February 2020: On Fire by Shirly Bahar

To My Friends

February 2021 marks 1 year since we last went to the movies. Remember going to the movies – that act of coming together as an audience, a short-term congregation of community, to share the experience of spectatorship for a couple of hours. On this one year anniversary, I am reflecting back on that experience, trying to retrieve what we have taken with us, as well as left behind us, on our last night so far at the movie theater.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the last movie we watched in a movie theater in February 2020. Set in France of the 1770s, the movie tells the story of Marianne, a painter who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, who in turn refuses to sit for her, let alone, to be married to the man to whom her portrait is addressed as a wedding prerequisite. Stubborn at first, Heloise gradually opens up to Marianne, finally allowing her to paint her portrait, and as the process of painting enfolds, the two women fall in love. A movie about love between women, the painter and the painted, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also a movie about desire and power, and importantly, about looking and watching.

And there we were, my partner and I and two of our best friends, another couple, women watching women looking at one another with desire, absorbing the slow unraveling of the scenes while savoring an abundance of details stretched across the large screen. We got there right before the movie started, and in the packed theater, our friends barely managed to save seats for us, albeit behind them. Sitting in front of us, our friends’ heads would occasionally enter our sight, especially as we would lean towards their shoulders, to reach our fingers for some of that movie theater buttered popcorn that they got earlier, while casually breathing at their necks.

Fleeting moments: that affective, subtle yet powerful flow that fills up a space, any space, that circulates and remains, sticks and scratches under our skins as looking beings who are also being looked at.
Shirly Bahar
February 2020: On Fire

Rather than serving a resolution, Heloise’s consent to Marianne painting her portrait catalyzed a process – that is, the slow process of painting Heloise, lasting almost the entire duration of the movie, and comprising several attempts to arrive at a satisfying outcome. Marianne’s first try ends in conflict between her and Heloise: seeing that the portrait does not look so much like her, Heloise confronts Marianne about her strict adherence to the rules and conventions of painting while failing to feel the vibes of the room, and of her. “So there is no life, fleeting moments…?” asks Heloise, resisting the “right” way of painting a portrait. Fleeting moments: that affective, subtle yet powerful flow that fills up a space, any space, that circulates and remains, sticks and scratches under our skins as looking beings who are also being looked at. Fleeting moments: that creative energy that goes into the making of art and is felt in the moment of looking at the work of art.

I offer you this fascination with art making, the artwork, and the movies, as a lamentation – a longing, inshallah temporary, to experiencing beauty in motion with friends and lovers. We knew pleasure and connection that night, as we did in so many other occasions. For example, as we did on our last night dancing at Ginger’s Bar, the queer women’s bar over on 5th Avenue, days before the first lockdown was announced. Cradled in a dangerous unknowing of the rapid impact of the coronavirus that was already spreading, bolstered by a fascist administration taking the infamously deadly US-American racial capitalism to the next level, we have not noticed it starting to diffuse into the myriad of fleeting moments that make up our lives. Actually, in February of 2020, we were already on fire.

Heloise’s invocation of the fleeting moment stuck with me ever since. I have offered this notion to my beloved students as we were sharing feedback for each other’s artwork in class, on zoom. And I’m offering it to you through the digital waves right now. Maintaining physical distance dreads the core flesh of our humanity. But physical distance neither equals nor should command social distance. Fleeting moments of interhuman pleasure come at us through the vivid plethora of means and methods of communication and sociality emerging virtually, as well as outside, on the decommercialized and rehumanized street, or at the public park which should always remain available for all.

As we seek affective and embodied experiences of closeness through digitized and distanced mediations of a new queer public life, from home videos on Instagram to burlesque shows on Zoom to dancing spontaneously in big coats outside the yet-to-open doors of Ginger’s, let us remember all of our queer elders and ancestresses who, throughout history, have been nourishing community through alternative modes of communication across physical and geographic barriers. Surviving systemic oppressions, navigating isolation, sickness, and loss, and crafting space for living and artmaking, they granted us with invaluable legacies of staying together through it all.

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