The poetics of looking, truth in film and Heath Ledger as the heterogenous invisible heart-throb boy
olleiflex may have once been a brand name that held a lot of resonance within the sphere of photography, but the lay of the land is rather different now. For one, now boomer analog professionals are rightly disdained by a much more sensible cohort of their younger constituents, and are contested in private Facebook groups. Relics are relics are relics - Rolleiflex may be shorthand for relic, but that means nothing to you unless you are unretractable but still blithely enthusiastic, like a niche photographer interested neither in subject or composition about the total hypothetical of it. We can all pretend that we somehow bypass waste and appreciate useless things, and this thing I’m talking about - an exigent metal body that feels weighted in your hands, but ultimately lacks serial relevance, what was once peak of the analog market, now becomes associated with an inheritance. They are ultimately burdensome. There are much better things to give as gifts - a name, a letter, a worn-out book with dog ear creases across the crucial pages - even something as sundry as a spa treatment voucher, which at least has a utilitarian use.
Maybe it would be benevolently gifted from your grandparents or a distant uncle, and accepted gratefully through squashed vowels, and a pained type of face “:)”, perhaps still reluctantly - maybe it now lies forgotten, rather than it being of use in the means of the markedly practical. A standard tradition of Italian Australian families is to re-gift presents with the exact same efficiency that we do rumours. You can pass on a pannetone, but you can't re-gift a vintage camera. It acts as an irremediable offering for a mantelpiece. You refer to it sometimes in the presence of visitors, and you both stand in respectful silence looking toward it, as if willing its uncontained meaning or history to wash over you, eliciting generic but appreciated responses of “wow” “amazing”. You make small talk, and prime yourself for the inevitable rupture in your bluff; you smile nervously, wide and uncanny, the edges of your lips crack like you know the sourdough you’re baking is burning and you have to act like that was, in fact, your intention all along. And yet, beyond this particular strand of anemic sentimentality, the Rolleiflex had its prime.
The brand name refers to a sprawling series of large, medium film devices envisioned by Franke & Heidecke in Germany, popular particularly in the 60s and 70s, when digital expertise was far beyond the photographer's field of vision, and the tactility of photography was what held it steady, what kept the business alive. Every Rolleiflex hosts a Twin-Lens Reflex (TLR), and they sit directly on top of the other: more like a prototype of an international town clock than what we would typically associate with the contemporary cameras wielded by tourists, fashion photographers, and photojournalists. The sense was that you would recognise the sensibilities of the user as soon as you saw them holding it: this is a Rolleiflex user, and they are different to these other men. They are of a specific build and temperament, they wake at certain hours of the day and know exactly when to retreat from public life into darkrooms. You could recognise the kind of people they marry; the way they divide their weekends, their strenuous flows of conversations with acquaintances which are always intended to pick at philosophical tears as if in weighted collaboration not connection; and the kind of attention they hold on strangers, as if contemplating whether their nature would translate to a still photograph. You can see the familiar, compact frame of the Rolleiflex in supremely dated photos of James Dean. His body angled into the wedge of two parallel concrete walls, in such a way that you can imagine him mid-fall, although the exact geographical location is distinctly unknown. He grips the device and angles it outward despite its unwieldiness. The photos taken in this time seem to hover in purgatory, their ambiguity compelling. They are resonant on the notion that they existed then but they do not now, but there is nothing more, and nothing ever will transpire again, because James Dean himself is time: he occupies so much of it, even post-death. And the nagging question of “which era?” that blurts out in query is suddenly irrelevant, or so it goes.
You can see Dean again: in photos of him behind the scenes of major movies, preoccupied with the camera’s mechanics, the legs of production assistants skitter around him, suggesting a blur of frenzied movement, but he is held silent, caught away from panic, brows furrowed ever so slightly. Photos were taken differently once the Rolleiflex interrupted the large format film market - the generous spread and benefaction of it, desirousness of authenticity, the objectively faithful quality of 120 film became that much more vital, even accessible. They pull you in and hold you steady, those rich, deepening captures. Medium format is objectively absorbing in every way. It still remains unmatched by developments in digital photography and leaves evidence in post-production: it can’t be deleted. And it ultimately came to be associated with an editorial, newspaper style professionalism, thus severing the divide between the hobbyist and the professionalist; granting agency to the taker who understood the necessity of equipment and ethics, but wanted just that much more.
