Articles by

<Tom McCormack>

06/12/12 4:00am

Meat Rack (1968)
Directed by Michael Thomas
Tuesday, June 12 at Light Industry

Queer soft-core spectacle with touches of the 60s European art-house, Michael Thomas’s Meat Rack follows a clean-cut suburban kid who starts turning tricks in San Francisco’s burgeoning gay demimonde. The film is a document of the scene in SF —a perennial touchstone for LGBTQ culture, recently Forest Gumped in Gus Van Sant’s Milk—as well as a pre-Deep Throat jerk-off quickie, and a bizarre Freudian pastiche.

Blurry flashbacks of the hero’s broken suburban childhood gesture at an explanation of his lifestyle: his father was gay; his mother bitter and unloved. The scenes recall Hitchcock’s Marnie, which offered its own vulgar Freudianism, and, in exaggerating Hitchcock’s camp perversity, look forward to the Marnie homage in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive.

At one point in Meat Rack, the main character’s mother gives a speech about economic realism, telling him to make a living with what he’s got, as it were. While the sex in Meat Rack is tame re: physical details, the emotional valences carry a harsh sense of realpolitik. Sexual attitudes are transactional, and not just for those in the closet. Meat Rack‘s only scene of straight sex is done mise en abyme, with the partners agreeing to star in a bargain-basement porn film, their embraces circled by a Bolex.

The last section of Meat Rack goes Brokeback Mountain; the protagonist, nominally married, has genuine affection for his wife, but can’t seem to help himself from hustling. The psychology here is quietly subversive; while earlier in the film the main character was given an economic motivation, his behavior now becomes distilled compulsion. The wife, on discovering him, runs into the street and is hit by a car.

Repression, in turns out, is deadly, and for everyone involved. And Thomas, it seems, took his film’s thesis to heart; he went on to found Strand Releasing in the late 80s, a distribution company that became a prime mover in queer cinema—itself a prime mover in LGBTQ visibility—putting out films by Isaac Julien, Gregg Araki, and Bruce LaBruce.

06/06/12 4:00am

by Edouard Levé, Trans. Lorin Stein

(Dalkey Archive)

Composed only of brief statements about the author himself, Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait is autobiography in search of an auto. “I prefer going to bed,” Levé writes, “to getting up, but I prefer living to dying. I do not respond to unpleasant remarks, but I do not forget them.”

Levé was an artist and writer who killed himself in 2007, immediately following the completion of his novel Suicide. In Autoportrait, from 2005, Levé blankly telegraphs his experiences, preferences, desires, etc. The arrangement of the observations is willfully arbitrary so as to stress Levé’s inability to make the elements cohere to any order—moral, political, psychological, spiritual, or otherwise.

Levé is an over-sharer. The book is quite like a Twitter feed and certain lines are enviably re-Tweetable: “Bad news makes me unhappy but satisfies my paranoia.” “I think Carine Charaire is right to be so utterly herself.” “I accumulate beginnings.”

Traditional autobiography or autobiographical fiction can usually be seen as an attempt at self-justification; it makes a rhetorical plea to the reader, seeking a mutual understanding using the tools of psychological detail, motivation, etc. Over-sharing makes no plea to the reader—it makes a challenge: You cannot judge me, just as I am unable to judge myself, because there is no position from which to issue judgment. Everything is put on the table, but no one is put at risk.

Over-sharing is the key genre of blogs and social media, and has been self-consciously staged in literature of the past ten or so years to mirror this development. Tao Lin and the fiction published through his company Muumuu House are the most obvious examples, and the ones least distinguishable from their counterparts outside the literary world; a more complicated twist on over-sharing was offered by Sheila Heti’s recent novel How Should a Person Be? Heti begins her book by wondering how any one self could be seen as preferable to any other. With echoes of Levé’s observation about Carine Charaire:

You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose? How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux.

