Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Abramović- Like an Old Friend

It seems like a lifetime ago that Jamie and I took the bus through Greenpoint and on to PS1 in Queens, where a dozen or more old films of performance art, mostly by Marina Abramović and Ulay, echoed through the nearly empty halls. I couldn't stop talking about what we'd seen, especially this:

I can't think of a constructed situation that is simpler and more jolting. It exhilarates, while making me suppose that old suffering is being exorcized from the performers. It also suggests a deeply intimate relationship between them, which famously was the case, but I had no idea. (You should view it without the soundtrack, which shouldn't be there.)
Nearly a decade later, we trekked to MoMA for Abramović's big retrospective. The show was a success (an understatement) because its audience played such an important role in its realization; the live performances, all but one, had been done before, but never with hordes of Middle America streaming past. For me, the intensity came from the juxtaposition of the naked, frozen performers, vulnerable and seemingly yearning to make contact, and the anonymity of the crush of visitors. This was an event in itself, not just a look back at the work of an artist.

Of course, the new piece, "The Artist Is Present," performed by Abramović herself, involved the audience more directly. The description of the contact she sought to make with each visitor who sat across from her, and the place that experience held in the larger show, was probably the most valuable thing for me in the new documentary Maria Abramović: The Artist is Present. Jamie and I saw this film with out-of-town friends at the theater at the MFA, the Houston version of the Harvard Film Archives, where you can frequently hear a film scholar speak to introduce a film. (I especially liked a presentation I saw there once of Fellini's I Vitelloni that was preceded by a funny speaker whose explications clearly enhanced for us the humor in the film. Fellini can be hilarious, but it takes an informed viewer to translate his humor into English and understand it in its context. For proof of this, see Roma on video. If you're watching the older VHS release, you'll laugh twice as often as if you're watching the newer DVD, which is a different translation that completely misses some of the funniest lines.)

What were we talking about? The Abramović film: it is bittersweet, fascinating, and often distressing, but mostly because its subject is plainly all of those things. My main problem with the film is that it has actually two subjects: the artist and the show, and they are hardly synonymous, as becomes more apparent toward the end, when the show kind of spins out of control and becomes something bigger than Abramović herself. I don't question that getting to know the artist is essential to understanding the phenomenon of the show, but Marina's life and times are not presented as mere background material; she is the apparent subject of the film for most of its running time, and yet as the audience at the MoMA show make the piece their own through their participation, Marina herself recedes like a train, and the only intimacy with her we are afforded is through the sometimes moist eyes of the lucky museum patrons who got to sit across from her in the floodlit square, destined to become an icon in performance art and perhaps in the general history of museums. (My wife finished an art history survey course by showing her students images of the performance, and how the participating audience was affected- the perfect image of art being created in the moment it is beheld, by both artist and beholder.)

The film is an invaluable document, and it does a little bit more than simply bear witness; in particular, I value that it brings the show and all of its emotions back to vivid life, so that we can remember, or see for the first time, just what made people respond to it as they did. But as a whole feature, it might have had the kind of cohesive story that made other recent films about artists such knockout punches.

By the way, if you're going to the MFA and you haven't seen City Glow, Chiho Aoshima's short animation that stretches across several plasma screens, it's mounted permanently outside the cafe. I recommend having a seat and watching the entire film. This kind of experimentation with the experience of cinema is sadly a rare thing in these times.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Horror: It Begins!

The essential Halloween plans are coming together. After this weekend it's going to be time for decorating, carving pumpkins and baking treats. We may be displaced in Texas, and the signs of fall may be sorely lacking around here, but there's no getting around Halloween. It's the most fun thing that happens all year, even here in Houston. This is where all my kid memories of Halloween come from, and if the fact that over 4,000 tickets have now been sold for the zombie walk through downtown is any indication- not to mention that there actually seems to be more than one major zombie walk here- these people know how to get into the spirit of it. 

Notice that there's already someone camped out in line,
two hours before a midnight movie. Does every screening
in L.A. sell out?
We are easing into our horror film series this year. It officially began with friends in Los Angeles, at the Silent Movie Theater, where they're having their own October festival of horror: each night of the month they show a different film, all of which were banned in the U.K. (mostly in the seventies and eighties). The curators have sequenced the films in order of increasingly poor taste; the final selections include I Spit On Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust. Most of the films in the series are the kind of camp that cluttered the horror shelves at the video store 25 years ago; I particularly remember the box for Visiting Hours, with the image of a hospital building at night, in which the lights in the windows make the image of a skull.

The film we ended up seeing was Dario Argento's Inferno. It was as incoherent as any horror film I've ever seen, and I'm not the world's greatest Argento fan, but for a midnight movie packed with merry strangers it was just about perfect. I'm not sure I would have appreciated it outside of that setting (apart from a particularly outrageous scene involving a sack full of cats).  

More recently at home, I enjoyed The Innkeepers, although not as much as Ti West's previous feature, The House Of the Devil. In HOD, West drove the audience halfway to madness with the fear that comes with anticipation (what is fear but the work of the imagination, and what spurs it like a payoff that could happen at any time?). In The Innkeepers, he has intentions that are slightly different but no less interesting: he wishes here to slowly establish a stage and its characters, and even a feeling of safety and a kind of sweetness, before revealing the menace we know is coming. It reminded me of The Haunting and the original Stepford Wives, which work about the same way, and often make me wonder why more films don't try to do this.

The payoff here, however, feels perfunctory. After all the groundwork, I wish there might have been some ending that wasn't so anonymous with respect to who these characters are. Or perhaps it's simply the case that West, wishfully, left too much up to our imaginations. The ending could have been the perfect time to reveal something, not to complete the puzzle but to give us just enough to think about later, just something to rattle in our heads at bedtime.

This year's winner is out there somewhere, I have no doubt! Onward!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives At Home and A.O. Scott

Watching Cyrus, by Jay and Mark Duplass, it bothered me that its concept kind of strangled it and held it back, although I didn't have a clear idea of what it should have been, had that potential been realized. I wanted the pedestrian chaos and loose energy of the first act to keep unspooling, but where that might have led that could be satisfying I had no idea.

Their more recent film, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, answers that question: not only does it recapture that energy, it has a brilliant idea of exactly what to do with it. I really love it- it takes big risks, especially when it asks us to care about its somewhat cartoonish leads, and especially at the end, which somehow managed to sincerely move me.

I say "somehow" because I am not A.O. Scott, who seems to know just how this film works. It frustrates me to no end when I fail to deconstruct my own feelings about a film, then I read an A.O. Scott review, and it turns out that he's practically doing it for me. He often gets to the truth first and best. I can even see his face there on the page, chuckling evilly at me behind bookish glasses.

Of course I'm not lockstep with his opinion. But this amazing review is chilling in how sharply it cuts to my true feelings about this film that I couldn't articulate for myself.

Come to think of it, I enjoy what he writes even when I don't agree with it so much; one of my favorite articles he ever wrote, which was about the Sideways phenomenon, takes not only the film but the general response to it and guts the whole thing like a fish, laying out every piece on the table. It's the forcefulness of the writing that makes me pay attention. I just hope it doesn't occasionally hypontize me into agreeing with him as well.