The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


A Family Finds Entertainment

Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) initially came to the attention of the art world in an article by Dennis Cooper as one of the emerging artist picks in Artforum complete with the backstory of how video artist Sue de Beer discovered the work while on tour when someone showed her an excerpt on a social networking site. Trecartin’s forty-one minute madcap video went on to become one of the major hits of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Trecartin was picked up by Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Chelsea, and his work has since been included in the Saatchi Collection, cementing the young artist’s status as one of the art world’s hot new talents.

This past Fall, Trecartin had his first one-person show at Elizabeth Dee, where his latest video, the feature-length I-Be Area (2007), played in the back room as part of the exhibition. The new work displays much of the same manic inventiveness that distinguished Trecartin’s previous effort. In it, Trecartin morphs into a an assortment of different personae, while exploring issues of gender and identity, cloning, Internet adoption, and other aspects of digital culture. Trecartin’s characters share an idiosyncratic method of line delivery and stylized acting derived from campy children’s TV shows, as well as the video artist’s penchant for hysteria, chaos, destruction – reminiscent of Red Grooms – and ’70s-patterned clothes. Once more Trecartin’s use of color is wildly hallucinogenic, as characters’ bodies literally become canvasses for the artist’s carnival-like sense of bright acidic colors and wacky costuming, so that they all might easily be mistaken for clowns.

Although Trecartin works from a script, what’s truly amazing about his videos is how he is able to translate his vision to so many different performer friends, who in turn add an improvisational aspect to the work. In an interview on Filmbrats, Trecartin told Joe Swanberg, “I worked from a script extremely . . . But it wasn’t a line: process out of order and everything changed all the time. (Actors changed things and freedom happened) It was really malleable like playing football in a circle field. Like all nasty. It was a script.” The mannered language of Trecartin’s description of the process is not all that different from the zany speech patterns his characters employ in his videos. A Family Finds Entertainment has more of an overarching narrative than I-Be Area, as well as a layered density that creates a compressed sense of visual and sensory overload. Both image and sound, including the voices of the characters, are often so digitally manipulated that when simple live-action passages appear, they seem downright mundane and boring in comparison.

An energetic mixture of live action, animation and digital special effects, A Family Finds Entertainment is a teenage “coming out” film – a seeming indictment of the “poisonous” and incestuous aspects of the nuclear family. It tells the story of Skippy, a closeted gay teen, who, following a failed attempt at committing suicide, discovers queer sex, gets outed by his parents, and then banished from home. After briefly becoming the subject of a documentary film, Skippy gets hit by a car, before becoming born again at a wild party that culminates in a massive display of fire works. While Skippy’s story manages to provide the narrative thread that holds it all together, the video feels more like a medley. Various characters come and go, change identity, introduce non-sequiturs, play group games, engage in musical interludes, break into lengthy monologues, or chant advice like a Greek chorus. Even a large sea shell ends up conveying an important message to Skippy. Trecartin’s video seems like a TV “after-school special” gone bonkers.

A Family Finds Entertainment begins with colorful visual static, and the sound of thunder. A small white dog stares at the camera, then runs off as a light flashes. A young girl named Lisa opens the door of a closet and a clown-like guy (Trecartin) in painted face pops out, causing her to laugh. He asks, “Do I have to stay in here forever?” Trecartin, now dressed as a blond-haired woman and exaggerating the wiggle of her butt, chases Lisa upstairs with a spotlight and sits on her bed. Lisa’s mother comes to the door and sternly asks, “Lisa, what are you doing out of bed? It’s midnight.” As the mother leaves, she announces, “Lisa, it’s you that I love.” Lisa sits back down on the bed and suggests that she has a story inside a box – “like a bed-time story” – which provides a narrative frame for what follows.

We then blast off into outer space. Cheesy psychedelic graphics introduce four young people in a room. The screen divides into various planes of action. We see grainy live-action images, and then a shot of Ben playing a guitar, as Asher sings, “Show me something beautiful and I will live. Show me something to hold on to, and I will hold on.” The camera moves in closer to him, then dissolves to a woman in a green dress (later identified as Veronica) telling Ben, “That was so romantical,” and then addressing the singer, “And Asher, I loved that more than anything.” After Asher indicates the band plans to go on tour, Veronica turns and says, “Patty Mae, I hate you so much.” Patty Mae points to another woman and asks, “What about her?” Veronica proclaims, “I never waste my time on people who are muddy or inconvenient.” The other woman responds, “I’m not mud, it’s dirt. I fell down a hill,” as she makes a zig-zag pattern with her hands. Veronica then shifts her attention and demands, “Skippy, open that fucking fuck door of yours.”

Inside the bathroom, his voice altered to a lower pitch, Skippy (played by Trecartin) responds, “Never.” Ben and Asher suddenly get up to leave, and Veronica yells, “Skippy, your music friends are leaving because the show was a boring bore.” Skippy uses duct tape to attach a knife to the bathroom mirror. A frame within a frame appears and a smaller image of Skippy’s head tumbles down as he bends to turn on the bath water. Skippy announces, “I’m not sixteen anymore, but I feel like I’m five with sunglasses on.” He takes a Polaroid of himself and tries to flush it down the toilet. In a Southern accent Skippy insists, “I believe that somewhere there is something worth dying for, and I think it’s amazing.”After they leave, Skippy cuts his arm with the huge knife in a suicide attempt, as red paint pours down from the top of the frame. Covered in blood, Skippy runs outside and through the snow to a highway overpass, and then uses a garbage can cover to slide down a snowy hill.

An image of Skippy appears over a window, which then spins around as the screen divides into multiple images and Trecartin emplys other digital effects. Various friends respond to Skippy’s suicide attempt. A woman says, “For an evening I’ll cry for you. Not because I care, but because I’m emotional.” Two other women express hatred, which catches Skippy off-guard. One of the women chimes in, “I’ll give you a reason to die . . . to kill.” The white-faced Skippy responds, “Last night in a dream, I was told lots of things.” The woman in the purple dress denies this. They all recite in unison, “Open your eyes, cock. What you want isn’t what you need. What you need is right in front of you. But you have to feel it.” As everyone screams hysterically and one of the women cries, Skippy, holding a knife, continues to maintain, “I did it for fun” and “It’s funny.” Suddenly back in the bathroom again, Skippy wonders who bandaged his arm.

Tina enters, bringing a large seashell that contains a simple message for Skippy: “Don’t do it.” Tina warns, “Be careful of listening. It’s very influential.” Veronica then picks up the seashell. We hear the sound of running water and see a layered image that includes the seashell, tropical foliage, and a small snowman-like figure with a sign that says, “I prefer the tropics.” Veronica proclaims the shell to be amazing, and claims, “It’s like a vortex to the southern breeze.” Tina knocks on the door and announces that “Patty Mae is here.” This motivates Patty Mae, dressed in red and white, to do a minute-and-a half performance about the fact that she is actually in the room and not in the land of boys. As she continues her inspired monologue, Trecartin alters the pitch of her voice so that she sounds like one of the Chipmunks. Patty Mae concludes, “I need to accomplish something with my stuff.”

After more digital graphics, Skippy asks, “What was that?” The muddy woman explains, “A digital relic from a future age of cyber-chaos and analog holocaust.” We see a TV monitor that shows an abstract and colorful fish. The people on the monitor talk in high voices and we see shots of actual fish. Trecartin asks whether they’re ready to play the game. They proceed to play a game of cards in which they attempt to identify images in drawings. We hear words like “pooping” and “surfing,” and “fish.” The players then become concerned about their appearance, and one of them (later identified as Billy) exposes his genitalia, as everyone else laughs hysterically. The disc is turned over at intermission.

Billy lies naked on the couch (he has a white paint around his mouth and his erect white penis has been colored black). Skippy indicates that he has messy dreams and needs to be more confident. He insists, “No more fake blood for me. I want the real thing,” placing his hand on Billy’s penis. His mother, smoking a cigarette with exaggerated gestures, indicates her son is “mad . . . he’s like an alien . . . totally.” Skippy enters a room marked “Jesse and Hanks.” After greeting his parents, he asks, “What are you looking at?” His mother answers, “Son you need to give it up, yeah. This family is poisonous, yeah. You need to find a new home.” As his mother says this, she demonstrates the concept of home through a gesture with her hands, while her much younger husband chews gum.” Skippy’s father says the word “snake,” to which Skippy answers, “Mama is a snake. Yes, she is. Mama’s a snake.” His mother goes into the refrigerator, takes out an egg, and smashes it on the floor. Skippy’s father winks as he says “I love Skippy. I think he’s a winner.” His mother grabs the knife. She says to Skippy, “I’ll burn you like a witch, butt-plugger. I know your secret kept very well. Go eat some estrogen, homo.” His dad chimes in,”Yeah, with your gay friend, Billy.” Skippy asks, “How you know about Billy?”

Skippy’s mother opens the bedroom door, and Billy strolls in naked, even though Skippy continues to be in denial. His mother indicates that “family is poison” and that he “needs to find his home boys.” She takes a fifty-dollar bill out of her brassiere, gives it to Skippy, who rips open his shirt and puts it inside his own bra. His mother then orders him to “get the fuck out,” but, before he leaves, Skippy and his father share a lascivious kiss. Once outside, Skippy runs into a documentary video artist named Zoey, who wants to make a movie of him with her night-vision camera. As Skippy sprints into the street, he’s hit by a car driven by three other teenagers, including the muddy girl. The female driver says, “What the fuck was that?” The guy responds, “Some fucking fuck shit.” They laugh uncontrollably. The muddy girl complains, “Nobody understands me.” The driver explains that they’re only hanging out with her because their mothers are close friends.

Trecartin cuts from Skippy’s face to a colorful re-mixed song-and-dance number involving a red-haired young woman named Shin (played by Trecartin) and her friends, including Billy, complete with various digital effects. Shin screams, “So Honest! I can’t believe it. We are so unpredictable.” One of Shin’s friends, Linda, gets a phone call from Zoey about a boy named Skippy being hit by a car, but it takes awhile before Shin actually gets the message. Zoey asks for advice, but Shin responds, “Just keep filming him.” Shin then calls numerous friends to invite them to a party, as the screen breaks into fifteen images of talking heads at once. In a highly psychedelic sequence, someone asks, “Who’s outside?” Like a kind of Greek chorus, the group chants, “Skippy’s outside.” The person asks, “Am I his friend? Who is Skippy anyway?” Various answers are given: identity failure, exercise, a boring piece of homework, artificial intelligence, cosmic puke, and Michelella. The group repeats various aphorisms, such as, “We inhale anything. We can handle it.” Several guys, including Ben, hang out in a clubhouse. Two more guys arrive and announce that there is a dead boy outside and that a woman is filming him. Only Ben seems to have any misgivings about this news.

Amidst the Dionysian frenzy that ensues once Shin’s party begins, the narrative appears to be temporarily forgotten. But Skippy, or possibly his ghost, eventually rises from the moonlit street and announces, “I hear music.” As a musical note and other symbols float over the scene, Zoey suggests, “You should follow it.” Skippy replies,” I will.” Trecartin cuts to Shin bouncing up and down to music. Carrying a giant flaming sunflower, she leads the party outside, where the revelers sing the same song that Asher sang earlier, and a kind of baptism occurs in a round child’s swimming pool, which seems to transform Shin back into Skippy. In split-screen, the party culminates in a huge display of exploding fireworks, as Skippy dances ecstatically through the streets. Voices then yell for everyone to go inside. We see Skippy, who closes the door to a house. This is followed by credits, indicating that the video is “Dedicated to my Mom and Dad.”

I showed A Family Finds Entertainment last year as part of the Spotlight Film and Video series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). It can be viewed in segments on YouTube

Posted 27 January, 2008

Quiet City

Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland represent a vivid study in contrasts. Frownland, with its cramped apartments and cast of social misfits, presents a hellish vision of urban life in Brooklyn. Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, on the other hand, somehow manages to turn Brooklyn into a semi-pastoral landscape by interspersing shots of nature – from changing autumn leaves and tree branches against blue sky and puffy clouds to spectacular sunsets. Even the subway ride and traffic lights of the city at night are rendered as colorful abstractions. While the film will remind viewers of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, along with work by Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and David Gordon Green, Katz successfully navigates the terrain of cinematic influences and references by creating a film that embodies a sensibility very much his own.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Before Sunrise, largely because Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy still seem too much like professional actors despite Linklater’s use of naturalism. As characters, they try so hard to impress each other that it invariably results in missed connections. Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau), the two young protagonists of Quiet City, on the contrary, don’t really try at all. They’re not obsessed with getting into each other’s pants for one thing, but seem more interested in just hanging out and getting to know one another.

The story is remarkably simple. Jamie arrives in Brooklyn to meet a friend, Samantha, who, due to cell-phone problems, ends up leaving her stranded. Jamie runs into Charlie in the subway station, asks for directions to a diner, and the two end up spending the next twenty-four hours together. Although scripted, there’s not really much of a plot in the conventional sense. Instead we experience a series of episodic narrative incidents. The two break into Samantha’s apartment, have a foot race in the park, and visit a friend, Adam (Joe Swanberg), to retrieve Charlie’s hat, but actually forget to take it. They later go to an art opening and a party afterwards.

Neither Jamie nor Charlie appear to have much drive or ambition. We learn at the art opening that Jamie works at an Applebee’s restaurant in Atlanta, while Charlie has quit his job and wishes he could find a way to get paid for doing absolutely nothing. Jamie is extremely attractive. She has a certain directness in manner, but often disguises it by raising the inflection of her voice at the end of a sentence, so that what begins as an assertion somehow gets converted into a question. Jamie also has the nervous habit of playing with her hair. Charlie, on the other hand, speaks much less, and manages to be vague about just about everything – the taste of wine or if he’s fast runner – but he exudes a certain puppy-like charm. At the diner, it comes out that Charlie’s ex-girlfriend used to like to go there. In response to Jamie’s questions, Charlie indicates that she’s now in Alaska, but later mentions that she previously lived in Florida. Charlie offers to let Jamie stay at his place, adding that “my couch is open.” Jamie’s first response is to laugh at the blatant implications, but she accepts his gracious offer. Nevertheless, Jamie is pretty flirtatious, even if Charlie appears not to notice.

