The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Ingmar Bergman RIP

When I was in college, I was already familiar with the major Bergman films – The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence – through various film society screenings. I spent a good part of one summer attending a retrospective of Bergman’s work at MoMA, which enabled me to fill in all the gaps in Bergman’s oeuvre. Seeing a complete retrospective, however, diminished rather than enhanced Bergman’s accomplishment for me. The early works highlighted his background in theater; they lacked a strong sense of visual style.

There is no doubt that in many ways Bergmann epitomized art cinema in the ’60s. As a college student during the Vietnam War era, I could relate to all the existential torments of his characters – it very much reflected my own psyche. Existentialism was very much in vogue. I read Sartre and Camus, and found Bergman to be grappling with similar issues. Even his questions about God seemed relevant to Harvey Cox and the “Death of God” movement prevalent at the time. Bergman was definitely a part of the zeitgeist. Despite this, I was often disturbed by the overly symbolic nature of his more mature work, which was parodied in the film De Düva: The Dove (1968). In fact, when it came right down to it, the only film of Bergman that I absolutely loved was Persona. His other work gradually seemed to pall in comparison.

As a graduate film student, I worked as the department projectionist, and had the misfortune of having to project The Seventh Seal eleven times. A knight playing chess with the figure of death during a terrible plague – this really seemed so utterly obvious and over the top, especially with each new viewing. All the weaknesses in his work became apparent. It caused me to lose interest in Bergman. While annotating the history of Film Culture as an assistant on a research project, I happened to read Manny Farber’s classic article, “White Elephant Art Versus Termite Art.” Farber never really mentions Bergman, but instead attacks the pretensions of European art cinema as represented by Tony Richardson, Truffaut, and Antonioni. About Antonioni, Manny Farber writes: “Unlike Klee, who stayed small and thus almost evaded affectation, Antonioni’s aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” That really sums up my feelings about most of Bergman’s work with the exception of Persona.

I saw Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and later Fanny and Alexander, but my original passion for Bergman never returned, and his subsequent tax problems and self-imposed exile seemed a bit overly melodramatic from a distance. Ingmar Bergman, however, has come back to me through the work of filmmakers I greatly admire. Persona is an obvious influence on David Lynch in Mulholland Drive, and the work of Finnish filmmaker and installation artist, Eija Liisa Ahtila, whose psychodramas focus on the interior lives of women at the breaking point, could be read as a long homage to Bergman. For me, Bergman’s death yesterday is a lot like learning that an old college friend has passed away. There are really fond memories, and I will never forget the pleasures and excitement of watching his films throughout the 1960s. They were really important to me at the time. I regret that, for whatever reason, I somehow lost touch with his films. Maybe this event will prompt me to take another look.

Posted 31 July, 2007

Some Notes on Screenwriting

Before I had my own weblog, Mystery Man on Film commented about the brief excerpt from my book that I posted on my Web site: “Then the chapter went on to talk about how Gus Van Sant threw out the screenplay for Elephant and just improvised and shot it using an outline. I fail to see how that explains How Independent Screenplays Work.” Well, it was partially an attempt at irony and humor to choose a film that wasn’t based on a screenplay to represent a book about screenwriting. But my choice was actually more calculated and deliberate than that. I believe that any truly alternative model of screenwriting would have to include the possibility of dispensing altogether with the screenplay, in much the same way that John Cage proposed “silence” in his legendary 4’33″ as being a fundamental aspect of music.

The screenplay has been a source of contention since the very beginning of modern American independent cinema, as evidenced by Jonas Mekas’s desire to “shoot all screenwriters” for keeping cinema so conventional. The controversy surrounding the two versions of John Cassavetes’ first feature, Shadows, also fueled the debate about the merits of using a script. In the 1960s Andy Warhol often deliberately subverted the scripts of his collaborators, namely, Ronald Tavel and Paul Morrissey. Warhol preferred those moments when the scripts would break down and the performers would fall out of roles and become themselves. Besides Gus Van Sant relinquishing the screenplay in favor of an outline in Elephant, there are other examples of non-traditional approaches in my book. Jim Jarmusch wrote a treatment rather than screenplay for Stranger Than Paradise. Richard Linklater also used a short treatment of scenes for Slacker and created the script after the fact.

Matthew Barney’s films don’t have conventional scripts. His production designer on Cremaster 2, Matthew Ryle, gave a lecture here this past winter. It sounded as if Barney simply had locations and images and maybe some visual storyboards when they began filming. Chris Smith’s new film The Pool won the award for “most singular vision” at Sundance in January. Smith and a small crew went to India with a rough story idea that consisted of twenty-two pages. According to the editor, Barry Poltermann (who is a former student of mine), Smith only found the actual “story” after shooting lots and lots of footage. And David Lynch apparently went back to guerrilla filmmaking (and no final screenplay) in making his new digital film, Inland Empire. The issue comes up again in relation to the recent mumblecore films. I also seriously doubt that Yang Fudong’s incredible five-hour, plotless epic, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, which I wrote about extensively in my last Venice Biennale blog, has any sort of conventional screenplay.

I’m actually part of an international research circle on “Re-thinking the Screenplay,” organized by Ian Macdonald of the University of Leeds in the UK. One of the members, Kathryn Millard-a writer, director, and associate professor in the Department of Media at Macquarie University in Australia-has written a terrific article on screenwriting, entitled “Writing for the Screen: Beyond the Gospel of Story,” which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject. She explains why the manual writers’ emphasis on dialogue and story can be so limiting in writing a script. This is exactly what drove Van Sant to abandon the screenplay in Elephant. I’m providing a link to Millard’s article because it happens to be published online, but what she also says about “screenwriting texts as self-help literature” is particularly on the mark. Millard writes: “They are best categorised on the basis of the following three dimensions of their content. Firstly, the anecdotal versus the informational, secondly the prescriptive versus the descriptive and thirdly closed versus open systems or underlying philosophies (Starker 1989: 9-10). The vast majority of screenwriting manuals are descriptive in that they link prescribed behaviours to results: ‘The prescribed behaviours usually are linked with the presumed utility of the work by way of a simple promise: do this and you will get that’ (Starker 1989: 9). Failure to achieve the desired results usually suggests that the prescribed behaviors have not been followed faithfully.”

In a recent post, the very same Mystery Man writes: “The second big education for screenwriters begins when they unlearn everything they thought they learned from Robert McKee. (A sampling: Sympathetic Protagonists, Character Arcs, and Voice Overs.) When aspiring screenwriters start thinking for themselves, they’ll quickly realize that the reality of storytelling rarely fits the rigid, narrow-minded rules laid out by the gurus.” I obviously agree with Mystery Man about the pitfalls of the manual approach, which is why I wrote a book on screenwriting that tries to provide both a critique and an alternative approach, which uses independent films as more flexible models. I also believe screenwriters have to find their own voices and start thinking for themselves, and the manuals don’t emphasize that, which is the drawback of the “self-help” method critiqued so well by Millard. So I’m encouraged to see screenwriters such as Richard Gess (who wrote a review of my book on Amazon), William Speruzzi of [This Savage Art], and Mystery Man take a stand against the formulaic approach of the manuals.

I did a short interview with Jesse Land for the May Newsletter of Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum on Me and You and Memento and Fargo. In it, I said the manuals tend to inhibit beginning screenwriters rather than open up the creative process to the wider possibilities of cinema as an art form. If you simply follow the rules, you’ll end up writing a very conventional film. In my book I argue that novelty plays a much more important role than is generally acknowledged. Even my editor at Continuum Books was interested in my manuscript because he thought it was very different from the other screenwriting books out there. He was tired of reading the same old stuff in slightly different form. The same holds true about screenplays. Having turning points fall on certain pages is really beside the point. That doesn’t guarantee that your script is going to be any good. As David Lynch’s films demonstrate, writing also involves being able to tap into the unconscious as well. Screenwriting is a very difficult process. Simply reading a book can’t turn someone into a screenwriter in a weekend or 21 days or whatever. Learning craft is one thing, but making art is another. All screenwriters need to have a basic understanding of dramatic conflict and story structure, but it’s also important to realize the full range of creative options available to you.

I might add that rapid changes in technology already are having a huge impact on the industrial model of screenwriting advocated by the manual writers. The signs are everywhere, and these changes no doubt are certain to affect the future form of the screenplay. Is it just a coincidence that two of the most important American indie filmmakers, Gus Van Sant and David Lynch, have already moved away from using conventional scripts? Partially as a result of the manual writers, the notion of what constitutes a screenplay has become fixed and rule-bound, when, in fact, screenplays should be fluid and adaptable to the changing times. After all, a screenplay is not really intended to be entitiy in itself, but a step in the process of making a film. In the latest issue of MovieMaker, Henry Jaglom writes: “Today’s moviemakers can make a film for practically no money, thanks to the amazing changes in the technology, and can get it seen by simply sending it out through e-mail or posting it on YouTube, MySpace or whatever will pop up next. None of this existed when I started out and all of it contributes to the fact that this is the very best time in history to be an independent moviemaker!

