The Enlightened Screen: 'Understanding Bliss'

Understanding Bliss
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. William D. MacGillivray, Writ. William D. MacGillivray, Kathryn Cochran
Starring: Catherine Grant, Bryan Hennessey
Screening as part of the Canadian Film Institute’s series “The Enlightened Screen”, William D. MacGillivray’s 1990 feature Understanding Bliss treats audiences to the kind of introspective independent Canadian cinema the series serves to spotlight. Understanding Bliss, MacGillivray’s last dramatic film prior to Hard Drive (which screened at the CFI last night), engages audiences in the director’s mediations upon identity and how one’s sense of self is shaped via an engagement with place, space, art, and technology. Understanding Bliss is an innovative exercise in film form and a self-reflexive portrait of how art defines both the individual and the community.

Understanding Bliss follows Toronto professor Elizabeth Sutton as she heads east (far east) to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Elizabeth, played by Catherine Grant, finds herself in the quaint seaside town to deliver a lecture on author Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield’s prose appears the throughout the film as Elizabeth readies herself for the reading of “Bliss” that she is to perform later that evening. The words of Mansfield’s short story appear as ghostly, subjective voiceover as Elizabeth reflects upon the words, which echo her own feelings of alienation and emotional dissonance. Like the characters of “Bliss”, Elizabeth is only coming to terms with her own spirits and identity.

The film opens with a layered soundtrack as a plurality of voices whir in Elizabeth’s mind as she reads “Bliss” in the dim candlelight of her bathroom, repeating the line “What creepy things cats are” first in her head and then aloud. The handheld camera then follows Elizabeth in darkness as she steps out of the bath and towels off, all the while repeating the mantra of “Bliss”. The candle remains both the source light and key light as she walks around her hotel room in the dark: Understanding Bliss, MacGillivray shows, is not a film defined solely by images but more so by the way it tells the story through the interior struggle with art and identity. The latter facet appears when Elizabeth turns on the lights and receives a call from Peter, her lover and fellow artsy-type teacher, played by Bryan Hennessey. She notes the marginality of his little town—such a far journey from the centre called Toronto—and then teases her lover in “Bliss”-ish literary witticisms of affection.

MacGillivray draws direct attention the relationship between people, place, and art as the shot cuts to the film’s first exterior/establishing shot of its Maritime town. A foghorn loops on the soundtrack as a man, presumably Peter, rambles in voiceover a chorus of layered readings akin to the ones Elizabeth rehearsed the night before. He tries to understand the woman he intends to meet by studying the art that defines her career. The film then provides a strikingly cinematic tracking shot as the camera follows one of Peter’s students through the streets of St. John’s, taking in the sights and sounds of the town as the only noises on the soundtrack are ambient sounds of the city. MacGillivray and cameraman Steve Campanelli capture much of Understanding Bliss in intimate long takes as Peter and Elizabeth stroll around St. John’s before a Steadicam in the hours preceding Elizabeth’s lecture. Understanding Bliss foregrounds the couple against a backdrop of working class Newfoundland, rooting the story in a sense of place highlighted by the same brightly coloured houses with the chipped paint around which the student navigates as he makes his way through to class in the first of many long takes that take viewers on a tour of the city.

Understanding Bliss interrupts the silence of the student’s walk to class with a repetition of the interior dialogue as the student mentally rehearses lines for the class’s upcoming Mummers’ play to be held that night. The lecture he walks into segues Understanding Bliss into an intimate affair of art and culture as Peter speaks to the students in his undefinable class. It’s not quite drama, but not visual art, either. It’s some sort of contemporary fusion, as Peter has his pupils bring in a variety of old videos that they watch both separately and in unison on all the old TVs that clutter the room.

“What is important is not the story but the storyteller… the event of the story being told,” Peter notes in his lesson with the students. MacGillivray injects Understanding Bliss with a hyperawareness of its own form of storytelling. Understanding Bliss is framed by static and title cards that reek of 1990s novelty.

“It’s a little weird on video,” Peter notes, drawing attention to the cheap video on which Understanding Bliss is shot. Understanding Bliss, shot on video rather than on pricy film, draws attention to the economical aesthetics of the less glamorous of film forms. Peter’s words have the most resonance when the time comes for Elizabeth to deliver her reading of “Bliss.” The lecture is mediated by video—a shot within a shot—as an unseen cameraman zooms on Elizabeth’s face as she stiffly and dryly recites the words of the story to the unseen audience. Jerky camera movements and incessant zooms punctuate Elizabeth’s reading as the camera finds the right frame and focus for her. The image is a potent metaphor for the whirlwind of emotions going on in Elizabeth’s mind thanks to her daylong date with Peter. The shot comes to rest on a close-up of Elizabeth as her words resonate, steadying the camera and focus, and the words she reads aloud blur with the inner voice reading the words through a subjective filter before she shares them with her audience.
The reading returns later in the film when Peter decides to watch the video product of Elizabeth’s work. He’s bored by the image and unable to grasp its meaning without fast-forwarding like Don Jon impatiently perusing online porn. The watching erupts in a violent coupling, which Understanding Bliss conveys in a desaturated image as Peter turns their lovemaking into a dehumanizing extension of his self-indulgent Mummers’ play. The exercise, which plays out like a cacophonous mish-mash of Shakespeare and Monty Python, acts as a third-act centrepiece following Elizabeth’s reading. One can sense that the love has drained from the relationship long before the colours of Bliss fade, though, for Elizabeth seems completely withdrawn in the act following her failed reading and her realization that the relationship has failed in turn.

Understanding Bliss is very much a product of the analogue days and the days when Canadian cinema was a modest affair created in small communities. (One could rightly argue that it still is.) The low-res VHS tapes Peter has his students share with their peers are very much akin to the kind of collaborative appreciation for art that helped films like Understanding Bliss emerge in co-ops and collectives. It’s not so much the art itself that Elizabeth watches Peter share with his students, but the sense of community that one creates through the act of sharing and creating art. The sense arises again when “Bliss” assumes a new reading for Elizabeth as she shares it with the audience. The story is not the same as it was in the reading that opens the film, for the day with Peter, his class, and the stories from the people of St. John’s have shaped it anew. Understanding Bliss underscores the point that sharing art and stories with others creates a story of its own when the film sees Peter play one video in isolation for his class and then cuts the shot to a montage of images as all the videos are played for the class in unison. The stories have different meaning by themselves, but, as Peter says, “together they say something new.”

Understanding Bliss screens Saturday, October 19 at 7:00 pm as part of the CFI’s “The Enlightened Screen” series.

Also screening Saturday is MacGillivray’s 2010 documentary Man of a Thousand Songs, which starts at 9:00 pm.

Both screenings will be in the Auditorium of Library and Archives Canada and will include an introduction and chat with William D. MacGillivray.

Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for more information.