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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

Charles Burnett: To Sleep With Anger

In thinking about a topic for “The Ambitious Failure Blog-a-thon” on William Speruzzi’s [This Savage Art], I felt somewhat at a loss because I prefer to write about films I really like rather than films that I consider aesthetic failures. As a result, I’ve decided to interpret “ambitious failure” to include a really terrific film that has gone unrecognized for whatever reason. Charles Burnett is an example of a truly major American indie filmmaker, who has never had the career he deserved. His first feature, Killer of Sheep, was restored and re-released recently by Milestone Films – thirty years after it was made. Prior to the theatrical re-release, the film was only available in poor-quality 16mm prints, in which much of the dialogue was extremely challenging to decipher. I saw Burnett’s second film, My Brother’s Wedding, at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago when it was first released, but I’ve never had an opportunity to view it again because the film had no real distribution.

With To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover, Charles Burnett was finally able to make a feature on a much larger budget, but the film failed at the box office, which I think was largely responsible for derailing Burnett’s career. The film came out on VHS, but it subsequently never made it to DVD in the U.S. The result is that Burnett’s first three feature films are not currently available on DVD in this country. Killer of Sheep obviously will be released on DVD later this year, but what about To Sleep With Anger? The fact that Burnett’s most commercial film has never even been available on DVD means that most people haven’t been able to see it. It is only in a commercial sense that I consider Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger to be an “ambitious failure.” Here is my blog about the film:

Spike Lee’s unexpected commercial triumph with She’s Gotta Have It (1986) helped pave the way for subsequent African-American filmmakers, such as Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Matty Rich, Julie Dash, and Darnell Martin. Spike Lee’s militancy had an important political impact, even as he soon left low-budget independent film for the privileges of larger studio productions. The success of She’s Gotta Have It showed that audiences were hungry for representations of African Americans other than Hollywood’s recycled racial stereotypes. Yet it was actually the overlooked work of Charles Burnett that anticipated the interest by future American independent writers and directors in exploring more racially and ethnically diverse subject matter.

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), an elliptical portrait of a struggling slaughterhouse worker and his family in the South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles, represented a remarkable debut feature when it was released. Subsequently designated by the National Film Registry and given the equivalent of landmark status, Killer of Sheep proved to be very much ahead of its time. It belongs to that period before independent films managed to break into the mainstream. Burnett explains: “It was the 70s and it stayed in the can a very long time. There wasn’t any Sundance, no place to show a film and walk away with a three-picture deal.” In Killer of Sheep, Burnett creates a kind of poetic realism through an episodic series of vignettes about a slaughterhouse worker named Stan, whose job causes him to suffer from both insomnia and a growing sense of frustration with his dead-end life.

Killer of Sheep begins with a flashback from Stan’s childhood, then shifts to kids engaged in a spirited rock fight, which causes injury to one of the combatants. An analogy is made throughout Killer of Sheep between the harsh reality of children at play – as they leap from the top of buildings or deliberately throw dirt on freshly laundered clothes – and the sheep being slaughtered at the factory where Stan works. As Stan struggles against the travails of his day-to-day existence, various threats manifest themselves. The unattractive white female owner of the liquor store tries to proposition Stan by offering him a job, but Stan worries about the potential danger of getting shot in a hold-up. Two guys in leather jackets, Scooter and Smoke, attempt to get him to accompany them in some type of criminal activity involving a gun. When Stan’s wife overhears them, however, she confronts the two men by asking, “Why you always want to hurt somebody? Scooter replies: “That’s the way nature is. I mean, an animal has his teeth and a man has his fists. That’s the way I was brought up, god damn me.” Scooter’s equation of manhood with crime takes on bitterly ironic overtones because Stan’s job and personal troubles cause him to become alienated sexually from his wife. Stan never does go with Smoke and Scooter, but the scene underscores the constant temptations for someone like Stan, who, as Smoke points out, “don’t even have a decent pair of pants.”

