Blogs Crosscuts

Moving Image Commissions #3: Bruce Conner and Leslie Thornton

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the […]

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a brand new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.

“What violence can I do to an audience?” This was the question that confronted artist Leslie Thornton as she was making her new video, They Were Just People (2016, video, 10 minutes). Responding to the influence and inquiry of American assemblagist and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008), Thornton’s new work is a chilling exploration of the purpose and repurposing of memory during wartime.

Thornton began making They Were Just People as a dark response to CROSSROADS (1976), Conner’s spectacular film of the 1946 Bikini Atoll nuclear test. Part of the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, CROSSROADS comprises 27 different takes of the test explosion. This latter black-and-white 35mm film is drawn from appropriated footage, an astonishing reworking of the US Defense Department’s documentation of the nuclear test explosion. Conner had successfully petitioned for the declassified but then-unreleased footage of Operation Crossroads. When permission was remarkably granted, he created a complex sequence of the moments immediately before, during, and after the explosion, setting the work to two separate scores by composers Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley.

Bruce Conner, Crossroads, 1976.

Still from Bruce Conner’s CROSSROADS, 1976

While CROSSROADS remains a bravura spectacle of repetition, annihilation, and abstraction, Thornton’s response adopts a slower speed of horror, locating and inhabiting a sluggish dread. They Were Just People combines Thornton’s own manipulated footage of the La Brea Tar Pits in California with an oral account describing the horrific moments after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Conner’s work obsessively searches for the exact moment where the world was violently and permanently changed; Thornton’s video is concerned with the persistent half-life of violence.

They Were Just People is also an intensely personal film for Thornton. Much of the techniques and materials used in the video have appeared in different forms of her work before, or samples have lain dormant in her archives for some time. Interwoven into the core impulse of her work is Thornton’s biographical material and her complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Thus They Were Just People is tethered not just to the ambivalence of the artist’s own relationship to the material contained within the video, but also to the capacity for moving images to be a conduit for speaking about and providing critical resistances to histories of violence.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

They Were Just People is a work that constantly looks back, both conceptually and formally. The image is, after all a stereoscopic one­—a pair of eyes. On the left Thornton shows a shot of the lumpish bubbling asphalt lake in La Brea, while on the right she presents a prismatic reinterpretation of the same footage as if seen through a kaleidoscope. Together, they are simultaneously seeing and distorting. “It is a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular,” Thornton has noted to writer Kevin McGarry of her double image technique. “It is related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image appears to speak of vision and its lack, a manipulated and refracted surface that is suffused with abstraction. The bubbling tar pit is a material that persistently refuses to reveal itself; oily blisters pop on the surface to reveal momentary holes that show only darkness, dense and engulfing.

Thornton pairs her double image of the asphalt lake with an oral account from the Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs. The artist described first listening to the archival sound recording as if she was eavesdropping on someone discussing their day-to-day activities—an effect given off by the flat matter-of-factness about the female speaker’s tone. But the evenness of the woman’s voice only temporarily masks the content of what is said. A largely unedited extract of an eyewitness account by “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, the archival interview probes the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. As Palchikoff’s impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering, Thornton’s (and by turn the audience’s) simple act of eavesdropping becomes, in the artist’s words, a “horror of listening.”

In They Were Just People, “What violence can I do to an audience?” is a question about atomizing experience in order to question culture’s capacity to simulate horror as a form of critique, to point at and use abstraction as a way of examining events that beggar description. “There is an ineffability in the form of address,” Thornton says of her work and comparing it to Conner’s work, there is “an undercurrent that is broad, and at times grave, in its referencing. It is below the surface, registering in the back of the mind.”

They Were Just People is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support provided by the Bentson Foundation.

“It Gets Dislocated”: The Evocative Cinema of Chantal Akerman

In tribute to the late Chantal Akerman, the Walker presents the three-film series Chantal Akerman: 1950–2015, March 31 through April 3 in the Walker Cinema. Here, University of Minnesota English Professor Paula Rabinowitz reflects on Akerman’s art. A woman alone sits, sits alone repeatedly spooning white sugar from a bowl into her mouth. She stares […]

Chantal Akerman Photo courtesy Babette Mangolte

Chantal Akerman. Photo courtesy Babette Mangolte

In tribute to the late Chantal Akerman, the Walker presents the three-film series Chantal Akerman: 1950–2015, March 31 through April 3 in the Walker Cinema. Here, University of Minnesota English Professor Paula Rabinowitz reflects on Akerman’s art.

A woman alone sits, sits alone repeatedly spooning white sugar from a bowl into her mouth. She stares into space, a window frames her. A woman alone sits, sits alone methodically peeling potatoes onto old newspapers and placing them in a pot of water. She stares vacantly into space; her kitchen encloses her. A woman alone sits. She sits alone slowly slicing salami on a plate. She concentrates but is strangely absent from her monotone surroundings. A woman alone. Sits. In Paris. In Brussels. In Moscow. She is alone at her table with food she despises, but it is food she cannot stop handling—swallowing, paring, cutting. She uses the utensils of everyday life as if they were a hangman’s noose. This is deadly business, this business of filmmaking; this business of domesticity.

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Still from Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Films chronicling a death foretold. Her own; that of her mother? A woman alone sits. Where? She is a displaced person, this woman alone at a table, still as life. A still life, lived quietly, with rage. The anger so studied, so precise, so abstract and absolute, it can only turn in on itself, on herself. A self-direction aimed at what is there before her. What is it—this food that shames and consumes, cannot be consumed because it provokes such shame, such resignation? A woman alone. Sits. Awaiting what? What it is that we all sit awaiting as we slice and spoon and peel and stare from the table.