What can be terrifying about the kind of over-sharing that exists online is that, as some sort of attempt to reveal the self without the usual machinery of self-justification, it seems hollowed out. Bloggers and tweeters seem unaware that there once roamed the wilds of the Earth beasts who felt guilt for their transgressions against others and shame for their failures. In the inverted Eden of the Web, shame doesn’t exist. Log on and let loose. It’s little wonder the behavior feels compulsive to many people.

anomic disorientation is historically contingent. At one point:

I regret not having been born in 1945, I would been twenty-three in 1968, I would have lived through the sexual revolution and believed in various utopias in the 1970s, I would have made a lot of money in the 1980s, which I would have happily spent in the 1990s, and then I would have enjoyed a comfortable retirement full of happy memories in the 2000s, unfortunately I was born in 1965 and I was twenty during the 1980s, indisputably the ugliest years since the end of the Second World War.

Levé—whose two favorite texts seem to be the Bible and Proust—carries with him knowledge of why some people used to write about themselves. And there’s a wistful longing in Autoportrait; as if it’s a record of wishing he could write a slightly different book. Or as if these notes are the accumulation of another beginning to which he would like to see the end but won’t. He would like an audience to whom he could make a confession; he would like to be absolved. But there is no such audience, and so no real possibility of absolution. And that’s the story of his life.

10/19/11 4:00am

The Films of Adolfas Mekas
October 20-27 at Anthology Film Archives

Adolfas Mekas, who died of heart failure at the age of 85 this past May, made mad-cap movies, co-founded Film Culture, became chair of Bard College’s film department (referred to during his tenure as “The People’s Film Department of Bard College”), and discovered, or, rather, invented, St. Tula, Our Lady of Cinema.

St. Tula is now known for a host of comically apocryphal sayings that summarize the wild energy behind Mekas’s work and life:

“Love the under-exposed and the over-exposed. They let you see beyond the expected.”

“Dream twenty-four dreams per second.”

“St. Tula loves your Film. Even if no one else does.”

From October 20th to 27th, Anthology Film Archives is hosting a retrospective of films Mekas either made or collaborated in making, including Hallelujah the Hills (1963), which he wrote and directed, The Brig (1964), which he made with his brother Jonas, and Guns of the Trees (1961), directed by Jonas and starring Adolfas.

Hallelujah, Adolfas’s most famous directorial effort, is pure scattershot jubilance; sight gags and on-the-nose references to film history meet laissez-faire Beat cool and a gloriously unpretentious lyricism. Purportedly the story of two men, Leo and Jack, wooing the same woman, Vera, Hallelujah really serves to document a group of erudite, lunatic youths goofing off in the woods. The film has resonance with the early films of the French New Wave—particularly Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960)—and with Warhol’s genre distortions, but it’s more innocent, less aggressive, less oblique, more mysteriously American than either. What there is of a plot is made even more confusing by the decision to have two actresses play Vera, so as to embody the different ways the two suitors idealize her; the bold directorial decision predates by 14 years Luis Buñuel’s famous use of a very similar strategy in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

The Brig, serious where Hallelujah is anything but, takes place in one room, spanning one day in which a group of Marine prisoners are forced through sometimes violent, sometimes bizarre routines by steely guards. The Brig, a film of the epochal Living Theatre piece, focuses on a group of people visually and thematically at the expense of any one individual, not to romanticize their collectivity, as in Soviet cinema, but rather to document their dehumanization. It’s a terrifying portrait of military life: The Brig‘s roving handheld camera hints at the kind of freedom denied its subjects, but even the cameraman is always running into barriers, confronting confinement.

Guns of the Trees, made by Jonas and starring Adolfas, is less bleak than Brig but offers a more melancholy vision of the 60s than does Hills. Trees refracts a single suicide through multiple viewpoints, with flights of cinematic fancy and dialogues about the anomie of modern life and the vagaries of love. “Its defenders call it a new kind of film poetry,” wrote Eugene Archer in the original New York Times review, “and excuse its apparent technical shortcomings as irrelevant to its creator’s very personal statement. Others find it amateurish, pointless or obscure. From any standpoint, it is one of the farthest of far-out films.”