Burnett made another feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983) – financed by European TV – before he received the opportunity to work with a larger budget. To Sleep With Anger (1990), a family drama also set in South Central, wound up winning one of the three featured prizes at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, part of a sweep for African-American films that year. In many ways, To Sleep With Anger represented Burnett’s first real chance to break into the mainstream. After two low budget features, this film had a sizable budget of over $1 million and the box-office appeal of Danny Glover, whose attachment to the project was the element that made financing even possible. The success of winning a prize at Sundance should have given the film additional momentum. Burnett, however, felt compromised by the fact that the film’s distributor demanded additional cuts. To Sleep With Anger’s distribution campaign also proved highly controversial when Samuel Goldwyn decided to market it as an art film rather than as a film that had significant appeal to black audiences. Despite generally positive reviews, the film’s failure at the box office turned out to have a negative impact on Burnett’s subsequent career. Although To Sleep With Anger was released on VHS, the film has never even been available on DVD in the U.S. All of this is rather unfortunate because To Sleep With Anger remains one of the most complex cinematic representations of middle-class African Americans ever produced within this country.

Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger explores the fragile nature of the African-American family, but it does so within an even wider historical and cultural context. The film begins with a wonderfully evocative dream-image of an older man, Gideon, dressed in his finest formal attire, sitting beside a table that contains a bowl of fruit. The camera pans to a portrait of a well-dressed woman, tilts down to the bowl of fruit, and then pans back to Gideon. Flames flare up in various places of this composition, conjuring up metaphorical notions of hell and the devil. The basic story of To Sleep With Anger concerns Harry, an old friend from back home, who turns up after thirty years and exacerbates the volatile, beneath-the-surface tensions that exist between and among various family members – Gideon and his wife Suzie, and their two grown children, Junior and Babe Brother – especially once Gideon becomes sick about forty minutes into the film. The film explores the effect of the past on migrating black families, especially those who move from rural, agrarian backgrounds, such as the American South, to more urban settings. To Sleep With Anger shows how folkloric myth and superstition continue to operate in the lives of African Americans despite changes in locale and social class. It underscores the extremely tenuous nature of the family unit, even one that has been able to rise to lower middle class status. Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting originally passed on the project primarily because of what Burnett termed “Its Blackness”– the folkloric elements he had incorporated into the script.

To Sleep With Anger is a family drama. Like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into the Night, Burnett’s script creates conflicts between and among each of the family members, who, when they speak and act, do so within the context of an entire history of perceived slights and injustices. Even Suzie, who is the film’s most sympathetic character, manages to have real depth and complexity. While Gideon shows a clear preference for his older Son, Junior, Suzie defends her troubled younger son to Gideon, and tries hard to treat both of her children equally. Her tolerance also extends to Harry, far beyond the point where he deserves such consideration. It is actually Suzie who accedes to Harry’s desire to have the old-fashioned fish fry, an event which brings elements of their rural past back into their present lives with nearly disastrous consequences. Yet when Harry refuses to give a clear signal that he’s a good person as well as a friend, Suzie does not hesitate in asking him to leave her house. Nor does Suzie hide her irritation at Okra’s marriage proposal to her once Gideon becomes ill. Her response is to get up and leave, remarking that she has to feed her dog. It’s a devastating, indirect putdown. Nevertheless, Suzie is extremely polite to Linda when she shows up empty-handed at the party, even though her daughter-in-law’s self-centered careerism is a source of irritation. Linda, on the other hand, barely acknowledges Suzie.

