[2 January 2003]
A fan of making lists, movies, and making lists of movies, I’ve published best-of lists consistently for about ten years. That such lists usually consist of new and feature length films has nagged at me for some time simply because I don’t only see movies the year they are released. Nor do I distinguish feature films as entirely separate from other moving image media such as television, short subjects, and video art.
So, this year, I have chosen to emphasize short works of film and video, typically screened at film festivals and museum exhibitions, that caught my attention as the most exciting, beautiful, and profound work currently circulating-work typically ignored in year-end summaries. It’s been an excellent year for moving images at cultural institutions—with such exhibitions as the Whitney’ Museum of American Art’s Into the Light, the Museum of Modern Art’s Gerhard Richter retrospective featuring his motion paintings, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Moving Pictures—as well as bounty of fresh and interesting shorts on the festival scene. My list reveals a tendency toward gay makers and subjects; although this surely betrays personal preferences, I also believe these films indicate something more: a revitalization of queer underground media.
Below, an alphabetical listing.
Reinke is the David Sedaris of Canadian video, though usually smuttier. Or at least that’s how I explain his comical first person accounts of his obsessions and neuroses. He packs his ambitious 100 Videos (1990-96) and Sad Disco Fantasia with smart observations, but his cleverness occasionally wears thin. Anal is one of his finest pieces yet. The image is minimal: a shot of Reinke glue sticking the pages of a book together. On the soundtrack, he explains his fantasy about a library where all the books have been sealed shut: all the information remains there, but no one has to bother reading it. He also explains “what’s wrong with psychoanalysis,” recounting his disappointment in reading Freud’s “Anal Masturbation and Object Choice.” Rather than delivering on the promise of its title, the case history tells of a girl who couldn’t go to he bathroom after her brother died. Reinke asks, “Why isn’t it called ‘Constipation and Fraternal Death’?” Why, indeed.
Matheson’s fictional “documentary” recounts the development of an imagined community of alternative medicine developers who swap recipes over pirate radio frequencies and truck stop postings. Combining toxic industrial waste with household products, the underground alchemists present threats to the pharmaceutical industry and possibly to themselves. Alternately utopian and dystopic, the video never takes simplistic political positions in opposition to HMOs or in favor of self-medication, thus evoking the ambivalence of Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995). But with Matheson’s soothing voice-over narration, gorgeous low-fi black and white images, and ultimate optimism, Apple ultimately allows a more gratifying and emotional impact than Haynes’ film.
Duke and Battersby appear to be the breakout new Canadian video art stars. With Bad Ideas, they contemplate such evolutionary missteps as Hollywood, teenage boys, sharks, and folk music. Being Fucked Up begins with an extended shot of Duke smoking up, exhaling into a plastic bag, and huffing her second-hand smoke. Both tapes offer episodic structures with manic monologues, incisive intertitles, and subversive pleasures.
Fear of Blushing
Inspired by Stan Brakhage’s recent work, Reeves hand-painted a series of color bursts onto celluloid. The flashing effect seduces with intense, fleshy reds, and hurts one’s eyes, frustrating persistence of vision. Reeves complements the cracked surfaces of her thick paints with a distorted soundtrack. We hear what sounds like fire or wind, the rumble of an elevated train, a guitar loop, and at long last human voices. The sampled voices suggest parent-child conflicts, although Reeves represses much of the context and narrative; the film ends with the repeated exchange of a man saying, “Secrets,” and a young girl saying, “No!” Enigmatic and entrancing.
Seemingly arrested in the oral stage, Fingers, Mouth is stunningly perverse because it refuses to be located with any identifiable sexual orientation. Kroll constructs the short video simply: a man draws ink sketches of girls’ mouths sucking on their fingers. Sometimes he draws the whole girl, sometimes just the exaggerated lips and hands, sometimes a row of cartoon vaginas. The drawings call to mind Henry Darger’s fascination with child nudes and Robert Crumbs’ exaggerated features. The narration alternates between male and female voices describing their obsessions with oral stimulation. Finger-licking good.
Video artist Jankowski typically produces his work through residencies and self-reflexive interactions with quirky regional institutions. He created a video in Venice by calling various televised call-in psychic shows and asking them to predict if his tape would be successful. He made The Holy Artwork in San Antonio, with the assistance of ArtPace, and focused on a local televangelist. Shot during a church service and formally adhering to the aesthetics of televangelism, Jankowski does not mock the ceremony but takes it at face value. Still, he seems out of place, and his performance of fainting on the church stage has a jarring effect for the congregation and for the video viewer. His stunt does not criticize intense religious fervor but simulates a personal spiritual experience, commenting on performance, modes of communication, and the search for the transcendent.
Chan structures RE: The Operation as a series of correspondences between leaders on the warfront in Afghanistan and their loved ones and colleagues back home in the U.S. Episodic in structure, the video’s sections are introduced by a cartoon image of a politician (George Bush, John Ashcroft, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice), battered and bruised by the conflict. Each chapter has a different set of well-composed still images, ranging from a series of cute pet photos to a series of horrifying images of scars. Even as Chan critiques the war and each character’s complicity, they become sympathetic, expressing their homesickness and personal affections and grudges. George Bush, writing to Laura, asks her to send him “more beef jerky”; it’s both a sign of poor taste and of his simple desires. Chan treads a fine line between satire and understanding, thoughtfully conveying the moral complexity and human cost of war.