Still “far-out” aesthetically, Trees looks right at this moment spot-on thematically. When the Anthology series was announced just a month ago, so much about Trees—its earnest portrayal of struggling idealists, scenes of confrontations between youth agitators and police, symbolic shots of its main character collapsing in the financial district—must have seemed oddly dated. But as St. Tula says, “The Motion Picture loves Motion, but it loves Time still more.”

09/28/11 4:00am

of Africa

Raymoud Roussel,

Trans. Mark Polizzotti

(Dalkey Archive)

An earthworm plays a zither; actors stage a raucous alternate version of Romeo and Juliet; an obese ballerina collapses in the middle of The Nymph’s Dance; lozenges, thrown into the water, dissolve into highly crafted images from antiquity—all in front of a dead ringer for the Paris Stock Exchange.

Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, out in a new translation from the French by Mark Polizzotti, begins in media res with bizarre machinations: tribal rituals and para-scientific experiments punctuated by extraordinary violence. The events are described coldly, with a relish for the precise physical particularities of the physically impossible.

The second half of Impressions serves to explain the tableau in the first half: uniquely talented European travelers were shipwrecked in Africa and taken captive by King Talou VII, with whom they collaborated on a display of regal power in exchange for their freedom. In telling this story, the narrator offers personal histories of all involved, including Talou VII; every digression yields another explanation of some minor event in the preceding show, rendering the book epically comical in the extent of its symmetries and making it a kind of Thousand and One Nights of shaggy dog stories.

Like Carlo Gesualdo, Roussel was an eccentric aristocrat whose sequestered output proved massively prescient. Impressions alone, with its use of predetermined literary forms, blank-faced description, erotically exaggerated violence, unexpected juxtapositions, and realistically rendered unreality, finds echoes in many different 20th century avant-gardes.

Written in 1910, Impressions seems today as much a Grand Guignol of orientalism as a fun-house mirror for a newly emergent consumer culture. The inventions displayed by the shipwrecked passengers are blatantly cinematic and radiophonic: bright projected light and eerily conjured noises. Admired for its mysterious inwardness, Impressions also suggests an allegorical layer: a society of the spectacle recreating itself in wilderness.

04/13/11 4:00am

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace

(Little, Brown)

A salient formal device David Foster Wallace used throughout his career was the onslaught of confusing details that slowly accrue and congeal and eventually reveal a well-planned and moving whole. He did this on both a micro and macro level; it was how individual stories and chapters might function and was also how his novel Infinite Jest functioned as a whole. In his introduction to Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, editor Michael Pietsch suggests that the book would have worked similarly. As it is, King’s elements never quite congeal. You can feel it building narrative mass, but in a losing race against page-number. Pietsch points out that King has a “spine,” and it does, in a sense. Amid various narrative tidbits, it follows a group of IRS agents in Peoria, IL in the mid-1980s. But if you look at King as a novel, if you cling to the spine, it’s a disappointment. If, on the other hand, you look at King as a collection of notes, character sketches and short stories made from philosophical, psychological and moral ideas—look at it, in other words, as what is it—it’s quite fascinating.

The moral system of The Pale King is, by and large, the same one expressed throughout Wallace’s oeuvre, especially in his more recent interviews and appearances, and particularly in his Kenyon commencement speech from 2005. In fact, many of the situations and metaphors found in the Kenyon speech are reiterated in King. There’re the traffic jams and long lines posing the existential problem of being a self with others; the heat that could either be hell or the force of spiritual oneness; there’s even the cart with one wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left—every annoyance you can’t control.

And there are Wallace’s ideas about freedom. Freedom is volition and volition requires saying no to appetite. People who follow their appetites are like “a piece of paper on the street in the wind, thinking, ‘Now I think I’ll blow this way, now I think I’ll blow that way.'” If you live this way it’s like you’re “taking the train instead of actually driving yourself somewhere and having to know where you were and make decisions about where to turn.”

Awakening from this jumble requires some kind of awareness of your own doubleness; awareness of yourself as both subject and object. Too much a subject and you’re a solipsist; too much an object and you’re dissociated.

