Avant-garde Aesthetics in “Mike Gravel: Rock” and “Mike Gravel: Fire”

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12/18/2007 3:45 PM |

To the extent that distinguished former Alaska senator Mike Gravel has been able to draw attention to his longshot campaign for the Democratic party’s Presidential nomination, he has done so through two unconventional ads, made by volunteer amateur filmmakers otherwise unaffiliated with his campaign. The ads, informaly but commonly titled Mike Gravel: Rock and Mike Gravel: Fire, have become breakaway YouTube hits and the subject of much ironic derision. It is however the position of this writer that the ads represent a foray, unprecedented for the genre of the campaign spot, into the realm of avant-garde film. This paper will examine the two ads for their relation to certain key avant-garde filmmakers; and in so doing, will hopefully in some small way restore the misunderstood reputation of this great American and artistic pioneer.

A still image from “Mike Gravel: Rock”:

A still image from Andy Warhol’s Blow Job:

For the first minute and ten seconds of the nearly three-minute “Rock,” Mike Gravel stands alongside a body of water, staring into the camera with a fixed, neutral expression. The viewer is immediately reminded of Andy Warhol’s famous Blow Job, in which a young man (the unknown DeVerne Bookwalter) is framed in close-up for the entirety of the 35-minute film, the camera taking in his facial expression as he receives the titular act. (Or rather, is perceived by the viewer to receive the titular act: the film is soundless, and the act is out of the frame. If the film was called “DeVerne,” would we even guess at the act? Reports indicate that the act itself was indeed directly performed directly below the frame line, but for all we, the viewer, can actually discern, DeVerne Bookwalter is no more receiving oral sex off-camera than Mike Gravel is — he too is filmed chest-up, after all.)

Warhol, of course, in his icon-driven visual art and hangout-driven experimental cinema, was interested in people, in faces — in the appearances of the famous and non-famous, and in the way their outward appearances and social bearings were posed, or poseless, and the affects achieved by these various personae. Looking the viewer, as it were, directly in the eye, Gravel asks us to consider his face, and the history and character wrote upon it.

Warhol’s films also challenge our notions of cinematic time: the default mode of cinema is the commercial narrative film, where the efficiency of the narration is highly valued. But watching Blow Job — a thirty-five-minute film in which “nothing happens” — we are forced to expand our understanding. In some ways Warhol’s magnum opus is Empire, his eight-hour long shot of the Empire State Building: watching it, we think anew on film’s potential relationships to time.

Asking, with its duration, that we acclimate ourselves to an uncommon mode of address, “Rock” performs a similar function. It also acts as a rejoinder to the default mode of political ad, specifically the fast-paced montage of manipulated information. When facts are quoted out of context and thrown at the viewer all lickety-split — often in ads paid for by organizations with vaguely specified ties to the candidates — can we really trust what we see? Godard said that “cinema is truth 24 frames per second, every cut is a lie.” “Mike Gravel: Rock” is shot in a single take.

Both films are also, in their embraces of the respective flaws of their mediums — the mediocre exposure and occasionally damaged celluloid of the 16mm Blow Job; the flattened contrast of the DV “Rock” — implicitly about their respective mediums, and are as such knowing documents of the way experiences and opinion are mediated in their respective eras: through home video in the case of Warhol, and through user-generated video content in the case of the Gravel ads.

But thus far we have focused only on the first portion of “Rock.” For abruptly, at the 70-second mark, Mike Gravel turns from the camera, walks towards a rock, picks it up from the ground, and throws it into the water he stands beside. He then walks away from the camera, which continues to record until Gravel has receded into the distance.

A long-take sequence, marked by deadpan humor and obscure metaphor, the central action of “Mike Gravel: Rock” cannot help but recall the films of Tsai Ming-liang (a narrative filmmaker, certainly, but one with experimental tendencies). Indeed, the open-ended landscape, and Gravel’s march through a space not fully defined, suggests a link to the stunning, wandering final sequence of Vive L’Amour. Gravel’s willingness to present himself as a wanderer, and his terrain as uncertain (note, again, the lack of clarity with which the background is filmed) is, in the context of a Presidential campaign, a decision of rare honesty and humility.

A still image from “Mike Gravel: Fire”:

We move now to the even more daring “Mike Gravel: Fire.” The film consists of three shots. In the first, Mike Gravel is seen in a forest, collecting kindling. In the second, we seem him, briefly, making a fire from the wood he has presumably collecting. The third shot, comprising the remaining seven minutes and ten seconds of the film (total running time: 7:41), is a close-up up the fire, flames licking the kindling.

A still image from James Benning’s Ten Skies:

The viewer is immediately reminded of the landscape films of James Benning, particularly Ten Skies. In that film, Benning points his camera upwards, and simply records the atmosphere in a single unbroken, ten-minute take; the film consists solely of ten such shots. In both Ten Skies and “Fire,” as with Warhol, the squarish frames deliberately include only a portion of the subject: a box of the sky, the center of a fire. They tantalize the viewer with their intimation of offscreen space, and again ask us to consider — by exclusion of space, rather than inclusion of time — the arbitrariness of cinematic representation.

In deliberately placing a frame around nature, both Ten Skies and “Fire” create a tension between abstract and representational art. Excluded from their context, we can consider the sky and cloud formations, or the wood and flames, in terms of color, texture, composition. In short, as works of abstract art, rather than integrated elements of the natural world.

For these reasons, “Fire,” like Ten Skies, is an ideal work of installation art, a photograph including movement as one of its aesthetic elements. The viewer can contemplate — with the intensity of engagement a matter of her choosing — the licking flames and crackling sticks, in a manner not dissimilar to a gallery viewing experience. Or, for that matter, an actual campfire.


In considering these films, and noting their debts to Warhol, Tsai and Benning, it is hoped that we have come to a better understanding of their status as artworks of distinction, despite the claims of cinematic ignoramuses desperate to fill an accelerating news cycle. That accomplished, we should perhaps now acknowledge their true purpose, that is, to call attention to the candidacy of Mike Gravel, who during his time in the Senate fought to end the draft and expose the injustice of the Vietnam War, and who is running for President on a platform of withdrawal from Iraq, active discussion with Middle Eastern leaders, adherence to the Geneva Convention, universal healthcare, aggressive action against climate change, protection of reproductive rights, and legalization of same-sex marriage.

One Comment

  • The first one reminded me more of the Screen Tests, though thanks for the link to Blow Job, never seen it before. Also the rock throwing reminded me of the Odyssey, the cyclops. I’m a big fan of Warhol, my favorites – Chelsea Girls, Beauty 2, and Bike Boy.

    Second one I was thinking more Les Stroud’s Survivorman. Also as far as James Benning, I havent seen his stuff, but this is similar to Abbas Kuristami’s “Five Dedicated to Ozu”, which was a transcendental experience for me at MOMA last summer. Also his “Birth of Light” was good.