Fed up with the 1990s mainstreaming of gay culture that traded activism for generic house music, Banana Republic style, and bourgeois apathy, a group of men start a zine titled The Salivation Army. In it, they reconceive gay masculinity as an active force and offer instructions for civil disobedience and misdemeanors such as picking pockets. All the issues of the zine sell out instantly, and they continue to produce tracts that become popular across the world. They have hit a nerve. But when they receive a video of a boy who appears to be tied up and unconscious, they fear they’ve gone too far. In their zine, they have described brutal initiation rites of passage, but they cannot tell from the tape if the boy was a willing participant or even if he is dead or alive. With regret, they cease publication. They just wanted a venue to rebel, but have started a movement and lost control of their underground army.
In this two-channel/double-projection video installation, Huyghe de- and reconstructs the 1972 Queens bank robbery that inspired Dog Day Afternoon (1975). The video presents the real convict, John Woytowicz, staging his own version of the robbery, intercut with scenes from the film. Huyghe not only represents a sensational story (a bank robbery gone awry, Woytowicz’s intention to use the money to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation), but also reveals the discrepancies between documentary and fictional film. Huyghe does not take the simplistic position that Dog Day Afternoon “got it wrong,” but rather, gives voice to Woytowicz’s personal, competing narrative.
In the words of Ja Rule, “pain is love.” Touch begins with a teenage boy who has been held captive and sexually abused by an anonymous man. The boy has grown to take pleasure in his captor’s brutality, and after he has escaped, he misses that abusive, loving touch. He has been placed in a foster home with people who cannot really understand the boy’s experiences, and he begins to go out at night to hustle, picking up older men and asking them to beat him. Told from the teenager’s point of view, Touch transgresses the taboo against showing young, queer desire. More impressive, however, the film takes an ambivalent position on that desire, suggesting that sex can be harmful to minors, but they may take pleasure in that harm. Podeswa uses a moody, murky palate of browns and shadows, with non-sync sound in which the boy enacts all the dialogue. At times seeming to blur the boy’s real experiences with his imagination, Touch makes visible his startling and sensual dark fantasy.
Fogel loops images of the young boys looking off-screen in Pasolini’s Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom; apparently shot off of a television monitor, the images have a slight vertical roll. Instead of a mistake, this contributes to the intensity and circularity of Fogel’s project: the boys stare endlessly with unfulfilled and undiminished desire. Even more intense than the series of gazes, however, Fogel’s throbbing industrial soundtrack intensifies the experience. A film best projected at maximum volume.
Based upon an A.M. Homes short story, this slick and slightly sick German coming-of-age film presents love at first fight. Whereas Podeswa’s Touch offered a masochistic young man’s interactions with man-boy love, the rough and tumble Freunde shows the cruelty and attraction between two teenage peers who wrestle, taunt, and occasionally kiss and make up (out).
Just in case it seemed that found-footage films might have been exhausted after years of postmodern appropriation and abuse, these German filmmakers have assembled a clever reel of ironically juxtaposed images and hyperbolic paranoia about the perils of modern urbanity.
Part Taipei city film, part exploration of fetishes in development, Making Maps combines home movie footage, vintage porn, and new cityscapes shot through a semen-soaked lens. Like Endless Obsession and Metropolis of Recklessness, the collage of these elements produces an effect more exciting than one would expect. In this case, Wu brings a different perspective: a Taiwanese fascination and objectification of blonde boys.
Mit Mir (With Me)
Through double exposure, Cmelka goes down on herself. The ultimate autoerotic trick film.
A friend complained that Neshat’s work reminds her of perfume commercials. Her earlier black and white pieces do tend toward the high-contrast artiness of certain eau de toilette spots, but I like that look. Passage, however, moves beyond that aesthetic and, as its title suggests, seems to be a transitional piece for Neshat. Although it continues her previous exploration of femininity and gender divisions in Iranian culture, Passage focuses more on women’s labor and spirituality. The color shots of women caravaning in the desert and digging at the ground with bare hands are provocative and, set to a Philip Glass score, hypnotic.
Quoting bits of John Knowles’ A Separate Piece and blurring into classroom daydreams, Phineas Slipped is an exuberant, polysexual fantasy in which prep school lads and trannies let it all hang out.
Praise!!! Praise!!! Praise!!!
Praise!!! fades in and out (images of a bedroom or cats with glowing eyes) as a girl recounts her memories in voice-over; she alludes to an incestuous relationship with her sister and later mentions having an abortion, but she dwells on her dead cats instead. Two-thirds of the way through the video, the narrator has grown up, and her identity seems even more fluid than before; suddenly, Akihama shows hardcore footage of a blow job, and the voice switches between male and female. Praise!!! demands a lot of its viewer: its slow pace can be maddening. But it also presents a fascinating account of youthful inability to express sexual desire and the instability of gender identity.
The good folks at Lincoln Center have perhaps been too hasty in hailing Rodriguez as a discovery—screening several of his underdeveloped super-8 student films at Views from the Avant-Garde and profiling him in Film Comment—but his 16mm cut-animation piece presents a major breakthrough for him. Here he sorts through his psychosexual kinks and family issues as he gouges daggers into his various orifices and rebirths through his father’s mouth.