These issues of freedom through conscious action and consciousness through object-subject conciliation have serious philosophical precedents and influences that Wallace is working through. However, Wallace is not just concerned with abstract philosophical problems but with their peculiarly contemporary articulation. Which is what in part explains the setting of The Pale King.

If in Infinite Jest Wallace offered a diagnosis of a sick country, King offers something of an etiology. The cult of self-interest against which Wallace stakes his moral claims found a uniquely forceful iteration during the Reagan Revolution and is figured in the tax revolt. The IRS was at a complex intersection in the mid-80s; partly the civic conscience of the nation, it also started being run as a for-profit business. Wallace is keen to point out that Reagan used the IRS strategically, playing both sides. He publicly vilified taxes, but privately made the IRS more powerful and invasive so as to avoid raising taxes. When you abdicate your sense of duty, you need someone to force your hand. You become, in the words of Wallace, adolescent, “with a twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of 
parental hegemony.”

It’s with this twin desire that Americans looked to the anti-government government of Reagan Republicans and the anti-corporate corporations of post-60s pop culture. It’s pop culture, and modern culture in general, that was, and of course still is, habituating us to constant stimulation, which is used as a distraction from existential dread. And the contemporary manifestation of existential dread is boredom, which you’ve probably heard is what The Pale King is about, according to Wallace and others. You may have read the quote Wallace attached to the manuscript, which read: “Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” Just as pop culture habituates us to stimulation—distraction from our being—boredom, when pushed through by will, can habituate us to dealing with our being and dealing with it well.

I find all of this startling and insightful and brilliant and it sounds true. But like everyone, I’m skeptical of what sounds true. Beautiful lies can sound true. I want to know that truths can be sustained; that they not only determine the construction of but also somehow arise out of various complex situations. The Pale King frequently burrows deeply into the knotted particulars of experience; the book is all flashes of brilliance that burn brightly, but not for long enough. However true its truths, they’re not given form in a sustained performance.

The book is, finally, just a hint of what the world might look like if Wallace was still around to transfigure it for us. We’re 
lucky to have even that.

02/02/11 4:00am

TV Party: A Panorama of Public Access Television in New York City

As public access television was established between 1969 and 1971, it gave rise to many of the utopian hopes we now find associated with the web: consumers would become producers, robbing the entertainment-industrial complex of its monopoly on our imaginations and making savvy and active participants of previously mindless drones. In a way, this actually happened; it just didn’t happen on a large enough scale for most people to take notice. And as our clocks slay time, public access television is being swept into the dustbin of history. Could the same fate be in store for our YouTube?

One hopes that if or when YouTube is rendered laughably obsolescent, some people with critical eyes will take the time to recollect, which is why it’s heartening to find TV Party. The series, curated by Leah Churner and L Mag critic Nicolas Rapold, offers highlights from NYC’s inchoate public access heyday from the 70s through the early 00s. Bare-bone sets repudiate Hollywood glitz; self-styled camp superstars do the same to their more ostentatious counterparts; strange lighting and bizarre camera angles give birth to intentional or unintentional avant-gardisms. One thing public access allowed for, or demanded, was a kind of long-form improvisation; a sense of durability and endurance seen less and less in the age of the gigabyte. This required ingenuity or blind self-absorption or else a willingness to really bore an audience, which all can result in interesting aesthetic effects for the audience. Approached in this context, a lot of YouTube jesting looks like free jazz shoehorned into uncomfortable three-minute pop song packages: you get the texture, but you miss the real experience, man.

Amid the amateur ramblings, post-punk performances, interventions from the credentialed art world and more, one highlight of TV Party is Soho Television Presents: “Outreach,” in which the host, multi-media artist and public access regular Jaime Davidovich, goes proto-Borat, terrorizing art-world types by affecting a generic accent, acting as pretentious as possible and making absurd suggestions. Though most well-connected and prominent art-worlders get hip to the scheme quickly, one woman from New Jersey’s Monmouth Museum does humiliate herself, agreeing that the desirability of potential museum members be gauged by comparing the width of their shoulders with the width of their cranium; that museums cultivate “liaisons” with “physical education departments” in order to get access to members who will be more physically fit, and thus be sick less often, and thus be more likely to visit the museum; that the Metropolitan Museum should set aside days on which it makes its Roman baths “open” to “the local community.

