Observers and Performers: On “Life and People” at BAMcinematek

Written by Conor O’Brien

The films discussed were shown at “Shorts Program: Life and People,” during BAMcinématek‘s 2014 Migrating Forms series. 

Jon Rafman, "Mainsqueeze" (still), 2014

Jon Rafman, “Mainsqueeze” (still), 2014

Jon Rafman’s film “Mainsqueeze” opens with a washing machine in a backyard. The machine starts to cycle. The familiar rattling din as its innerchamber spins, a common enough sound now, this comforting chorus of appliances, dishwashers, ovens, boilers, toilets, the white noise that (no, not at all secondary or incidental to their “intended” functions) keep sedated blank silence, cooed into coiled submission under the mothering hum. Soon the sound grows from the familiar to the discomforting, blooms from an innocuous, mechanical buzz into an hominoid, earthen growl. The machine is pushing its rotation to increasingly violent extremes. The frame becomes unhinged and loosely wobbles about the innerchamber’s fierce convulsions. As parts of the outerstructure are cast off, it is only this, the innerchamber, that still belongs to the “washing machine,” the idea of it, the limp frame having lost all identity and coherence in the mad self-destruction. Soon, even the gaping core of the appliance loses this center of control in a final burst of intensity. It collapses, and lies still in the silent backyard.

The full video, which is returned to repeatedly during Rafman’s film, could be at home in (and was most likely taken from) the Internet’s video landscape, populated in large part by such documentations of home experiments. Does the sadistic destruction of household appliances speak to a pent-up frustration with the ease and sterility of the modern experience? Is it a lashing out at the mask of convenience that, with one finger to its lips, shh’s our primal anxieties into an uneasy quiet? Is it the basis of all spectacle and theater, tragedy and comedy, the perverse thrill of seeing the shimmering and godlike erode into profane parody? To locate on these seemingly-enclosed and stone-perfect systems an obscene, belching hole? Rafman’s film continues: iphone snapshots of teens unconscious at parties with horrifically Sharpie-marred faces, images of devils and demons from the various Infernos of classical painting, a woman lovingly caressing a large prawn-like creature before setting it under her foot to crush it in callous close-up, a person in a frog costume bound to a table writhing, the unsettling musings of an inhuman voice-over. In this barrage of grotesque sadism, the film could come off as invariably bleak: an indifferent, robotic distillation of human behavior rummaged from the Internet’s shadowier nooks. Yet, there is something behind that, perhaps compassion, but maybe just pity, for the hopelessly abusive and self-destructive creatures it depicts.

Barry Doupé, "Life and People" (still), 2014

Barry Doupé, “Life and People” (still), 2014

 

The camera is the disembodied eye, functioning with the unblinking, clinical lucidity reserved for ghosts and machines. The camera itself disappears in the film illusion, never to be caught by its own gaze: even that image, the one that passed there on that polished, silver ovoid, that looked strikingly like a camera, though distorted by the convex surface, is not the Camera. This anti-Narcissus, completely unmoved by its reflection, does not identify itself as part of the scene it observes. It is not fooled by make-up, costumes, sets, performance; it will not be drowned in the illusion. Film is a product of an argument between subjective human performers, in their manic, self-mutilating frenzy, and this uncaring, alien Eye.

In Barry Doupé’s “Life and People,” the performers, paradoxically, seem to take on the perspective of the Camera in that, though they performing in the scene, none seem to have an emotional/psychological/economic stake in it. They are vessels for the delivery of dialogue that, because of misplaced facial expression and lack of eye contact between players, is always disconnected from the speaker and unperceived by the spoken-to, existing in a neutral auditory realm that is only intercepted by the Camera and the audience. All of the action takes place in a unidentified location, seemingly a warehouse that is partially obscured by several white walls. The film consists of a series of discontinuous scenes, ranging from the utterly mundane (parent-teacher conferences, open houses, gossip, various consumer situations) to the tragic (sexual abuse, suicide), all delivered in the same robotic disinterest, a vague approximation of human interaction. The situations are made more alien by the choreography: players stand in random relations to each other: sometimes too close or far away, facing in different directions, some characters climb a ladder in order to deliver their lines without relevant reason. The film concludes with a woman lying on her side in the center of the shot. She remains motionless while arguing with another woman outside the frame, and over the course of the argument, the camera, disinterested, revolves around the woman, closes in on the back of her head, and then returns to its original position. This final scene brings together all the techniques of disconnection used throughout the film. There is disconnection on every level: setting, choreography, cinematography, delivery, facial expression, no element interacts with or relates to any other element. This is the perspective of the removed Eye, the Camera, which without emotional investment, perceives the scene as a collection of disparate contrivances that never resolve into a coherent illusion.

Jeremy Shaw, "Quickeners" (still), 2014

Jeremy Shaw, “Quickeners” (still), 2014

 

The interplay of disinterested observer and delusional performer is further dramatized in the final film of this shorts series, “Quickeners” directed by Jeremy Shaw. The piece takes the form of a faux-documentary film reel from a future after the extinction of homo sapiens and the emergence of our evolutionary successors, “quantum humans.” The film is from the perspective of these quantum humans, who are an immortal, hive-mind species, and the subject of the film is the disease “Human Ativism Syndrome.” HAS is described as causing in victims a reversion to the obsolete behaviors of their human ancestors. The documentary focuses on a certain group of HAS victims who have embraced their disease, and try to tap into the ritualistic delusions it induces in order to experience something called a “Quickening,” which is a kind of orgasmic trance caused by a feeling of disconnection from the Hive. The deathless quantum humans have transcended the need for ritual, performance, music, dance, etc, all of which reemerge in the Quickeners’ meetings and are contextualized by a monotone narrator for the quantum audience who may not understand the absurd customs. Part of the ritual involves the handling of a poisonous snake, which creates a “simulacrum threat of death,” recalling the mortality of the ancestors they intend to imitate. The narrator emphasizes the importance of the serpent, expounding on its ubiquity in global culture and its varied symbolic meaning. The serpent becomes a unifier, bringing into the same symbol opposing associations: at one side it is corruption, sickness, sin, evil and on the other medicine, health, intelligence, ingenuity. Maybe most significantly the serpent is the ouroboros, symbol of life-death-rebirth infinitely looping, the self-consuming, self-regenerating system.

This is the image of life and death in intimate concert, the supreme opposite resolution. The “simulacrum of death” in ritual is of vital significance: if ritual is a performance of life, than death too, with its unblinking glass eye, must be reflected somewhere on the mirror. More than this, ritual is a movement beyond death, which is no more graspable to us than to any hypothetical immortal being. Only the threat of death, a withdrawing shadow, is available to us: past this we make assumptions, create symbols, take faith-leaps. But there is always that threat, reflection flickering time to time in the corner of our vision, and when we turn to face it, gone, save a lingering absence. It is this tormenting ghost that induces our sadomasochistic obsessions. It is before this featureless, stone gaze we perform the scrimmage of our annihilation. It is to this icey lab-table we strap ourselves, awaiting the scalpel’s descent. This is the true Camera, of which every other camera is a distorted reflection. Film, a death-ritual, teaches us that the act of living is necessarily self-destructive, just as self-destruction is necessarily regenerative, and every film is indicative of the infinite performance before the true Camera: but onto what blank screen, and into what theater, reeking of artificial butter, white noise of wrapper-cracks and mechanical humming, is this Film projected? By what silent audience watched?

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