Linda’s complaints about Babe Brother’s family have a definite class bias. This is especially apparent in the scene where Babe Brother tries to coax her to come inside rather than wait in the car. Both Babe Brother and Linda suffer from their professional ambition. He works as a loan officer and she as a real estate agent, which is why Sunny’s child-care has become a major source of irritation to Gideon and the other family members. Babe Brother and Linda’s desire for upward mobility comes with a price, which is that Sunny winds up spending too much time at his grandparents. Linda is the thoroughly modern black urban professional woman. When Harry asks her whether she had her baby at home, Linda tells him proudly that Sunny was born in a private hospital. She also takes a sideswipe at Pat and Junior, whose baby was delivered by a midwife. Linda comments, “Junior’s wife, she kept her afterbirth in the refrigerator. That’s why I don’t eat over there now.” Linda instinctively knows the right buttons to push in her husband during an argument. When she becomes miffed at Babe Brother for giving Sunny a sip of his coffee, she tells him, “Just because you were spoiled, don’t try to spoil Sunny.” This elicits a torrent of pent-up rage from Babe Brother.

Despite his professional ambitions and his marriage to the upwardly mobile Linda, Babe Brother nevertheless has been stigmatized as the bad son by his father and the lazy younger brother by Junior. Babe Brother resents always being compared unfavorably to Junior. He feels cheated out of his father’s love and respect and, as a consequence, his behavior becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Babe Brother precipitates the knife fight by refusing to help move his father’s bed from under the leaky roof. He tells Junior, “You always got the best of it around here and whenever Dad talks about ‘my son,’ it’s always you, so you fix the roof.” He also bristles over being called “boy” and being referred to continually as “Babe Brother” rather than by his real name, Samuel. Junior, on the other hand, labors under the burden of being the responsible older brother. Babe Brother also thinks his father picks on him. At the party, the two of them get into a heated argument. When Linda explains to Babe Brother that Gideon’s criticisms stem from love and concern, Babe Brother snaps back: “I don’t need that kind of love. And I don’t need to be reminded all the time that Big Mama was born in slavery. If you really care about me, just show me how to make money.”

There are many direct allusions to slavery in the film, including Harry’s reference to the Natchez Trace, a major slave route. While Babe Brother resents being reminded that Big Mamma was born in slavery, Gideon accuses Babe Brother of treating them like slaves by leaving Sunny with them for long periods of time. He raises the economic aspect of slavery by admonishing Babe Brother, “Don’t think you can get ahead by riding our backs.” When Junior confronts Babe Brother about his failure to help Suzie move Gideon’s bed, he alludes to Harry as being Babe Brother’s “master.” He tells him, “I betcha if your master told you to fix the hole in the roof, you would have rebuilt the whole damn house.” At the big party, Marsh, who has arrived with Hattie, confronts Harry about the deaths of several young men back home. Hocker’s death, it turns out, was made to look like a lynching by white folks. Marsh also describes another racial incident involving someone named Chick who, in fact, was tortured and killed by a white mob. Marsh describes the ensuing violence to Harry in graphic detail: “He killed a white man that owed him some money, and when they caught him, they tied him behind a car and they dragged him out of the hills back to town.”

There are also a number of references to Southern gentility, the flip side of Southern racism. Suzie describes Harry as having “good manners,” which remind her of her Southern roots. Harry remarks, “Well, you had to know how to act right where we come from. Now you had to know how to say ‘yes sir’ – ‘no sir.’ You had to know your place.” There can be no missing the irony in their nostalgia for the values of the Old South, where white gentility provided a mask for the evils of slavery and racism. As Nathan Grant comments, “What is portentously evil in this exchange is the idea that ‘knowing one’s place’ certainly carries with it racism’s demand that black folk observe proper behavior. This is an evil in itself that should of course make Harry and his manners suspect.” Harry’s own affability indeed often hides his true evil intentions. Hattie, in fact, comments about this aspect of Harry as she makes the case for Suzie to get rid of him. Harry explains his own behavior in terms of the effects of racism on the psyches of African-American males, just prior to Suzie asking him to leave her house. After Harry suggests that he fully expects to spend eternity in hell, he tells her, “If you were made to feel half a man, what do you think the other half is?” Such pointed references to slavery and racism in the film combine to emphasize how the break-up of the family unit as a result of slavery has impacted on the lives of African Americans to this very day.