Jeff Krulik, director of the ultra-low-budg classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot, makes an appearance in The Scott & Gary Show, another highlight. HMPL, which built an intense cult following as it circulated on battered VHS tapes all throughout the late 80s and 90s, has found a more stable home on the Internet and, to some degree, in the art world. Krulik’s presence in this program is a reminder of the latent possibilities contained therein: who knows what hidden treasures are waiting—have been waiting for 20 odd years—for the force of your enthusiasm to nudge them along on their path to eternal fame and glory?!!?!

February 11-20 at the Museum of the Moving Image

01/25/11 11:00am

“The new cultural landscape,” writes curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, “is marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts.” If one looks at contemporary art (or fashion or literature or cocktails?) there’s no lack of appropriation, repurposing, re-tooling. The success of such gestures relies on the creation of new contexts that force us to view objects in previously unconsidered ways, opening up new avenues for interpretation, making available new meanings. But what happens when the new context for something is actually no context at all?

Just as contemporary culture has made us all “artists”—our artwork is, after all, the self, and our material is consumerism—it’s also made us all curators, now more than ever, with the ubiquity of social networking sites on which we’re asked to list and list and list. Opinions are everywhere, but discourse is shrinking. Lists have become our way of announcing ourselves through what we know, but of course they require little actual knowledge. Those rock nerds in High Fidelity who spent all their time compiling Top 5s weren’t just imagined representatives of slacker chic, they were harbingers of the digital future. When, in 2000, John Cusack’s character said, “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films,” he may have seemed subversively snotty. Now it just sounds like some nightmare vision of what the generation raised for their entire lives on Facebook will grow up believing.

Just as it’s both reactionary and reasonable to ask, “If you have 4,000 friends on Facebook, do you really have any friends at all?,” so it’s the same to ask, “If you have 400 favorite things on Facebook, do you really have any favorite things at all?” The question is: do we have a limited amount of energy, and if it’s directed too many places, does it become too dispersed? We certainly have a limited amount of time. Really loving something is an investment—and it means taking a risk. It can seem now like we have an aesthetic hook-up culture, one that prefers a breezy one-nighter with cultural objects to a lifetime of devotion.

Lists can, of course, be fascinating. At their best, they become a kind of conceptual gesture. The deft lister doesn’t actually compile their favorite things; rather, they look for odd juxtapositions and unexpected inclusions. Their list becomes something you have to puzzle over, a knot you have to try to untangle. Oftentimes this requires familiarity with the author or the subject.

But a lot of the time lists can come to seem representative of lifestyle consumerism; that all-devouring behemoth that takes everything aesthetic and uses it to mark wealth and status and to subtly make us all slaves to faceless corporate structures whose byproduct is the erasure of individuality and whose real goal is global domination. Which can seem like a bummer.

In your more cynical moments, you imagine that all the people in our culture really constitute a set of overlapping Venn diagrams, and that while no one likes exactly what everybody else likes, everyone likes enough of the same stuff to render people pretty much equal. If you live by your “likes,” you can’t live off the map.

And if recent developments in our culture have shown us anything, it’s that all our likes are seemingly being rendered equal. Anyone you meet might list anything these days:

“Hi, I’m Dave. I like Eat, Pray, Love, John Cage and hardcore pornography. ”

“Hi, my name’s Sue. I’m into Lester Bangs, Internet trolling and Susan Sarandon.”

But wasn’t all this business about culture mattering really just a bunch of hogwash to begin with? I mean, didn’t a bunch of rich white men just use art et al. to assert their power and now we just see that happening in a more subtle and symbolic way with everyone? And wait a minute, does the suffering of Third World people really actually have anything whatsoever to do with what music I listen to?

