‘I’m Too Sad to Tell you,’ Ader ‘71
& a short story called
‘I’m Too Sad to Tell you about
‘I’m Too Sad to Tell you’
Bas Jan Ader, ‘In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles),’ 1973
Close-Up Film Centre, 7 May 2015.
I was spending General Election night in what had rapidly become my favourite hang-out in London. I cherished the teaser screenings, projections held in the café to raise funds for the new cinema. They created a tangible sense of community, the same faces every Thursday, all thrilled about the prospect of a home for experimental moving image for the first time since the LUX closed its doors in 2001. We’d shared laughter at Jan Peters’ deft, daft shorts, made once a year on his birthday, and excruciating moments of recognition during David Holzman’s Diary, watching a self-absorbed young man struggle to create a record of his own life. We’d felt the warm glow of creative friendship, too, when Louis Benassi entertained us with reminiscences of working with fellow artist Julius Ziz, and showed us two of Ziz’s films. This was what a cinema should be doing—and I wanted to be part of it.
I proposed a double bill: Bas Jan Ader’s shorts, preceded by René Daalder’s documentary Here is Always Somewhere Else, about Ader’s unresolved disappearance in 1975, lost at sea in a solo Atlantic crossing that formed part of his ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ triptych. For two hours, I didn’t think about the outside world: dystopia was suspended, if not disbelief. The tragicomic slapstick of Ader’s falls and the pure emotion in I’m Too Sad to Tell You, where Ader cried on camera for three minutes, took over. Over the latter, I read my story, ‘I’m too sad to tell you about I’m Too Sad to Tell You’—a short speculation about Ader’s attempts at revolutionise the world through expressions of grief, and still my favourite thing I’ve ever written.
Our evening with Ader ended, and gravity kicked in. We’d planned to confront reality head-on, staying together to watch the BBC’s election coverage on the big screen. But the cruellest blow had been delivered whilst we’d been distracted by Bas Jan, his falls and tears, his sailing into oblivion. The exit poll predicted a Conservative majority: our energy, our enthusiasm left us, and we left the cinema soon after. I went home, alone, and struggled not to weep. Two years later, Close-Up was one of my first ports of call when Theresa May’s snap election ended not in a Tory landslide but a hung parliament, and our despair had turned to jubilation. Throughout that turbulence, Close-Up had always been there for me, their company and their cinema never offering anything less than the possibility of a better world.
‘I’m Too Sad to Tell you about
‘I’m Too Sad to Tell you’
Sometimes, journalists call me and beg me to tell them about Bas Jan Ader. I’ve always told them it’s too sad to talk about, but as time has passed, they’ve become more persistent, so I’ve decided to tell you about I’m Too Sad to Tell You. But this is the last time.
I studied with Bas Jan in Los Angeles. One day he invited me to his studio. He arrived as I did, camera in hand, and led me inside. He handed me the camera, stood against the wall and started weeping. I turned on the camera and made the lens stare at him.
After three minutes and twenty-two seconds, the 16mm film ran out. Immediately, the tears stopped, the last one leaving his cheek the moment the film finished.
I put the cap back on the lens and turned to leave. He tapped me on the shoulder, then led me to a café, bought me coffee and sat down.
“Did you walk here?” he asked. I nodded. “You saw anti-war protesters everywhere, yes?” I nodded again.
“Well … they believe America has no right to be in Vietnam,” I replied. “And they’re angry about the senseless loss of life.”
“You’ve read the papers,” said Bas Jan. “They’ve misunderstood—perhaps deliberately. The war stimulates their anger, but it doesn’t generate it. Intellectually, those protestors think the war is wrong, yes; but their protest provides an outlet for emotions that they aren’t allowed to express. The fundamental emotion is sadness—the most painful feeling, and the hardest to comprehend. People feel angry because they can’t understand their sadness—the way society shuns those who make it explicit means they have to repress it, and it becomes anger.”
“So why isn’t everyone out protesting?
“Because people act on their anger in different ways. Some people protest against wars; some make them. Some don’t express the anger at all—they feel they’re not allowed to express anger any more than sadness—and they become depressed. That’s why we’ve made this film.”
“Won’t it make people more depressed?”
“No. It will make people reconnect with the raw emotion they repressed as they became adults, and force them to confront it.”
“Why not challenge them with happiness?” I said. “The happiness we all felt in our childhood.”
“The happiness we claim to remember from our childhoods,” he replied. “I think that before people can even contemplate happiness, they have to understand their sadness.”
“People will say the film is too much for them.”
“They will become ready.”
“You think you’re Christ.”
“I’m not dying for anyone!” he declared. “I just make films.”
“How will people know you’re not faking it?”
Bas Jan stood, without looking at me, took his camera and left. I didn’t call him: I heard nothing from him for several years, until I heard that I’m Too Sad to Tell Youwas screening in Los Angeles. Bas Jan’s handwritten title flashed silently across the frame, then for the next three minutes and twenty-two seconds, his head rolled in genuine anguish, tears streaming down his cheeks.
I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“You’re crying,” said Bas Jan.
“You made me.”
“My next work will make you happy,” he said. “Come to my studio tomorrow.”
His door was open when I arrived.
“You inspired me this,” said Bas Jan as I cast my eyes upon the boat that dominated the tiny studio. “This is the Ocean Wave. It’s the only tangible part of my next project, In Search of the Miraculous. You think it’s very small. It is—only 13ft. When I sail from Massachusetts to Falmouth in England, it will become the smallest craft ever to cross the Atlantic.”
“The project will hopefully contain elements of what some consider insanity. The mental voyage is far more important than the physical one. Amidst the calmness of the ocean, without any distractions, my mind shall be focused purely on attacking the roots of human sadness, until it can only collapse and give way to pure happiness.”
“How do you propose to do that?”
“By focusing upon nothing else, until I’ve found the answer,” he said. “The journey I record in my logbooks shall be purely psychological. When I return to land, I shall publish them. They will show the way.”
“You imagine yourself finding a universal formula for endless happiness?”
“Of course not! I hope to find happiness for myself, within myself. It’s up to other people whether or not they follow my example.”
“It’s too much for you. You’ll go mad.”
“This is an experiment. If I fail, I fail.”
You think you’re Christ, I thought, but I didn’t repeat myself. I shook his hand, wished him luck and walked away.
The telegram arrived as I was alone in my flat, half-watching a family strive to win thousands of dollars on a quiz show.
EMOTIONAL PATTERNS ESTABLISHED BEFORE CONSCIOUS MEMORY STOP SO THE FIRST STEP IS THE ONLY STEP STOP ACCEPTANCE OF SADNESS IS VICTORY OVER SADNESS STOP HUMANS LOOK FOR HAPPINESS WHEN THEY SHOULD BE SEEKING CONTENTMENT STOP THE MIRACULOUS HAS BEEN FOUND AND THE SEARCH CAN STOP
The Ocean Wave was found drifting off the coast of Ireland, nine months and two weeks after I received the telegram. They never found Bas Jan Ader, or his notebooks. When I heard, I sent a copy of the telegram to several national newspapers, all of which said that Bas Jan was not famous enough for them to publish it, especially as its content might upset emotionally fragile readers. Since then, I had kept it in a box with the paintings I have been unable to sell, and it’s too sad to show it to anyone.