Jim Finn’s Film Experiments Resurrecting Dead Ideologies

05/26/2010 4:00 AM |

Judging by his short films, in his spare time Jim Finn enjoys cheering on the St. Louis Rams, cultivating a luxuriant mustache that could lead its own band and chilling in the bathtub with a cobra named “Martin Luther Kingsnake” draped around his neck. Such are the insights you can gain from putting yourself through the entirety of Anthology Film Archives’ Finn retro, which will wear you down: there’s only three features and one short film program to deal with, but the shorts are generally dreadful. But the rest makes this much clear: Finn is a major talent, a vaguely avant-garde video specialist whose work is far too accessible to be ghettoized and left to the tender mercies of museums and academia.
Finn’s three features (barely so: at 71 minutes, Interkosmos is the longest) all set about recreating the mental landscape and cultural textures of different Communist cultures. His tools: scenes of the indoctrinated reciting party dogma with diligent blankness, fervently patriotic musical numbers, overblown archival footage celebrating fake achievements. 2007’s La trinchera luminosa del presidente Gonzalo is the dryest and a frankly tough sit. In the name of conceptual rigor, what you get, more or less, is an hour of Shining Path Maoists (renamed “shining trench”) making food, committing to ideological study, memorizing pressure points and undergoing self-critique. Trinchera is uncannily convincing, and could profitably be slotted for reference alongside La chinoise‘s unintentional tombstone for French Maoism and United Red Army‘s portrait of literally insane Japanese factionalizing, but it doesn’t have the juice of either; it’s entirely academic.

2006’s Interkosmos, on the other hand, is definitely a comedy. In some ways it’s Finn’s most elaborate work: there’s old space footage, miniature moon colony sets, the works. Only the musical numbers fall flat; otherwise, Finn resurrects 60s East German and Soviet culture flawlessly. The story, loosely, is about a mission to colonize moons. What stays with you the longest (besides Finn’s expert feel for the absurd-on-the-outside, deadly-in-the-moment rising hysterics of the Space Race) is the lovestruck East German cosmonaut flirting with an Indian one. Finn leaves in the transmission time gaps; what you hear in their exchanges isn’t just the literal speed of the sound of loneliness, but of ideological disillusionment as well.

Interkosmos is droll, but 2009’s The Juche Idea is a gutbuster. North Korea has one of the biggest purported-success to failed reality gaps on the planet (as seen, most recently, in festival favorite The Red Chapel, Pyongyang is a very dingy and sad place indeed). Finn’s response is angry comedy with a crack in the facade. As in Trinchera, interrogation is key—a South Korean video artist being interviewed by a Russian agent, claiming she can leave anytime she wants—but the dialogue is overtly hilarious, much less committed to verisimilitude. (At one point, Kim Jong Il’s image in Japan is described as “a mad emperor planting tulip gardens, watching blackface Judy Garland musicals and Europop.”) Nor is it any stranger than footage from North Korea’s cinema, in which shoveling up the duck dung together and having hands touch on the wheelbarrow is flirtation.

Politically, Finn’s three features would be palatable to both liberals and conservatives: they have sympathy for the textural feel of each regime/movement while unambiguously condemning them. Finn’s shorts, on the other hand, are basically for liberal fans only: aside from “Decision 80” (which is fascinating as a dive into the 1980 election TV archives), there’s a whole lot of nothing here. (Sample film title: “Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell.”) There’s a lot of archival footage juxtaposed with ironic music; there’s even Finn feeding a squirrel out of his mouth, if that’s your kind of thing. If you want the complete picture, dive in. If not, Interkosmos and Juche are essential: dead and stagnant ideologies resurrected seemingly on their own terms, then subverted without blinking an eye.