Narimane Mari, Bloody Beans, 2013, color, sound, 77 minutes.
SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 2003, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) has championed a hybrid model of documentary film—work situated between fiction and nonfiction, between visual art and cinema; there’s even room for full-fledged fiction films. The festival deserves its reputation for adventurous programming; this is, after all, the only documentary festival to screen Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers in competition and award it the top prize, as it did in 2009. It’s also become a festival of unwieldy ambition that continues to maintain a charming intimacy, even as it has matured into a wide-ranging, multifront operation that includes concerts (Fuck Buttons, Jamie Ferraro); ambitious art installations, such as Michelangelo Frammartino’s immersive and sublime Alberi; and film and music experiments, such as “Disorder Live,” a performance accompanying Huang Weikai’s masterful 2009 film. What’s more, dissatisfied with merely being a platform for new work, the festival has in recent years established an industry forum and multiple funding initiatives for collaborative films and new media projects, one which includes a partnership with Frieze.
Billing itself under the theme “Everything Is Under Control,” the 2013 edition was unabashedly political. Ai Weiwei and the Yes Men acted as guest curators, selecting predictably unpredictable work—Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966); Antonioni’s 1972 Chun Kuo, Chin (the first documentary about communist China produced by a Westerner); and Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (1977). A showcase of new Chinese documentaries included new work by Li Hongqi, Wang Bing, and Bo Wang, and an award for films operating between investigative journalism and activism was established. Festival director Tine Fischer suggested that this shift in focus was partially inspired by journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and their commitment to rewriting the rules of engagement in a digital landscape, especially in terms of methodology and distribution of content.
Ai was without a doubt the festival’s moral center, albeit in absentia. (He remains without a passport and cannot leave China.) In addition to curating, the artist was represented at the festival by two films—the opening-night selection, Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013) and Stay Home! (2013), Ai’s latest documentary, which played in competition. Johnsen’s remarkably intimate film, which observes a visibly traumatized Ai under house arrest following his eighty-one-day detention in 2011, captures the pressures and fears of the artist as public activist. “Nothing is under control,” Ai urged in a videotaped address prior to the premiere of Stay Home!. That film follows Liu Ximei, an HIV-positive woman who contracted the disease as a child during a hospital visit. She now advocates for those denied access to medical care. Shot on a consumer-grade camera, the film has an impoverished aesthetic that matches its bleak portrait of a system that refuses to take responsibility for its people.
Ai’s film is typical of the recent wave of Chinese documentaries that focus on the Kafkaesque insanity of that country’s bureaucracy, and approach film not as a precious art but as a critical means to survey the state. Zhu Rikun’s The Questioning (2013), a single-take film documenting the director’s confrontation with police in his hotel room, essentially serves as evidence of human rights violations. Its underlying absurdity was perhaps exceeded only by Li Hongqi’s Hooly Bible (2013). Set in a dismal debt-collection office and an equally oppressive nightclub, and featuring a comically endless search for a parking space, the film presents an existential nightmare set in China’s lowest depths. An immersion in aimlessness so complete as to feel utterly interminable, the film is all the more discomfiting for the absence of any context. Poet and fiction filmmaker Hongqi (Winter Vacation, 2011) lets us speculate on circumstances surrounding his subjects—the thuggish collectors trading violent anecdotes and the bored twentysomething prostitutes awaiting clients—and to what degree the film is in fact fiction.
A more intimate version of hell is presented in Atlas (2013), the second feature by Antoine D’Agata. The controversial Magnum photographer and provocateur has spent the past twenty years documenting his participation in sordid scenarios of sex and addiction. Altas was shot in more than twenty cities around the world, but essentially takes place in the same abysmal room, where D’Agata chain-smokes meth, shoots up, and has sex with prostitutes. Profoundly unsettling politics underlying D’Agata’s longtime relationship with these women aside, the film is essentially a confession of the deepest and darkest kind. Its unremitting mood and static images produce a dramatic stasis that may serve the project conceptually but which undermines any emotional connection. It’s essentially a slide show, and is perhaps best experienced as one.
