24 February 2011

Limitations and Lamentations

16mm Dies, Polymaths Rise

What makes a medium matter? In mid-February 2011 came the news that London’s Soho Film Laboratory had suddenly and without warning ceased printing 16mm film, though it will continue its processing services. In other words, they will still develop film stock, but will no longer make prints from negatives. Although the company hasn’t yet made a public statement regarding The Why of this discontinuation, it is understood to be the policy of the lab’s new owners, the American-based Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, “the leading provider of a broad range of entertainment industry services and technologies to major Hollywood Studios.”

Although this loss made no detectable impression in Hollywood, it came as a severe blow to over 170 film artists who have long depended upon the expert facilities of Soho Film Lab, now renamed Soho Deluxe. “This is devastating news for many artists and filmmakers who continue to work with 16mm print,” the group Save16mmUK outlined in a petition to the lab’s management. Stuart Comer, Curator of Film at Tate Modern, outlined the cultural implications of Deluxe’s business decision: “To suspend 16mm printing at a lab with a healthy business and highly respected staff seems a pointed rebuke to the thousands of artists worldwide for whom the medium provides a cherished way of working.” 

Film artist Tacita Dean joined the chorus with an impassioned editorial in The Guardian, in which she offered blunter criticism of the company’s motives: “They are stopping 16mm print because the [film] industry does not need it any more. . . . Pitched against this, art is voiceless and insignificant.” To date, neither high-profile protestations nor Save16mmUK’s petition, which garnered nearly 5,500 signatures, has reinstated Soho Deluxe’s print services.

Of course, the bottom line has always been the commercial world’s top priority, and once a medium fails that particular industry standard, it is invariably rendered immaterial. The technological evolution, propelled by profit margins, contends that newness guarantees improvement; it does not appraise the cultural value of materials or acknowledge the discreet and distinct meanings inscribed into a medium. Yet if the art world understands that the commercial position arrests conversations (cultural, political, historical) by way of built-in obsolescence, why doesn’t Art—not at all voiceless and insignificant—draw from its own economies to save 16mm film? To date, no art world figure with the means to do so (gallerist, philanthropist, collector) has stepped in to ensure its preservation. 

As though to sharpen this question, two compelling and intelligent 16mm films were among the sixty or so works of art on view as part of the exhibition All of This and Nothing at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last winter and spring. Kerry Tribe’s Parnassius mnemosyne (2011) is a 40-second, color 16mm film that requires viewers to wander through her installation to decipher the images and mechanisms at work. The film is constructed as a Möbius strip that runs through the reels of the projector, up and around two spools hung from the ceiling, then back down again. The image itself is illegible at first, appearing as a series of strange and ghostly forms fading in and out of view as if lit by a moving light source. Alien shapes and textures resemble reptilian scales but are, in fact, microscopic snapshots of a butterfly’s wing, which subtly shift hue from amber to white to gold. After each full pass through the projector, the strip of film flips, the projector jumps, and the images are played in reverse. 

Parnassius mnemosyne refers both to the name of the particular butterfly under Tribe’s lens, and to the Greek personification of memory.  It will therefore be no surprise to discover that the film functions as a mnemonic of sorts; the attentive understand the conceit when they recognize the patterns of the images appearing, then reappearing in reverse, and the presence of the butterfly wing extends outside Tribe’s frame to recall Brakhage’s seminal Mothlight (and to remind us of the butterfly-collecting Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory). The success of her film comes from how tightly conceived it is, and to its mesmerizing effect. Standing in the dark, watching images recede and return, knowing that the wing will remain animated as long as the light keeps moving, the projector keeps whirring, or until the print scratches, tears or fades . . . the viewer is invigorated, for a fleeting moment, by a meditation on the tenuous means of remembrance. 

