By Aldo Padilla
A woman builds a puzzle, while wearing a dress with a pattern much like the pieces of the game she’s playing. The image seems to show her trying to reconstruct herself through her broken and disperse personality. In the wall of the same room there are many Venetian masks that also serve to accentuate her multiple facets. The tattoos of her big arms represent posing birds on multi-colored branches, part of a strange nature that opposes us seeing the woman in the exterior, whose name is Elizabeth, or also Liz. The body of this woman seems to be represented through unfitting pieces, colors and infinite details that seem to be in the wrong places and which are the mirror of the apartment in which she lives with her family, a space possessed by Diogenes spirit. Animals of all sizes and in all corners, little dolls and statues that populate precarious shelves. Multiple wallpapers in the walls that seem to be different in every room. The department looks like a living organism as it is the woman, although to the eye of her son Richard, this space takes a different connotation. His photographic camera documents the hiper-reality and tries to revive through fiction everything which in his moment he couldn’t capture.
It’s inevitable to think that the filmed space in Ray & Liz is almost as important as the characters who wander around. The flat is rebuilt in such a detailed way that trying to understand its similitud with a family who is crumbling and looks to hide its decadence filling every corner with some object, alive or inanimate. The form on which the couple and their kids cling to the apartment is similar to the eternal return of Richard Billingham, director and cinematographer of this film, whose artistic life has revolved around his family. First with Ray’s a laugh (1996), his acclaimed book of photography, whose images are key when understanding his father’s alcoholism, the different mental states of his mother and how that translated in the home chaos. The documentary Fishtank (1998) is an excellent complement to the book, built from home videos of Billingham’s own youth. In Ray & Liz, he tries to complete the autobiographical cycle through three infancy and adolescence memories before taking the camera which would turn him into a referent of the gaze of other United Kingdom. All this, completed with different flashes of his father in the short Ray (2016), who in the last days of his life retreated himself with alcohol as his only source of food.
Ray & Liz has a deliberately opposed aesthetic to the dirty and worn out photographs that define Billingham’s work. The 16mm redefines the colors of the apartment and gives it a new identity, faraway of the oneiric quality of his photography work. Other point that differentiates Ray & Liz Is how Billinghan dares to go a little beyond of the claustrophobic apartment, looking towards the working neighborhood of his childhood, which doesn’t asphyxiate as much as his photos does, where his only contact with the exterior were photographs of birds that served as a materialization of her mother tattoos and as a way of relief towards the chaos and rottenness of his images. In the film, the exterior looks like an escape, since it shows his brother interacting with other kids to normalize a little bit this familiar lack of structure, where different antics allow to us to breathe a childhood which seems to detach of the situation, with some similitudes to Gummo (1997).
El cementerio de los elefantes (Elephant’s Graveyard, 2008), by Bolivian filmmaker Tonchi Antezana, portrays the last seven days of a man who decides to lock himself to drink alcohol until he dies in a dirty room called the presidential Suit, while he remembers part of his life. What happens if this lock-down lasts more than seven days? If it also is a lock-down we can perceive, where the alcohol arrives in bottles in a constant way, an eternal lock-down. A slow death in a room with windows where one can barely see Birmingham’s exterior, the agoraphobia defined by the love for a space that can be smelled through the images, Ray Billingham and a Bolivian man of fiction united by the self-confinement and the alcohol as the only way of redemption.
Ray & Liz
Director: Richard Billingham