D’Agata would likely subscribe to Artaud’s “It’s better to be than to obey,” a sentiment invoked by French-Algerian director Narimane Mari at the end of Bloody Beans, which took the festival’s top prize. Mari’s film is concerned with transgressing historical reality through an imaginative reenactment of Algeria’s independence performed by a group of children. Culminating in a hypnotic nocturnal graveyard shadow play—at once playful and menacing—the film marries postcolonial critique with the anarchic spirit of Jean Vigo. Reenactment and collective history are also integral to The Filmballad of Mamadada, a feminist biopic of little-known lesbian dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven that includes contributions by more than fifty filmmakers and uses an exquisite corpse structure. Inspired in part by Ulrike Müller’s Herstory Inventory (Müller also narrates the film), first-time filmmakers Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan orchestrate a playful and chaotic experiment that posits a return to a grand collective narrative via the postqueer populism of YouTube and crowdsourcing.
Jørgen Leth’s collective portrait Life in Denmark (1972) closed the festival. (The Danish auteur of experimental documentary was being honored for his fiftieth year in filmmaking.) Recalling Warhol in its deadpan tone and advertising-savvy aesthetics, Leth’s ironic take on the ethnographic film was perhaps the perfect conclusion to a festival that has a predilection for looking backward to move the genre of documentary forward.
The eleventh Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) ran November 7–17.
Set in the near future—perhaps ten years, ten months, or ten minutes from now—Spike Jonze’s Her follows the cathexis humans have expended on their tech gadgets through to its logical next step: falling in love with them. Jonze’s fourth feature (and the first for which he has written an original script) is neither a simple lamentation about our overly mediated lives nor a gooey exploration of loneliness, but a perceptive reflection on the need for—and folly of—attachment.
Her traces the relationship that blossoms between flesh-and-blood Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), the voice of OS1, billed as “not just an operating system [but] a consciousness.” Recently divorced, Theodore, once a writer for the LA Weekly, now composes missives for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a service for those wishing to outsource the articulation of their deepest affections. (The voice-generated calligraphy used for these messages resembles that found in the paintings of the artist who shares Theodore’s surname.) “Play melancholy song,” this mournful man, inserting an earbud that looks like a tiny wine cork, commands after leaving the office. He circulates among scores of others, likewise issuing imperatives to devices, in a city simultaneously recognizable and fantastic: The metropolis is a composite of location shooting in Los Angeles and Shanghai.
As suggested by the artisanal quality of his earphone, many of Theodore’s accessories are themselves an amalgam of past, present, and future. His pants—high-waisted wool trousers—resemble those worn by extras in Paramount productions of the 1940s. With its wooden veneer, his smartphone calls to mind an index-card-size daguerreotype camera. This tool is always tucked into his shirt pocket, to which a large safety pin—a talisman of the punk era Theodore never lived through, perhaps, or an antique curio from a time when infants wore cloth diapers—is always affixed.
Is Theodore, who half-jokingly notes, “I can’t even prioritize between video games and Internet porn,” a big baby? Jonze’s protagonist often seems perilously close to emo caricature; he plays the ukulele in bed. But Phoenix’s performance is imbued with such genuine heartsickness that Theodore’s musings on why his marriage (to Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, seen here mostly in flashback) fell apart ring of piercing, real-life regret, not break-up bromides.
“Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel,” he frets to Samantha as their relationship deepens. The disembodied voice has worries of her own: “Are these feelings even real, or are they just programming?” Samantha’s existential anxieties, reflecting those of her sentient lover, might explain why she and some other OS pals create a “new Alan Watts,” the British-born Zen philosopher who died in 1973. “I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is,” Watts once said. The logic of this pensée, at once maddeningly circular and appealingly simple, is echoed near the film’s end when Samantha tells Theodore, “I’m yours and I’m not yours”—a harsh truth painfully applicable to any dyad in any year.
Her opens in limited release December 18 and nationwide January 10.
Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Love, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 120 minutes. Beach Boy (Gabriel Nguma Mwarua) and Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel).
