Away with Words: Celia Rowlson-Hall’s “Ma”

Pregnancy and childbirth are intensely physical events. Despite their bodily primacy, these experiences are freighted with various significations, running the gamut from the woman-centered skill sets of midwifery to the all-too-frequent scaremongering and misinformation of anti-choice politics. This is not surprising since bodies have their semiotic dimension. Everything has meaning. However, the fact that these human events are unavoidably located on and in the female body—a body whose very generative capacity has historically made it an object of fear—seems to produce an excess of verbiage, a lot of it denigrating or punitive. And often this discussion leaves little room for other knowledges—the haptic, the gestural, the somatic.
So what if, for a brief moment, we observed silence?
To be clear, silence is no solution to political aggression against women. The more persistent the braying of misogynist forces who claim to know best, the louder the protests must be, from women and their allies. But silence can be a strategic weapon. It can refocus our attention on aspects of experience that can only be understood imprecisely through language. Ironically, silence demands different, more intense forms of listening.
Celia Rowlson-Hall’s film Ma (2015) is a film that centers on physicality. In particular it is about movement as an extension of thought, as palpable engagement with the material world. In fact, it is about bringing spiritual matters back down to earth. We are to understand that Ma (Rowlson-Hall) is a wandering mother-to-be, dusty and abandoned in the Nevada desert. Over time it is intimated that she is a symbolic stand-in for the Virgin Mary.
While wandering desperately in the middle of a two-lane highway, she is nearly hit by Daniel (Andrew Pastides), a young man in a car. He stops for her, she rides on his hood, and the two repair to a roadside motel. He is her Joseph; the two strike up a relationship of nudges, gestures, and inconclusive flirtations. Over the course of Ma, the mother is assaulted by a group of men in various costumes. Their violence is as thoroughgoing as it is casual. In addition to having their way with Ma, they possess the capability of breaking down the motel room set. They can break out of a destroy her diegetic world.
In other words, they can warp Ma’s tenuous reality. For his part, Daniel eventually betrays Ma, who then sets out on her own, reaching the “promised land” of Las Vegas’ outskirts, where she finds a sparsely appointed mansion that serves as a kind of sorority house for showgirls. Ma gives birth in this ambiguously feminized space. But she is not exactly home. Slipping out the back, she abandons her progeny and heads back into the desert, her assigned role complete.
A summary of plot points will not convey the most compelling aspects any film worth considering. But this is particularly the case with Ma, for a number of reasons. It is, first, a film of interstices and vignettes, loosely assembled and given to digression. Rowlson-Hall began her filmmaking career with a series of short works, and she retains an elasticity here between self-contained units of expression and gestures that expand across the broader trajectory of the feature film. What’s more, as a dancer and choreographer, she permits herself moments of brash display, such as a channel-surfing sequence in which Ma abruptly shape-shifts into each and every being overheard on the TV. These moments stand out all the more since much of her dance-work emphasizes ordinary as well as unusual movements.
Ma
Ma uses filmic space to explore the signifying power of bodies and the objects around them. The ride on the car hood, for instance, is a funny gag. But as Ma and Daniel drive through the golden, sun-beaten desert, the image of a half-dressed woman atop a slate blue 1950s automobile, winding into the dusty hills, takes on an awkward imagistic power, somewhere between anachronism and dystopian futurity. We are introduced to Ma first as lost, then as a kind of confused hood ornament. From this point on, we will come to know Ma as someone caught between the identities foisted upon her (sometimes violently), and those she herself develops as she struggles to define her own subjectivity.
The extended sequence in the motel room is a fascinating study in attenuated desire and self-realization, with objects and setting playing a vital part in this process. First of all, Ma, her clothing in tatters, dons some of Daniel’s extra clothes. In men’s underwear and a button-down, Ma’s androgyny becomes more pronounced, and as Rowlson-Hall plays it, Ma wavers between inchoate desire for Daniel (flirting, rolling around) and pre-adolescent parallel play, undefined by gender division (building a fort out of the bedsheets, jumping on the bed). The space of the motel room itself is played like an instrument, or occupied like a womb. This is a place where Ma feels safe, and she cannot read Daniel’s mounting frustration.