Posted 19 July, 2007

Film and Video at the 52nd Venice Biennale

Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine art critic, whose columns also appear on artnet, apparently boycotted the openings of Documenta and Venice this year. In his most recent column he suggests that these large international exhibitions are “outmoded,” arguing that biennial culture leads to “copycat behavior in a sphere that prides itself on independent thinking.” Saltz also rails against the fact that these big shows are put together “by one czarlike curator with absolute dictatorial power.” He continues, “These curators, however earnest, can simultaneously be annoying and sanctimonious while foisting their own pious, profligate or shaky taste on everyone else.” When Francesco Bonami attempted to do away with the “dictatorship of the curator” by letting a cadre of eleven artists and curators program the event four years ago, Saltz acknowledges that the Venice Biennale was generally regarded as a mess, but he somehow believes it altered the paradigm. While Saltz’s criticisms have some validity, I’m not sure where else one can see this sheer amount of work in a week, even if you happen to live in London or New York. At least these large-scale exhibitions provide a more serious atmosphere for taking in large amounts of art than the major commercial art fairs.

The 52nd Venice Biennale was curated by Robert Storr, formerly of the Museum of Modern Art and now Dean of the Art School at Yale, with the theme “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind.” The two shows put together by the veteran curator – one at the Italian Pavilion, the other at the massive Arsenale – are an eclectic mixture of political, conceptual, and more formal works. Many of the political works are clustered in the first section of the Arsenale: Gabriele Basilico’s photographs of burned-out buildings in Iraq, Emily Prince’s small detailed portrait drawings of American soldiers killed there, Tomoko Yoneda’s photographs of “borders” between areas of conflict, Adel Abdessemed’s circular wall pieces of barbed wire, Tomer Ganihar’s medical installation for treating war-trauma victims, Rosemary Laing’s photos of ominous-looking prison exteriors, Nedko Solakov’s impressive drawings of AK-47 assault rifles – the source of an intellectual property dispute between Bulgaria and Russia, and Neil Hamon’s photographs of soldiers from various conflicts. If you didn’t feel as if the whole world was on the verge of falling apart when you entered, you quickly lapse into that mindset under this grim bombardment of such images. At least Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, whose work and sensibility reminds me an awful lot of David Shrigley’s, has a wall installation in the entrance-way of his funny doodles, which provides some much-needed comic relief.

By contrast, Storr’s show at the Italian Pavilion is put together like a major museum exhibition. Unlike Documenta 12, it consists of mostly blue-chip Western artists. Whereas the Arsenale contains lots of film and video and installation, which I will get to shortly, this show has much greater emphasis on painting. Several weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday edition ran a spread on Sigmar Polke in which the paintings were described in troubling mystical terms. They are so much better in person, which is why reproductions often do not do justice to work of any subtlety, such as these paintings, whose brown resin surfaces are all about texture and shift with changes in light. There are other groups of large paintings by Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Susan Rothenberg. It was a real treat, however, to see the much more modest-scaled, abstract paintings of Raoul De Keyser and Thomas Nozkowski – two “painter’s painters” – more than hold their own in such company. A political note is interjected by Emily Jacir, who personalizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through an installation of letters and other personal memorabilia of Wael Zwaiter, the Palestinian translator who was gunned down by Israeli secret agents on October 16, 1972 on suspicions that he was connected to the infamous Black September attack at the Munich Olympics.

In the national pavilions in the Giardini and around Venice, Australian artist Callum Morton rebuilds his father’s destroyed modernist house in three-quarter scale. While the exterior looks like a virtual ruin, its marbled, corporate interior – with its low ceiling, rumbling sound, and elevators that don’t open – is appropriately sterile, cold, and downright eerie. The Swiss artists Urs Fischer and Ugo Rondinone turn a church into a white cube. Fischer prints images of debris on aluminum panels with accented drips of color, while Rondinone casts aluminum bare trees that are painted white. He also has created a small hole in which a stick of incense burns, causing a scorched image to form above it. With art stars – Isa Genzken, Tracey Emin, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres – in nearby national pavilions, it was gratifying to see two young sculptors, David Altmejd and Monika Sosnowska, rise to the occasion. David Altmejd represents Canada with a Modern Gothic hall of mirrors, while Monika Sosnowska takes an oversized modernist steel structure and reconfigures it to fit inside the Polish Pavilion. The effect is an elaborately intricate piece that collapses geometric line into an expressionistic maze.

Amidst the intense competitive energy of the Giardini, the utter simplicity and unpretentiousness of Ernesto Vila’s exquisite little mixed-media paper pieces, delicately hanging from a clothes line in Uruguayan Pavilion, makes its own subtle statement. I found it humorous that so many people would take a free huge Felix Gonzales-Torres print or poster from one of the stacks in the American Pavilion and then carry it around with them all day long. Four years ago, while I was viewing Fred Wilson’s installation, I watched a rather straight-looking young woman deliberately step into a pool of oil and then proceed to track it around the American Pavilion, causing it to be closed. I guess she thought the piece was intended to be interactive!

In comparison to Documenta, there is plenty of interesting video and film at Venice. In the Italian Pavilion, Sophie Calle has a video that documents her mother’s final hours. These are difficult times for Calle. Her installation, which includes an entire wall of video monitors and several scattered throughout the massive French Pavilion, obsessively fixates on an email she received from her lover, abruptly terminating their relationship. She turns her pain into art by subjecting the missive to 107 female professionals: a dancer, singer, sharpshooter, signer, and clown. The clown ridicules the lover’s rhetorical flourishes; the signer struggles to interpret the letter’s intricate nuances. Video plays a more minor role in Nedko Solakov’s AK-47 patent dispute. The Bulgarian official reluctantly offers a very brief “non-statement” on one monitor, while the Russian one never bothers to appear on the other one, so that we mostly view the outside of the embassy.

In the Belgian Pavilion, Eric Duykaerts uses video as part of his labyrinth of glass and mirror panels to parody intellectual conferences. Next door, Los Torreznos employ video to document their energetic, absurdist performances; Rubén Ramos Balsa somehow projects the image of a spider on a small light bulb; and José Luis Guerin incorporates an interesting experimental film from the 1930s into his room-size installation. In Belgian artist Sophie Whettnall’s Shadow Boxing, an unflinching woman stands while a boxer throws hard punches at her face. A few too many video works come across as anecdotal one-liners. Chinese conceptual artist Yang Zhenzhong has a ten-screen installation, consisting on various people saying the phrase “I will die.” Like a massive casting session, there is interest in how each participant interprets the line. Some people, especially younger folks, simply concentrate on being able to say it for the camera, while oblivious to its meaning. There is an especially poignant moment when an elderly woman visiting a graveside in a cemetery repeats the line, which lends a somber note to the work.

There are several animations in the show. One prominently displayed in the Italian Pavilion by Tabaimo involves a struggle between hands placing furniture into a dollhouse and an unruly sea monster, which seems to serve as a metaphor for the  superego and id. Much weirder is Joshua Mosley’s dread, in which digitally rendered, three-dimensional figures of Pascal and Rousseau engage in a philosophical debate in a forest. The Belgian artist Francis Alÿs creates a primitive animation from a series of drawings of a shoe being shined with a red cloth. Columbian artist Óscar Muñoz employs five synchronized monitors in Proyecto para un Memorial to make a political statement about his native country. We see human portraits being drawn with water on concrete, which then slowly distort and eventually evaporate from the heat of the sun. Kara Walker has a five-screen video installation in the Italian pavilion. It utilizes silhouette animation of cut-out stick puppets on strings, photos of historical figures (Abraham Lincoln), maps, and multi-layered superimpositions that create links between sexuality and slavery.

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend (2007) cinematically explores the associations between coltan mining in the Congo, its high-tech refinement in Nottingham, and an extended shot of Gravesend, the setting of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Coltan is one of the most sought after materials in the world because of its use in cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. It also has been the source of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has already resulted in the loss of nearly four million lives. McQueen has a poet’s sensibility, as well as an implicit trust in the power of images and sounds. Like Muñoz’s piece, McQueen’s film achieves the rare feat of being truly political without being didactic. Gravesend is one of the most haunting works at Venice.

Another highlight is Aernout Mik’s multiple-screen installation in the Nethelands Pavilion, which consists of three separate works. I saw Mik’s multichannel Refraction at the MCA in Chicago nearly two years ago, but the two-screen Convergencies (2007) has more tension and better pacing, which takes his work to another level. In it, Mik incorporates staged and actual events of police actions against illegal immigrants or refugees, cleverly blurring the distinction between the two. These rivet the viewer for the same reason we’re voyeuristically attracted to accidents, public disturbances, and other crisis situations. We gawk because we’re naturally curious and want to figure out what’s going on. The video consists of various vignettes of such events, but Mik doesn’t provide any context for what’s occurring. We watch the police attempt to control a group of Middle-Eastern men in a field, training exercises of prisoners being escorted onto an airplane by officials in yellow jackets. We see prisoners of African descent being transported, people being frisked, mobile prisons, men caught hitching trains, crowds running in areas where there are massive electric power lines. We watch police in riot gear, reddish night shots of a train station, a train car being moved, scenes of immigrants detained in cafeterias, and a guy lying on the ground. It’s always the white people who are in a position of power and control, while it’s the people of color, who are being subjugated, hence the title of the installation.

There’s a disturbing image of a drowned body being dragged from the water as groups of men mill around on the shore. There are images of shantytowns where refugees live. The police confiscate toothbrushes, razors, and various plastic products. We see prisons holding Muslim women, a white woman with a bloody nose and another with blood on her forehead, followed by police herding a group of demonstrators. We watch police in riot gear with barking dogs and shields, bombings, accidents, fires, car accidents, and Hazmat control. We see the police escorting a ramshackle boat containing African refugees into shore. The boats alone present a striking contrast between those in power and those who are powerless. Mik’s video captures the dynamic tension between Western nations and the Third World and the seemingly unsolvable political issues that confront them, especially over borders. Mik’s video suggests a grim future, namely, that without some type of radical intervention, security issues and various perceived threats are moving Western nations ever closer towards becoming police states.