It’s the recurring motif of this camera in the hands of a promising young actor that ties the documentary/eulogy I Am Heath Ledger together more than almost anything else. Why the filmmakers chose to centre around this facet of his craftmanship makes sense. It shows a “flipside.” His acutely nimble movements and technical abilities frame the countenance of a boy, who promised platitudes with his hands and serrated jaw, but who passed away at the specific age where his talents should have been most realised. The choice of Rolleiflex is somehow meant to suggest truth and deliberative thought, though I’m not so sure if that always translates. It’s trite, and He was taken too soon always feels flat on the page, unsatisfactory, because we needed to know him before we could make those evaluations. But even if knowing is never the goal, it carries here because it echoes a shared belief.
Ledger’s taste for the antique are suggestions of a precise man, with discreet ambitions, and sophistication, more reserved even than someone might have given him credit for. He transcends the role of the subject, becomes an active participant, and that time period throughout his career infancy - in the 90s and early 2000’s - is most of the ground covered in the film. If nothing else, I Am Heath Ledger mostly functions as a juxtaposition between these photos he’s taken, a veritable array of video snippets clipped together from home footage, and interviews conducted in a studio with Heath’s loved ones. These are frank and detailed accounts from people who knew him from birth, people he became close to through his work, and other people from remarkably different contexts who found an intimacy with him as a person. Despite all this, it’s the insight into his creative process rather than the finished product that is pushed to the forefront, often alarmingly so. Perhaps this is done in the hopes that it will reveal more about him than first-hand accounts from family and friends, but what it does instead is highlight a sizeable gap between his internal life and the widening berth from his reality; how others perceived him, the things that were only whispered and the things that were left unanswered.
The interplay between viewer and viewed is one of the film’s best, most illuminating aspects - it’s a shame that isn’t seized more expertly. In one account from one of Heath’s first girlfriends, a model, she says with shuddering candidness that when Heath photographed her she felt like he really “saw her.” It’s clearly the most Oprah moment of the whole movie, and gives rise to the ideal we all had of Heath Ledger: just within reach, someone with new age sensitivity and humility, a tenderness and delicateness, but who slid into a model of manhood that so many people valorised but simultaneously could not comprehend. He walked a very fine line between this kind of liquid ideal we all bear witness to in some way or another that feels close to the heart of Australian culture but has a worldwide outlook, meeting at the tail end with an American trope of idealism. This mix must have granted him unparalleled attention as much as I assume that it restricted him, and defined him, more than he/we could possibly understand.
There is a boy I’m thinking of, who lived down the street from you, and it was very possible sometimes that you only made him live there because you imagined it. He, who called your name out of the side of his car and waved to you as you walked to the bus-stop in the morning, had never been seen without chipped fingernails or tears in xyz clothing item/sports equipment. You picked out a name, aptly decided to call him hell boy, obviously because of the startling case of rosacea, but also because sometimes - it was arguable - he looked like he was made to play a Marvel character in a B-grade comic book adaptation. You met when you were both babies, gurgling and prostate, swapped and nursed by mothers with coiffed hair-dos and wearied spirits typical of post-partum endurance, introduced to each other while you sported watery doe eyes and sun bleached wispy hair. They looked down on you in delight as you made incomprehensible sounds.
Later on, long after you had developed beyond the mandatory hell of early teenagedom, you saw him intermittently around the bend of streets, like a scarecrow’s head peeking out behind the corner of houses. You saw him out of the side of buses up until you both entered adulthood, the newest and most exquisite of cults. He came around to your place after your graduation, once. It had been a year of silence, but you spent all that time slowly accumulating, piecing together fantasies of him that you would never go on too long to make them feel too desperate. He smelled distinctly himself, too, like an experimental combo of smoked honey and toothpaste. Maybe it was closer to a Korean prototype fragrance mixed with B.O. and the suspect brand of sex wax you saw sitting on the shelves at Quiksilver stores - but anyway it was hot, remember it was the early 2000s - maybe these things were a given. He delivered you native flowers, selected with a curious understanding of your taste. This is not a Taylor Swift video protagonist and he is not Channing Tatum, nor is he signed to Wilhemina models; he is a boy who was particular in the way he addressed another, like it had been practiced and was interested in the details of it, involved in the methodology of noticing, who had a reason not to attend to his quarter, auburn locks, straggly bunches of hair that always fell and bounced in a specific way like it was meant to be recorded, a vintage mambo tee and DYI shorts, the daggiest style envisionable in your locale. But he swapped characters at unpredictable times. When studies show that inattentiveness to formality is reflective of the liberal view, you picture him in place of a stand-in, and the features on his face become smooth over and homogenised like a mannequin.