Harry’s unexpected visit causes various tensions within the family to become inflamed. Harry has been described as being based on the trickster figure from African folklore. Burnett comments on this aspect of Harry’s character: “So I wanted to do a character who was based on a folkloric character – the trickster – who embodied this type of person who is seen as evil, but isn’t evil. The trickster figure always has so many dimensions, and is viewed in so many different ways. So I wanted the character of Harry to have that kind of ambiguity.”Although there is a certain degree of ambiguity in Harry’s character, it seems pretty clear that, at least allegorically, he represents the devil. Harry deliberately gets up too late to go to church and then proceeds to plays cards with Babe Brother instead. He ridicules Junior and Pat’s altruism and volunteer work as well as Hattie’s religious transformation. He even makes Gideon the soup that seems to worsen his condition. Although it is left ambiguous within the actual text – Harry seems to be looking to add something to the soup before giving it to Gideon – there is at least the possibility that Harry has poisoned Gideon. Harry’s total ascension to being a surrogate father figure within the family coincides with Gideon’s illness – a point that Hattie underscores to Suzie in making the case for getting rid of him – and it is only after Harry dies that Gideon’s health returns. Burnett comments in an interview, “You never really see Harry do anything, it’s all just rumor.” Although there is some truth to this assertion, Harry does make a deliberate attempt to break up Babe Brother’s family, and he also gives him the knife which will be play a part in the fight with Junior, and in causing Suzie’s subsequent injury. Afterwards, Babe Brother describes the experience as the equivalent of being in hell, and Suzie even cuts Gideon’s story short by commenting that she doesn’t want to hear any stories about “colored people being in hell” and raises her injured hand as proof.

The women in the film all develop a strong aversion to Harry eventually, because Harry represents a threat to the stability of their families. When Babe Brother vacillates about returning back home, Harry’s sexism rises to the surface: “I know your mind is on your wife, but you should never treat a woman as an equal. You want to get your wife back, get another woman.”  Earlier, when he is confronted by Suzie who demands to know the kind of person he is and whether he’s a friend, Harry avoids giving her a direct answer. Instead, he resorts to metaphor: “Like that boy next door playing his horn. If he was a friend, he would stop irritating people, but if he stops practicing, he wouldn’t be perfect at what he does someday.” Harry doesn’t deny he’s evil. In fact, he merely suggests that he’s trying to become more perfect at it. But moments later, we see his better side. Harry remarks, “Suzie, I’m not a bad fellow; I just like to have a good time.” He also gives her a picture of his son, and adds, “I’ll say my so-longs to Gideon before I leave. Suzie, I truly wish that he will get well.”

Harry also clashes with Hattie, the former sinner who is now saved. When they first meet, there is an initial awkward silence between them, but Harry quickly takes the offensive by alluding to the fact that Hattie used to work in her mother’s house of prostitution. Harry initially acts like a polite gentleman at the start of the scene by pulling out the chair and seating Hattie, but Harry’s subsequent actions have a lascivious element as he comes behind Hattie and leans in closer to her, even placing his hands on her suggestively, while she remains embarrassed and unresponsive to his advances. Harry’s disparaging remarks about her deceased mother clearly wound Hattie. It causes her to fight back verbally against Harry, leading to an escalating exchange of insults. Hattie finally responds, “An empty wagon makes a lot of noise. You tappy head, you ain’t worth the salt you put in greens.” Harry likewise has nothing but scorn for Hattie. To him, she is still a prostitute, but in different clothes. Despite her having found religion, Hattie is not beyond suggesting later to Suzie that poisoning Harry would be a good means of disposing of him. Some of the ambiguity in Harry’s character which appears in the original published script in Scenario has been cut out of the final film version, as has other exposition relating to the wider community of people portrayed in the film. Burnett claims these cuts were determined by commercial considerations having to do with the film’s distribution, but he also comments about the differences between the written script and the actual film: “I mean, a script requires a lot of exposition to make it work; a film doesn’t. A lot of that ends up getting in the way of the rhythm of the film that somehow establishes itself after you put it all together in the editing room.” Yet, even with these cuts, To Sleep with Anger still unfolds at a fairly slow pace by commercial standards, as evidenced by its long first act and the early climax, involving Harry’s accidental death, in the final act. The resolution lasts for eleven minutes. The tone of the film also shifts as Gideon recovers from his illness and the family reestablishes its sense of equilibrium while waiting for the county to cart Harry’s body away.

Roger Ebert, one of the most sympathetic critics of non-mainstream films, complains about the pacing and the lack of dramatic climax of To Sleep With Anger. He writes: What should be a coiled film, exploding at the end, is one where the final act releases our impatience rather than our tension. There are good things in this movie, but too much time in between them.” Harry’s death might normally be considered a kind of deus ex machina – an artificial means of resolving the story – but Burnett has made both luck and superstition so much a part of the narrative that this does not seem a contrivance. Harry could have just as easily left with his pals to go back home, and that would have been that, because he’s already become an ostracized figure within the family by the time he slips on Sunny’s marbles and dies. His death, in fact, has been prefigured by Sunny touching Harry’s shoes with a broom – a sign of bad luck – when Harry first arrives.

Besides its leisurely pace and flattening of the dramatic arc in the final act, To Sleep With Anger maintains the overall feel and texture of an independent film in other ways, especially by creating a densely layered narrative that exists on several different levels. Burnett explains: “One of the things that got me into this business was trying to make realistic movies but going beyond and behind. What appears isn’t what’s there in a certain sense. Trying to reach beyond and behind, that’s where you go off-center somehow.” Burnett’s dialogue in To Sleep With Anger represents one example of Burnett going “beyond and behind” realism. Steeped as the characters are in past resentments, the conversations are embedded with subtext. Nothing any character says can be taken at face value. Harry, in particular, speaks largely in riddles. Every response becomes an opportunity for him to play “devil’s advocate” by attempting to turn good deeds, religious transformation, or someone’s deep-seated anger – as in the case of Babe Brother – to his own debased ends. Burnett’s dialogue is deeply resonant and highly indirect; it is full of aphorisms, quotations, metaphors, and allusions to African-American culture and history. Conversations between characters, such as those between Harry and Hattie, often take the form of a verbal sparring match. All of Burnett’s characters, including even Suzie, prove to be masters of the putdown.

Like Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger employs a kind of symbolism and ambiguity more generally associated with art cinema. Burnett also infuses his domestic drama with a visually poetic quality usually not found in this genre. The powerful opening image of Gideon’s heaven-and-hell dream sets the tone for what follows and serves a striking example of Burnett’s visual sense. Burnett also provides poetic, slice-of-life transitions between scenes, such as shots of the neighbor boy’s pigeons flying through the neighborhood and the off-key sounds of the young trumpet-player. The fact that other small details were excised from the script, either during filming or in the editing room is not a novel development. For a fundamental tension between independent artistic visions and the perceived norms of the commercial marketplace has existed from the very beginning of the American independent feature film movement – all the way back to John Cassavetes’ Shadows. It is that same demand, as Burnett puts it, “to get it tight, streamlined: establish that rhythm that would keep the audience interested: you know, suck ’em in and spit ’em out at the end.” To its credit, To Sleep with Anger ultimately resists that tendency, which is probably one reason why, as critic Armond White points out, Charles Burnett still remains “the least well-known great American filmmaker.”

