Cinema Naivete

Cinema Naivete Program Notes
for screening at Available Light in Ottawa

Maybe I’m tired of learning. More likely, though, I’m tired of being Taught, of being assailed by monologuists who assume their opinions to be so self-evidently correct as to need no argumentation, only assertion. So this programme was initially conceived as a riposte, a counterweight to the mass of sermons-to-the-converted which gain repute by donning the moniker “experimental film” or “video art.” But I feel it’s grown into something else whose inner workings I am just beginning to discover as I write these words… and I find this wholly appropriate, as it’s in tune with what drew me to each of these movies in the first place. Each is an incarnation of a single idea which could only find expression in this particular form, adhering to no rules other than those which grow out of itself (and to those rules remaining impeccably true), and eschewing especially the Message which is so often quick passage to notoriety and at least as often anathema to lasting artfulness.

Which is not to imply that these works don’t have something to say (only that their meaning is not reducible to a sentence, or a tract, or, for that matter, anything verbal). For instance: Lured strips Hitchcockian filmic fetishization of its narrative, leaving us to contemplate the connection between the seduction of cinematic grammar and the representation of the female body. This sounds like a dry cinematic essay—but the obsessive structure and groovy soundtrack make the academic waters muddier and sexier than most artists-with-agendas would allow.

Similarly themed, Old Movie culminates in a visceral thunderstorm of Hollywood actresses trapped in weepy, submissive roles. Work backward from this, however, and you find an homage to the aesthetic of American film’s Golden Age, edited with a deftness worthy of an Oscar(TM) “Those were the days” tribute. The two parts combined are an invitational admission of unrepentantly guilty cinema-love at least as complex as the sum of its parts.

The feminist-Hollywood-critique trio is rounded out by Perversion, a series of abortive outtakes from a dark-side-of-suburbia drama. We see a dysfunctional family (complete with nubile schoolgirl), and wait for something unsavoury to happen. As it persistently doesn’t, we realize what we’ve come to expect from this genre, and how films like American Beauty and Happiness give us what we want more than we may care to admit.

But it is all too commonly remiss of fringe filmmakers to put Hollywood under the accusatory microscope without turning the lens on themselves. For this, we have Vegetative States. A purposefully futile attempt to quantify the worth of video art, it sets up a daisy chain of gazes involving a household plant, a polygraph technician, the audience, and some abstract animations (courtesy of Steve Reinke). This all would be crushingly glib if it weren’t both a beautiful aesthetic object and a surprisingly generous excursion into the comedy of stasis.

Untitled (Viewer Therapy) casts Vegetative States’ self-reflexive impulse in a mould of a more troublingly vague shape. Bernie Roddy’s self-help lecture omits (as psychobabble often does) any specific mention of What He’s Talking About, and so we are left with the void of his monologue, the void of our own oscillatingly fascinated/bored response, and the void between the two. Untitled gives us the time and space to inspect whichever of these we find most interesting…. and Dr. Roddy’s bipolar dresscode casts a pall of squeamish humour over the proceedings (while adding two more voids—the white-collar and the phallic—to the aforementioned trio).

The double performance of Colleen Collins and Claire Greenshaw gives a similar breathing room to the audience. The lo-fi compositions and cutting of Going fragment an empty recreation centre, setting the stage for a display of amphibious synchronized swimming long after the audience has gone home. The lack of spectators seems to imply a lack of purpose, but as Going goes on, we start to notice a soft, wordless dialogue between the two young women, a tender stab at communication in a space normally reserved for loud splashing competition.

Tenderness is the watchword for many of these movies, but none so much as Sincerely, Joe P. Bear and Snow Storm, Mum In Labour. The former gives us a glimpse into a furry heart broken by a doomed interspecies love affair, and reminds us that unrequited puppy love is no less painful for its immaturity. Snow Storm shares this childlike love-letter approach: a single take in which random words become poetry, written privately on the body’s digits, poor lighting transcended by post-production luminance and spatial restraint transcended by pop radio.

Every work here is characterized by a rare modesty (of means and/or of ego), but it would be wrong to equate this with a lack of ambition. To wit: Contrafacta. The horror of an incomprehensible world ruled by an unfathomable God is expressed through sublime cutout animation; medieval art moves to a creepy and funny soundtrack, inadvertently inventing a new genre: spiritual slapstick. Or take Jason Harrington’s Origin, which seeks in its seven minutes nothing less than to decode the universe by combining elements as disparate as function-graphs, photocopiers, Tarkovsky, animation, and Philip Glass. The difference between Origin and something like [PI] is the difference between Darren Aaronofsky’s puffed-up importance and Harrington’s deeply personal approach. Is it naive to try to graph the universe and fit love into the equation? Probably, but it’s a naiveté Aaronofsky would never risk, and Origin is the more convincing for it.

Let’s start ending with a quote from L. O. B. 2. (a portrait of babyhood pre-verbality, set in the gap between bilingual opposites, between writing and speaking? Perhaps… but this is all extrapolation.) The filmmaker says, off-camera: “I don’t think it’ll amuse anyone but me”. And the fact that she made the movie anyway proves that she doesn’t care. L. O. B. 2 and its companions in this programme are all hermits, content to live in isolation but suddenly and surprisingly hospitable should you happen to stumble upon one of their hidden homes. And here, in the abdication of “making a name for oneself,” of “changing the world,” of acclaim and success and other such bugaboos to which the fringe is no less immune than the mainstream—here, I think, is the substance of the counterweight I was seeking at the beginning of this writing.

Pauline Kael, in riposte to Siegfried Kracauer’s 400-page prescription for what constitutes Cinema, cited the single, solitary rule: “Astonish us!”These works follow this rule, especially if you allow them to redefine astonishment as something other than widened eyes caught in the headlights of self-conscious brilliance, as something to be experienced in the presence of minimalism, quietude, simplicity, and play. Am I a hopeless romantic? No, I’m a hopeful one. Unique though these movies may be, I believe there are others out there, which discover and produce their own selves by doggedly, naively following the same directive. May there continue to be; may we keep watching for them.

May 2003