REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 2011
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
In a recent article I made what might seem like a hyperbolic statement, but it's one I stand behind and which I did not make lightly. I claimed that, since the Austrian innovators of the 90s and early 00s -- those mostly associated with Sixpack Film in Vienna, such as Martin Arnold, Peter Tscherkassky, Siegfried A. Fruehauf, Dietmar Brehm, Lisl Ponger, and others -- the only two avant-garde filmmakers to have radically altered the vocabulary and syntax of found-footage filmmaking were Sylvia Schedelbauer (the subject of the piece) and Michael Robinson. The ever-mindful Chris Stults reminded me (privately) about the singular art of Luther Price, work that I too often forget about due to the frustratingly rare opportunities I have to see it. How to describe his semi-looped stutterscapes? To call them "emanations from the unconscious" would sell short their raw, materialist power, and posit a fractured time-psychosis within the deepest recesses of the mind that Price's films manage to exceed. But Price, as Stults acknowledged, is older, a mid-career master of the Klahr / Solomon / Ahwesh generation. Like Schedelbauer, Robinson really does represent "something new," and I'm certainly not alone in recognizing this. Like his very finest works to date -- The General Returns From One Place to Another, Light Is Waiting, Victory Over the Sun -- These Hammers Don't Hurt Us makes a very direct intervention into one of our culture's defining ideological problems seem innocent in its approach, like the gentle (re)telling of a well-known story or the iteration of a joke that, suddenly, goes dark and has lost its presumed punchline. The "problem" is nostalgia, the inculcated sense of superiority over history, the relegation of the past to the realm of quaint junk. Part of this is due, of course, to the replacement of much of our shared culture by actual, well, junk. But Robinson's tactic is to continually look past the object itself, its lonely relationship with itself, and to comprehend its affective relationship(s) as a part of its formal structure. That is, a pop song, a movie clip, a bit of outdated fashion, carries the prick of recognition while also embodying a set of artistic parameters, an outward shell that can simultaneously deliver that familiarity and also make it strange. Robinson's films and videos follow Walter Benjamin's example, seeing (and hearing) shards amidst the din in a fresh light, locating "dialectical images," and of course sounds.
Robinson is taking on some of the biggest game of his career here, in terms of the sheer monumentality of his subject matter, its potential risibility, and the massive effort needed to overcome pre-instilled skepticism on the part of his viewer. These Hammers Don't Hurt Us is nothing less than an Egyptian-themed beckoning of Michael Jackson to the afterlife by his confidante Elizabeth Taylor, she in the guise of Isis. Her Cleopatra collides with MJ's "Remember the Time" video, with its absurd cameos by Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson, and Iman. Robinson, then, plunges into a certain pop-cultural "heart of darkness" (or is it lightness? the space between?). He is not locating the underlying formal integrity of, say, a Thompson Twins or Cyndi Lauper song. Rather, Hammers takes two artists whose place in the pantheon is certain, but one whose place in humanity, Jackson, is less certain. The bottom line: like a world famous, vernacular-capitalist equivalent to the likes of, say, Carl Andre, Jackson places us all in the position of having to judge masterful work against the man who made it, given that available legal means have not completely removed the hint (or more) of suspicion. If Michael Jackson molested little boys using the power and access that his wealth and fame brought him, do enduring classics like Thriller and Bad make up for this? And what does it mean for the problem of ethics vs. aesthetics that we are forced to pose the question in this manner in the first place? Robinson's piece manages to sublate this conundrum in an almost spiritual manner, but it never purports to "transcend." Hammers, which borrows its title from MC Hammer's album, reminds us that art and civic intentions are not always easy companions. (The profligately charitable Hammer, after all, wasn't much of an artist.) But more to the point, Robinson's video, with its imagery of stellar, video-pocked skies and laser-line pyramids -- a 70s disco heaven, an Arista Records logo as the Last Stand of the Gods -- offers a void, a dispersal in which Jackson can find peace, can cease to be, following Taylor's voice. (At the time Hammers premiered, of course, Taylor was still living. The video is even more haunting now.) Robinson opens on the stiff form of Jackson's empty silver, rhinestone-studded jacket, revolving sculpturally in space like an opening prop from a Matthew Barney Cremaster film. Unlike Barney, Robinson generates his shapes and forms from inside the screen-world, not imposing them from without based on fabricated (salable) objects. But there is a similarity, in that geometry becomes a kind of absolute, beyond human ego or the potentially kitschy pull of the Jackson video, or even Cleopatra. The dancing, the images, all of these are eventually stripped away by Robinson, leaving only dark space, and Taylor's voice. Not only is it this clear sound that must "redeem" Jackson, by setting him on the right path. It was Jackson's voice that was always his redemption all along, the reason why whatever pain he may have inflicted, we still cared about the pain he was in. [You can watchThese Hammers Don't Hurt Us on Robinson's website.]