IMAGINE A WORLD in which the environment is pristine, the architecture sublime, the people polite; a world in which each existential need has been met and all social problems solvedbut everyone is quietly miserable or raving mad. Welcome to Ulrich Seidl’s Austria. For thirty years, the Vienna-based filmmaker has unveiled disturbing aspects of the quotidian using forms that impede the way we register what is unrehearsed and what staged. Mixing lay with professional actors, improvised dialogue with spontaneous encounters, and a primarily stationary camera with bursts of kinesis, Seidl renders the borders between the documentary and fiction film unknowable and unnecessary.
After individual studies of coupling, conformity, and small-town and big-city hypocrisy (Dog Days ), the church (Jesus, You Know ), and East-West relations (Import/Export ), Seidl has delivered the Paradise trilogy, a stunning culminationindeed, an escalationof his previous work. In an unprecedented act of art-house prolificacy, Seidl premiered the three films within one year at Europe’s most prestigious festivals: Love at Cannes (2012), Faith at Venice (2012), and Hope at Berlin (2013).
Those familiar with the cinematic structures of Dog Days and Import/Export will recognize the parallel narrative and character constellations that run through the Paradise films. Here the various strands meet via middle-aged Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), her sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), and her daughter, Melanie (Melanie Lenz). They are the protagonists of Love, Faith, and Hope, respectively; together, the women are a psychogram of contemporary Austrian society.
Love, the trilogy’s first installment, begins with the revelation of paradise; the subsequent proceedings chart its loss. In the opening shots, Teresa is preparing to travel on holiday to Kenya to meet a friend who, she soon learns, is a seasoned sex tourist eager to show her the ropes. Feeling fat, ugly, and undesirable at home, the fifty-year-old hopes that the local beach boys will see her as “a person, not just a body”and simultaneously satisfy her sexual urges. A tested theater and television actress, Tiesel, as Teresa, delivers a naturalistic performance with the unstudied charm of a nonprofessional. The role, of course, hinges on heror, to be more precise, on her body. Obesity lends dramatic accents and engenders crisscrossed structures of revulsion and sympathy: When the protagonist arrives at the resort hotel, for instance, she immediately begins cleaning the room, wearing only undergarments overwhelmed by cellulite, pendulous breasts, and errant folds of flesh; later, in postcoital slumber under purple mosquito netting, she seems an incarnation of a Lucian Freud grotesque. Seidl’s camera is pitiless.
That Teresa and her more experienced compatriots are women complicates our ethical calculations, creating a moral ambiguity typically absent from our judgments of the clichéd (if perhaps all too real) sleazy male sex tourists they resemble. The encounter between these divorcées and the local youth, an all but inevitable phenomenon driven by unfulfilled need and facilitated by gaping disparities of wealth, yields an unsettling mixture of racism, feminist liberation, colonialist arrogance, and subaltern guile. The liaisons between the tubby European quinquagenarians and fit African lads on the beaches and in love hotels are vexed by constantly shifting power relations: Although the women control the purse strings and treat the men as erotic commodities, they also cry out for romance, complain that the men do not love them, and suffer from jealousyTeresa, for instance, asks her escorts, “How many white women have slept in this bed?” In a pivotal (if literally anticlimactic) scene, Teresa’s friends surprise her with a birthday present, a gigolo complete with a pink bow on his penis. They spontaneously devise a party game: Whoever can get him hard gets him. Despite their entreaties and stripteases, the man (barely more than a boy) remains flaccid, and the women’s feelings are clearly wounded. They had come to a place where, despite their age and corpulence, they felt themselves desirable; but ultimately, they discover, not even the money they so liberally spread can make them attractive, let alone buy them love. By the end of her stay, Teresa feels scammed, financially and emotionally.
As in other Seidl films (especially Animal Love ), animals serve as a metaphor and people’s attitudes toward them as a shibboleth. Shortly after arriving in Africa, Teresa tenderly feeds and photographs the little monkeys on her hotel terrace. This both parallels and contrasts with her treatment of Kenyan men. She tells one gigolo, “I’m not an animal,” and instructs him how to caress her enormous bosom with feeling, “not pinch”; later, as he sleeps, she takes a snapshot of his prodigious genitals, an unabashed memento of her safari.