I saw the first two parts of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest at the Carnegie International several years ago. I also programmed both of them this past spring at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Spotlight Film and Video Series I guest-curated there. The five parts can be viewed in separate small black boxes that are interspersed throughout the long exhibition hall at the Arsenale. These makeshift venues are not particularly conducive to viewing Yang’s work. They were extremely hot and not air-conditioned for one thing, and the print quality and projection – at least for the first three sections – left a lot to be desired. Part One appeared to be several generations away from the original, and Part Three had numerous scratches, as if it had been copied from a workprint rather than the 35mm original. The final two parts (four and five) look much better. The running times also turned out to be much longer than indicated. Unless clock-time suddenly became elastic within the confines of the Arsenale, Yang Fudong’s epic ran much closer to five hours rather than four. Adrian Searle of The Guardian couldn’t fathom why anyone would bother to sit through such a long work at the Biennale, but I managed to view the film in its entirety. I haven’t seen much mention of it in reviews, which is surprising, because it’s the single best work I saw at the exhibition.

Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003-2007) is based on a group of intellectuals – artists and poets – who retreated into the bamboo forest to escape the pressures of life during the ancient Wei and Jin Dynasty. Yang Fudong updates the tale to depict the young people of China today, who find themselves caught up in the almost overnight cultural transformation, as the country has shifted from being an agrarian society to a post-industrial one while skipping the intermediate industrial stage through which most Western countries have passed. The effect has been a kind of radical social dislocation, leaving young people caught precariously between tradition and modernity, and resulting in a kind of anomie that Yang links to the Taoist notion of “wu wei” or non-action. Without clear goals, the seven intellectuals wander from place to place like lost souls in search of some type of meaning or direction. The formal style of their outdated clothes sets them apart. They appear alienated and unable to fit in wherever they go.

Because Seven Intellectuals has a collective protagonist, the film seems more like an accumulation of individual vignettes rather than a causal narrative. There’s no real dramatic arc – no sense of progression or development – and very little happens in terms of action. Certain motifs are repeated, both within individual parts and the larger work. With the exception of the main characters – the guy who wears glasses and his two different female lovers – it’s not really even a character study because Yang continually disrupts their story by including other multiple strands of action. In addition, he situates the more prominent characters within the anonymous larger group of seven intellectuals, so that we lose our sense of identification with them. None of the characters even have names, and consequently remain oddly anonymous for the most part. Yang does, however, provide character motivation in Part Two, when the sad woman tells another female about being molested in middle school by an older man. He also employs an odd bit of characterization in Part Four by portraying the guy with the glasses as a fool in a previous life. Characters also change, namely the sad woman, who disappears after the first two parts. This is foreshadowed, however, in the very first part through her giving voice to her self-destructive feelings and her realization that her relationship with her lover is doomed. Too bound by traditional beliefs, she seems unable to adapt. She is replaced by the woman with short hair.

Seven Intellectuals moves from nature (the mountain) to an urban area, to a rural farm, to a deserted island, and finally to Shanghai, with much of it taking place in an art-deco restaurant or hotel. The first part employs voiceover; the second part has sync-sound dialogue, while the remaining three parts are silent. Parts Three and Four move back and forth in historical time; the setting of part five is unclear. It’s obviously present-day Shanghai, but it references Chinese films of the 1930s or 1940s, suggesting a previous era: pin-striped suits, antique cars, Venetian pools, rooftop baseball, and retro dances. In Part Five, Yang even seems to take liberties with the number of intellectuals – one of the women rarely appears, and more often than not there are only six (or sometimes more than seven). Yang switches from a more casual impressionistic style in the first two parts to one that is more deliberately mannered. The film also moves closer to spectacle, especially in its culminating scene of Part Five where a fight breaks out on the dance floor and hundreds of chefs emerge from the kitchen and clap in unison.

My notes on the film read like a series of non-sequiturs. In a sense, this is not so inaccurate because Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest seems to aspire to Jonas Mekas’s notion of a plotless narrative – a film that works primarily through visual rather than narrative connections. Yang is most of all a visual stylist. In Part One, Yang provides striking black-and-white images of Mount Huangshan shrouded in mist that recalls the look and texture of classical Chinese landscape painting. There isn’t a bad shot in the entire film. Some are spectacular, such as the woman walking by the water at night to the sound of croaking frogs in Part Three, or the underwater shot of the two intellectuals moving through fish-filled water in skin-diver outfits in Part Five. Despite Yang’s use of repetition – such as the fact that the intellectuals inevitably will appear naked in each section – the film is never predictable. Part Three begins with a prolepsis: the decapitation of a water buffalo, but it nevertheless comes as a total shock when the farmer suddenly bludgeons the animal to death towards the end of the film. In the last three parts, Yang employs abrupt temporal shifts, so that the same characters appear simultaneously in both the present and past, thus formally mirroring the subject matter of the film. Without resorting to a more conventional use of narrative, it’s hard to keep an audience interested for such a long stretch of time, but Seven Intellectual in Bamboo Forest manages to do it through the sheer strength of its images.