Paul Sietsema’s Anticultural Positions (2009) is a 30-minute, black-and-white silent film that was initially intended to stand in for a lecture the artist was invited to give at the New School. Divided into eight sections, the film alternates between black frames subtitled with text borrowed and altered from Art Brut artist Jean Dubuffet’s 1952 essay, “Tabled Landscapes: Landscapes of the Mind, Stones of Philosophy,” and close-ups of details from Sietsema’s studio worktables. “All my works of these last years,” the subtitles begin, “are closely linked to the specific behavior of the material used, and, if you will, to its disposition.” From this meditation on the value of materials, “capable of bringing to us astonishing news from the country of the non-circumscribed,” the lecture-text continues on to address the facts of mind and matter, the ways each produces the other. “I am convinced that any table can be for each of us a landscape as inexhaustible as the whole Andes range,” the subtitles pronounce, “and, for this reason—every place, for my eyes, being equal to every other—I see little use in traveling.” 

Sietsema punctuates the formality of these words with close-ups of the lurid textures and cracked topographies of the accumulated spatters, spills, drips, and scrapes of his worktables, and this humor allows the film to move beyond a display of critical ventriloquism—one artist speaking about himself through another. The film never names its source materials, but Sietsema bores into both the text and the table-scapes to illuminate his strategy; the appearance of a USPS mailer and a subtitle that refers to the “films” are two details that reveal his strategy. Collapsing his voice into that of Dubuffet—doubling the “I”—in effect distances Sietsema as the subject of his lecture (as did his initial gesture of delivering a film canister instead of himself to the New School), and here, the film makes its wittiest, most resonant point regarding the artist’s position, anticultural and otherwise: that a work of art should speak for itself.

Actor-novelist-director-artist James Franco does not seem convinced that artists and their productions can speak for themselves, judging by My Own Private River, his video installation that was on view at Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills the same time as the Hammer’s All of This and Nothing. A collaboration with film director Gus Van Sant as part of a joint exhibition titled Unfinished, the video was intended to be an homage to the “uninhibited acting” of the late River Phoenix. By appropriating, digitizing, and re-editing the 35mm dailies from My Own Private Idaho (1989), Franco created a piece that is less an elegy for a dead celebrity than a highfalutin framework for cross-marketing.

My Own Private River is projected on a wall inside a space built to resemble a generic American meeting hall (“a church basement,” the woman at the front desk clarified) that one enters through worn, dusty curtains. The floor is covered in scuffed red-and-white checkered linoleum, and in the corner stands a folding table littered with Styrofoam cups, coffee urns, powdered creamer, and other signs of a “12 step meeting.” A wooden podium has been pushed against the wall of the projection to reveal a dinky white speaker on its shelf from which the sound is played. Atop a table next to the adjacent wall sits a television playing Van Sant’s original film (sound off) from a VHS tape, the box for which has been lightly crushed and placed next to the VCR

The video itself seems the product of Franco having been cutting room floored—so enamored of Van Sant’s footage that he commandeered these materials without clear intention or framework, save that of focusing on Phoenix’s performance. Most of the original story’s beats are accounted for, although he reframes the footage by reclaiming sequences that the director left out, allows certain scenes to play from a single camera angle, and monkeys around with sound (in one instance, replacing dialogue with sheep bleats).  He also throws in a few droning songs composed and performed for the video by Michael Stipe. 

Unfortunately, these strategies aren’t sharp enough to make My Own Private River something worth sitting through.  With a running time of 100 minutes, the video is almost as long as the original film, but feels more like an interminable chapter of DVD extras. Although My Own Private River does give us a certain glimpse into Van Sant’s process, it is less clear about how we are to engage with the film’s star, or why Phoenix has been made to rise again. In “Soap at MoCA: In Depth,” the publication which accompanied the taping of Franco’s artpiece-cum-episode of General Hospital at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2010, he told an interviewer, “I’m very grateful for my acting career, but six or seven years ago, I came to understand that acting in film is all about the director.” Yet here Franco has again surrendered his work to that of a director, this time by working from a “script” of existing footage. 

