Last Picture Shows: Film and Obsolescence
A proposition, based on sampling three months of contemporary American cinema at the 2012 Whitney Biennial: from now until the final reel of celluloid is shot and projected, every film’s primary subject will be film itself. This year’s biennial, which ran from March 1 through May 27, was explicitly devoted to varieties of time-based art—memorable touchstones of the ephemeral—but only the films dwelt intimately on their own obsolescence.
The program’s opening presentation featured recent work by Luther Price, and it could have been titled “How to Die.” A Boston-based found-footage expressionist, Price treats celluloid as dynamic material. Inkblot #1 (2007), the first in an ongoing and seemingly infinite series, is a blistering string of Rorschach-like color codes that Price created by scraping the emulsion from previously used eight- and sixteen-millimeter film, which he also disfigured with a Sharpie. While many, if not most, of the filmmakers holding fast to sixteen-millimeter in the face of overwhelming pressure to make the switch to digital have taken a mournful stance toward material decay, Price engages in acts of righteous vengeance. His reconfigurations of discarded prints are accompanied by soundtracks of brutal, rhythmic feedback—amplifications of the mechanical noise of celluloid projection. Sprocket holes pop like machine guns. Sometimes the aural onslaught is given a direct visual corollary: in Turbulent Blue (2006), which segments the surfaces of a rotting, now unidentifiable Hollywood action movie, the medium seems locked in a battle to maintain its materiality in the heat of explosions and gunfire. For Price, images that persist through decay aren’t necessarily plaintive or melancholy, and at the biennial his work made for an auspicious beginning to an ambitious, ambivalent goodbye.
The Whitney has a long and storied history of film exhibition. In the 1970s and ’80s, its New American Filmmakers Series provided an invaluable showcase for iconoclasts like Ernie Gehr, Joan Jonas and Paul Sharits. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, only recently recognized and canonized by the Library of Congress for being the product of “a one man African-American New Wave,” premiered at the Whitney for one week in 1978—more than four years after its completion—before falling off the map.
The museum’s biennial has behaved differently, treating cinema as an afterthought, even allowing museum curators to oversee the film program. But this year the Whitney changed course, tapping two film stalwarts, Ed Halter and Thomas Beard, to act as the exhibition’s curators. An accomplished critic and veteran of the New York avant-garde scene, Halter is the former programmer of the New York Underground Film Festival, which has since evolved into the similarly adventurous Migrating Forms. He and Beard now operate the alternative art space Light Industry in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, where they program experimental film events that somehow almost always sell out.
In their most significant departure from past practice, Halter and Beard offered each of the fifteen filmmakers a weeklong run in the museum’s second-floor Film and Video Gallery, with films screened at scheduled times instead of running at all hours on a loop. In theory, this was meant to keep the exhibition from developing the hothouse atmosphere of a major film festival, with sleep deprivation nibbling away at attention spans. In practice, it meant that anyone except museum members planning to experience the entire film program needed to make fifteen separate visits—and pay fifteen separate admission fees.
Because most verdicts on the biennial were issued in the early weeks of the exhibition, art critics could only feebly engage with a film program designed to unfold over a three-month run. Roberta Smith’s rave in The New York Times only bothered to mention Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym (2010) and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), both of which also enjoyed conventional releases in New York City. Shouldn’t time-based art require a time-based criticism?
One can’t help but see the biennial’s recalibration of its film programming, which has revived the iconoclasm of the Whitney’s New American Filmmakers Series, as an acknowledgment of changing realities in cinematic exhibition. The deleterious effects of the digital transformation have been well documented, most assiduously by David Bordwell, whose essential overview Pandora’s Digital Box has recently been made available through davidbordwell.et as a $3.99 download. As Bordwell explains, the prohibitive costs of converting from celluloid to digital projection will likely force 20 percent of the theaters in the United States to close, leaving cultural redoubts like the Whitney—and, on a smaller scale, Light Industry—with a new imperative. (The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Views From the Avant-Garde, a sidebar to the New York Film Festival, will remain the country’s most consequential showcase of avant-garde cinema.) Anyone worried that the exhibition of new films within a contemporary art context smacks of elitism would do well to consider what other venues remain available.
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