JASON SCHWARTZMAN [on] EMRE SARBAK

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Photo by Jason Schwartzman

Eliot Hall, a widely disliked modernist building on Washington University in St. Louis’ campus, was demolished sometime in the summer of 2012. Other things were ending too. We were graduating, and Emre Sarbak, a student filmmaker, was leaving St. Louis for a job in his native Turkey. He tried to fit everything he owned into this bulging suitcase he had, but many things didn’t fit, which meant I inherited them. I wore his shoes for a year, until the soles fell off. Before the arrival of the wrecking ball, the rubble and eventually a new building, Emre made a short film to preserve some memories of the building that was still there.

Most students considered Eliot Hall, which stood since 1974, an “eyesore,” a “prison,” “ugly.” People loved to hate it. With its naked concrete façade, Eliot Hall was the only building on campus not dressed in pink clay scraped from local hills, the exception to a manufactured unity. Finding a specific office within it could be a labyrinthine, Kafkaesque task. The entrance was toward the back or the side, almost like the building didn’t want you to enter.

Photo by Cole Bishop

Photo by Cole Bishop


Eliot is a project about how we see things. That the scenes Emre chooses often contain literal frames seems to hint to this effect. If the subject matter were different, the film could be about another side of a maligned, caricatured antihero. In Eliot, we never even see the ugly façade that was a focal point of dislike, the stand-in for a face or a reputation. Even the “Hall” is trimmed from the title, as if the building were a person, someone Emre used to know. And so, from the get-go we are already confronting kinds of surgeries, views, losses.

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Still from Eliot, 2011

The film is shot in a photographic style wherein the camera rarely moves. What does move? Fluttering leaves, a few birds chasing each other, a tiny-looking airplane making its way upward, a little boy blowing into his bugle, a dad carrying his sleeping son. Scene changes tend to follow several of these slow journeys across the screen, even of something as slight as a shadow. At these points, the film seems to be about more than a building, exploring impermanence and the passage of time, almost as a study of mindfulness. The stillness of the camera adds a meaningful weight to what would ordinarily be imperceptible, invisible fractions of someone’s day.

Emre told me once not—so far from Eliot Hall—that when he was a child in Turkey, he would wake up early and watch cartoons. His mother didn’t approve and conspired with his father to be absolutely silent in the mornings so he wouldn’t wake. His parents never spoke to each other in those early hours, but stirring their coffee was so habitual that they didn’t think not to do it. Every morning he would open his eyes to the sound of their teaspoons against glass cups.

{My happiest times are always in the morning…Hearing that sound, having a new day ahead of me. I’d like to relive that again and again.}

The film has no soundtrack except for the environment’s natural quiet musicality. Without words, the “eyesore” turns into something beautiful. In the same way that the more you remember something, the less access you have to the original memory, sometimes the more you talk about something, the further you get from whatever you’re talking about.

“Eliot” brings us back.

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Still from Eliot, 2011

The photographic style gestures toward preservation and loss. Generally, photographs seem to freeze time, knifing out a single moment and making it into a reality. The film’s pseudo-stillness challenges that idea, distrusting image, suggesting that an essence may not really be able to be fully captured. Things leak away. The sky slowly scrolls by. Someone moves through a space and we barely notice. There is a statement about memory here, how there are subtler, less dramatic forms of demolition. We do not always get to sort through the rubble.

Emre and I were talking behind the library a few years ago and he showed me little marks he’d ashed into a cinder block, a record of his presence. They are likely gone, those marks, victims of a thousand rainstorms. Emre is a consultant now, mostly—like the landscape, we are all changing, remaking ourselves, looking for slivers of our old selves. The film makes me wonder: Are we still what we were?

In Emre’s directorial vision, though it is Eliot whose end is near, it is the presence of people that is most fleeting. They are always moving and leaving, peripheral and small. The film is an effort at preservation, but within it, loss feels natural. There is the sense of how hard it is to hold onto anything. The end of the film gets at this idea, highlighting a wall of Eliot where the outside appears like a series of framed pictures. And at that moment you may think you have something, you may think your mind is memorializing something, but it isn’t really a picture at all—it is about to be gone and it won’t be as you remember.

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Still from Eliot, 2011

 

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

JASON SCHWARTZMAN is a writer who lives in New York. His website is forthcoming, just like Sisyphus’ boulder.

EMRE SARBAK is a consultant, as well as a photographer and filmmaker.  He lives in Istanbul.

 

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