Posted 23 June, 2007

Todd Rohal: The Guatemalan Handshake

In one of their podcasts for Four Eyed Monsters, entitled “Losers,” Susan Buice and Arin Crumley list the many reasons they consider themselves to be losers. One is that their film didn’t get into Sundance, but rather Slamdance, thus making them losers because they were unable to come away with a distribution deal. The result has been a non-stop, grass-roots campaign to get their film shown theatrically, to sell DVDs, and finally to have it seen by over 500,000 viewers on YouTube this past week as a special promotion with


Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006) apparently just barely missed getting into Sundance and also had to settle for the consolation prize of Slamdance, even though his film won a Special Jury Prize. Rohal discussed the ramifications in a recent Filmmaker interview with Nick Dawson: “I knew that the film would be a tough sell for anyone to see. There was never a thought that it would be distributed and put out in a million theaters, but it needed that legitimacy of Sundance taking it, saying, “This is a different kind of movie, and we’re going to show it.’” Rohal later comments: “After the Sundance thing didn’t come through, I said, ‘This is going to be a long journey . . .’ It’s definitely been a struggle.”


In the latest issue of Cineaste, there’s an article by Rebecca M. Alvin on microcinemas that discusses the changes that have been affecting art houses around the country, most notably, the sheer expense involved in showing smaller films and the competition from home-entertainment systems that are taking away public audiences. She writes: “But it is the third factor – the intertwining of mainstream and art-house audiences – that is most troubling in hastening the disintegration of art-house subculture.” The article talks about the effects of all of this, including the subsequent rise of microcinemas in out-of-the-way places as well as their attraction for people who still seek a community experience. Of special relevance here is the fact that Alvin’s article provides an interesting perspective on the difficulties that indie films face in being screened at theatrical showcases these days. It explains why, for instance, a pseudo-indie like Little Miss Sunshine might play at an art-house multiplex, but not anything more risky or challenging like Mutual Appreciation, Four Eyed Monsters, or The Guatemalan Handshake.


The Guatemalan Handshake, which just finished up a limited-engagement, one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is definitely not a mainstream movie. It’s been associated with the mumblecore movement for reasons that elude me, except for the fact that Rohal has acted in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and the film seems to be influenced by the work of David Gordon Green. Otherwise, it deals with entirely different subject matter than other mumblecore films. It doesn’t focus strictly on the relationships of twentysomethings, and stylistically it bears little similarity to films by Bujalski, the Duplass brothers, or Swanberg. Shot in 35mm by the talented cinematographer Richie Sherman, The Guatemalan Handshake is an ensemble film, much like Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) or Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). It involves multiple characters and multiple plotlines that revolve around three main events: the mysterious disappearance of a man named Donald Turnupseed (Will Oldham), a power outage that develops at nearby Three Mile Island, and a demolition derby race.


The film is narrated by a ten-year-old girl named Turkeylegs (Katy Hayward), who considers Donald to be her best friend. Nasia mythicizes George in David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000); Turkeylegs does the same with Donald. Like Nasia, Turkeylegs isn’t a terribly reliable narrator, mainly because she’s only a child and her view of the situation is incomplete. Turkeylegs hangs on to a vision of Donald no one else shares. Little does she know that Donald’s not necessarily deserving of her admiration. Many of the characters have names that sound like they’re right out of a children’s book: Turnupseed, Turkeylegs, Ethel Firecracker, Lunchmeat, and Neckface. Another is scatological (Stool), or in the case of Sadie’s heavy-set, African-American half-sister, Dalabia, laden with sexual overtones.


One plotline involves an elderly woman named Ethel Firecracker who has lost her little white dog. Donald, who’s searching for the dog for his own selfish reasons, witnesses its electrocution as a result of a surge in the power lines early in the film, just prior to his disappearance. Ethel puts up posters, hallucinates seeing the dog while sitting in her car, runs across her own obituary in the newspaper, and then attends her own funeral wake. As she blows her nose, Rohal creates a sound bridge to a bunch of neighborhood kids setting off firecrackers, which continues as she drives off in a hearse. Mr. Turnupseed’s abandoned electric car, which Donald was last seen driving, is stolen by a couple of boy scouts, who sell it to Dalabia’s friend, Stool (Rich Schreiber), who in turn trades it to Ivan, the crazy and hyperactive father of Donald’s girlfriend, Sadie (Sheila Scullin), for his run-down school bus. Sadie moves in with Donald’s father after getting kicked out by Ivan, presumably for getting pregnant.


