Recently Read: Nathalie Léger & Roger Grenier
Two books, both by French authors. One about cinema, one about photography.
A longtime Vertigo reader sent me a copy of Nathalie Legér’s newly published Suite for Barbara Loden, for which I am extremely grateful. Barbara Loden was an American actress, whose second husband was the film director Elia Kazan. Loden wrote, directed and starred in the 1970 movie Wanda. Shot in cinéma vérité on a ridiculously low budget, Wanda retells the real-life story of a bored coal-miner’s wife who gets involved with another man and helps him commit a bank robbery. The robbery fails, the man is killed, and Wanda seems relieved to be sentenced to prison. When Legér was asked to write a brief film encyclopedia entry about Loden, she found herself doing far more research than necessary.
Convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal, I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinéma vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theater scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining (reading up about mining exploration, finding out about the organisational structure of the mining industry, collecting data on coal deposits in Pennsylvania); I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another.
After this semi-comic confession of overreach, Legér realizes she has become obsessed with Loden in the same way that Loden became obsessed with her film character Wanda and the real woman she was based on – Alma Malone. Using film techniques like montage, jump cut, and flashback, Suite for Barbara Loden is a stunningly beautiful book in which the lives of these four women -Nathalie Legér, Barbara Loden, Wanda, and Alma Malone – become one. Or, as Legér puts it:
To sum up. A woman is pretending to be another, in a role she wrote herself, based on another (this, we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.
There is a great review of Suite by K. Thomas Kahn over at Music & Literature.
Several Vertigo readers have suggested I get Roger Grenier’s A Box of Photographs, and I’m glad I did. Grenier writes movingly and with a light touch about the power of photographs to engage the viewer’s curiosity, to galvanize memories, to provoke responses. At just over 100 pages, this is a compact book that ranges far and wide. Grenier has given us a series of meditations on photography, photographs, and photographers, all with brief glimpses into his own life as a member of the Resistance, journalist, amateur photographer, and longtime editor at Éditions Gallimard. Oddly, the book only contains sixteen photographs and they often aren’t the photographs I most wanted to see. Grenier includes a snapshot of his dog, who receives only a brief mention, but fails to include an image showing us an image of the murderess Sylvie Paul, the subject of one of the longest essays and about whose striking appearance Grenier can’t stop writing. Her “steel-gray eyes captured the reader, even in the poorest quality photos that appeared in the press.” But alas, we are denied the pleasure of seeing Sylvie Paul.
Nathalie Legér. Suite for Barbara Loden. London: Les Fugitives, 2015. Translated by Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon.
Roger Grenier. A Box of Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Translated by Alice Kaplan.