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Sarah Miles

By Gill Addison

1. What falls from pockets?

There is something unnervingly seductive about the films of Sarah Miles. Her films are content rich. Their fragmentary images and sounds delineate a provocative body of work, the core of which is the notion of memory, particularly the personal and familial. Miles belongs to a tradition of the auteur, singular in vision and considered in methodology. Her films can be situated within the realm of the essay form, one in which the 'I' of the author has an insistent presence.

Miles' films are embedded with a sense of the filmmaker's own journey, in which she is part performer and part instigator. Yet while her films are personal, a critical distance prevails. Objectivity is acted out through a montage of images, which are sourced from found visual/audio footage, interview recordings and constructed scenes. When these elements are brought together with either nuanced or explicit references to cinema and other cultural markers they enable the viewer to navigate through the personal material via a performative act of translation. Juxtaposing autobiographical material alongside material gleaned from collective memory, her films shift between participant and observer, the events and the re-telling, the real and imaginary. This liminal place is often described as dreamlike, yet in Miles' work one feels very much awake and aware. The richness of her imagery and mise en scene, opens the work out to layers of potential readings, inviting closer inspection and engagement.

The manner by which Miles' films excavate past narratives, stories and events, leads to an exploration of the implicit nature of collective memory; the backbone to several of her films, specifically A Bunny Girls Tale, Damsel Jam and 2001: A Family Odyssey. Ophelia's Version. There is constant slippage between those memories and events that can be celebrated and articulated and those which remain difficult to speak about; so that the traumatic, for example, remains on the periphery as suggestion. The external elements of soundtrack and found footage in Miles' films perform an important role as they hint at the traumatic without being direct and confrontational. For example in A Bunny Girls Tale, there is explicit reference to news reports and documentary footage of the Bunny Girls; Damsel Jam references Alice in Wonderland and makes clever use of Nirvana's song Smells like teen spirit, whilst No Place recreates scenes from Vertigo and The Wizard of Oz. These intertextual elements work as disjunctive tools to explore remembering and navigating memory, enabling the traumatic memory and it's re-surfacing to be translated, mediated and alluded to rather than made explicit, and paralleling the complex and difficult nature of the 'subject in the act of remembering', in which truths and realities fuse and flux.

Yet, this theoretically informed work has a suggestion of 'flirtatiousness', not in a superficial flippant way, but in a nefarious manner. There is an innate sense of something uncontrollable yet bounded, something on the edge, something on the brink. A good flirt, a successful flirt, knows how to swim between the slippages of meanings. Never making anything too explicit, too obvious. Importantly, there is something a little pleasurably traumatic about flirting: we are left questioning our own boundaries, but at the same time desiring more, but what we are uncertain.

2. I Love You

One might assume that the girl dressed in the costume of a Playboy Bunny, and misplaced in a countryside setting is a ubiquitous Bunny Girl, finding her way back to nature.

Yet with overly large ears, this is no Bunny Girl but an errant Hare Girl setting a completely new and transgressive reading of this iconic image. For Hare Girl is direct and playful, aggressive and vulnerable. She faces the camera and silently mouths words of desire and rejection, before finally being knocked down while crossing the road. The insistency of her direct address to the camera suggests that the film viewer is the object of this mute desire; and Hare Girl's violent end implies the devastation that can be caused when her desire not reciprocated.

This one minute film introduces the theme of love in Miles' work and establishes the re-occurring image and mutable character of Hare Girl, who is present in some shape or form in both I Love You and Damsel Jam. This image/cipher can be read as an incarnation of Miles' presence within her films. Hare Girl acts as a guide, confident and mischievous sprite who remains outside the films' dominant narratives. She provides a conduit for the 'forgotten material' in need of articulation or visualization; fragmented and contradictory material that represents the memory of past desires and events, and is both seductive and terrifying. Simultaneously omnipresent and fleeting, she is clearly identified as Hare Girl in films such as Damsel Jam, whereas in A Bunny Girls Tale, and 2001: A Family Odyssey, she shifts to become decidedly Bunny. Her mutable character allows a multiplicity of readings and meanings, and her fleeting appearance at the home of an older Bunny Girl at the end of the film, for example, amplifies the 'difference' of the iconic image of femininity then and now.

3. Damsel Jam

''She returns to the place of her childhood. Hoping to find the truth of her memories'' Quote from Damsel Jam.

Damsel Jam revisits the sweet and painful time of childhood on the brink, a moment when the world is about to change, or more importantly the realisation that childhood is near its end and womanhood is around a corner. The film begins with a young girl entering a clandestine landscape, the dark forest of the fairy story and nightmare rolled into one. Dressed like Alice in Wonderland, she is searching for something, not lost - just not found for the time being. Various female voices of differing ages speak of the experience of being twelve years old. Their poignant re-tellings are mirrored by enchanting imagery and scenes acted out and replayed by both young girls and older women simultaneously.

The film's imagery constantly shifts between childhood and womanhood. A sound track of David Cassidy's ''How can I be sure'' is played, as the older women re-enact a car journey that in a previous scene was played out by the younger girls. Both these sequences act out the fantasy of control and power to varying degrees. For the young girls it is about the potential to perform maturity. For the older women, it is a chance to regain something lost and to reckon with the past at the moment when all seemed possible.

