A cascade of visages. Falling Lessons by Amy Halpern

Miguel Armas
Amy Halpern

Falling Lessons is a film with a simple formal approach but dizzyingly complex execution. It's almost bared down to the constant repetition of the same camera movement in each shot: a vertical pan showing a person's torso and face looking directly into the camera. There are different variations or interruptions of this pattern but the serial repetition of the upward movement makes it look as if the people portrayed are descending in freefall in front of the camera. This effect seems to link the shots together, as if they were following one another in the same space: a cascade of visages, conceived as an analogy of how a film's projected. As Elena Duque points out: "When a filmstrip passes through a projector, the frames we see on the screen are actually upside down. That means that these vertical ascending pans in Falling Lessons, as they pass through the projector, are actually going down, and the people in the frame are kind of “falling” into a void. Amy Halpern claimed that, for this reason, Falling Lessons needs to be projected as film, and not digitally. The metaphor of falling, even if hidden from the audience, is a conceptual layer that needs to be there".[1]

So what do we see on the screen during this strange ritual that's the projection of Falling Lessons? Mainly the faces of more than 200 people and animals parading before Halpern's lens. These portraits reveal all kinds of attitudes and emotions: fear, joy, naivety, hatred, seduction, resignation and indifference. They're gazes that question, judge and demand a reaction: the film stares at its audience. Halpern spent fifteen years filming and editing the material for what turned out to be her only feature film, filming her relatives, friends, neighbours and even strangers who turned up at the casting for this unusual freefall ceremony called "film". Although shot in Los Angeles, the idea for the film came to her in New York, where Halpern was born and grew up. "In New York, you see hundreds of people every day, really close, and nobody looks at anybody because they're doing something. I'm more interested in eye contact with other people than anything. So it was a hunger for that that motivated me to make Falling Lessons. I think it comes directly from New York City streets".[2]

Like Gregory J. Markopoulos's Galaxie and Andy Warhol's Screen Tests (two milestones of cinematic portraiture in avant-garde American cinema, both filmed in New York), Halpern's aim was to compose a portrait of a community she belonged to herself, or rather of different levels within the same community. First, a group of Los Angeles-based filmmakers working outside Hollywood: Shirley Clarke, Pat O'Neill, Monona Wali, Ben Caldwell, William Moritz, David Lebrun, Julie Dash, Chick Strand, Mike Jittlov, Barbara McCullough, Mike Henderson and Diana Wilson, among other technicians, programmers and teachers of film, as well as various other artists and musicians. Halpern herself formed part of this fabric, working as a director of photography and lighting technician on all kinds of productions, whether independent, experimental or industrial.

This collaborative dynamic, based on the idea of community, meant that Falling Lessons took a long time to complete and the work of many of the artists whose faces appear in the film often served as a source of inspiration for Halpern, including Chick Strand and Michael Snow. In one of the last interviews she gave before her death in 2022, Halpern had this to say about another important influence on her film: "I have not expressed this opinion very much, but I consider Falling Lessons to be part of the L.A. Rebellion, it was certainly made contiguous with those films even though Barbara McCullough and Ben Caldwell were the only ones making experimental films there".[3]  Halpern's student years at UCLA coincided with the early days of the L.A. Rebellion, a term used to describe a group of African-American filmmakers who met at UCLA from the early 1970s. Halpern worked on several of their films, such as Monona Wali's Grey Area (1982) and Julie Dash's Illusions (1982). These filmmakers shared the desire to create an independent cinema that was alternative (in both narrative and formal terms) to the dominant Hollywood model, which had traditionally ignored African-American people or reduced them to all kinds of simplified and very often racist stereotypes. The aim of their political and aesthetic commitment was to "emancipate the image" (in the words of Ben Caldwell), with the intention of creating a new kind of cinema about the life and history of black communities in the United States or from the African diaspora.

This nascent artistic context, in which Amy Halpern wanted to situate Falling Lessons as a "parallel" film to those of her UCLA peers, allows the idea of community to be expanded. This is largely due to the intrusion of a brief narrative episode that directly references the anti-racist fictional works of the L.A. Rebellion. The way certain places in the city are shown, the urgency of some of the sounds (police sirens, the whirring of motorbikes, gunshots) and a scene in which two cops are talking inside a car already evoked this affinity. The episode in question turns the film on its head when these policemen brutally chase down and shoot an African-American boy in the middle of the street. This dramatic incident significantly alters the parade of gazes we've been witnessing, leading us to a realisation: in effect, these gazes shatter our own passive gaze as spectators.

Towards the end of the film, we return to the scene of the crime: as the boy's mother cries over his corpse, the neighbours mobilise, watching and threatening the police. This tragic episode drastically overturns the initial idea of community proposed by Falling Lessons, moving away from the series of individual portraits of friendships and placing the film within a socially broader and politically more complex framework. Historically, the making of the film can be situated between the violence that triggered the Watts riots in the late 1960s and the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s (both in Los Angeles). The narrative continuity between the different episodes surrounding the boy's murder, dotted throughout the film (from the first appearance of the cops to the neighbours' revolt after his murder), temporarily replaces the repetitive and almost abstract montage of Falling Lessons. But this doesn't mean the whole film is underpinned by social condemnation, as if it were only concerned with a few scenes of violence. In his brilliant commentary on this point, David E. James says the following: "Instead of allowing the confrontation between the police and the people either to modulate completely into the social realism and the heightened social polarization of the immediately previous militant independent black cinema in Los Angeles–Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1976), for example, which the interlude certainly resembles–or to fall into the clichéd narrative reconciliation of the television drama that it momentarily approaches, Halpern defuses both social and structural crises. Sublating the difference between the two modes, she folds the narrative into the social catalog in a celebratory conclusion that joins them".[4]

When the gazes of the witnesses converge, for the first time in the film, on the same space (the place where the murder has been committed), the improvised riot suddenly becomes a trance ritual, once again turning the film upside-down. Perhaps it's a way of shattering the illusion, of breaking down the fourth wall and underlining the artificial nature of what we're witnessing: a performance, a projection. In this celebratory scene, inspired by Glauber Rocha's António das Mortes (1969), a punk band starts playing in the middle of the street using a police car as drums; neighbours and witnesses start dancing all over the place, even with the cops, and the faces in the foreground smile with joy. This sequence throws naturalistic fiction into the void and transforms the story into a plea against the brutality we've just witnessed. These reversals of direction express the radical utopia of Amy Halpern's film; they question our status as observers (spectators) by linking it to that of witnesses (political subjects) of the violence of the world around us.

- Miguel Armas


[1] Elena Duque, screening notes for Falling Lessons in the 2023 edition of Doc's Kingdom - International Seminar on Documentary Film.

[2] Elena Duque, "Amy Halpern: On Falling Lessons", catalogue of the 2023 edition of Doc's Kingdom - International Seminar on Documentary Film, p. 38.

[3] Arindam Sen, "Slow Fireworks: The Films of Amy Halpern", Senses of Cinema, January 2023.

[4] David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, p. 240.