I admit that it’s extremely taxing to watch a nearly five-hour film within the context of an extended art exhibition such as the Venice Biennale. Yet I remain grateful for Robert Storr’s openness in premiering a long, complex, and challenging work, such as Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest. What’s a little mental overload when you’re already slightly jet-lagged?

Posted 12 July, 2007

Film and Video at Documenta 12

The confluence of the Venice Biennale and Documenta – the two largest and most important international art exhibitions in the world – occurs only every ten years, making it possible to compare the two major simultaneously-held events. Having attended Francesco Bonami’s “Dreams and Conflicts” Venice Biennale four years ago and Documenta 11 five years ago, it seems to me that the two exhibitions have managed to become the inverse of each other this time around.

This year’s Documenta 12 was co-curated by the husband-and-wife team of Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, who attempted to rethink the nature of the contemporary art exhibition by aspiring to make it “formless” by erasing the cultural context of the works, the nationality of the artists, and the usual conceptions of what constitutes contemporary art, so that the works could be apprehended solely on their own terms. Their curatorial emphasis stresses relationships across media and historical time. Included in the exhibition are rugs, bridal veils, a lacquerwork panel, folk art, Persian miniatures, and children’s drawings. Two years ago, then Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz warned that Documenta 12 could be “truly bad” following a brief exchange with Buergel over dinner at the last Venice Biennale. Saltz commented to Buergel: “After all, big exhibitions are about the art,” to which the curator countered, “No. Exhibitions are about ideas.” One could certainly argue with many of the intellectual premises behind Documenta 12, but it seems that Buergel and Noack’s exhibition is not solely concept-driven.

There were lots of works by women and lesser-known artists from the Third World, especially Africa, as well as a lack of big-name western artists. Nevertheless, the show does emphasize an odd assortment of individual artists through inclusion of substantial amounts of their work: Chicago’s Kerry James Marshall (the best painting in the show by far), Cosima von Bonin, Gerwald Rockenschaub, John McCracken, Lee Lozano, Peter Friedl, Zoe Leonard, Juan Davila, Charlotte Posenenske, and former Judson dancer Trisha Brown. The very first piece I saw at the exhibition turned out to be Brown’s buoyant dance piece staged in the entrance ways of one of the exhibition rooms in which young female dancers performed minimal hand gestures and their bodies swayed to the music of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.” The overall effect was intense nostalgia mixed with an exhilarating sense of the surreal. In many ways, it was the best introduction to the exhibition I could have imagined.

The results of the curatorial strategy of Buergel and Noack, however, seems to be hit or miss. It reaches its absolute zenith in the smaller space of the documenta-Halle through the bizarre juxtapositions that are created by a wall hanging of a monumental Persian carpet depicting an elaborately patterned garden (circa 1800), Cosima von Bonin’s large installation “Relax, it’s only a ghost,” (which featured, among a series of sculptural objects, gigantic stuffed animals), and Abdoulaye Konaté’s wall hangings: a textile work that represents various shades of blue, and four flag pieces that deal with Israel and Palestine. Underneath the flag pieces, and referencing both von Bonin and Konaté’s work, was Peter Friedl’s inclusion of an amateur piece of taxidermy of “Brownie” the giraffe, one of the zoo animals that panicked and committed suicide during the Israeli siege of the West Bank. The affectionate work by a West Bank veterinarian, with its associations to childhood, seems to be a profound statement about the horror of that conflict.

The room culminates in the installation by Chicago artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle that consists of two parts. “Phantom Truck” is a replica of the fictitious mobile biological weapons lab that was used as a pretext for the US invasion of Iraq. Presented in a dimly lit, shadowy corner of the building, the mysterious truck is barely visible at first. Manglano-Ovalle’s other half of the installation consists of a sculpture of a black radio sitting on the floor in a room where the outside light from the windows has been filtered by reddish-orange gels. The combined installation brilliantly deals with the act of perception. The two entrances to the Phantom Truck alter the perceptual experience. Somehow the reddish-orange light allows the human eye to adjust to the darkness, making the truck more visible. Manglano-Ovalle’s installation was my single favorite piece at Documenta 12.