Taste has simultaneously been elevated to the number one signifier of who you are, and completely denigrated as the heinous mark of the most malicious snobs. The result is that we all play the game, but to avoid being labeled monsters, we have to also believe the game is bullshit. You are what you like, but you better not take it very seriously. Enthusiasm is encouraged, but introspection is suspect. Minimalist sites like Tumblr are gaining the upper hand on classic blogs partly because they discourage all that soul-searching. How weird it can be spending time on a stranger’s Tumblr, trying to figure out what sensibility is grouping all these things together “without commentary,” as the internet’s favorite current descriptor goes.

If we’re losing something, it’s the belief that cultural objects don’t just effect us in some way, they also mean something, and their meaning has an impact on how we live our lives, personally and politically. Even if they don’t mean something the way we were taught in middle school—where clear stories teach obvious lessons—maybe things do really mean something. It’s possible.

Of course, some of the great artists and thinkers throughout the modern era—from Oscar Wilde to Susan Sontag—advocated, in a way, a focusing in on effect overmeaning. But their tastes usually tended toward the disruptive, the challenging, the offensive. They wanted culture to demand something of you, to unsettle you. I’m not sure we’re so fond of that now. With all our lists and likes, we can create a kind of easy box-set culture, offering instantly attainable expertise. Connoisseurship is always just two or three Amazon clicks away. As so many anti-moderns and cultural conservatives are always saying, it does seem like Americans are now easily and passively receiving things we used to have to work for. “Friends,” sex, art, knowledge, spirituality. Name your top 5.

01/20/11 11:22am


“Photography evades us,” wrote Roland Barthes, “What the Photograph produces to infinity has occurred only once; the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” And the same could be said of cinema.

What a vertiginous, existential quest then, to try to repeat a cinematic event through non-mechanical means, which is exactly what Elisabeth Subrin does in Shulie, her 1997 meditation on history, feminism, youthful ambition and a complex knot of related issues (on view at the Jewish Museum until the 30th).

Shulie is a near-shot-for-shot remake of Shulie (1967), an obscure and undistributed documentary about radical feminist Shulamith Firestone. The film was made before Firestone was the author of The Dialectic Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution—she then was an undergrad at the Art Institute of Chicago, chosen as a doc subject merely as a representative of the “Now” generation. The original film provides a kind of choreography that determines Subrin and her actors’ dance.

The re-staging asks questions both about how much the past can be recouped and about how much has really changed. The film revolves between the poles of the inaccessible and the uncomfortably familiar. Firestone’s ambition reeks of ‘67 idealism (“I want to somehow catch time short,” she says), but it would be naive to think that her discomfort in showing her art to a condescending, all-male critique panel speaks simply of the past (that particular scene really makes art school look like a site of humiliating initiation rituals and politburo-style interrogations, not necessarily off the mark for those who’ve attended art school). Period signifiers engage in constant lateral slide: what means now and what then? When we see a Starbucks cup it’s an obvious nod to the present, but in a time of constant postmodern recycling, fashion is harder to decode. (Actually, as someone who was not yet in my teens in 1997, and who knows 1967 only through books and movies, I was consistently confused as to what clothing belonged to what era.) Likewise, when Firestone complains about dating, we might as well be reading in 2011; “Many men have these strange standards, and they’re not very rational.”


Anchoring the work is the lead performance by Kim Soss, whose Firestone is a real motormouth, flummoxed around her professors, but more often ready to talk about whatever’s on her mind: the nature of documentary truth, her early experiences with religious doubt, the dangers of living in the moment. She seems ready to perform, uninhibited in that disarming way that both attracts and repels us, and that we associate with the young and hungry. In light of some of her remarks, the film might be unbearably tragic without the dramatic irony brought on by Firestone’s later success as a writer. Speaking of nothing less than the nature of reality, the 22-year-old says, ““I want to give it some form. You see, I think reality is a little chaotic and meaningless, and unless I give it some form, it doesn’t have enough static control.” She continues, “I hate the shapelessness of it.”