The boy who lived next door to you, of course, looked like Leonardo DiCaprio, because that is the script, and his appeal rested on the assumption that he would be easy to love, and consumable, and starring in feature films playing near you, but this one was somehow incomplete. You totally realised all his absences yourself, yes, but he was heartfelt, sometimes distant, understood himself well enough in new and ostensibly difficult ways. Part of you wanted to frame him as a spectre, and hang him on the walls of your rooms because of the slippage, and the echoes wrung from his body; the body that was never there and that needed evidence; a ghost that appears when his light is haunted and illuminated by streetlamps and by inopportune moments by Bic lighters, the headlights of old Toyotas as they rest amongst gravel, in the crust of a human shape.
You found him one night, when mosquitoes had multiplied beyond expectation and the night was heavier than usual, drowsy and full of moisture, and you wanted to risk their bite rather than stay any closer to your parents after the usual heated argument. At the playground across the road he perched on the end of a deftly painted day-glo plastic slide, and he suffocated a durry before you even knew what that really meant in the tradition of standardised teenage procedures. There was an element of cinema to the exchange. Some of that conversation was forgotten, and it was the tiny spectacle you wanted part in, not just the movement of emotional affluence. You had the sense that what he spoke of didn’t immediately contract with the world outside of him - instead of trying to find that meeting point, endeavouring for the apex, he continued on in this way, absolving himself of conduct and materiality, never truly making contact.
Joan Didion’s vision of John Wayne shares parallels with my understanding of Ledger, he was the perfectly untouchable man that fit every marketable narrative, because “in a world we understood early to be characterised by venality and doubt and paralysing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more; a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it.” She writes that
“It was in the summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, 'at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow'. As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.”
She goes on:
“I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams. It did not seem possible that such a man could fall ill, could carry within him that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases.”
It would be easy to continue in this way, pontificating about Heath Ledger as a far-away conceptual figment and eternally at-ease with his likenesses, as if he was not bags of bones and skin transformed into a figurine, of how beauty becomes ineffable through masculinity, and slips through historical borderlines to reach out and offer a possibility to us, an acquisition which is ultimately of connection, a connection which is never met in our dialogue with men. Of how affronted and moved I felt in that inexplicable way as a child - perhaps unaware of the power of boys - by his visual and semantic presence and then his death; how sad I am, and was, but instead I simperingly push on past these mythologies, the same ones that purportedly made it more difficult for him to find himself amid a given throng of celebrity. It's an appeal I see in my friends’ obsession with boy bands, objectification that works to protect. Acting as a placeholder for the real thing, and as a retreat from fast action tinder swiping, and bump-ins at parties, and speed dating, and underwhelming sexuality where maleness refuses to budge, and instead becomes a funnel - for all of our spirituality and generosity. He is dead, and he is not really anyone’s boyfriend anymore. Heath Ledger became the stalemate, a place to fall into, not just a person, and therein lies the secret.