Another clue to Franco’s intentions is the installation: the meeting hall/church basement. Is this meant to be a comment on our collective “addiction to celebrity” or a jab at celebrity worship? If so, it’s a patronizing gesture, not to mention a crude analogy, given the fact that Phoenix and fellow cast member Rodney Harvey died of drug overdoses. Moreover, that angle of criticality is wholly blunted by the fact that Franco’s own celebrity foregrounds the entire exhibition. Unfinished opened days before the 83rd Academy Awards, which Franco notoriously hosted with a certain rigor mortis. No viewer could miss seeing the words Supported by Gucci, the company for whom Franco is the face of the fragrance Gucci By Gucci Sport, printed in large font near the title of the exhibition, or © New Line Cinema Corp writ large inside the installation itself, which leaves it unclear as to whether New Line owns the raw footage, Franco’s re-cut, Van Sant’s original film, or all three. If there is earnestness to Franco’s artistic ambitions, it cannot be excavated from the layers of corporate obligations and self-promotion that weigh on this show, for what is more prominently on display are the systems and processes by which art stars are created. It must be noted that My Own Private River has since been exhibited in two very different iterations of the Gagosian installation: at MoMA PS1 in New York as part of its Summer School 2011 program and in the Future Projections program at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. If Franco truly wishes to convince his audiences that he is the creative polymath he vigorously performs for us, one can only hope he will soon forgo the role of mouthpiece. 

If the polymath currently holds great purchase with American audiences, perhaps it is to digest the glut of mogul culture (Oprah, Diddy, Gwynnie, for example) or to work through the pervasive free market psychology that makes no distinction between diversification and dexterity, power and genius. The movie Limitless skims these subjects in the story of Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), a failed novelist who becomes addicted to NZT, a smart drug that allows its users to employ one-hundred percent of their brain power, a fictional version of a man like James Franco who is allowed to exercise one-hundred percent of his brain power at all times. As Morra explains, using his new four-digit IQ, “I suddenly knew everything about everything.” And what are the first things a man does when he knows everything?  He gets laid, goes shopping, goes to the gym, and polishes off the unfinished novel he has lying around. Then he begins to “form an idea,” which is never explicitly detailed by the film but includes getting his ex-girlfriend back, mastering the stock market, and brokering the largest corporate merger in history—all without having to actually learn anything. 

Directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist) and scripted by the writer of Mrs. Doubtfire and the Lindsay Lohan remake of Freaky Friday, Limitless is a performance of disgust with The American System made within the Hollywood system. Its logic is absurd, and as a morality tale, it hits its bull’s eye with a pixie stick—which is why it might be remembered as the defining film of the year. After all, this is the year audiences watched the evolution (and subsequent obsolescence) of another drug-fuelled polymath, actor-warlock Charlie Sheen. “Sheen has embraced the post-Empire, making his bid to explain to us all what celebrity means in that world,” wrote novelist Bret Easton Ellis, in The Daily Beast, of Sheen’s public implosion/media bender. “Whether or not you like it is beside the point. It’s where we are, babe. We’re learning something.” What we’re learning, according to Ellis, is not only that the Empire has fallen, but that the facade of the Empire has crumbled, too. From TMZ to Wikileaks, corporate bailouts and stock market bubbles, post-Empire America is a fiction flayed wide open, its systems on display for all to see. But in the America of Limitless, NZT users don’t see. Morra doesn’t transcend, evolve, or revolt; he synthesizes vast quantities of information for personal gain, becoming a human calculator who regurgitates facts from the Wikidepths of his new and improved brain. For his dutiful performance, our anti-hero is given a predictably happy ending with the toothless bite one expects from an imitation satire: he is elected to the United States Senate.

Perhaps the only valuable insight Limitless offers its audience occurs during a scene in which Morra’s conscience is sent into spasms over news that he may have murdered someone. Suffering from NZT withdrawal, he runs from a business meeting into the city streets. As the camera follows him, it inverts so the scene plays upside down, and we are treated to the sight of Bradley Cooper puking upward onto the sidewalk. As our hero suffers the pain of his convulsing guilt and the indignity of a public heave-and-splat the gutter and the heavens are interchanged, and we the audience are grossly reminded that when it comes to vomit in American culture, the sky’s the limit.

Image: Limitless (d. Neil Burger, US, 2011)

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