Illuminated by luridly beautiful African colors and a brilliant, piercing sun, Love is surely a critique of Orientalism, but the film also demonstrates that exploitation is a mutual outcome. Seidl’s unblinking, full-frontal address forces the spectator to see bodies rather than people, to see objects rather than subjects, mirroring the gaze the women detest in Western men and yet the very gaze they themselves cast on Africans. And the Kenyans, for their part, willingly play their roles, every word and deed calibrated to extract as much money as possible from the foreign women they fastidiously refuse to charge for their “love.” The conundrum resembles that of Schrödinger’s cat: Every character is simultaneously victim and perpetrator; everyone is, to varying degrees, both innocent and guilty.
Although set in suburban Austria and largely confined to gloomy interior shots, Faith picks up where Love leaves off. It begins with a woman praying in a darkened room to a crucifix at least half her size. “So many people are obsessed with sex. Free them from their hell. Free them from carnal desire, please,” Anna Maria (Teresa’s sister) beseeches, before stripping down to her waist and vigorously self-flagellating. Here again, utopian energies commingle awkwardly with sexuality; the protagonist, a medical technician by day, spends her free time and vacation as a Catholic missionary and Jesus devotee.
Anna deploys religion ostensibly as a way to suppress lascivious yearnings, but in the end faith becomes the displaced locus of her more earthly desires. Compared with the ultramodern mammography and CAT-scan technology Anna uses at work in Vienna, her house betrays a startlingly low-tech and atavistic interior design, dominated by crosses, idols, and portraits of Jesus and the pope. In a series of documentary-like encounters, Anna Maria visits strangers in their homes in an attempt to deliver them from the evils of fornication and adultery. These scenes are punctuated by depictions of rituals at home: Anna cleaning obsessively, crawling through the house on her bare knees, playing songs of praise on her electronic keyboard, and intoning improvised liturgies that resemble steamy love letters to the “most handsome man.” The erotic fixation on Jesus becomes especially problematic when, well into the story, Anna Maria’s wheelchair-bound and previously absent Egyptian husband returns from an extended stay with his family and demands to be cared for. At this point the genre veers from quirky character study into domestic gothic, as Anna Maria’s extreme fidelity to Catholicism belies the resulting neglect and torture of her paralyzed Muslim husband. Beyond the horror tropes, some viewers may be disturbed by the scenario’s flirtation with the allegorical: A dependent, misogynist Muslim with a gray chin-curtain beard attacks the religious devotion of his ungenerous, hypocritical Christian wife, who lords her superiority over him in a post-9/11 world.
Faith’s screening at the 2012 Venice film festival was the most scandalous of the director’s careerbut not because of its depiction of Muslim–Christian relations. The ultraconservative Catholic group NO194 pressed charges against Seidl, Hofstätter, and festival organizers for “blasphemy,” an accusation based almost entirely on a two-minute sequence in which Anna Maria pleasures herself under the covers with a crucifix. The debate (perhaps like the scene in question) proved gratuitous, serving only to increase the profile of this right-wing fringe organization and, of course, that of the film itself, which went on to win the festival’s Special Jury Prize. The pattern of critical and popular controversy is familiar from other art-cinema “outrages.” This is not to imply that Seidl’s provocation was pure calculation; nonetheless, in Faith the tenuous balance between naturalism and artifice that is the very crux of the director’s work perhaps shifts too far toward the fantastic.
More directly than the first two Paradise installments, Hope depicts institutional life and its absurd routines. The film begins with Anna Maria taking her niece to a fat camp, where Melanie will spend her summer while her mother, Teresa, vacations in Kenya. With its repeated waist measurements and weigh-ins, endless somersaults and pool laps, credos (“Discipline is the cornerstone of success”) and affirmations (“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat”), Melanie’s camp existence is as corporeal as Teresa’s Kenyan erotic package tour and as scripted as Anna Maria’s Catholicism. Mundane daily activities reveal the insanity of normality and supply bits of information and clues about character where dialogue, music, and other more explicit narrative signposts are largely absent.