Everyone has met a Heath Ledger, or has their own person - who walks with an interrupted gait and sees himself only through the hall of mirrors which is his world. The person who becomes this vacuum as if it’s expected of them, an artist/actor/photographer who shielded themselves from vulnerability through creativity and work instead of using it as companion to that same frailty. Maybe this is what makes I Am Heath Ledger so affecting, troubling and saddening; it offers an insight into how he had different planes that he was forced to operate on. This is not the soft boy, but it’s a precursor. Ledger’s craft is the offering, and was, perhaps, this deeply involved because he “really wanted to be famous” as Matt Amato claims in the documentary. Perhaps he thought that ultimate mastery of his work was the way forward. Although, partly it feels like it stems from an indebted feeling towards his country - something more Australian celebrities internalise than some would admit - as well as towards his family and some unspoken debt to them which is never articulated, some unseen driving force. His death still rattles us. It remains impactful, and resounding, and we know why: it was grotesquely drawn out and built upon by the horror of speculative coverage. Heath Ledger was the imaginary potential boyfriend that flipped; became whisked away by a tragedy of chance and never manifested into our lives, because we didn’t will it hard enough, but also because we didn’t want that to happen as much as he should have been a day-dream above it. The face: more specifically, the galaxy of freckles: more specifically, the slightly lopsided wide-framed smile, densely populated across billboards: the overall oddly alluring features and demeanour were a parcel of traits that spun a unique brand of lovability; became his own personality as far as we were concerned, and captured the attention of every second teenager between Australia and America. We claimed him, in all of his uncertainty, boyish charm, and imperfection; his wavering but highly relatable ambition and gorgeousness. But the pressure that came from that suggested fatalism.
Heath Ledger’s stance and expression - the way he conducted himself - looks of concern and throwing of hands, tilting of heads and his vigor, the shuffling and directivity and pleading, the way he balanced certainty and uncertainty like they were siblings that had experienced a spell of separation - was something he arguably took from dance. He was as disciplined as one, too. The documentary shows him as someone who passed himself off as an effortless and amiable talent but spent days and months in a state of hyper-awakeness, focusing all of his attention on roles and character. It’s a classic narrative and it’s not any surprise that this took hold of him and wore him out until the stakes became that much higher. One of the most heart-warming parts of I Am Heath Ledger reveals this in some behind the scenes footage of the dance he conducted in A Knight's Tale, where the unlikely peasant Heath engages in a coquettish and heat-fuelled romance with a beguiling noblewoman, played by Shannyn Sossamon. Seeing the actors in this unedited framework is as wrenching as anything in the original movie, although it’s difficult to discern the reason for this. Perhaps because it’s a stern reminder of what we lost from Heath’s passing, or reflective of what he offered but did not receive, the thing that we might not have at once recognised. Heath’s older sister, Kate, inspired a love of acting in a young Heath and was responsible for introducing those early influences, including a far-reaching admiration of Gene Kelly. Zadie Smith wrote:
“Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, in old age, “and I represent the proletariat.” The distinction is immediately satisfying, though it’s a little harder to say why. Tall, thin and elegant, versus muscular and athletic ... the aristocrat and the proletariat have different relations to the ground beneath their feet, the first moving fluidly across the surface of the world, the second specifically tethered to a certain spot: a city block, a village, a factory, a stretch of fields.”
Heath’s performance style echoes Gene Kelly’s relation to the common people, who we can envision as being at one with the way Australians see themselves - somehow both underdogs, and severe, free-spirited, yet ribboned to hard yakka, whether that is pertinent or whether that just a safe house. Heath’s articulation was one of relating back to his audiences; they were in the alleys and backseats listening in, whether that was noted beyond the roles he played or in courtesy of his emoting, the way he burst with candour and empathy on screen. In I Am Heath Ledger there is a moment where you realise, perhaps even collectively with other viewers strung along on the chase, that this might not have been as easily accessible in his day-to-day life. Heath is depicted as endlessly giving. His friends and extended acquaintances take sanctuary within him; staying in his London apartment while he is shooting, he orders in food for them even while far away. This breadth of uncommittal acceptance, the using of his money in the way that one would when they recognise it’s true power - to supplement, to offer opportunities and tools to loved ones that they would not otherwise have had. In an interview in the film, Ben Harper relates a story of how, after playing piano together one night, he woke up to removalists at his door, that same grand piano in tow. Without much thought, Ledger had simply passed on this asset to someone who perhaps could have better benefited from it. His depiction in the documentary is of someone who was relentlessly selfless in some ways and as detached from the self in others - maybe so much so that he never developed the ability to ask for anything in return, to expect anything, and thus escaped true intimacy in the process.
The dark always settled early over the awning of our house especially in summer, as the end of the school year seemed to zip shut like metal teeth that became caught on denim and then suddenly ripped across it. The sky began to bleed its republican dark blue, and the margarita sunset was only visible for a few moments. It was always by the time that I had reached for my hiptop that it would vanish again. I had time to be interested in the phenomena of walking, of synthesising reality with body and of movement, of in-betweenness. I rarely felt rushed and when I did there was enough buoyancy in it to be protected.
