Cinemania
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Cinemania

A Florida Melancholy: A Landscape Filled with Desperation (and Hope)

Eli Hayes will be remembered as an experimental cinema pioneer.

“A Florida Melancholy” (2019, Hazel Eye Productions)

There will never be another experimental filmmaker like Eli Hayes. With over 83 experimental productions and over 13,000 films watched in his short life on earth, his influence on contemporary experimental cinema will be felt for years to come.

It’s quite rare that a cinephile who wants to break out in the industry aspires to become the next James Benning, Jonas Mekas, or Stan Brakhage, but Eli was precisely that. In his magnum opus, A Florida Melancholy, Hayes explores his depression and mental state through the landscapes of Tallahassee, Florida. Divided into four chapters (with two interludes and an epilogue), A Florida Melancholy presents striking images (and sounds) of depression that could provoke cathartic reactions to those looking for a way out of their depression.

Eli Hayes’ camera (and tutored eye for experimental cinema) allows us to sink in our depression, right from its first chapter, Backdrop of a Home. Animal-like shaped trees in the middle of the night haunt our mental state, distorted by the assault of nature’s music our brain can’t process due to our social isolation from the rest of the world.

From these images, I started thinking about my past — something I’ve been taught to ignore through Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) a few years back. Memories of abuse and bullying that destroyed my “innocent child” bubble in elementary school began to creep up, and I became helpless. When you see how powerful the images of tree leaves staring at you in the shape of a bear and/or wolf (when I stare at nature too long, I start imagining forms), as the distortion grows more potent, it’s as if your past begins to stare at you in the face and begs you to confront it.

It wasn’t until the second and third chapters, Journey to Shell Point and Among Animals, that the camera starts to convey emptiness. Eli is at the beach, sinking himself in the water, belonging purely to nature and nothing else. When you’re depressed, all you feel is emptiness — you believe no one cares about you because you’ve been abused for years on end by the same people and, yet, the system you so willingly believe in does nothing.

That was my case. Someone who was abused for seven years by the same people who treated me like garbage hurled insults at me, kicked me in the back and punched me in the stomach due to my “mental differences.” I could never defend myself. I was a “retard” and an “idiot” who will never amount to anything in my life, which only made me even more depressed than I was. Everybody hated me because I was different.

When Eli swims in the water with his camera, while others play around and have fun, I immediately thought of how lonely and invisible I was to everybody growing up. The camera floats in the water, in a static state of emptiness. To some people, it’s just a “camera floating in the water lmao,” but, to me, it represented my entire childhood. Lonely, empty, whose only way out seemed to be death.

The only people that seemed to understand me, at this point, are animals. When I thought of what I just wrote, Chapter III kicked in, and images of animals in nature and a zoo appears. In a zoo, animals are lonely. They are trapped in a cage and serve as amusement for humans. Even in the environment, however, animals are alone. They socially isolate themselves from humans because they know they mean harm.

Solely looking at these lonely animals made me sob uncontrollably in a state of more profound depression. I was like them, utterly impervious from everyone and used as a form of amusement for others; a punching bag. For about 10 minutes, I stopped watching, because the overflow of emotions was too strong for me. I almost gave up, because I didn’t want to face my past (again) after I was taught to stop clinging on all of this BS and move to a happier state, even when life will sucker punch me in the gut.

It’s astounding how powerful the moving image can be, by showing landscapes of desperation. How the camera participates in A Florida Melancholy’s illusion is equally astonishing, until it fills us with hope after a thunderstorm of hopelessness.

The final sequence, Journey to Wakulla Springs, gives us hope and courage that better days lie ahead if we start our pilgrimage to a better life. The sweeping, almost IMAX-like images of Wakulla Springs fill our peripheral vision on a voyage toward a better quality of life. After filling our mind with desperation and pictures of our past, Eli Hayes tells us to stop conditioning our depressed state and move to a better one.

I was floored by how every landscape, every sound, every camera move conveyed something deep in our state that we hope to bury. A Florida Melancholy encourages all of us to hide our dark past, longing for better days ahead because we must remember that “every new day is not a promise, but a bonus.”

Eli Hayes died, having accomplished what most of us dreamed of doing at 40 and did it all at 26. His unfathomable passion for cinema is still a big inspiration for me. Without him, I wouldn’t have discovered the beautiful, at times bizarre world of experimental cinema. I would’ve probably stayed at my “comfort zone” of blockbusters until he told me to expand my tastes, to widen my appreciation of cinema because it’s more than “pew pew blockbusters.”

And he was right. Without him, I wouldn’t have enrolled in an experimental cinema class last semester to learn the how and why of the artform. I still don’t understand it, but I now appreciate it. I invite all of you to discover Eli Hayes’ magnificent filmography on his Vimeo channel by clicking this link and enjoy how important he was for contemporary cinema as I did.

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