Janice Lee is a writer, artist, editor, designer, curator, and scholar. Her work can be found in antennae, sidebrow, Action, Yes, Joyland, Luvina, Everyday Genius, elimae, Black Warrior Review, Peacock Online Review, and elsewhere.
"Lee’s Damnation is a beautiful variation on these themes that are at the depth of every film of Béla Tarr.”
"[Lee] seeds her scenes with countless knockout sentences, whose lush music complicates her project’s austerity.”
“Like its image of a furtive Holy Book that drives its bearers mad, Janice Lee’s Damnation hovers with remarkable grace between the sublime states of faith and terror."
Hell isn’t just other people. Janice Lee’s gift is lyricizing the intersection between the cerebral and emotional, and in Damnation, the fourth book by her I’ve read, the canvas of her metaphysical exploration shifts in bursts. Told from multiple perspectives, ekphrasis becomes distant confessional inspired by the broody films of Bela Tarr. There’s a cinematic scope to the narrative and the viewpoints range from the wide panorama to the close-ups zooming in on love, obsession, and time in a ménage a trois of existential longing. Life is absorbed through a controlled aperture, the negatives highlighting the inverses of normalcy. Tarr is known for his long, lingering camera takes that paint the tortured souls in deliberation. Though many of the chapters in Lee’s Damnation are short, their effect is similar, forcing a closer inspection of the subject, relativity stretching time as in the context of making love:
If sparked by passion or love or other sad, comparable urges, there is not enough time. But once it’s done, after the climax for one or preferably both, there is the silence and waiting that comes from a union that can only occur in very certain circumstances.
Circumstances stand as background props to the internal inquisition that rages within the characters. Spurred by the arrival of a “strange looking copy of the Holy Bible,” madness rivets in an unending shower and the film reel shakes with longing. Lights expose scenes that drip with yearning and regret, boosting the contrast like a stark black-and-white film. Even in the shortest pieces, Lee makes us feel the onerous weight of time burdened by doubt as graphically startling imagery is punctuated by questions and the ephemeral is flanked by the visceral:
Sometimes one willingly enters a dark and empty space, the creaking of the loose boards below, the phantom moonlight above. I had a dream that I was carrying a wounded deer in my arms. He lay there limp, depending on me completely and solely for the permission to go on living. Then I dropped him into the river. How can you forgive an act like that? Why were we only made to die?
And in another instance where the question is presented first to a butcher:
He is calm with the exception of the lingering savagery that thwarts his soft grey eyes. Why do men kill each other? He has often asked himself, yet today, he thinks he understands. From the depths of the earth, he thinks he can hear the dead stirring, then screaming, such horrible screaming that originates from below the ground.
It’s a controlled presentation, an auteur not just pulling the strings, but tearing them asunder and seamlessly stitching them back together again. Lee is a visualist that paints with her words the way a cinematographer paints with light. But she’s also switching brushstrokes to fully articulate the psychological diffusion of human ambivalence. The mise-en-scène varies in that pursuit of damnation at the outskirts of society and her choice of film stock in terms of diction bounces from physical bombast to meditational ruminations that alter the visual lexicon.
With no future nostalgia for rain or lost love, the young couples in the dance are careless tonight… Outside, the music is faint and spilling out onto the empty streets, protracted and muffled by the sound of falling water. The next time it rains, it will remind him of loss, it will sting like needles, and he will only see her face.
There is an unreality that splits us apart from another reality beneath.
Sometimes we eat others to affirm our own existence.
Sometimes we forget what we see the moment we’ve seen it.
Memory is tricky that way.
I’m not sure if I love God the way I’m supposed to.
It’ll come in time.
No, I don’t think it will.
The problem is, even sight can be deceiving and perception skews with changes in the lighting. The graphic menagerie scours for implicit weaknesses, shortcomings of any attempt to capture a moment authentically. There is a tension between the subject who wants to remain elusive and the observer, a juxtaposition emphasized by the synthesis of form and content:
Seeing is often just about forgetting.
This, probably, is an abomination.
Whose abomination? God’s?
Storyboards from the two Bela Tarr movies, Santanago and Damnation, serve as an appendix and the imagery is like a lifetime flashing in front of the reader:
His conception of his childhood was a series of connections he had drawn between all the coexisting elements of that scene.
Damnation isn’t just about hellfire as misery can take on millions of different permutations. Nor is it about a single place or perspective. It’s bound up in the loss of time and the urges that impel us into the futile attempt at thwarting age. The film, Damnation, is about a hapless wreck named Karrer who is in love with a married cabaret singer. Every scene is filmed so that non-speaking extras orbit with as much personality as the protagonist, their faces wracked by inexplicable feeling. You can literally screenshot every scene and marvel at the framing. In the same way, the segments in Lee’s Damnation are frames stratified in desolation, sorrow, and misbegotten aspiration, teeming with as many questions as unspoken answers. Their hope is what damns them:
All stories eventually are stories about disintegration. If the hero didn’t disintegrate, it would be resurrection. And that doesn’t happen in our world. Yet, the hero continues on his path to ruin, because he knows nothing else outside of that purview.