In a Minor Key: Two Films by Stephanie Barber

For years, Stephanie Barber has been one of the most consistently fascinating makers of experimental film and video. She has also been one of the strangest, which means that her work has sometimes been marginalized. It’s certainly true that the avant-garde film scene remains an intellectually capacious place, nowhere near as doctrinaire as commercial cinema when it comes to accepting a variety of approaches to image-making. However, certain habits of thought do tend to exist within the avant-garde, and these habits can calcify into biases. One of these tendencies is to look askance at films that are funny. That is, serious or “stately” films are always afforded more respect than films exhibiting humor.

Why don’t we take humor seriously? There have been exceptions to the pattern. Bruce Conner’s films were funny, but he “made up” for it by having an instantly recognizable style. The avant-garde comic whose work has probably been afforded the most serious attention over the years is Owen Land, but this is owing to the nature of his jokes. They are academic, abstruse, and deeply hermetic, lending them an air of the “funny-strange” that offsets any perceived frivolity in his moments of “funny-ha-ha” (jokes about salted plums, giant pandas, or outright parodies of Hollis Frampton). As I often point out, P. Adams Sitney’s classic tome Visionary Film, now in its third edition, addresses pranksters George and Mike Kuchar in a single sentence, which strikes me as damning evidence for the prosecution.

Like Land, Barber is a theoretical comic. The tools of her trade are, indeed, formal: unexpected image / sound juxtapositions, found footage détournement, and the gradual shift of certain elements’ meanings across the running time of the film. This is strikingly evident in Barber’s recent works, which have found her expanding the use of time as a compositional parameter and tackling new problems with this breathing room. Her first feature film, Daredevils (2013), is an exploration of risk in the creative process, focusing on a young writer (KimSu Theiler) whose interview with a prominent sculptor (Flora Coker) prompts her to rethink her own practice.

Before this, Barber completed one of her most ambitious projects to date, Jhana and the Rats of James Olds (2011), a 31-video effort in which Barber moved her studio into the Baltimore Museum of Art and created the works on-site in an open-house gallery. In this regard, Barber explored the process of time (and the time of process), both in the production of the long-form video work, and in its month-long, calendar-like exhibition (although she frequently shows it in fragments or as a single screening).

We can see all of these properties -- the humor, the theoretical exploration, and the formal examination of her materials, including time – in Barber’s early works. She has evolved as an artist, but her core methods of working, and the basic driving forces of her curiosity, have remained essentially unchanged. Take for example her 1998 work shipfilm. In three minutes, Barber takes us through three distinct stages of meaning. We see a high-contrast, step-printed clip of a choppy ocean surface, which at times looks like a film loop. Then, near the upper-left hand corner, an out-of-scale tall ship is superimposed onto the celluloid. It is slowly tossed, out of sync with the gently rolling but violent waves. Then, the waves are whited out, leaving the ship floating in a vast, empty field of light. Text relays a clear yet allusive tale: “they set sail on the tenth of november / it rained and they were cold / they overestimated their abilities.” In this tragic yet sardonic final line, Barber delivers the punch. The mythology of the sea, bolstered by her use of stressed found footage, is punctured by an assessment so clinical that it removes any sense of romance or uniqueness to this ship or its crew. Like a videogame, or a film, the process can only start over.

Perhaps the most unusual of Barber’s earlier films is her black box two-hander Dogs from 2000. It’s a film that is initially a bit deceptive in terms of audience address, since it appears to be both silly and simplistic. Two paper hand puppets of dog heads (controlled by fully visible human arms) float in an empty visual field, engaging in a philosophical discussion that is situated between classroom rhetoric and stoner rambling. But a few significant things happen over the course of Dogs’ 15-minute running time.

The dog on the right, the blue dog, asks “Spike,” the yellow dog, what he’s been up to. Spike explains that he’s been trying to make artwork, but the process has made him acutely aware of the limitations of his own subjectivity, and the difficulty of trying to bridge the gap between one person and another through communication. This leads Blue Dog to comment on psychiatry, psychopharmacology in particular, as a kind of “brainscape colonialism.” Spike retorts that Blue Dog’s condemnation of the homogenizing affect of psych meds is itself paternalistic, and why shouldn’t people be able to “turn into zombies” if they wish? This in turn leads to a sidetrack meta-discussion about whether Spike employs intellectualism to avoid facing his anxieties.

Later on, Spike explains that instead of putting his physical self at risk, he takes risks (or acts as a “daredevil,” as it were) by making “wrong choices” in his art. That is, he goes for “the silly or the obvious” in order to create a sense of discomfort in his audience, as if they will feel that he is dumb or naïve. Giving the reflexivity one more twist, we could say that perhaps Barber is betting on a viewership thinking, at least at first, that making a film around these crude puppets is such a “wrong choice.” Barber’s mode of address fluctuates, almost imperceptibly, between wry humor and a kind of existential dread.

And on a more basic level, the dogs’ discussion (and the film as a whole) becomes harder to follow. It not only rambles; it folds in on itself so as to draw the listener into a consideration of rambling (and other such “wrong choices”) while we stumble along. But it’s where we end up that is the real surprise. The dogs speak, in the end, about their romantic lives and whether they will ever achieve fulfillment. And Spike brings the film to conclusion by reciting his first ever love poem to the camera in close-up, only to admit he’ll never give it to the girl he likes. The two dog friends bid each other goodbye in a shrugging, dudish fashion, and that’s that.

The consistency of Stephanie Barber’s cinema is surprise. She always maintains a firm baseline of formal and theoretical rigor; she is one of the three or four most intellectually astute artists currently working in experimental cinema. But she never applies her intellect in the same exact way. The humor in her films is a passkey to understanding just what interests Barber as a creator: slippages of meaning, the mixing of rhetorical registers, and the targeting of an affective zone in which melancholy and the absurd often become indistinguishable. As you watch these films, you will recognize in their construction that Barber is a poet and a musician as well as a filmmaker. She works words and images over for timbre and cadence, not just their denotative meaning. And Barber also knows that, on an instrument, a small adjustment of a finger is all it takes to shift a work from the major to the minor key.