I wrote a review of this for the Nashville Scene. And when I write for the Nashville Scene it TENDS TO GET VERY LONG INDEED.
Apart from a few impeccable set-pieces (the airplane and the dress fitting, in particular), didn't anyone else feel like this was trying just a bit too hard? I have great admiration for both Kristen Wiig and director Paul Feig, two unique comic talents who, thankfully, represent a new form of understatement in a Sandlerized / Hungover universe. Wiig, since her initial appearances on "SNL," and I'm sure well before (I'm not enough of a comedy-geek to know for sure), has consistently exuded a wonderfully modulated comedic style. She comes across as a contemporary woman torn between messages. She's both smart and attractive, and smart enough to know that there are far less intelligent women who will over-emphasize their sex appeal to make their way in the world. So, like a sort of repressed, spring-loaded late feminist anger-bomb, Wiig's persona always seems just on the verge of either taking dumb girls apart, or just breaking down and playing the game. She is forever fluctuating on that nervous precipice, in a kind of silent scream. Feig, for his part, has done work on "Freaks and Geeks," "The Office" (U.S.), "Arrested Development," "Nurse Jackie," and even earlier in his career worked alongside comedians such as Bob Newhart, Garry Shandling, and "MST3K's" Joel Hodgson. As the record shows, Feig is an integral component of the trend in American comedy favoring the slow burn, the awkward pause, the social embarrassment that becomes a form of defining, existential commitment. (It's what Europeans always found interesting about us -- Jerry Lewis, only softer.)
So there is more at work in Bridesmaids than the industry-mandated selling points that E! and EW have been ramming down our throats. Can women open a big, raunchy comedy? Will it have 'legs'? Nevertheless, Bridesmaids tends to get tripped up by its own position within late-Hollywood anxieties, and not only with regard to the future of female-driven films. As the studios careen further and further toward total meltdown (along with the rest of the economy!), throwing more misplaced faith into CGI comic-book tentpoles, there's a larger question regarding the future of films that are conspicuously written. Bridesmaids tends to overplay its hand in this direction, hewing much closer to the shopworn Apatow model than it really ought to. and this is where it bogs down. In its broadest strokes, this is a "story" about an outrageous rivalry between plain-jane Annie (Wiig), who's down on her luck (and from Milwaukee), and rich, glam (and Chicagoan -- ooh la la!) Helen (Rose Byrne), a woman with all the right moves precisely because those "moves" are all that have ever been demanded of her. Two versions of "worldliness," one of which is better suited to the task at hand (which, like all weddings, distorts perspective). In the middle is the bride (Maya Rudolph), who is a human MacGuffin. She is sadly under-utilized, but this schematism is appropriate for simply setting up the jokes. (Rudolph's Lillian might just as well be Verona from Away We Go. Who'd know the difference?) But, following the writerly fussiness of the Apatonian approach, Annie is given a Big Lesson to learn (she brings a lot of "bad luck" on herself), a multi-obstacle love interest (Chris O'Dowd), and some sisterly rap sessions to work it all out, for real, with Lillian.
In short, like other Apatow-produced efforts, Bridesmaids operates like a "real movie." And yet, in the midst of this purportedly character-driven comedy, we witness showdowns between Annie / Helen that are worthy of a Lucille Ball version of "Dynasty." (That was praise, by the way.) So as generally successful as Bridesmaids is, it bears the marks of a nervous studio, a fair amount of test screening, and an assumption -- this goes back to "porn vs. erotica" debates, actually -- that women want "more story." In truth, if you want to observe everything that Bridesmaids does right, look no further than Melissa McCarthy. Her every moment onscreen is uproarious, and not because of some empathetic backstory. It's because whatever backstory she offers, and the charismatic personality her Megan projects in every frame, contributes not to understanding, but to incomprehension. She's strange. She's amazing. And she's never not funny. [For a far richer exegesis on Bridesmaids, I hand you over to Nicole Armour.]
I truly wish I liked this piece more, especially given that it does represent a significant shift in Pereda's work. But the "shift," as I say in the Moving Image Source piece, is a move toward Apichatpong, Straub and (especially) costa territory, without the grace or wit. I do hope, however, that Pereda tries working again with the text(s) of Sor Juana, because I think he could really do something with them, given the proper conditions.