The curatorial concepts reach an obsessive level in Schloss Wilhelmshöhe. Here a large ornamental photograph by Zofia Kulik is positioned among various Rembrandts, four Kerry James Marshall portraits are juxtaposed with black figures from early historical paintings, Martha Rosler’s photomontage of naked woman “Hothouse, or Harem” plays off similar content in an early Persian work, and Charlotte Posenenske’s three-dimensional white wall piece, made of sheet-metal, constrasts with the flat surface of the white shades covering the museum windows. Dias & Riedweg’s video installation of funk culture in Brazil reinterprets 16th-century Kassal writer Hans Staden’s adventures in Brazil. In some cases, it becomes a treasure hunt even to locate the Documenta art works within the museum. In a major show of this magnitude, it didn’t strike me as an especially efficient use of time, nor does the payoff always justify the intended point being made.

The biggest contradiction of Noack and Buergel’s artistic or curatorial strategy, however, becomes most evident in the area of film. Alexander Horwath, who actually curated the film section of Documenta writes: “The location of film at Documenta 12 is the movie theatre. This is a very simple answer to the recent debates on how to adequately present moving images in the context of art.” As a result, film wound up being largely segregated or ghettoized into evening screenings at the Gloria Kino in Kassel. The film program consists of 50 programs, containing works by 94 filmmakers, which are being screened twice over the course of 100 days of the overall exhibition. The program mixes classical Hollywood (John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright), art cinema (Claire Denis’s Beau Travail), avant-garde (works by Su Friedrich, Leslie Thornton, Ken Jacobs), Amerindie (Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine), and documentary (Frederick Wiseman’s High School).

Horwath elaborates: “The programme tries to represent the ‘normal case of cinema’ in the context of an art exhibition. ‘Normality’ means something entirely different here than ‘mainstream’ film or ‘everyday’ movie-going. Instead, it refers to what should be normal: the entirety of cinema; all types of genres – popular entertainment, avant-garde cinema, documentary, ‘arthouse’ filmmaking – united by a single frame of contemplation. The idea is to go beyond the distinctions made by the market and beyond the highly selective criteria used by the art world in defining the term ‘artists’ film.'”This is, of course, laudatory in theory, and I totally agree with the position espoused here. Yet, if the idea behind Documenta 12 was to mix various media and remove boundaries, why should film end up being isolated from the rest of the exhibition, except for the Irish artist James Coleman’s Retake with Evidence (2007)? Why was such an enormous film screening space at Neue Galerie given over to what Manny Farber would term “elephant art” – a filmed stage piece of Harvey Keitel lamenting the destruction and carnage around him – except for the fact that the artist shows at Marian Goodman Gallery? Why not show the whole film program there? Or, if you had to show only one work, why not something more akin to “termite art,” such as Ken Jacobs’s epic Star Spangled to Death?

In a sense, there are now two separate and distinct traditions of moving image media: one shown in independent movie venues and the other that exists within a gallery and museum or “art world” context. For a variety of historical reasons, video rather than film has been a part of the gallery and museum context almost from its inception in the mid-1960s. Film, on the other hand, proved to be an uncomfortable fit within commercial galleries, largely because galleries did not know how to market films to collectors. Even the pop artist, Andy Warhol, who left painting for filmmaking for a five-year period from 1963-1968, failed to situate his films in the art world, where his film works were viewed more as a career aberration rather than as the radical gesture Warhol intended them to be. Warhol even made what is considered to be the first art video Outer and Inner Space (1965), which was ignored at the time, but now must be considered one of his most significant works.

At some point in the 1970s, Larry Jordan, the avant-garde filmmaker, proposed selling the originals of a film to collectors, but this idea never went anywhere. For one thing, they could not be adequately displayed. Unlike video, films never fit into people’s homes. They required a projector, a large screen, and some degree of darkness in order for the image to be viewable. Video did not have this problem because TV monitors already existed in virtually everyone’s home since the 1950s. In addition, viewing a film tended to be a temporary experience, limited by the act of projecting it, rather than a permanent object like a painting or sculpture. On the other hand, video could be looped and played continuously on a monitor, much like broadcast television. The medium lent itself better to the notion of installation. Video continued to be shown in art galleries, despite the fact that no one could figure out what to do with it and the image quality wasn’t very good.

Video, however, served another function. It often provided a form of documentation for the idea-based work of conceptual artists, such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden in the 1970s, when this type of work became very much in vogue. A conceptual piece may have been created as an implicit critique of art as commodity, but the documentation of an event or action somehow managed to authenticate it, and thus galleries began to sell video as documentation of conceptual art works. As a result, two separate traditions became established. Video was shown in art galleries and museums within the “white cube,” whereas most avant-garde films were screened in theatrical venues. They were also shown in theaters within museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Whitney Museum of American Art. They were screened at independent showcases such as Millennium, the Collective for Living Cinema, Film in the Cities, The San Francisco Cinematheque, Pacific Film Archives, Chicago Filmmakers, or Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

The advent of digital technology, which coincided with a major boom in the art world, altered the situation during the last ten years. In addition, art became so interdisciplinary that it became virtually impossible to maintain past distinctions regarding the notion of separate disciplines. Because of the prevalence of moving-image media within our culture, avant-garde film began to invade art galleries and museums as well. Artists belonging to the avant-garde film tradition such as Anthony McCall, Morgan Fisher, Pat O’Neill, and Jonas Mekas suddenly began showing in art galleries.

