Last Picture Shows: Film and Obsolescence
Biennial curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders officially dedicated this year’s exhibition to Mike Kelley, the eclectic, wildly influential Los Angeles–based artist who committed suicide this past January, at age 57. Kelley’s final project, Mobile Homestead, was an unusually personal one: he built a full-size replica of his childhood home in Westland, Michigan—a middle-class western suburb of Detroit—with the intention of placing it at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit (MOCAD) as a multipurpose community center and artists’ studio. The replica was not brought to the Whitney, but it can be seen as the roving protagonist of a three-part video series Kelley made about the sixteen-mile journey from MOCAD in midtown Detroit to Westland and back. The trip is stitched together with interviews Kelley did with the deli owners, prostitutes, used-car salesmen, motorcycle gangs, churchgoers, mosquegoers, barflies and restaurateurs of Michigan Avenue. I drive down the same strip of the avenue at least once a week, and seeing Detroit play itself—instead of being treated, at arm’s length, as an emblem of postindustrial decay—struck me as uncanny.
The videos reveal a geography rutted with socioeconomic disparity and ruin, though if Kelley had taken a route northbound or eastbound from downtown Detroit, he would have captured more stomach-churning, camera-ready inequalities of wealth. A lack of romanticism sets Mobile Homestead apart from the recent spate of “Doomtroit” documentaries like the Sundance award-winning Detropia and Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit. But Kelley’s project is repetitive, too ecumenical in its low-key evocation of common unhappiness, and non-Michiganders are likely to find it more wearying (and less charming) than I did. Suffice it to say that the videos of ordinary people addressing an ordinary camera have zero relation to what critic Jerry Saltz labeled Kelley’s “clusterfuck esthetics.” The documentary’s exhibition prospects are unclear—Kelley’s death put the larger project on hold—but MOCAD announced plans to complete the Mobile Homestead project this year and open it in 2013.
Cinema qua cinema, as an analogue for nothing but itself, received its most transcendent expression from Nathaniel Dorsky. The 68-year-old Zen Buddhist pioneer of “devotional cinema,” which might best be described as a temporary reorientation of consciousness, Dorsky makes work that requires a sixteen-millimeter projector running at eighteen frames per second, or “silent speed”—six frames per second slower than normal speed. To show his films to the public, Dorsky cannot do without a space like the Whitney. His specifications are exacting and based on a personal metaphysics, wherein the realm of black matter surrounding the screen is a significant component of the experience itself. In his writings, Dorsky updates the distinction made by the midcentury French critic André Bazin between an image-based and a reality-based cinema, and the resulting humanist ethic would seem airy and Platonic if Dorsky didn’t actually put it into practice:
In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is by depicting them. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater, and the latter is a form of poetry.
Dorsky’s films communicate through cryptic linkages, occlusions and odd angles, through edits both noncontiguous and graceful beyond belief—every puzzle piece tinged with a lyricism that transcends genre. It’s supremely difficult to see a Dorsky film, and what’s worse, it borders on cruelty to show one just once, to tease filmgoers with a glimpse of a sublime associational illogic that seems perfectly sustainable, given its proximity to the everyday. When making films that threaten to contain the entire world, Dorsky rarely travels far from his San Francisco apartment. The subject of his images’ immanent rhythms is the “accumulation of being,” and while his films can be screened only in specific locations, their materials can be found anywhere. (Dorsky’s closest cousin in the realm of narrative cinema is Terrence Malick, and his own Arbor Vitae anticipates Malick’s Tree of Life by ten years.)
At the Whitney, Dorsky presented Compline, the final film he shot in his preferred medium of Kodachrome (recently discontinued), and Aubade and The Return, his first films shot with Eastman and Fuji color negative, likely to become obsolete. Given that his films never acknowledge chaos, I can’t expect him to meet this eventuality with anything less than calm acceptance. In a public conversation with Halter, Dorsky described his pleasure to be working in “these last moments of film.” He struck at an alluring metaphor for his celluloid cohort, whose resignation was more straightforward and powerful than anything else in the exhibition: “We’re guppies in a puddle…on a dirt road…in the sun.”
Nation film critic Stuart Klawans reviews David France’s How to Survive a Plague, Heidi Ewing and Rache Grady’s Detropia and Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage in the October 1 issue.