Hope’s complicating element is the one relationship that develops beyond the stocky teens’ rites of passage: the manipulative phone calls to Mother and Father, bull sessions about virginity and sex, late-night raids of the fridge, and beery spin-the-bottle contests. Whereas Love upends the conventional hierarchies of white/black and man/woman, Hope reroutes the typical perspective of the classic Humbert-Lolita tale. It relays a flirtation between a good-looking, married, middle-aged doctor and the obese thirteen-year-old Melanie from the perspective of the infatuated girl. Narrated in a spare, earnest way (with none of the bracing caricature of Todd Solondz’s Happiness ), the story places us in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with Melanie when her first crush is so cruelly unrequited, even though we realize the relationship would have been horribly inappropriate and potentially disastrous.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Hope is its title. Many commentators suggest that Seidl’s attitude toward his subjects is offensive, contemptuous and inhumane, and they detect a sneer in his invocation of paradise, love, faith, and hope. It is, of course, easy to see where they get that idea; rather than itself being exploitative or cynical, however, the filmmaker’s project is to investigate how exploitation and cynicism arise despite our best intentions. His films anatomize utopian reckonings with an imperfect world, where characters pursue idealistic goals the achievement of which produces dangerous side effects; where social distance and geographic proximity inflect itineraries of desire, causing fates to collide and often explode. The Paradise trilogy (building on Seidl’s earlier work) may thematize desire and in particular the abysses to which the pursuit of happiness can lead, but the aim of the films is not to provide pleasure. Rather, Seidl confronts us with scenarios that, however diligently we may scrutinize them, remain inextricably funny yet disturbing, ridiculous yet sobering, absurd yet ultimately tragicsituations that are morally intense and intensely ambiguous in a way that forecloses any “appropriate” response. The Paradise triptych shines a harsh light on the viewer’s own utopian designs, forcing us to acknowledge that the satisfaction of our wants and “needs,” benign as they may seem, contributes to a vast network of misery. It’s not a pretty picture, but, as the director himself has repeatedly insisted, Ulrich Seidl is “not a wedding photographer.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Artforum.
AMERICAN HUSTLE, David O. Russell’s boisterous, bighearted film, loosely based on the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s, begins with a paunchy schlub affixing a ghastly toupee. The man engaged in this pitiful act of vanity is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who not too much later says, in Bronx-thick voice-over, of his immediate attraction to Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his partner in love and grift, “Like me, she envisioned a better, more elegant version of herself.” The line doesn’t sink with thuddingly obvious irony but rather points to the movie’s greatest strength: Russell’s magnanimity toward his characters, an equable, never cloying embrace of their imperfections.
This warmth also coursed through and kept afloat the director’s previous two films, The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), whose lead actors reappear in American Hustle’s ensemble. Like these earlier projects, Russell’s latest, which he cowrote with Eric Singer, thrives on chaos, with several voluble, vociferous bodies sharing the frame. What those alternately preening, raging, double-crossing, and dissembling bodies do for nearly two and a half hours would take too long to summarize and may even be beside the point. Plot—which here becomes particularly confounding in the final act—is subordinate to the self-delusions of imperfect men and women.
“Some of this actually happened” reads the opening disclaimer, a gambit that lays bare the fact that Russell’s primary focus isn’t recapitulating the specifics of Abscam, in which the FBI set out to ensnare corrupt public officials. Instead, what drives the film is the outsize emotion ricocheting off Irving, Sydney, and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the overweening G-man who recruits the couple to aid him in the sting—a triangle that is squared by Irving’s unstable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). When Richie, jacked up on his own ambition (and occasionally coke), has Sydney all to himself one night—Irving and Roslyn are having dinner with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the Camden, New Jersey, mayor targeted by the feds—he pleads, “I need to go dancing with you.” The scene that follows this unabashed request, with Adams and Cooper gyrating to “I Feel Love” at a strobe-lit disco, is more than simple era-evoking: It conveys the feral energy between the two, with Richie never certain whether or not he’s being played by Sydney (whose British alias, Lady Edith Grassley, is clearly a nod to the title flimflammer in Preston Sturges’s peerless 1941 screwball comedy, The Lady Eve) and too turned on to really care.