Shulie opens with an epigraph taken from The Dialectic of Sex: “No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper.” The quote, of course, offers not just a glimpse of Firestone’s future thinking, but a way to think about Subrin’s film. On the most abstract level, Shulie is an interrogation of the dance between presence and absence; Firestone’s not there, only her double, but then her double’s not there either, only her image. 1967 appears to be so much like 2011, but of course we’re really looking at 1997, dressed up for the camera. But considering that this was a documentary about the “Now” generation, how much was 1967 itself dressed up for the camera?

The show at the Jewish Museum includes four photographs—stills from the film—that continue this game of doubling and absenting. We see Soss-as-Firestone frozen in the act of performing for the camera the actions that Firestone was no doubt self-consciously performing for the camera. As Roland Barthes put it, “Photography has something to do with resurrection.”

12/15/10 11:12am

Friendly Witness (Warren Sonbert, 1989)

  • Friendly Witness (Warren Sonbert, 1989)

Light Industry will be screening two films by Warren Sonbert at ISSUE Project Room tonight at 7pm. The screening will be accompanied by a reading from poets Charles Bernstein, Corrine Fitzpatrick, and Carla Harryman.

Warren Sonbert’s films are echo chambers in which nothing is unrelated, case studies in formalist paranoia. Colors flash and leave and always reappear; small actions are repeated, creating mini-symphonies of gesture; politicians look like geese and geese look like piano players; faces summarize landscapes and landscapes start to look like intimate portraits. In academic-speak, Sonbert’s films use polyvalent montage: open-ended editing techniques meant to suss out multiple connections between heterogeneous groups of images.

Inheritor of some vague fortune or family allowance, Sonbert came of age in the Warhol milieu, but also kept company with Gregory Markopoulos and other members of the less fashionable American avant-garde cinema. Something of a prodigy, his film Amphetamine, made with Wendy Appel when he was 19, became an underground hit, and one can see why. The kinetic film begins with some good-looking kids shooting speed and ends with a dazzling recreation of the vertiginous make-out scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For years after that, Sonbert worked on developing what would become hit late style (or relatively “late,” he died from AIDS in 1995, at age 47). Unfortunately or not, his movies—which mostly consist of diary footage—are inseparable from his lifestyle. Sonbert never needed to work, and he traveled the world, many times over it would seem, meeting artists, making art, and occasionally writing opera reviews. The later films are world tours, and derive part of their power from the disorienting effect of shot changes that might move from China to Italy to San Francisco in a matter of seconds. One gets a sense of Sonbert’s favorite places; Morocco, with its intricate tile work, glowing courtyards and winding souks, seems to have made a particular impression on him, as there’s hardly a later work in which it doesn’t appear. For the ex-backpacker, trust fund baby, foreign movie buff or postcard aficionado, these movies undeniably offer the pleasure of conspicuous recognition: sure, everyone can tell when we’re looking at the leaning tower of Pisa, but how many people can discern Marrakech from Casablanca?

The films often find emotional anchor points in images of travel; planes are always taking off and landing. The downtown Chicago train system, with its circuitous roots and forking tracks, makes frequent appearances, Sonbert’s presence on the train functioning as a metonymy for his jet-setting ways and the looping tracks a metaphor for the interconnectivity sought after by his formal strategies.

Other motifs became apparent. The man loved parades, political rallies, dances and public displays of queerness, while at the same time enjoying images of couples, friends, dinners and picnics. Mass gatherings and quiet moments of intimacy both reinforce the theme of connectivity. We come together to feel together, or break off to bond, but we’re always after that same fix; some fleeting feeling of oneness, or self-recognition in the other. And in Sonbert’s cinema, we always seem to be finding this, over and over again and everywhere. As Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, “We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.” There may be massive projection involved in this, but Sonbert seems to insist there’s an essential beauty to it nonetheless; seeing yourself in everything has a humbling double, the obliterating feeling of seeing everything in yourself.