Several things are happening at once. Rowlson-Hall is implementing a body-centered, phenomenological performance style, one that is thematically appropriate to her inquiry into the idea of the virgin birth, and the pregnant / childbearing body more generally. As she moves around and through the various locales of Ma, Rowlson-Hall generates space with her body, in the chiasm between it and the surfaces of objects. But she is also combining this focus on the body-as-locus with a task-oriented form of dance and movement.
Although Rowlson-Hall’s work is generally associated with the popular and vernacular forms seen in her music video choreography, in Ma she is also drawing on the smaller, more localized approaches we typically associate with experimental dance-work: the task-oriented gestures of Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton; the prop-based theatrics of Pina Bausch; as well as the bodily frankness and halted motility of Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker.
What’s more, the performer-director is also applying these methods as a means to explore both the maternal body and the creation of queer spaces. These are highly provocative, original moves. It is not typical for cinema to operate primarily as a space for gesture and task, or as a phenomenological exploration of tactility and touch. It is certainly not common for cinema to explore such physical matters without a firm grounding in plot to normalize the activity onscreen. There are particular film artists who worked outside the mainstream of cinematic production, such as Maya Deren and Sidney Peterson, who foregrounded these tactile and spatial relations, but this is a very limited line of inquiry.
The artist whose work can serve as a primary point of comparison with Rowlson-Hall’s work is, unsurprisingly, a dancer. By turning to cinema, Yvonne Rainer adapted and expanded her figural and object-oriented work in movement to include spaces defined by the camera and its spectator, along with loose, often ballet-like narrative themes. The temporal stasis of Trio A (1966) evolved into the fragmented narrative lurches of Lives of Performers (1972) and Film About a Woman Who… (1974). Rainer’s film work has been explicitly feminist from the start, and although she began addressing gay and lesbian themes with Privilege (1990), her work has always cultivated queer space, in the sense that gender fluidity is a basic presumption, and ordinary environments (domestic interiors in particular) are continually articulated against their presumed cisheteronormative functions.
This returns us to Ma. The motel room thrives as a queer space but also a space of conflicted sexual energy. Where Ma’s androgyny and fluidity is given free expression, Daniel is ambivalent about his ambivalence. He is excited by Ma’s butch look, her childlike playfulness, and the overall sexual uncertainty that she engenders. But then, he panics; rather than riding the long-cresting wave of sexual discovery with Ma, he sneaks out to the car, furiously jerks off, and eventually hooks up with the conventionally feminine / female motel clerk Misti (Amy Seimetz). This sends Ma back to the larger group who assaulted her, and in time this group dismantles the set completely. (They end up dragging souvenir objects through the desert, wandering like the dining party in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.)
These experiences have turned Ma into a man, at least momentarily, and the results are not pretty. She sexually assaults a motel maid (Michelle Perks) in front of the woman’s young son. This is just before Ma sets off to find the McMansion in the Nevada foothills, where she will temporarily settle into the Matthew Barneyesque showgirl palace. But this ostensible transformation of Ma’s body, at the very moment that Daniel has definitively ruptured their shared space (and he has decisively rejected her androgynous body) speaks, finally, to Rowlson-Hall’s unsparing consideration of Mary and the Immaculate Conception.
Like all physical acts in Ma, the rape of the maid is stylized. Ma, in Daniel’s clothes, forces the woman’s face into her crotch. The act echoes the equally stylized rapes that Ma has undergone earlier in the film, and much like Ma during those moments, the maid is disturbed but not as obviously traumatized as one might reasonably expect. This repetition leads to a disturbing but unsurprising conclusion: in Ma’s world, women expect rape. This explains the state in which we meet Ma—half-dressed, clothing ripped, covered in dirt. The child she is bearing is one for which a man’s violence is responsible. However, much as a father used to refuse to give his “bastard child” a name, patriarchal violence has disavowed its child. More precisely, in order to redeem this child, His Name must be made the Lord.
And the mother’s body must be erased, and silenced. As I said before, the idea of silence as a tool of resistance should not be overstated. But a silence like Rowland-Hall’s, a silence that speaks, shows us how the body can articulate the material realities, the tactile and affective maternal experiences, that language might only approximate. Ma is a complex artwork that engages with movement and space to suggest a cinematic form of body-talk, a language of resistant gesture and queer-feminist transformation.

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