Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I-Be AREA (2007) - by Ryan Trecartin

( I first saw Ryan Trecartin's I-Be AREA in 2007, with my friends Sheila Heti and Martha Sharpe, projected on a large wall in a small gallery. We began watching half way through and then watched the beginning last. It was one of the best things I had seen in a long time. I had also seen slightly earlier work of his before 2007 on Youtube and a few other places. The curators Jon Davies, who has screened Trecartin's videos here in Toronto before, and Helena Reckitt recently initiated a show of Trecartin's work that opens this week at The Power Plant contemporary art gallery. I watched I-Be Area again from start to finish on ubuweb a few nights ago on a computer in my studio. I wanted to watch it again before I saw the new work.)

I-Be AREA makes it look like addressing the most difficult of difficult-to-address-subjects is easy and fun: persona, authenticity, the neediness one can have for people who know you (mothers), the rebellion against people who think they know you (mothers), personality as a constant audition, the importance of production companies, etc. There are buildings and cornfields and living rooms and bedrooms. And every place is a performance space connected to other spaces through cameras and cell phones (or hands in the shape of cell phones). There is a collective of mothers, who have a preference for girl children and adoption. They run a bead store.

Here, the characters' bodies know the value of art in the age of reproduction. You don’t even need to take a picture, or stack Campbell's soup cans; you just have to repeat your own words immediately after you say them in order to make something that feels as special as a copy. No one is a bad actor because, here, life is a performance so how could anyone go wrong? The words (written by Trecartin) are full of jokes and a strange kind of clarity. The movie is somewhere between narrative poetry and an intense art experience. I will paste some of the words here since we are in a word medium right now.
PASTA: I’m in pain, serious pain. Charity, when I was your age, basically, I don’t like your name.
AMANDA: I like the name Charity.
SEN-TEEN: Ok whatever AmanDUH
PASTA: and I understand this, I do. I changed my name from Uri Anderson Sommerset to Pasta when I was your age. And it was the best decision of my life. I think you need to think about this. This was way back at the end of the millennium.
SEN-TEEN: (pointing at Pasta) you should look up to this person.
PASTA: and not just because your short
CHARITY: whatever.

I-Be AREA might be hard to take for some people at first viewing; though it is generously narrative and incredibly entertaining for an art movie, the multi-coloured high speed spectrum whirling on screen can feel like one is choking on art because IT IS SO MUCH ART. But inside the jittering play group, there are laws and order and trials and battles and meaning and searches for meaning.
Parent: Laurie, you have a look on your face, tell me what the words are.

The main stage of I-Be AREA is the present. The present can be weird and fascinating. The present often makes people nervous and sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to talk about the new structures found there. For instance we all know that, with the help of new technologies, people now both have an amazingly increased capacity to adopt or develop new identities but also have a hugely increased burden of having the banal, shameful or glorious evidence of their pasts linger within these technologies.

No matter how old or young, we all have this problem-blessing of increased self-awareness, a problem-blessing that increases in intensity for each new generation year. We don’t just have tall tales about our shameful pasts, we have growing piles of hard evidence. We can’t roam around North America like the burdenless psychopathic families of the 90s, always in a new city with nearly a blank past. If we want to change, we have to change publicly – in front of our constructed families and in front of our anonymous audiences of 2 or more.

In I-Be AREA, adopting a new identity is as easy as pushing a button; but transitioning into this new person can be an incredibly vulnerable process - people have to change in front of the mocking eyes of their old friends, paid employees and anonymous audiences. The word “poser” is used a lot in I-Be AREA. Poser still has a negative connotation but is contrasted with the more positive “Pose!” – the more positive side of the successfully affected identity.
I-BE: ok, listen, my second dilemma – the same as the first. Ok part 2. Ok look. I wrote a letter to my future self
JAMY: just cause your original is having a complete human change meltdown makeover
CHEETA: just cause your creativity don’t mean you have to memorize
JAMY: yeah poser, play yourself a full side
I-BE: it’s called a clean slate, Jamy, Cheeta.
CHEETA: I-Be, I don’t understand how this is supposed to represent a minimal situation (holding a piece of blank paper)
I-BE: put it in a bottle
I-BE: 30 years from now, when I’m walking on the beach and a perfect wave comes and hits me in the face with my bottle, and I open this letter back up – I want to see nothing. I want to look back on this like I’d just been born. (WISTFULLY)
JAMY: yeah.. I see a face in it (looking at the paper)
CHEETA: 30 years from now when you’re sitting on the beach, you’re going to looking at this dude’s face.
I-BE: well.. today is the day that I’m going to start over.
JAMY: you’re such a wasteful production man I-Be
CHEETA: yeah, you’re always trying to make things sound more special, and digital and non linear than they are and it’s stupid. (Jamy nods)
I-BE: I’m a fucking clone you piece of shit head. You exists cause some fag got a pregnancy implant. I exist cause of “command V”, copy and paste some guys dna. OH! So I’m allowed to feel like a digital girl in my world…. I live in it! It’s mE!