Russell also transformed the climactic, potentially hokey dance-competition scene between the characters played by Cooper and Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook into a five-minute tribute to the brio of their messy execution, and, by extension, their messy lives. A similar verve is on display in American Hustle, even in its most depressive character, Roslyn. “You know, sometimes in life all you have are poisonous, fucked-up choices,” this miserable wife and mother from Long Island tells the more soignée Sydney during an encounter in the women’s room. But she seals her self-pitying speech with a smeary, sloppy kiss that leaves its normally unflappable receiver—and the audience—stunned, if not slightly awestruck.
American Hustle opens in New York and Los Angeles December 13 and nationwide December 18.
Ed Atkins, Even Pricks, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes.
LOOK, UP IN THE AIR! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… What, exactly? This much we do know: Migrating Forms, the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the New York Underground Film Festival, is now in its fifth installment—and its first at BAMcinématek, having up until now called Anthology Film Archives home.
Programmed by co-directors Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, this year’s Migrating Forms slate combines a selection of new work by experimental media artists with choice retrospectives. In previous years the revivals have put a spotlight on such varied figures as Jean-Pierre Gorin, Georges Perec, Glauber Rocha, and Chuck Jones; this time around, there are programs dedicated to the choreographer Merce Cunningham and Hong Kong action filmmaker Johnnie To (Drug Wars).
To Cunningham and To’s names we must add that of Anne Charlotte Robertson, a Boston-area Super 8 diarist who died in 2012, and who has three restored works playing. With her lank, unkempt brown hair, hunted glare, aggrieved manner, and ever-present cigarette and coffee cup, Robertson cuts a striking figure in her 1986 Apologies, facing down the camera and pelting the viewer with frantic, pleading atonements. If Robertson seems harried to the point of being ill, well, that’s because she is, as her “Five Year Diary” project (1981–1997) attests. Migrating Forms will play two “Diary” entries, A Breakdown and After the Mental Hospital (1982) and Emily Died (1994). In both, Robertson, who was frequently in and out of mental institutions, relates the travails of her psychosis with a kind of beseeching humor. Breakdown is soundtracked by two simultaneous narrations, one which plays like Robertson’s surreptitiously-recorded sessions with an analyst, the other her own cool analysis, after the fact, of the effects of encroaching madness. Feverish filming is one symptom: “This is called mania, everything has significance,” Robertson says of her obsessive self-documentation, including a delusional crush on Dr. Who and a passion for filming her groceries. In Emily Died, forty-five-year-old Robertson’s usual woes regarding weight and medication are tangled up with her response to the death of a three-year-old niece and subsequent mourning. (Robertson’s rhapsodic, flower-bedecked eulogy may mark her as some strange heir to the tradition of New England transcendentalism.) The artist never surrenders the idea of a Prince Charming on the horizon—“My true love would want to see me someday,” she says in Breakdown, “This is for him”—but it’s the rest of us that she did a favor by sharing these unguarded, nervy confessionals.
It may seem like the figures that I’ve mentioned thus far have little to do with one another, but this is precisely the polymorphously perverse logic of Migrating Forms’s programming—it’s not that one of these things does not fit in here, but that everything does fit in here. (The fest doesn’t even adhere to a regular annual schedule—previous editions have run in May.) Above and beyond the feature film slate, what really distinguishes Migrating Forms is its role as a showcase for short-format films: It’s a place to catch up on films like Utskor: Either/ Or, the latest from Spanish-born, CalArts-trained Laida Lertxundi, whose work I became familiar with after seeing her 2010 Cry When It Happens at the third Migrating Forms. In Utskor, Lertxundi leaves behind the Californian landscapes of her first five shorts to shoot on the northern archipelagos of Norway, combining one of the best eyes for landscape working today with her usual flagrant, jarring interruptions of non-diegetic 1960s rock and soul, here tied together by the recurring lyrical plaint “It’s so hard.”
Ryan Trecartin, CENTER JENNY, 2013.
