Last Picture Shows: Film and Obsolescence
Despite the Whitney screening room’s fifty folding chairs and a warning not to enter the theater after the projection starts, it was often hard to tell where cinema ended and art began. When I looked in on Dawn Kasper, the gregarious performer who spent all eighty-eight days of the exhibition as a full-time resident of the Whitney’s third floor, she was showing a documentary about Buster Keaton. Slides of Luther Price film strips were regularly shown on the second and fourth floors. The biennial’s centerpiece exhibit—and a source of some controversy—was a five-channel video installation by Werner Herzog. The museum held his anemic, weirdly inelegant Hearsay of the Soul separate from the film program and ran it on a continuous loop. In a public discussion with biennial curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, the art-cinema celebrity railed against his special treatment: “I’m not into museums and I’m not into this world of contemporary art either. I want to be a good soldier of cinema.”
Beard and Halter’s programming is steeped in a catholic understanding of American independent cinema, celebrating recent convergences between the art world and the moving image while preserving a responsible conception of film history. The visual artists Mike Kelley and Wu Tsang brought projects in the form of traditional documentaries, and their experiments were counterbalanced by recent work from established filmmakers like Wiseman, who essentially created the form.
The program’s inclusion of auteur Kelly Reichardt, director of the celebrated and nationally distributed Meek’s Cutoff, turned a few heads. But the curators seemed to be suggesting that at its most utilitarian, experimental cinema offers new perspectives for the viewing of “straight” cinema, reconfiguring filmgoers’ desires and expectations. And so Reichardt’s movies, viewed in tandem with their more exacting avant-garde peers, were reframed as structural epics, just as Wiseman’s direct-cinema documentary Boxing Gym was offered as a dance film. It’s a stretch, but one might wish to temper the realities of our national security apparatus by considering the numerous times Laura Poitras was detained by Homeland Security while making The Oath, her riveting 2010 documentary about Osama bin Laden’s former chauffeur, as a work of Kafkaesque performance art.
By dedicating a separate space to the film program, this year’s biennial also underscored an economic chasm between visual art and art cinema. While a visual artist selected for the biennial might expect a boost in sales, a narrative filmmaker like Matt Porterfield, whose microbudget Putty Hill was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, probably can’t bank on a distribution deal for his next project. (Nonnarrative filmmakers like Laida Lertxundi don’t dare hope for conventional distribution, but they also can’t sell their art at auction.) This has less to do with aesthetics than decisive marketing: because of her choice to distribute her work as a limited-edition print meant for gallery exhibition, past biennial honoree Sharon Lockhart’s No (2003), a thirty-four-minute fixed-camera exercise focused on a Japanese couple bundling hay, was priced at $30,000 in a New York gallery. Scholar Erika Balsom has lamented this tendency toward “enforced scarcity,” noting that gallery film boosts its exchange value by rejecting film’s inherent capacity for mechanical reproduction.
Nobody at this year’s biennial embraced this principle as seriously as Vincent Gallo, who failed to provide a single print of his new film, Promises Written in Water. A black-and-white sixteen-millimeter blow-up print of it does exist, assuming the reviews from 2010’s Venice and Toronto film festivals are not part of a more elaborate charade, but a much anticipated screening at the Whitney never materialized. Gallo is not only the most volatile and vulnerable actor in cinema, but also, on the basis of Buffalo ‘66 and The Brown Bunny, an American formalist who makes narrative films of uncompromising beauty. He remains a genuine menace while feeding his narcissism through a wringer of dark humor and self-abasement. For all kinds of reasons, Promises Written in Water was the closest thing to an Event Film in the program, and as the film’s Whitney premiere remained officially unscheduled a month into the biennial, Halter and Beard hinted that Promises would materialize as part of a hush-hush underground happening. It didn’t—or at least I wasn’t invited. As Gallo told a Danish magazine a few months before the Whitney announced the film as part of its program, Promises will be “allowed to rest in peace, and stored without being exposed to the dark energies from the public.” At the biennial’s end, curator Jay Sanders opted to play it like an honest CIA spokesman, offering to the Times: “There’s a way in which suppressing it from the public is fundamentally part of the point.” The film’s value, as an unseeable, unknowable repository of heightened expectations: priceless.
Gallo’s self-imposed—and petulant—sidelining of his film made me especially grateful for the democratic ethic of video artist Michael Robinson, a festival-circuit workhorse who posts most of his videos for viewing on his website. And they don’t suffer in that context. His films are televisual fever dreams, whacked-out aggregations of repurposed materials (Full House, Fleetwood Mac songs, “Nothing Compares 2 U”) that channel the affective powers of pop in a manner both abstract and unadorned. My favorite small-scale distillation of Robinson’s aesthetic is the five-minute video Hold Me Now, which overlays a karaoke track of the Thompson Twins’ eponymous New Wave hit on a seemingly agitated bedroom scene from Little House on the Prairie, interrupted by a perpetual and unsettling flicker. The lyrics scroll along the bottom of the screen, a voiceless, hollowed-out reminder to “let lovin start” as the scene turns ambiguously brutal. Robinson’s videos navigate a morass of tinny synthesizers and sixteen-bit video while avoiding an easy detachment.
Laida Lertxundi, a Spaniard who works in Los Angeles—and probably the biennial’s most significant discovery, if my excitement to revisit her work is any indication—treats pop-cultural artifacts from an earlier analog era with a similar elegiac reverence. She and Robinson, both born in 1981, traffic in a kind of warped nostalgia, but their reveries have no relation to kitsch. As a millennial and an avant-gardist, Lertxundi should know better than to bother with a sixteen-millimeter camera, but she uses the cumbersome equipment to think economically, displaying a preternatural gift for the revealing edit. Like the LA expat films of Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni, Lertxundi’s Footnotes to a House of Love (2007) and Cry When It Happens (2010) express languor and yearning by contrasting tight shots of close quarters with a vast backdrop of deserts and mountains. She keeps the viewer a step or two removed from any narrative that might animate the periphery. Cause and effect can see each other, even if they rarely communicate. Her principal characters often pluck or stroke instruments without necessarily eliciting any music. Pop songs are omnipresent, but they emanate from little boxes.
Lertxundi’s work is a compliment to her CalArts mentor Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which salvages glimpses of Los Angeles’s effaced history from the re-edited footage of hundreds of Hollywood movies. The LGBT-friendly Latin bar at the center of Wu Tsang’s WILDNESS (2012)—a locale Tsang also re-created as part of a separate two-channel video installation on the Whitney’s third floor—stood well within the geographic vicinity of Andersen’s sphere of interest, and Tsang’s socially engaged nightlife documentary shares some of that other film’s fascination with the city as racially coded palimpsest. Shot in luminous high-definition DV, Tsang’s feature documents his engagement with the downtown bar where he and his friends, outsiders to the Hispanic community, staged a queer performance-art party on Tuesday nights from 2008 to 2010. With a magical-realist flourish, this unwieldy and properly self-critical movie absorbs the excitements and contradictions of a temporary “safe space” and identifies various categories of exclusion. Where is the border between safety and quarantine?
* * *