Not knowing what to do when we are intrigued and troubled by memory is the very premise of Damsel Jam, and the claustrophobic interiors of the car sequences echo this visually through their mise en scene. The journeys taken by both the girls and women symbolically transport us from one time scale to another, from the place of memory to the body in the act of remembering. The sequences in the car journey provide a significant visual trope within the film, which recurs throughout several of Miles' other films, such as I Love You and Magnificent Ray. The car interior suggestively becomes a cinema, a site for projection. The only window left clear is the windscreen, signifying a way forward. In the back of the car, the outside world is excluded, suggesting that this interior is the only world - a place where memory and experience collide. In Damsel Jam the car is driven by Hare Girl, incarnated here as both the keeper of secrets and the instigator of drama and events. As she shifts between the generations, she drives them to explore their individual accounts and shared experience, to act out and perform their memories.

4. A Bunny Girl's Tale

A Bunny Girls Tale uses anecdotal personal testimonies and found footage interviews to chart the rise and demise of the British Playboy Bunny Girl.

One of the original six women is interviewed with her daughter. The dialogue between these two women of different generations plays out the complexity of burgeoning sexual awareness and innocence. The young daughter acts as a referent for the older woman's lost youth and sexual prowess. The older woman speaks unapologetically about her time as a Bunny girl whilst her young daughter seems bemused and a little embarrassed. The film shifts between a celebration and critique of female objectification. This is acted out through a mother/daughter relationship in which the mother is protective of her history and the memory of who she once was. Her daughter plays with the idea of dressing as a Bunny girl and when she does the mother is both disturbed and proud. Tellingly, in one scene the older woman finds her disheveled and dirty old bunny tail in the garage, as she energetically brushes and fluffs the tail to its former glory, she re-invigorates and commemorates simultaneously not only the tail but also the memory of her former self.

5. 2001: A Family Odyssey

The opening paragraph to Siri Hustvedt short essay Yonder begins with a particularly effective and poignant summation of the word 'yonder'.

''My father once asked me if I knew what 'Yonder' was. I said I thought yonder was another word for there. He smiled and said, ''No, yonder is between here and there'''' the summation continues '' In linguistic terms, this means you can never really find yourself yonder. Once you arrive at yonder tree, it becomes here and recedes forever into the imaginary horizon.''

Family histories have something 'yonder' about them. No matter how open, or how much we know about our family story and our family members, there is always something intangible and out of reach. 2001: A Family Odyssey. Ophelia's Version attempts to speak of the unspeakable, to weave a history of Miles' family through the recounting of stories and myths. To allow the unfolding familial dramas, secrets and stories, Miles asked each family member how they would like to be represented in a film about the family. The idea of one's identity within the family being suggested by either specific clips from cinema's history, a song or an image, brings a very real sense of intimacy to the film. It denotes each person's private sense of who they are, their relationship to the family and to a collective past. Miles' sister, for example, chose Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

Miles' role in this particular film is explicitly performed. Rather than Hare Girl or Bunny Girl she is bunny Ophelia, a reference to Hamlet's lover. Yet this Ophelia is reviving drowned stories, rather than drowning herself. As she interviews family members about particular events and memories she is both a participant in the events/memories and an observer in their re-telling, existing both inside and outside their unfolding dramas. This recalls Annette Kuhn's notion of ''memory works'', when private and public spheres fold into one another to create 'an extended network of meaning that brings together the personal with the familial, the cultural, the economic, the social, and the historical'. (A, Kuhn (1995) Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London, Verso.) In one particular fragment Miles' mother talks of depression and how the character of Holly Golightly became iconic to her and her mother. Her testimony is formally enacted by clips from the film Breakfast at Tiffanys, intercut with family photographs while the song Moon River is played in tandem with her voice over. Presented in landscape format, photographs of Miles' mother echo the horizontal lines of Millais' painting of Ophelia.

Ideally within the family unit we would like to feel that no one-person narrative takes precedence over another, yet in all families there is a jockeying for position concerning whose story should be heard and validated. Throughout 2001: A Family Odyssey. Ophelia's Version, the use of interviews and portraits of different familial generations explore how subjectivities and identities are played out in the embroidered complexity of a family remembering and making sense of itself. A disruptive use of entwined non-diegetic sounds and music suggests a multiplicity of narratives rather than the surfacing of a singular coherent view of the family.

Miles' work is grounded in the personal and experiential, her films enact identity as something fluid, multiple and even contradictory. They navigate material and content that is awkward and difficult to define or declare, where there is a hint of something hidden, something unsettling. These nuanced undertones operate alongside the main themes of Miles' films; love in I Love You, girlhood memories in Damsel Jam and family in 2001: A Family Odyssey. Ophelia's Version. Films such as these, and other later works like No Place (2006) and Magnificent Ray (2000), explore personal stories, memory and trauma to create a place and site for the re-vision and re-telling of past events. We cannot write the present with clarity and only through hindsight does flirting with the past become manageable.

Gill Addison

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