When they get to his apartment, Jamie offers to give the shaggy-haired Charlie a haircut. Afterwards, he complains about feeling itchy and takes a shower. We fully expect Jamie to join him, but after he finishes, Charlie finds her fast asleep on his bed. He might lie down next to her, but instead ends up sleeping on the couch. The reasons for Jamie’s reticence become evident the next morning when she gets a phone call, presumably from her boyfriend in Atlanta. Jamie tells him what’s happened and openly admits that she’s just slept at some guy’s apartment. He hangs up. Jamie calls right back, and makes it clear that “I’m not doing anything wrong,” though it’s apparent from the tone of their brief conversation that they have issues.

While sitting together on the floor of Samantha’s apartment, Charlie confesses to being cowardly. He tells her that he has a tendency to withdraw from relationships rather than break them off – he doesn’t want to take responsibility for the other person’s feelings. Jamie admits that she’s mostly dated people liked him, but that in her latest relationship she’s turning into him. As they continue to discuss relationships, Charlie says something about hoping to grow up, so as not to freak out and feel trapped, “and just kind of actually go with it.” The camera pans from a side view of Jamie to a reaction shot of Charlie, as she responds, “Well this is my first time feeling like that.” He nods his head in agreement. The camera cuts back to Jamie, who stares directly at him.

After Jamie beats Charlie in a foot race at the park, Jamie invites Charlie to her high school friend’s art opening later that evening. While in the neighborhood, Charlie suggests stopping at Adam’s place to get his hat. There’s a very funny scene where Adam at first refuses to buzz them in. Once upstairs, Adam complains that he hasn’t heard from Charlie in awhile. It turns out that Adam has gotten engaged after being together with a woman for seven years. The fact that Adam’s getting married suggests a level of adult maturity that Jamie and Charlie speculated about earlier. The two return to Charlie’s apartment, where Jamie takes a shower – a second opportunity for something to happen. After she finishes, Charlie is now the one who’s fallen asleep.

At the art opening, Charlie runs into a hyperactive friend named Kyle (Tucker Stone), who also suggests that he hasn’t seen Charlie for several weeks, reinforcing what we’ve learned about him from Adam. Kyle, in fact, manages to ridicule both Jamie and Charlie. He playfully embarrasses Charlie in front of Jamie by asking whether Charlie’s still gearing up to move down to Florida to be with a girlfriend. Kyle tells Jamie, “He’s hung up on some girl back in Florida.” “No I’m not,” Charlie insists, looking at Jamie, but Kyle counters, “You talk about her all the time.” It’s clear that Charlie wants him to shut up – has he been outed, or is Kyle simply mistaken? Whatever the case, Charlie seems to react with genuine embarrassment.

Jamie’s artist friend, Robin (Sarah Hellman), invites the three of them back to her place for an after-party, where we watch the four of them dance to rock music, but we hear non-diegetic piano music instead, which creates a strange effect. As Jamie and Robin lie together in a loft bed, Robin talks candidly about her love life, complaining that she’s been having trouble relating to men sexually. She first seems to indicate that she would prefer passionate sex with someone she didn’t know all that well, but then later tells a story about asking a guy if she could just lie on top on him. Her story suggests the theme of Quiet City, namely, that people have a desperate need, not for casual sex, but for real intimacy. Following the party, we see Jamie and Charlie riding alone in an empty subway car. The camera frames them from behind, as Jamie’s head leans into the fold of Charlie’s neck and the two fall asleep. The film ends with a shot of an airplane taking off against an orange-red sky. Although it’s left ambiguous, Quiet City suggests that these shared moments of intimacy are, in all likelihood, a temporary solace.

Quiet City primarily works because of the palpable chemistry between the two main performers. At one point, Jamie and Charlie improvise a duet on a small electronic keyboard. Their reactions to what they’re playing and the music itself conveys a buoyant energy that carries through the entire film. Katz infuses Quiet City with a warm, golden glow of natural and artificial light that continually illuminates the faces of Jamie and Charlie. He mixes artfully composed wide shots that convey a distinct sense of place with a hand-held camera that often zooms in tight to follow the movement of its characters. It’s the most formal and poetic of the mumblecore films I’ve seen to date, which owes much to the outstanding cinematography of Andrew Reed. Already imbued with a certain nostalgia, Quiet City creates the uncanny sense of the past unfolding in the present, as if its two characters are already looking back through the filter of memory at what we see transpire.

Along with Chris Smith’s The Pool and three other films, Quiet City was recently nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature made for under a half-million dollars. Aaron Katz’a two films – Quiet City and Dance Party USA (which I still haven’t seen) – will be released together on DVD from Benten Films on January 29.

Posted 5 January, 2008