crib. Consciousness arrives: the blurs sharpen into doctors and orderlies and the surprisingly beautiful décor of Bauby’s cell — a turquoise-colored hospital room, with a curtain flapping in the breeze, in Berck-sur-Mer, France. Bauby’s cyclopean gaze darts wildly from one spot to another, and visitors, embarrassed and grief-stricken, pass in and out of frame, which operates as a kind of Zeldan Lens of Truth, pondering the depths of whoever comes into view. The doctors offer diagnoses and reassurances; Bauby is shoved, lifted, held, deposited, and washed with hands both rough and gentle, and, through all this, we hear his thoughts on the soundtrack — baffled and angry at first, then acridly humorous, and finally soulful and eloquent though nevertheless unvocalized:
“Far from such din, when blessed silence returns, I can listen to the butterflies that flutter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible. Loud breathing is enough to drown them out. This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing.”
Schnabel neither avoids nor softens the hospital-room procedures. We see Bauby’s failing right eye get sewn shut from the inside. Slowly, perspective opens up. The movie, which was shot by Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg’s cinematographer), shifts away from Bauby’s limited gaze and moves to a third-person point of view that takes in everything, including Amalric’s face, with its asymmetrically deflated lip and wandering left eye. The sight of that face — grotesque yet expunged of titillation — is a shock, but we get used to it, and the picture moves steadily ahead on two tracks: we see the stages of Bauby’s treatment, including the tortuous but productive way he learns to write; and the tumult and ecstasy of his inner attic. "I can imagine anything," he says, as Schnabel, in a burst of exhilaration, takes us on a fragmentary chase through Bauby’s visions and fantasies — adolescent skiing and surfing, Marlon Brando dressed as Pan. Later, as Bauby begins to write his book, memories of driving with his girlfriend, her hair circling in the wind in an open landscape, come flooding back. In the present, he’s visited by his small children, who scamper around his rigid body on an empty beach. The camera cascades, immune to gravity. Schnabel is abrasively emotional in the arrangement of scenes, and Kaminski at times approaches iStock imagery, but there’s always something astringent or off-center in composition or semiotics which pulls the movie away from the mawkish and towards something more like a painting. Perhaps, then, the obverse is true here too: the painter has learned from the writer. Schnabel has captured Bauby’s vision, and delivered it to us, triumphantly.
Still to be described are the physical therapist, the speech coach, and the amanuensis — three of five Godardian Josephines, who half-knowingly play into Bauby’s motionless fantasies. They are graceful, elegant, subtle, charming, diffusely radiant. And so are the other two women: his lover who won’t visit and the mother of his children who’s still so clearly in love with him despite being unwanted. You can feel Bauby yearning their company and dreading it all the same. Amid familiar faces, the impossibility of normal life is amplified. There can be no independence for him, ever again; no escape. He is forever in the presence of those he needs to survive, and yet he can scarcely communicate even the simplest upset to them. Bauby is terrified and depressed, and maybe secretly hopeful, and yet there’s this whole world within him. Silently, he is able to praise and curse, laugh and cry, fabulate and sing and when called upon, take off and soar. In the inch between the insanity of hopelessness and the insanity of hopefulness, there is a premortal clarity, a vision of life, towards which Bauby advances closer and closer. It’s not quite Nirvana and it’s not quite delusion.
I first watched The Diving Bell And The Butterfly alone in a seven-by-eleven airshaft-aligned gutter in the Upper East Side. It was my first bedroom after college, the smallest space I’ve occupied for that long. I spent a lot of time by myself that first year, replaying for myself everything I had recorded and stored prior, all I had dreamt up. It was a period of boredom, a period of loneliness. In viewing the film, those two words sounded as clearly as Bauby’s voice couldn’t. Boredom. Loneliness. That’s all there is to be afraid of, isn’t it? Before insignificance, decay, guilt, and mortality come loneliness and boredom. And really any of those preceding fears exist in periphery to the Big Two. That death begets a state of purgatory consciousness post-life, where there’s nothing to do and no one around. That people will not love me unless I am important. That I am entitled to nothing more than the tedium of proletarian living. That my errors will alienate others. That the demise of my physical health means being stuck in bed, unable to ravel or go rock climbing or pick my own produce from the market.
Illness-wise, locked-in syndrome is boredom and loneliness at the extreme’s penultimate point. (Dalton Trump’s Johnny Got His Gun is a book I cannot in conscious bring myself to read, for it takes that final step.) Just imagine, your every emotion bottlenecking at your orbital cavity. I alternate in my preference for which to lose facility of first: body or brain. Typically, when our bodies fail, our minds — almost mercifully — go too. But not always, as was Bauby’s case. Although fearful of further retreat into the sumptuous architecture of my cerebrum, I long thought it’d be better to be a quadriplegic than an imbecile. Now, having seen this film, and read Bauby’s memoir, I waiver. I am someone, of some, whose spine frequently kisses walls at parties, who converses the way Miles Davis solos, á la Kind of Blue, with his back away from the audience. The private rooms I inhabit quickly become a synecdoche for myself, the soft semi-odorous air inflating with ideas. I scarcely consider my body’s presence. And yet, Bauby’s fate is terrifying because, as we often forget, our internal selves arise from external stimuli. Interestingly, much of Bauby’s tragedy comes not from the future he’s lost, but from the past he’s squandered. He was detached from the world before the stroke: from his ex-wife, from his children, from his father, portrayed by the tear-jerkingly earnest Max Von Sydow. Far from being a "Triumph Of The Human Spirit" story, as it's often labelled, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is a tale of regret and caution against emotional isolation.
As we grow, we forget about our bodies and spend more time in our heads. There’s plenty of joy in memory, as we see with Bauby’s, but memories are made of physical things. As children, everything is so much more physical. I remember stubbed toes being a more common issue. In class, we would sit on floors, legs angled in unruly shapes; our posture shrugged to a default, not something we considered, though we considered plenty — like: the weight of our knees on our chest as we formed ourselves into pill-bugs in the smacking afternoon heat; the possibility of Dad running a bath that wouldn’t be the right temperature; the sturdiness of the branch ahead; the pliability of a specific cardboard box. I would inspect the myriad surfaces of the neighborhood: fences, sidewalks, corrugated siding, the door to a friend’s house, televisions through perforated bug screens depicting heavy comediennes and jazz interludes — every daydream composed of days.
As a boy, I believed that aging included a series of increasingly fuller bedrooms. The objects I cherished as an infant were there by invitation only: a stuffed lamb, a smooth hawthorne boat, an illustration of the moon on cardboard. Intruders would be cast broadside, out of the crib, until slowly they were accepted. Things wanted and things necessary: papers, books, computer cables, extra sheets, things to carry things in, things to store things in. The mounting possessions seemed ceaseless. If it weren’t for my believing that one day my room would enlarge, I could’ve very well thought I’d be enclosed by these objects.
If there is any panacea to boredom and loneliness, I think it must be narrative — films, books, etc. Narrative is creation. Narrative is consumption. Bauby’s final project suggests this to be true (he passed away two days after his memoir was published). Why write? Why read? Why watch film? Because, as John Sullivan realized, films make us feel less bored. And because, as DFW believed, in reminding us "that another sensibility like mine exists," films make us feel less alone.
There is a special curse to thinking too much, to forgetting that one’s body is more than an awkward vessel for one’s brain. It’s easy to see ourselves as fixed, our bedrooms full to the brim. Suddenly, we need Picasso or Bauby to show us how to see again: everything and ourselves, through two eyes, or one.
Here is Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein: