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?

REVIEW: BAMcinématek’s Migrating Forms (12/15/13)

BAMcinématek, Migrating Forms, December 15, 2013
written by Kristen Bisson, Social Media Assistant, The Living Gallery

Last night I went to see both Migrating Forms Program 3 (7:00pm) and Migrating Forms Program 4 (9:30pm). It was absolutely fantastic. Here’s a list of the films that were presented:

Migrating Forms Program 3 (Information Source)

  • “45 7 Broadway” (Directed by Tomonari Nishikawa) 2013, 5min
    An analog portrait of Times Square’s LED present.
  • “Mount Song” (Directed by Shambhavi Kaul) 2013, 9min
    Half-forgotten spaces are reconstituted into an eerily familiar cinematic new world.
  • “A Third Version of the Imaginary” (Directed by Benjamin Tiven) 2013, 12min
    An exploration of the material facts of video and film at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.
  • “Juan Gris Dream House & Popova-Lissitztky Office Complex” (Directed by Jon Rafman) 2013, 2min each
    New York premiere. Two entries from Rafman’s Brand New Paint Job project, which uses famous paintings to wallpaper 3D models of houses and offices.
  • “Amuse-gueule #1: Digital Destinies” (Directed by Gina Telaroli) 2012, 12min
    New York premiere. “An experiment in superimposition and cinematic mediums that ebbs and flows through a fractured layering of images” (MUBI).
  • “El Adios Largos” (Directed by Andrew Lampert) 2013, 11min
    Archivist and artist Lambert presents a speculative restoration of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
  • “Pepper’s Ghost” (Directed by Stephen Broomer) 2013, 19min
    New York premiere. Inspired in equal parts by Michael Snow and your local haunted house.

Migrating Forms Program 4 (Information Source)

  • “Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths” (Directed by Ed Atkins) 2013, 13min
    “…Pictures the digitalization of existence from the inside, in all its cold alienating surrogacy” (Art Agenda).
  • “bbrraattss” (Directed by Ian Cheng) 2013, 3min
    Ian Cheng dissolves and re-choreographs a rabbit fight into an abstract motion study.
  • “Even Pricks” (Directed by Ed Atkins) 2013, 8min
    “… The culmination of a series connected with depression, in both the psychological and the physical sense of the word” (Lyon).
  • “Swallow” (Directed by Laure Prouvost) 2013, 12min
    Inspired by the artistic and sensuous traditions of Italy, Laure Prouvost presents a collage of a recent Mediterranean idyll, syncopated to the rhythm of her own breath.
  • “Critical Mass” (Directed by Kerry Tribe) 2012, 25min
    Continuing her career-long investigation into personal and historic memory, Kerry Tribe presents a restaging of Hollis Frampton’s groundbreaking experimental film Critical Mass. Tribe’s reinvention features a single virtuoso take of two actors delivering the lines originally edited by Frampton into a rhythmic, disjointed pattern.

A number of my favorites from the night included: “Mount Song” (Directed by Shambhavi Kaul), “A Third Version of the Imaginary” (Directed by Benjamin Tiven), “El Adios Largos” (Directed by Andrew Lampert), “Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths” (Directed by Ed Atkins), and “Even Pricks” (Directed by Ed Atkins).

The set and fog in “Mount Song” reminded me a lot of The NeverEnding Story’s set and aesthetic, with a little Lord of the Rings thrown in there. I thought that was awesome. It had that dark, starry, fantasy, hidden-in-the-forest landscape and feel to it, and there was a little village, a full moon, and no humans in sight. No creatures really of any kind. Unless you count the fog as creatures. In “Mount Song,” the fog felt activated, as if they were the characters of this short story. They moved, we followed, they traveled, and there was even what looked like an epic dark/light fog battle at one point. There were other possible characters, which took the form of little shining lights traveling at fast speeds across the landscape. The explosions, quick cuts, and set, as I said, reminded me a lot of the fantasy movies of the mid-80s, like The NeverEnding Story. I could have sworn that at one point, in one particular scene from “Mount Song,” we might surely see Falkor dip over top the thick fog bank under the starry sky. Loved that this short film, “Mount Song,” was done in 2013 and accomplished that aesthetic extremely well.

“A Third Version of the Imaginary” (Directed by Benjamin Tiven) was extremely interesting. It featured a library of VHS tapes, the covers all black with white labels, with a man looking through them, apparently trying to find something specific. From listening to the narration, you would learn about different concepts of video, image, memory, and meaning, including such ideas like “video is an amnesic medium.” The narrator spoke about how when film is recorded, how much time, production, money, etc, goes into it, and then it appears on an inexpensive and ephemeral piece of technology like a VHS, stored, and that even the original film is not saved because it is used to make the next film. The narrator explained that in Swahili, words like “video” are inherently attached to a medium, and understood this way, but that there is no “naturally occurring word” for “image” since that word is so detached from any specific medium. The film is an interesting introduction and investigation regarding how technology and language changes and informs each other, simultaneously changing ideas and concepts about the world around us, and ourselves.

I had never seen The Long Goodbye, so my experience with Andrew Lampert’s film “El Adios Largos” would probably be very different had I seen the original. The opening credits still showed the original people for The Long Goodbye, but then for certain credits, Lampert had added his own right next to the originals, so that there were two directors, instead of one, etc. (All part of the humor!) The part of the film Lampert used was the beginning scene, where the main character is feeding his cat, trying to give it human food, then going out at 3:00am to buy it cat food, then trying to fool it into thinking it’s eating its favorite brand, etc, but this cat knows better. The main character also interacts with his female neighbors, who are apparently baking brownies and cookies and whatever at 3:00am. (Why not.) This version of the film, which Lampert had found and used, had been dubbed in Spanish. So, he had it subtitled back into English. And, since the film had been in black and white, Lampert added color to it, often in blocks, shapes, with shifting and imprecise borders, moving, warping, etc. In his talk after the screening, he said had researched to figure out what colors kitchens, etc, were in the 70s, and worked with those color schemes in this piece. Overall, his film, and his talk, were both hilarious, interesting, and lots of fun.

For both of Ed Atkins’ pieces, I was intrigued and captivated by the poetry, the visuals, and the sounds. I was very interested in how he manipulated the 3D animated characters and objects, the repetition of themes with variations each time, the text (in various fonts, colors, styles, etc) and the poetry, the still images mixed in with animated elements and narration, etc. Sometimes, the text, the poetry, had the same font, style, and sound of an epic movie trailer, with all the emphasis and energy that comes with it. His films were amusing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Definitely worthy of multiple viewings. Anybody interested in animation, either as a viewer and a maker or both, should see these films by Ed Atkins. Quite amazing!

Overall, a really great night with really great short films!

I will be going to the following film screening:

Conor O’Brien, also of The Living Gallery, will be going to this screening:

Please, go check out BAMcinématek’s film series, Migrating Forms!
Let us know in the comments about what you’ve seen or plan to see.