Tonight, Light Industry will be showing The Lip and the Cup (1986) and Friendly Witness (1989). Lip came at the tail end of Sonbert’s completely silent work, while Witness marked his first use of sound in twenty years (a decision that some have related to his finding out he was HIV-positive and becoming increasingly concerned with broadening his audience). Witness is the greater film; whatever his reasons for using sound, it adds an ecstatic element to his work. The first half of Wintess unfolds to doo-wop tunes, with the second half dancing along to the overture to Gluck’s Iphigeneia in Aulis. It’s the second half that becomes completely transformed by the audio, the constantly escalating music combining with the montage in almost unbearably dynamic ways.

Sonbert’s home was in San Fransisco, and he was close with a group of writers there known as the Language poets. The screening tonight will be accompanied by a reading from three poets associated with that group.

11/10/10 4:00am

Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage
November 10-23 at Film Forum

It makes sense that the artist once hailed as the progenitor of the MTV aesthetic should also, 30 years later, be hailed as the progenitor the YouTube mash-up. And indeed, if you look at Bruce Conner’s movies you can find both the ecstatic thrill of lightning-quick montage set pop-rocking, and the clever and obsessive re-contextualization of cultural detritus. Conner is perhaps sui generis among avant-garde filmmakers in that his influence can be felt with equal force in both the art world and in popular culture. Whether this influence is direct or osmotic doesn’t matter much; the point is that once you’ve seen Conner’s movies you will start to recognize the Conner-esq in ads and music videos; on vlogs and in internet parody vids; at fringe film festivals and in the Whitney Biennial.

As much of a cultural psychic, in his way, as Andy Warhol, Conner’s aesthetic has undergone a similar kind of mass dispersion; and, as with Warhol, one can’t help but feel that if Conner had never existed someone would have had to invent him. The fact that he’s not better known has at least one obvious cause, which is that Conner was reticent about, or downright hostile toward, fame. He was contemptuous of consumer culture and seemed to feel basically the same way about the world of museums and big-name galleries. A resident, for much of his life, of the Bay Area—on the scene with the San Francisco Beats in 50s—Conner believed in artist-run spaces and artist-organized events; he had a DIY ethic, an outsider mentality and a total distrust of institutions. Temperamental—and by some accounts a bit of a prima donna—Conner made it difficult for people to exhibit his work.

A sculptor, painter, printmaker, and more, Conner came to filmmaking almost by accident—or so goes his self-made myth, but anyone who sees his early work has to suspect he had been reading some Eisenstein. Inspired in part by the flickering countdowns that preceded movies (but were seen only by projectionists), as well as by the experience of flipping between TV stations, Conner’s first film, A Movie (1958), is a poetic and occasionally random-seeming assemblage of Americana, culled from a wide variety of both documentary and fiction films. We get cowboys and Indians, submarine captains and half-naked ladies; spectators, scuba divers and beach bums. A Movie is Hollywood degree zero, the extracted DNA of the golden age of the silver screen. The over-arching theme of A Movie is the dance of eros and thanatos; that entanglement of the pleasure principle and the death drive that was, throughout the 20th century, the barely sublimated obsession of the dream factory. The last section of the film, composed of interwoven footage of disasters (sinking ships, falling bridges, crashing cars and exploding blimps), could be considered the first supercut of monster pwnage. But where most YouTube videos are undiluted schadenfreude, Conner had a message for Eisenhower’s America: we have met the epic fail and it is us.

Cosmic Ray (1961) similarly mines images of war and sex but, containing faster-paced editing and unfolding to Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” its effect is more immersive than A Movie. As naked go-go dancing shares screen time with Mickey Mouse cartoons, combat footage, and stroboscopic night photography, it becomes clear that Cosmic Ray is the urtext for so many MTV blitzkriegs. The film has been read as being about how sexual repression leads to a militaristic mindset, but today’s viewer may easily lose track of such an argument. The film is, clearly, a palimpsest of Mad Men-era neuroses (ones which probably never left us; hence the popularity of Mad Men): a pathological attraction to violence swings along to sexed up gospel music, with close-ups of bouncing boobies that add either a thrilling sense of liberation or a creeping sense of patriarchal control (you be the judge).