Catherine Corman | Lost Explorer

The filmmaker meditates on her newest short film, the nature of memory, and the sea

Written by

Annie Bush

Photographed by

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The art of translation is a porous one. Meaning-making is a precarious business, and to traverse the same plane of understanding using a different vehicle– whether it be using an alternative linguistic approach or a different medium to depict the same meaning– puts the artist at risk of losing the original nucleus of an idea. Catherine Corman doesn’t seem to be worried about the hazards inherent to translation. In fact, the artist’s newest short film, Lost Explorer, meanders through the ambiguities left behind– as well as new meanings that can be added by–the process of translation. Lost Explorer is fraught with these processing mechanisms: the film deals in dimensions of meaning as they inflect between experience and memory, between language and picture, between past and present. Based on Nobel Prize-winning French author Patrick Modiano’s book, Honeymoon, the film follows an undersea explorer and documentarian as he wanders through Los Angeles, paying respect to the locations that provided the original impetus for his adventurous lifestyle. In Lost Explorer, Corman mediates on the nature of reality and the ceaseless process of its translation into memory, employing music by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou to imbue the film with specific, sweet, austerity.

Like her previous films, Lost Horizon and Little Jewel, Lost Explorer has been long-listed for the Academy Award for Best Short Film. FLAUNT sat down with Corman to talk about her relationship with Modiano’s work, translation versus meaning, and her choice to feature her own father in the film.

Can you talk about how Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam’s work fits into this? How do Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam, Patrick Modiano, and yourself converge?

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam was born in Ethiopia, sent to Switzerland to be educated, and then returned to Ethiopia, where she became a nun. You can feel the austerity, the devotion, the solitude that ran throughout her life in every phrase of her music. Her work echoes Debussy, Chopin, and Satie. There she was, in a hilltop monastery in mid-century Ethiopia, writing music that looked back to Paris in the ‘20s. Sometimes you can feel unaligned with your own time, but find your heart is somewhere else, in another era, in a place unknown to you. The Japanese have a phrase, mono no aware, which can translate to nostalgia for a place you’ve never been. In the same way that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam was in 1960s Ethiopia reaching back to 1920s Paris, I felt I was in Los Angeles, in the 2020s, looking back to Paris in the ‘60s, the Paris of Patrick Modiano, Ed van der Eslken, and Guy Debord.

Diane Arbus wrote, “The farther afield you go, the more you are going home. It is as if the gods put us down with a certain arbitrary glee in the wrong place and what we seek is who we had really ought to be."

Honeymoon, the Modiano novel that Lost Explorer adapts, takes place in Milan, Paris, Côte d'Azur. Why did you choose Los Angeles as the backdrop for your adaptation?

The world Modiano describes feels so deeply familiar to me - melancholy students searching endlessly for some elusive truth which, if found, just might make sense of their whole lives; back-alley mystics who are either great seers in disguise or minor con men passing through town; people walking through the city, alone at night, ‘awash with memories’ - that it would almost feel dishonest for me to shoot this in Paris, which I only know as a visitor.  

A photographer once gave the advice never to photograph a place the first time you went, or you would take the obvious shot. Uta Barth photographs in her home, because she knows it so well. She chooses parts of a room you see out of the corner of your eye, but don’t focus on. You’ve seen them peripherally so many times, they are familiar to you. This kind of familiarity with a place is what makes it feel like home. 

Los Angeles feels like that to me. My closeness to the city - my hometown - matches the intimacy I feel with Modiano’s work, so, although it its thousands of miles from Paris, it felt like the only place I really could have shot this film. 

What about Modiano's work compels you to continue returning to it?

When my father was at Oxford, he realized everything was happening in the cafés of the Left Bank. So he tipped the porter to forward his mail to the American Express office in Paris, and left for the Saint-Germain-des-Prés, spending his days at the Deux Magots, and nights at the Rose Rouge Jazz Club. 