In addition to programs of work relating to single artists (Cunningham, Xavier Cha, Ryan Trecartin), there are five individual programs composed of a diverse array of international shorts. The abovementioned names need no introduction—of Trecartin’s quartet of new works, the same shown at the Venice Biennale, I saw only the fifty-minute Center Jenny, set in a sinister post-human present-future whose gender-ambiguous inhabitants have developed a nostalgia for sorority hazing culture. The cacophony of catty backbiting by a tribe of jabbering Day-Glo savages, hemmed in on all sides by a buzzing swarm of cameramen, would take some space to unpack here, and purportedly relies on the accompanying works for full comprehension, so I’ll concentrate instead on some less-heralded names.
As is implicit in a festival name which suggests flux, Migrating Forms provides a significant platform for new media art. Juan Gris Dream House and Popova-Lissitztky Office Complex are perfect examples, two computer-generated pieces from Canadian Jon Rafman’s Brand New Paint Job project, both applying abstract canvas patterns to virtual spaces. Ian Cheng, another CGI artist and a refugee to the art world from George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, provides a motion capture riff on the classic Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon in bbrraattss, a glitchy, maladroit choreography of bodies disharmoniously flopping about, a further complication of Cheng’s 2012 music video for the Liars, with each figure now strapped to a cumbersome doppelganger.
Most captivating of all in this department are two works by British-born Ed Atkins: Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, which appeared at his MoMA PS1 show in the spring, and the new Even Pricks, which played at the recent Performa 13. An eight-minute parade of CG animations in HD, Even Pricks’s principal “characters,” stranded against solid color backgrounds in compositions where illusory depth-of-field is revealed through focus shifts, are a talking ape and an extended arm with opposable thumb extended, seen pointed up, down, corkscrewing around, inflating, deflating, rammed into an open eye, and dipped into the navel of a nude man’s torso. The screen is emblazoned with interstitial mottos ranging from obscure (“ALMOST ALWAYS THERE’S A THING TO GRIP”) to apocalyptic (“DESTROY YOUR LIFE”), rendered in a style that approximates the text on teaser spots for trash reality and cop shows. All of this is set to a beat that sounds like the persistent slapping of flesh against flesh, pierced by occasional orchestral swells or an unmistakable snatch of “Hotel California.” Paired with the refraining image of the center crumbling out of a conjugal bed, sinkhole-like, and Atkins’s surprisingly lyrical fragmented prose—“punitive hollow-point hen carcass, forcibly thrown up on a tide of dirty blonde and ditched faith”—Even Pricks conveys an ineffable sense of loss.
Ian Cheng, bbrraattss, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes.
Also well accounted for at this year’s Migrating Forms are what I’ll call archivist-cinephile-scavenger films. Mount Song is the latest non-narrative short by Shambhavi Kaul, born in India and raised in the cinema—her father, Mani Kaul, was a prominent participant in the Indian New Wave. Appearing to take place on an abandoned planet of pillow shots from fantasy/science-fiction/ghost-story films, Mount Song is a grim arrangement of smoke-and-fog-wreathed, wind-whipped widescreen vistas, mostly studio-bound inventions seen in artificial night and lurid theatrical gel colors, all devoid of human presence, and poached from unidentified films. (Japanese? Chinese? Indian? All of the above?) El Adios Largos, as prankish as Mount Song is foreboding, is a very funny comic riff on the idea of restoring work to its “original” state, by Anthology Curator of Collections Andrew Lampert. Predicated on the film-ahistorical fiction that Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a lost film, El Adios Largos imagines how the beginning of the movie might look had it been rediscovered in a “16-mm, black-and-white, cropped, Spanish-language dubbed print,” then clumsily colorized. Gina Telaroli’s Amuse-gueule #1: Digital Destinies musses up the Little Bohemia lodge shootout from Michael Mann’s 2009 Public Enemies into abstraction by playing it as a series of overlapping scrims, in which the percussive gunfire sounds have violent visual correlatives.