Our once congested household had been extended out, and all the buildings around us that comprised a neighbourhood attempted similar renovations. I had moved into my own room for once. I loved the smell of night-time then because I knew I could rely upon the heat extracting fragrance from weeds and flowers to bloodlet the atmosphere, act as an anxiolytic. I appreciated these things because I wanted to be sophisticated. I told myself this anyway, I envisioned a life beyond my labourer family, my brother’s filthy ute and my mom’s calloused hands and stiff neck from hours of overtime typing. But I had a degree of safety in the neighbourhood ticks and noises. I need to smell these specific smells to know that I am living in this same place and that my body is the same one that I used to walk through this place. They had all started as buds of potential and now housed fully fledged families, with cars and occupations and drove new roads, ones that lead beyond the suburb.
In my new room I flicked between channels until I found him. His heaving body, recovering from methamphetamines. The sweat coated him like an amphibian’s slime, his torso like that of a hungry adventurer. The first time I watched Candy, I was wearing barely any clothes and kept experiencing a new unfamiliar feeling in my midriff, and my breathing was heavy. There was nothing sexy about him then, but Heath Ledger somehow swallowed my whole body and beckoned me into the violent image on the television screen.
Candy Heath Ledger was different to A Dark Knight Heath Ledger. But they are both hollowed out until the point that their identity is split. For posterity, imagine these versions of Heath Ledger smacking each other with unrelenting force, unravelling into a brawl like the Kylie Minogue Did it Again video.
In the classic knowledge that what lies unexpressed becomes fully and covertly expressed, I Am Heath Ledger asks as many questions as it answers. For all of the testimonials of close friends, family members, ex-girlfriends and creative partners, the insight into his personal universes seems unsatisfying and incomplete. What we do see is often in the form of previously unshown footage he took of himself, mostly, on camcorders and what one must assume were the beginnings of digital recorders. He speaks into them and for them, grounding himself in his world. The gaze upon the camera is so gripping that you really believe that his emotional commitment to acting was as real as his artistic endeavours and relationships. He often talks to himself like one would pen a diary entry: uncertain at first, but ritualistic and dedicated enough to be of significance. There are photos, too, like the ones taken on the Rolleiflex but also others, of his co-stars and friends, which reveal more about his yearning for understanding that never totally seems to eventuate. In many of the videos he holds the recorder at arms length and points the lens back at his face, and starts spinning. Watching this made me more and more anxious as the footage continued, even as other viewers in the cinema laughed. Heath looks distracted, not calm or level-headed, and as the spinning continues for minutes upon minute, the obvious becomes clear. Everything is moving too fast, and there is someone who might not know how to handle that.
One big takeaway from the film is that he was exceedingly generous, and eager to connect and engage with those that he loved, but simultaneously unable to in a way that satisfied or resolved. He was heartfelt and child-like in the carefullest of ways and the worst of ways, and deeply affected the lives of everyone he came in contact with, people who were mystified and compelled by his nature. His charity and care were as conflicted by his imposter syndrome, or as his ex-partner Naomi Watts says in the film, an internalised “tall-poppy syndrome.” The character that the Australian public had painted of him gave him a semi-legendary status situated in a unique humility and wholesomeness, but Ledger’s presence suggests that maybe he burnt out on those expectations.
What some of us begin to learn over time is that sometimes “closure” has become obsolete - all that is left is the recognition of what has stayed with us from someone’s love and association, of their presence and the ever-transforming attachments they gifted us. Heath’s eulogisation stands as an effort of his close friends to bring his likeness into the ether once more, with the promise that something can be realised. Even though his family were not directly involved, their presence still rings the most significant. It is dire to realise that someone could grow up and away from you so quickly only to be vanished away like he was. When we realise that, I Am Heath Ledger can stand as its own love note, and not as a cautionary tale, as a hesitant viewer-to-be might have expected.
About the author
Jonno Revanche is a writer and multi-disciplinary artist that creates work about distance and the difficult to find belonging. They are currently living in Sydney, as a settler on Gadigal land.
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