Everyone was there, poets, students, artists, philosophers. It was one of those times and places where everything converged. In one of Modiano’s novels, a man sitting at the door of a café makes a note of where everyone entering the café came from, and where they are going, then charts the locations on a map of Paris. And you feel like something momentous, a philosophical epiphany, an artistic revolution, a mystical revelation, might take place, is on the brink of taking place, at any one of these places, at any moment. That is why it is so important to know where they are. 

Growing up, on our way to Cannes, or on our way home, we would stop in Paris, and find a hotel as close as possible to the Deux Magots. We always knew, all of us, that everything had happened there. 

But it was all gone, lost in the past. There was no way, really, to reach back to it. When I discovered Modiano’s work, it was like finding the ‘low door in the wall’ that leads to another world. He had documented that time, with so much feeling, with all of its poetry and mysticism and uncertainty, that it felt like finally being able to reach this place that, my whole life, I had sort of revered, and yet knew was unreachable. Now that there was a way in, of course I keep going back. How could I not? 

The sea is almost its own character in Lost Explorer, from Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam's "Song of the Sea", to Jean's undersea profession, to the aquarium and the ocean that Jean visits. How would you characterize the sea in this film?

One of my favorite filmmakers is Jean Painlevé, an early twentieth century undersea filmmaker, who shot the accidental poetry of undersea life - fantastical creatures drifting past each other, suspended in a slow motion ballet. His work was important to the surrealists. Anthology Film Archives screens his films periodically, and I’ve watched them countless times, in a small, dark theater, immersed in that world. I don’t know if Mr. Modiano found inspiration for the character of Jean from Painlevé, whose first name he shares, but his life’s work was a major inspiration for this film, and the main reason I changed Jean from an explorer of jungles and mountain peaks in the novel, to an undersea explorer in this film. 

The Cluny Museum in Paris, the museum of medieval art, with its tapestries of unicorns, mythical beasts, and other imaginary creatures, is on the Place Jean Painlevé, which I’ve always thought of as the perfect poetic match. 

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam’s Song of the Sea was inspired by a memory of being with her father at sea. She wrote:

“Dedicated to the noble memory of my dear father: His Excellency Kentiba Guebrou Desta.  The melody of this piece was inspired by a childhood strong impression that lingered in my mind for a whole lifetime.  As a child of six years old journeying on a big Paquebot (ship) with my eldest sister W.Senedou Gebrou, we were lying on deck-chairs at the deck of the ship because inside the cabin it was too hot. The sight of the full moon shining on the deep blue cloudless sky, her silvery rays sparkling on the sea waves that looked like a moving silver field, the waves under the soft blow of the wind chasing one after another: that beautiful impressive picture remained stamped in my childish mind, even later in life the sea always had a special attraction to me.  Listen…..taking you on her waves on an afar journey….”

Just after college, I lived on the beach in Malibu. They had glassed in the porch, and I moved my bed there. Every day I woke up seeing only the ocean and the sky. There was something liberating about that, being apart from ordinary life. Whatever binds you to the world wasn’t there yet. It was a sense of ultimate freedom. Later, you could descend into the world, and everything it represents, and everything it holds for you. 

Now I live in Tribeca and every evening I walk out onto a pier to watch the sunset over the water. There is an elemental quality of the world being reduced only to bands of color. In Malibu in the morning, different shades of silver and light blue. In Tribeca at night, an endless variety of strips of sunset colors in the sky, blending into each other. Like a new Rothko every day. So I would say to me the ocean represents freedom, not of the revolutionary variety, a freedom you must fight for, but a freedom in that everything binding you falls away, just isn’t there anymore. In the same way Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam says the sea takes her away, ‘on an afar journey.’ And for Painlevé, the inspiration for Jean, the sea is the site of an intricate world of enchantment, more naturally surreal than the surrealists’ work, once again, entirely unmoored from this world. My hope is that all of these qualities are embraced by this film. 