The good news is there is no more hiding of change – so we all have a better understanding that it is a thing that humans have to do. The idea of an “original” that never changes or grows seems less ideal than puritanical - a little freakish and a lot oppressive. We also understand that combined with these new self-generated "I"s are the other "I" realities created by different people - people shooting our actions, writing our stories, taking our pictures. This makes for a lot of different “I’s” – some with meaning, some without. It is never so obvious which ones have meaning and it can be a little confusing when they run into each other.
CHEETA: I just watched the living room channel, I thought you were going to fuck some shit up
I-BE: what?
I-BE: I told you what I’d be like
JAMY: yeah I-BE you was like a puppy
I-BE: yup. I saw myself. But it was a lie. They was lying. You think I don’t know me, but I do
I-BE: look I think I just saw a highly advanced 3d text message of my future self giving me the middle finger. Now I’m going to fuck right back in his face.
JAMY: you’re totally paranoid.
I-BE: listen. I know what my original wants to look like, and I can’t believe he tried to reverse-physcho me into that person – I mean, he looks cool ..and I like him.. and I would probably be him… but I know that’s not my original and I know he’s somewhere laughing

This incredibly intense new combination of freedom from identity/ burden of identity can’t help but work itself out. People are brilliant at working things out for themselves, even young people.

And along with the increased self-awareness in an increased awareness of others. With this increased empathy, there is less of a need to run away. We are all here, even if we are brand new today.
MAYFLY: (petting a cat and holding a glass of wine) Oh my god she loves me! (referring to one of her twin daughters)
PASTA: (mournfully) of course she does Mayflie, she’s not an alien. They’re both not aliens, you give her shelter sometimes.

This is really good work, the kind of work that forms you a new memory that maybe art once gave hope to the children and was sometimes banned by a pope. It's the kind of work that illuminates the stunning present with a wildly dancing handheld flashlight.

JAMY: I just feel bad cause nothing he does makes sense.
CHEETA: nothing adds up
I-BE: have ya’ll been downstairs lately?
I-BE: it looked different
JAMY: yeah, it looked weird right?
I-BE: I think that they had a 70s filter on a very low percentage, cause it reminded me of all the memories that I hate from that decade
CHEETA: you wasn’t alive back then, I know
I-BE: I said memory Cheeta!
JAMY: it’s not a filter it’s called Linda, a hidden decade from the present.
I-BE: Listen, quit explaining shit to me to me Jamy, you think I don’t know about all the decades they be hiding. They must have slipped me some computer pills or some shit because I had no control
CHEETA: I-BE, I can’t translate your rants, what the hell you mean?
I-BE: buy my rosetta stone.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Hurt Locker (2008) - directed by Kathryn Bigelow

(I watched this when it first came out on DVD. I watched it alone on a Saturday. The movie is entertaining and is kind of about a “cowboy”. Half way through, I had to go meet a friend for a drink. I walked down the street to the bar with my cowboy boots on still to the beat of this rock n’ roll war movie. The next day, I watched the second half.)

“The Hurt Locker” is framed by an opening quote, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." This is the worst part of the movie - this quote. War is much worse than a drug and much more complicated. I'm sure that the book that this quote comes from is a wonderfully complicated book. But here, framing this entire movie, it is too simple.

This quote would have been great in front of “Apocalypse Now” because clearly there are a lot of different kinds of drugs going on there (including a great deal of confusion-inducing non-addictive ones) so there it would have been a wide open statement, or in front of “Tin Cup” because that movie stars Kevin Costner and is about a golf war. But apart from the pleasure-drug thumping soundtrack of “The Hurt Locker”, this movie shows a complexity of human action way beyond the movements of cocaine.

Apart from this, it is a really good movie. Instead of high realism, it is like a storybook story about a person who lives some of the time in an astronaut-like bomb suit in the Iraq and some of the time with a grocery cart in a suburban neighborhood somewhere in America.

The person in the bomb suit, James, is not like the other bomb-defusers. The other bomb-defusers are more like bomb-detonators. Instead of advancing themselves, they advance a robot that can detonate a bomb with a controlled explosion while they stay at a safe distance. These bomb-detonators approach the bomb only if all else fails. The bad side of detonation is that the buildings and streets get blow up.