This approach literalizes the words that open Benjamin Tiven’s A Third Version of the Imaginary: “Behind each image is another. And behind that one, another.” As a man wanders the archives of Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, a Swahili voice-over muses on the idea of magnetic videotape as a haunted, palimpsest format, as well as on the particular relationship between the Swahili language and the word “image,” described as a “foreigner’s concept”: “There is no naturally occurring word for just image… In Swahili, an image cannot exist without its medium.” Gabriel Abrantes’s Birds also refers to the postcolonial legacy, though with a particular irreverence and willingness to skewer the filmmaker’s own pretense. A hand-painted truck passing through the countryside in Jacmel, Haiti advertises “little Gabriel Abrantes’ ” staging of Aristophanes’s Birds in original Attic Greek. An historical parallel is obviously meant in performing this tale of usurpers from the abode of men attempting to enter the kingdom of birds, but this seems likely to be lost on the indigenous teenagers we meet, who worship Robert Pattinson in Twilight, while a native participant grumblingly objects on soundly theoretical grounds.
No medium and thus no manner of images are overlooked in this program, and the works come from points scattered across six continents. Looking at the disparate coordinates which make up Migrating Forms, where can we finally locate it? Best just to settle at saying that it’s the most consistently rewarding, consistently baffling, and above all consistently inconsistent festival that New York City has got.
The fifth Migrating Forms runs through December 17th at the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York.
YOU MIGHT SAY THAT Sandra Bernhard’s one-woman show Without You I’m Nothing, a lacerating, exhilarating dissection of popular culture told in monologue and song that opened Off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theater in the spring of 1988, had been in rehearsals since 1983. That year, she not only terrified and turned on David Letterman in her first of several appearances on his late-night TV show but also tied up Jerry Lewis in her role as rabid stalker Masha in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. “I wish I was Tina Turner,” she coos at one point to Lewis’s Johnny Carson–inspired character, his mouth sealed with duct tape. Largely improvised by Bernhard, this scene illuminates two key aspects of her 1988 show, if not all her work in general: her aggressive volubility and her brilliant tweaking of boundaries between insider and outsider, narcissism and abjection.
In the film adaptation of Without You I’m Nothing (1990), which Bernhard co-wrote with John Boskovich, director of both stage and screen versions, she performs her act in an “upscale supper-club” in Los Angeles in front of a simulated audience. Bernhard re-creates many of the original’s hilarious bits—such as her take on Prince (“the little man who sits all alone under a cherry moon”), equal parts tribute and lampoon—but also adds a new target of ridicule: herself. Bernhard’s extreme self-regard has often had more than a touch of self-mockery in it: “I’m so glad you can see how truly beautiful I am. Right now,” she says slowly and emphatically, turning away from her dressing-room mirror to directly address the camera in the movie’s opening minutes. But throughout the film, she explores more uncomfortable scenarios, spotlighting the absurdity that results when white performers take too much license in appropriating African American touchstones—a crime that she preempts by declaring herself already guilty. Dressed in a voluminous print dress and head wrap—as if she were cluelessly auditioning for Sweet Honey in the Rock—Bernhard launches into Nina Simone’s anthemic “Four Women”; this deliberately risible display elicits looks of horror, disbelief, and boredom from the boîte’s mostly black patrons. By the end, there will be only one audience member left, an African American woman who has drifted throughout the film in a handful of its cutaway vignettes—and who delivers the ultimate dismissal.
This conceit of the indifferent or hostile audience, though, never interferes with the film’s greatest pleasure: Bernhard’s renditions of top-40 hits, from the LBJ era on, in her piquant sketches about sexual revolution or devolution. “Imagine it’s 1978… and you’re straight,” she begins one segment before segueing into Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”; in another, pegged to a then-notorious Newsweek cover story about women’s chances of marrying after thirty-five, she, with her backup singers, performs a Burt Bacharach medley while assuming the persona of an executive secretary determined to snare the boss. While some of Bernhard’s once highly salient references may be completely forgotten now (it took me a few minutes to remember who Martika was), Without You I’m Nothing clearly left its mark on two performers who also peerlessly anatomized, to a pop beat, the incongruities of the 1990s and ’00s: Kiki and Herb.
Without You I’m Nothing screens December 14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of “Migrating Forms.”