Recently I was listening to an interview with a Shakespearean scholar who lives at the shore, and wrote a book about Shakespeare and the sea. He spoke about the song Full Fathom Five, which is almost a childhood memory for me, as I sang it in a production of the Tempest in the seventh grade. 

The song describes looking down at the ocean floor, and seeing everything there altered, as it is when you look at something through a depth of water, “into something rich and strange.” He said five fathoms is an exact oceanic measure. Shallower than that, you can see clearly. Deeper, you can no longer see the ocean floor. At five fathoms you can see to the bottom of the ocean, but not clearly. What you see becomes transformed, blurred, softened, abstract. He said Shakespeare meant the sea in this way as a metaphor for art, that it can take fragments of the ordinary world, and change them into something unclear, poetic, jewel-like, mysterious. 

The film features your father. How do you personally connect to this story? Is it (auto)biographical in any way?

Yes, very much so. Everyone I grew up around was an artist. It was so strange to me when I left California and was, for the first time, around people who wanted other things. Up until that point, I just assumed everyone had a film they were trying to make. Whether the film was good or not, or whether it ever got made, or ever had a chance of getting made, was sort of beside the point. It was more this brotherhood of people whose great driving force in life was loving film, and devoting their lives to it, in many cases leaving everything they knew to come to Los Angeles, so that their film could be made. 

But then sometimes the film never got made. Or it did get made, but it drove them insane, or essentially killed them just to get it made. Or they did get it made, and they got everything they wanted - the cast, the budget, the freedom to do anything they wanted - but in some way it still wasn’t the film they had really hoped to make.

Colson Whitehead wrote about New York City that you can love the city, but the city doesn’t love you back. You can have a favorite little bistro, or a historic townhouse you walk by every day, these touchstones you have in your neighborhood, and you’ve counted on them without realizing it for years or decades to tell you you are home. And then one day it’s knocked down and something else is put in its place. There’s no one to appeal to, to say how much you loved this one little cornerstone of your life, and that it can’t possibly disappear. It’s just gone.

Borges spoke about this in his lectures on poetry, quoting Plato saying that books seem so real, so vital, that they feel to us as living beings, as close to us as our own friends, but if you were to ask a book a question, it could not answer back. This, for Plato means that the book is not a living being, but is dead. And that moment of realizing the book is not as alive as you had felt it was is deeply disquieting, it comes as a shock. Borges is not certain whether the book is a living thing. 

When I had the good fortune to meet Quentin Tarantino, I asked him about this, because I do feel that close to books, to other works of art, that at times those are the only places I feel truly understood, truly spoken to, and his films are so deeply in dialogue with other films. He said he felt that films did answer him back. He gave the example of a time he wasn’t certain how to finish a screenplay, and he felt as if watching a particular film directed or inspired him to finish the story in exactly the right way.

So I feel that this film is extremely autobiographical, in that sometimes I feel the only place I can turn is to a book, a film, a work of art, and at other times, I feel abandoned by them. 

Ernst Lubitsch said he could make a film happy or sad depending on the point at which he ended the story. 

The scene from Honeymoon (the novel on which this film is based) which closes the film, ends in an ambivalent way. Jean says, “One evening, she too had returned to this district, and for the first time she had felt a sense of emptiness. Circumstances and settings are of no importance. One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs a disappears. But in the end it returns in force, and she couldn’t shake it off. Nor could I.”

If you end the film on the tide going out, the remorse subsiding, it is a hopeful film. If you end it, as the scene in the book does, on the remorse necessarily returning, the tide coming in, it is a sad ending. But Modiano wrote this book, and another, and another, and I made this film. All of these are hopeful acts, and so I thought it would be more honest to end the film hopefully. And I ended it in a moment of hope because that, ultimately, is what art has always provided me.

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Lost Explorer, Catherine Corman, Art, Annie Bush