But our man James is on the ground - with all the bad things that being on the ground entails. He walks up to ticking bombs with a peculiar comfort and manually defuses the bombs with his bare hands. We see the great pleasure and rewards of being a master at a difficult skill. All this to the horror of his team who think of James as having a death wish that will bring them all closer to death.

Some people seem to have bodies that automatically react to or are drawn towards explosive situations. Rather than the idea of a noble or heroic brain in action, I think sometimes it can be more like an involuntary movement of one’s body. They jump into pools when they see a kid struggling before they notice that they still have a cigarette in their mouth, they put their bodies between people in a fight before their mind questions if this is a useful idea for anyone, they sometimes walk instinctively towards a ticking bomb. I think it is fair to say that people like this would probably find it more painful to hear about bomb explosions from the safety of their homes, over the radio, than to be physically present where the trouble is and allow their bodies to walk forward and react.

The smartest part of this movie is that it is made very clear that James struggles to understand why he is the way he is, why his body moves so effortlessly towards these deadly bombs. It is too bad that that quote understands – everything else about the movie suggests something much more complicated. Mainly what James knows for sure is that he is really good at defusing bombs and that there are a lot of bombs around him.

The hope that one is "doing good" with their actions can sometimes make for deeper trouble than the trouble made by thrills and testosterone - the uncynical belief that one is making the world a better place, that one is saving children, stopping fights, defusing bombs. I think it is one of the great contemporary fantasies of war - soldiers as bomb-defusers. We know really well the horribly intentioned war villains, but we don’t as often see the good intentions gone horribly wrong. Here, we see James’ good intentioned initiatives, his masterful abilities and his dangerous mistakes and we get to focus on these things in a clear and strangely gentle way.

But my favourite part of the movie came when our man’s bomb squad almost crosses friendly fire in the desert with an ambiguously dressed group of soldiers. As the camera gets closer (and the situation defuses), we noticed that the head soldier of this group is the movie star Ralph Fiennes. As he says hello to our man in his British accent, I assume that he is playing himself as a British movie star among a crew shooting a war movie inside a war movie. And I was, like, Yeah! Let’s go war-movie-reality-tv-realism-reversal! But it turned out they were just playing British soldiers.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (2009) - Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

(Though Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" made it clear Tarintino was a master, I wasn’t so excited to see “Inglourious Basterds.” Somehow the advertisements for it seemed like they were trying to trick me into thinking that women were in the movie, and that I would be interested in it. After the high art of "Kill Bill", I thought that this would be more like one of his earlier movies - a break or something. Also, the main premise “violence done to the Nazis who deserve it” seemed like an easy and dumb premise for violence. But I went to see it with my artist friends Amy C Lam and Seth Scriver and my boyfriend Misha Glouberman at Toronto's Rainbow Cinemas on one of the last few days it was playing in the city. The Rainbow Cinemas are special, they are underground and cheap. The screening rooms are like private screening rooms you would find in the Hollywood Hills, but after the 3rd great depression - and maintained with love. Seth brought a giant bag of homemade popcorn. We sat together in a narrow row - the closet people to the screen.)

The whole of any movie is made up of many parts: the music choices, the budget, the reason for making the movie in the first place, the audience, the approach, etc. I always think of cynicism in people's work as an easy dismissal or a contempt for one or more of these parts - a lack of faith that all of these parts are valuable and interconnected (however mysterious or seemingly insignificant they may seem.) Even if some of the reasons behind their choices elude the movie-makers, the less cynical directors can speak to this, and not just offer rote or dishonest reasons for their choices.

So with this definition in mind, Tarantino has arrived at the tops of the uncynical director's platform. I believe he could give you all the reasons for his movie-making choices - even if some of those reasons are "because it was beautiful" or "because I could." His choices and his reasons seem at their ecstatic best here, and the movie is remarkable for it. "Inglourious Basterds" seems to come from a place of *crazy wisdom*. Someone who uses crazy wisdom (as defined by Wikipedia) is "someone who is adept at employing esoteric and seemingly unspiritual methods to awaken an aspirant's consciousness."

At a time when contemporary reality has become more fun to play with than fiction, Tarintino has used his crazy wisdom to make a thoroughly fictitious movie by effortlessly rearranging the reality of history.