McCall provides an interesting illustration of this change. McCall, who made a series of sculptural “cone” films, stopped working in film in the 1970s as a result of his failure to find gallery representation. He now shows at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City, and his earlier work has been showcased once again, not only in a gallery context, but also in major museum shows, such as the Whitney Museum’s “Into the Light” exhibition by Chrissie Iles. Other film artists, such as Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Yang Fudong, and Matthew Barney now work primarily within an art world context. Galleries have found novel ways to sell films and videos to collectors and museums through limited editions. In addition galleries, museums, and international biennials and arts festivals, such as the Carnegie International, the Liverpool Biennial, and the Venice Biennale commission media artists to create work.

In Documenta 12, the real issue has to do with the parallel worlds that continue to exist between artists represented by galleries and those who are not. It’s the most false distinction in terms of the medium of film, yet Documenta 12 upholds it through its exhibition practice. This is the one barrier that should have been torn down, but wasn’t. Despite utopian statements to the contrary, Documenta 12 ultimately proved itself to be completely conventional in the way it dealt with film. The extraordinarily rich and diverse film program that Horwath and his staff put together seems aimed only at local viewers rather than those attending the exhibition from outside the area. During the two nights I spent in Kassel, for instance, I could have seen Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee’s In the Street and Wiseman’s High School (both of which I’ve seen multiple times), along with two other shorts. On the second evening, Johann van der Keuken’s feature-length The Long Holiday was playing at the Gloria Kino, but I was already too fatigued from spending ten hours looking at art.

Most of the videos interspersed throughout the main exhibition halls at Documenta 12 create surprisingly little impact. More notable is Harun Farocki’s video installation Deep Play (2007) which analyzes a World Cup soccer match from multiple perspectives, suggesting the complex interreationships between the actual event, computer-generated statistical imagery, and police surveillance of the stadium. The Swedish artist Johanna Billing’s This is How We Walk on the Moon (2007) depicts a group of musicians (inexperienced sailors) from Edinburgh, as they nervously attempt to navigate a boat on the North Sea. Nedko Solakov’s Top Secret (1989) is perhaps the most engaging video piece. In it, Solakov, who also had work at Venice, discusses his previous life as a youthful communist informer in Bulgaria. He creates a secret file of objects, which allow him to reveal personal aspects of his controversial past.

If I were only interested in film and video, Documenta 12 certainly would have been a disappointment, but I’ve always been equally captivated by the other visual arts as well. Documenta 12 felt extremely erratic at times, to be sure, but I managed to see a lot of stimulating work I might not have seen otherwise. Especially noteworthy examples include: Sheela Gowda’s installation containing eight tables of ashes, sculptural forms of truck parts using plant and animal matter by Simryn Gill, Nasreen Mohamedi’s drawings (some of which which bear an uncanny resemblance to those of American outsider artist, Melvin Way), drawings by Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, scroll drawings of buildings by Lu Hao, Nedko Solakov’s drawings of his personal phobias, an ambitious wall installation by Congolese artist Bill Kouélany, paintings by Lukas Duwenhögger, and the room of photgraphs by Zoe Leonard. In many ways, this show proved to be a complement to the one in Venice, which luckily turned out to be much more satisfying in terms of film and video.

Posted 4 July, 2007

Sundance 608 Surcharge

I just returned from spending eight days at the two major art exhibitions: the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Germany. While I was away, Isthmus, the alternative weekly paper, did an article about the surcharge at the recently opened Sundance 608 multiplex here in Madison, indicating that it continues to be a major problem with local moviegoers. The surcharge has generated a lot of negative publicity. Two letters to the editor and criticism of the policy in Doug Moe’s widely read column in the afternoon newspaper, The Capital Times, prompted Tom Laskin of Isthmus to contact the CEO of Sundance 608 regarding the rationale for the surcharge on tickets. I have written two blogs already regarding this issue, so I don’t have much to add. I’m heavily quoted in the article, but there’s one factual error. My point of comparison is actually the IFC Center in New York City. They provide quality projection and sound, comfortable seats, no commercials, and they have a restaurant that serves, lunch, dinner, and snacks. There’s also a full bar. Tickets are $11 for adults at all times of the day, and prices for seniors are $7.50. There are also membership packages available that reduce the price of a ticket. It costs an extra dollar to book a ticket online through I’ve provided a link to the Isthmus article.

Posted 4 July, 2007