A derby race gradually develops in importance as one of the film’s storylines when Sadie, despite also having a broken arm, proceeds with plans to participate. Her major competition is her own father, who happens to be the reigning champion. The various plot strands at various times intersect, though it’s more often as the result of sheer coincidence rather than motivated by either character or plot. An example occurs when Mr. Turnupseed encounters Ethel Firecracker at the local café. In response to her lost dog, Mr. Turnupseed offers the somewhat Buddhist explanation that if you love something you have to be willing to “set it free,” which must be his own self-delusional rationale for seeming to be unconcerned about the fate of his own missing son. 


We get flashbacks in the film of past events involving Donald, such as his conversation with Sadie regarding his sick turtle in which she suddenly throws it into the creek because she really would rather have a dog. Sadie expresses her regret about the incident to Stool, who reveals that he was the person responsible for the mishap at Three Mile Island – something we’ve actually seen earlier. Afterwards, in a pixilated sequence, Mr. Turnupseed signs insurance papers related to Donald. All of the characters, including the insurance agent, head to the demolition derby. While Ivan provokes a fight at the derby, Mr. Turnupseed spies his electric car, and, adopting a Dick Vitale-like persona, drives off with it.


Meanwhile, even though Sadie’s about to start the race, Stool passes her a note proposing they go to the beach, but she turns him down. Now without a car, Ivan begs Sadie to let him in hers, suggesting that they could become a powerful duo like Laurel and Hardy. Sadie refuses, but Ivan chases after her and manages to jump in through the open back window. The demolition derby becomes the film’s climactic scene, as Rohal deftly crosscuts between the contest, chanting fans, Ethel seeing her dog at home, Mr. Turnupseed setting off fire works, the electric car rolling backwards, a turtle on the road, Mr. Turnupseed’s car being driven off by a stranger, and Turkeylegs at the nearby amusement park. Sadie wins the race, but, even in victory, she still refuses Stool’s overtures. Donald never reappears, but the film ends on Turkeylegs, who’s still perplexed about what could have possibly happened to him.


Rohal deliberately refuses to tie together the loose ends of his episodic narrative, to follow conventions or even alternative strategies of narration employed by other successful independent films. Rohal takes a great many narrative risks, the biggest one being that no one really seems to care about the central mystery involving Donald’s disappearance other than Turkeylegs. Sadie seems depressed and regretful, but she doesn’t try to locate him. In the new romantic plotline, the horny loser Stool attempts to replace Donald, but that proves to be a red herring because Sadie simply rejects him. The fact that Sadie wins the race also does not really matter in terms of the story, except to the locals in the small town.


I think most people agree that the first ten minutes of the film are a real tour de force, but the dramatic momentum of the overall narrative sputters at times from too many incongruities. Like Harmony Korine, Rohal is ultimately more interested in individual scenes, non sequiturs, and small details of characterization. Often a character, such as Stool, will simply give up or capitulate in a scene, thereby diffusing the dramatic tension and energy. It’s the imaginative visual style of the film, however, that represents Rohal’s real strength and achievement as a filmmaker. For every scene that misses, there’s another one that soars, especially the flashback to childhood involving Spank Williams or the adapted Moldy Peaches duet that Donald and Sadie sing together.


The Guatemalan Handshake is richly poetic as well as chock full of visual sketches and ideas. Rohal captures the texture of life in a small Pennsylvania town, especially one existing in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. In that sense it’s really a small-town portrait (Stool even tells an Amish joke) — a character study of some of its inhabitants. Rohal creates many scenes that are deeply heartfelt and affecting, but these often involve the two characters who desperately care: Ethel and Turkeylegs. The overall tone of The Guatemalan Handshake is elegiac. Ethel Firecracker’s love for her dog continues even beyond her own death. Rohal also does a superb job of capturing what it feels like to be a small child in a world that seems somehow confusing, mysterious, and full of intense melancholy.

Posted 18 June, 2007

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