And with his crazy wisdom, he even thought of us, the audience - this movie gets as close to participatory culture as Hollywood has ever gotten. At one point while my friends and I were sitting inside Rainbow Cinemas, we watched on the screen a small Parisian cinema filled with all of the highest ranking Nazis officers of the Third Reich laughing as they watched a propaganda film of a Nazi shooting Jews randomly from a bell tower. As they watched, they laughed, as they laughed, the cinema started to burn. As the cinema started to burn, we started to laugh from our Rainbow Cinemas. In Paris, in the burning cinema run by a young Jewish woman, the doors were locked and the highest ranking Nazis of the Third Reich tried to get out.

The beauty with cartoon violence is that you still get to use your logical brain while you are experiencing it. While we at the Rainbow Cinemas laughed, we knew we didn't want to be laughing - laughing exactly like the Nazis laughed at their film - but we knew that we were. We also knew that without us, this surreal loop of disgust and indifference for the death of others would not be completed. We were not being tricked, this was just the specific ride we were on. There is a difference between manipulating an audience and creating a game where the audience gets to play a role. What was happening never escaped us, and it was not meant to.

Plus, there are women in the movie.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me (2009) - Directed by Takako Matsumoto

(I saw this in a theatre at the Jewish Community Center in Toronto. It was part of Reel Artists – a small festival of movies about artists. My artist friend Shary Boyle had invited me to go. We sat together on a small row of seats. When one person moved in their seat - everybody moved in their seats.)

The documentary follows Yayoi Kusama around for a few years. Most of the time, she seems to be 77. Kusama is a successful artist who lives in Japan. When the office of the Emperor of Japan called, they asked if she would prefer being described as an abstract artist or an avant-garde artist when she received the Emperor's award for her contributions to the world - she prefers avant-garde. As blogger Oh, Carlos. says of her work - “Installation art done right. Even the most art-tarded person could walk into one of her rooms and feel something.”

It wasn’t till I arrived at the community center that I remembered having torn out an image of hers from an art magazine a long time ago – an advertisement from an art show without the title of the individual work. At the time, I worked and lived alone in a bachelor apartment. I didn’t have so many art friends back then. I always hated having little pictures of any kind around when I worked, but this image was helpful somehow. I taped it up above my sink.

Takako Matsumoto, the director of "Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me," stood up before the screening and explained that critical reviews of Kusama's work focus too much on her mental health issues, and that she had worked to avoid that problem. Unfortunately, the movie that followed also avoided a rigorous investigation into the more nuanced successes of Kusama’s work.

Mainly, Matsumoto's documentary follows Kusama around watching her paint and listening to her talk about her success. I can understand how this happened, she is a really compelling person to watch (I could barely focus on anyone else’s face in the movie and it’s not just because of her multi-coloured wigs or her cold stare that warmly reminded me of my grandmother.)

So by default, this movie ends up being a casual study of narcissism. It reminded me of that old joke - “what came first? The 60s avant-garde or the narcissist?” Kusama does not attempt to cover up her own narcissism in any way so it was not uncomfortable to witness as she seems to get very little pleasure from anything else. Her self-championing and self-branding seem integral to the success she has received from the art world and are by no means unusual or out of place there.

Avant-garde art started out as an understanding that radically new or politically critical work was often misunderstood and rejected by established art institutions. So along with this concept were contempt for conformity, commercial success and suspicion of established art institutions - though things got complicated. Around the 60s and 70s, many self described avant-garde artists weren't as afraid of being in the museums (as they became more embraced by them) as they were of being derivative. Creating something wholly original in the world became a primary goal.

There is a hope within this form that an individual’s originality will create the next part of the solid line of art history or human history. In retrospect, it is hard not to see all these individual attempts at originality forming the small new branches on a tree rather than a solid time-based line pointing to the future. The younger generation of artists are still interested in creating something new, but I think that they are not as afraid of being a part of the world in order to do this. Hopefully that means that some of them will succeed in talking about the heart of the tree rather than reaching as far away from the trunk as possible.

And though Kusama shares this interest of being wholly unique (and profits from the critical and commercial success that being "wholly unique" now occasional provides), her work betrays a longing for the whole of the world and a longing to escape this rigorous individuality and its isolating narcissism. Her art often shows a space filled with a seemingly infinite number of repeated and harmoniously similar objects (occasionally referred to in her titles as “souls” or “fireflies".) It’s unusual to have images that allow you to think warmly and pleasurably of the infinite universe without including a fear of it. The effect is closer to a unity that is complicated and freeing rather than fascist. Maybe this is why she is still making work that looks so contemporary and not like the work from 40 years ago. New is still good right?

At one point while painting, Kusama talks about being surprised when she had first sold a painting for 1.6 million dollars. “Did that make you happy?” the documentarian asks from behind the camera. “Yes, it was nice” Kusama responds, “It is nicer to make a new world… but it is Ok.”