Chantal Akerman, may her name be praised, died of suicide on the eve of the screening of her fortieth-plus film, No Home Movie, at the New York Film Festival on October 5, 2015, a woman alone, in a Paris hotel room. She made movies of rooms, traveling among them with her paper bags full of letters from home. Who can know what she imagined would be seen when the final film she made of her beloved mother, Natalia, screened? Not just a woman sitting at a table? But surely just this: a woman in the thrall of an inexpressible love. She speaks to her daughter; she speaks through her daughter; she speaks of her daughter; she speaks in her daughter. Her daughter speaks of her and did so for almost half a century—beginning in her childhood kitchen “blowing up the world” in the 1968 Saute ma ville, which Chantal puns as saute ma vie, and finishing in her mother’s kitchen in No Home Movie.

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

“It gets dislocated.” These are the first words spoken in Akerman’s close observation of her mother, the woman she found to be at the “center” of her films. She feared there might no longer be a subject without her. Her mother’s words come many long minutes into the film. First there is a fierce wind blowing the scraggly leaves of a tree in the foreground of a bleak but seductive desert landscape; it roars and the terrain expands as a dull beige, a beautiful consuming emptiness. Next a Brussels park: a man suns his bare back; behind his bench a bright greensward stretches and there are people and dogs doing what they do on a sunny day in a park. Then an interior garden surrounded by tall purplish bushes, a turquoise folding chair sits abandoned. Finally, we see her move elegantly through rooms we already know—the quiet bourgeois domestic space familiar from 23 Quai du Commerce—and she speaks: “It gets dislocated.” She’s speaking of her shoulder but these three words tell the story of Akerman’s work. This is no home movie: not a home movie in the usual sense of the genre; instead a no-home movie, a film about dis-placement, distance, and time. It gets dislocated.

Early on, Chantal and Natalia eat a meal together at the kitchen table; the holy ark that holds a woman, her food, her utensils, her submerged and unspoken stories—“Ma, mommy, mama, tell us a story,” pleads Chantal’s sister Sylviane late in the film—of what cannot be represented, like God, a past of horrors. They sit, eating meat and potatoes Chantal has cooked in their skins. Natalia has never made potatoes without first peeling them. She says they are delicious. Even before I saw this film, I knew that a potato peeler would be at its heart. Years ago, while visiting Washington, DC with my mother, we went at her insistence to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. My mother’s Parkinson’s Disease meant she moved awkwardly, and somehow in the dark crevices of the building, we lost each other. I ran through the hallways looking for her, passing through the railway car, running by the pictures, but even in my panic was arrested by one vitrine full of potato peelers—some beautifully forged, most mundane objects—each essential. Of course, every mother used one every day, and she would stash it into a pocket for the long train ride. It is not coincidence that Jeanne Dielman brutalizes the potatoes she peels sitting silently at her kitchen table. As Akerman remarks, echoing Theodore Adorno, at the end of Marianne Lambert’s documentary, I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, after the camps, after the end of European civilization that was the Shoah, “There are things that cannot be shown.” But this does not mean that they are unrepresentable, rather, “through evocation, through time” these things can be made known, can be felt.

Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: the Cinema of Chantal Akerman 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Chantal Akerman in Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015. Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Not a home movie, a no-home movie—an extension of the many previous no-home movies Akerman shot, of the weight carried by an everyday object, used or left unused, at a kitchen table. Waiting at home, for whom? The vacant son; the beautiful daughter; the anonymous john. Or merely waiting—in line for the bus in the cold dawn hours outside the block of Stalinist housing projects, or sitting dully on the hard benches of a Russian train station. The slow track capturing those who wait suggests they wait for more than bus or train. The interior enclosures extend beyond walls; even outdoors women are encased, in huge hats and heavy coats against the frozen dawn, surrounded by bundles on their way to work or to shop, waiting for the crowded and overheated bus to encase them, the windows steamed up with their hot breath. We see only that they wait. They line up or sit motionless as if the crematoria are their destination. We watch their waiting. And the time we must spend to see this long wait is a glimpse at our own deaths found in the long waiting that is life. It’s in the silent peeling, in the rigorous frontal camera work. Nothing is said of the violence palpable, yet unseen, unspoken, but there, close, closing in. Even when Jeanne Dielman ventures out, traversing Brussels, it is to shop at the butcher or green grocer. The outside exists merely to replenish the hated food that must be prepared within. Or when Chantal herself takes to the road in Je, tu, il, elle, where is she? Sitting in the cab of a truck, listening to the driver, stuck. Or when she reads her mother’s letters in Letters from Home, where is she? Her voice drowned out by the graffiti-covered subway screeching through the station. Displacement and movement become a kind of claustrophobia.

Akerman’s rigorous structural apparatus of the full-frontal camera fixing walls, doors and windows or the long slow tracking shots made across landscapes and through interiors are means to design order. But they too, in their address to our physical bodies as much as our emotions, are forms of chaos. The head-on stationary camera, which captures whatever passes before it, allows for aleatory and chance movements of bodies entering, leaving or partially present within still rooms. Stasis encloses chaos, an impossible attempt to keep it at bay.

Photo courtesy Janus Films

Still from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce,1080 Bruxelles, 1975. Photo courtesy Janus Films

“That’s why my mother’s like this,” because she ran away from Poland and was captured by the SS, because of Auschwitz, Akerman tells her mother’s caretaker; like so many Holocaust survivors, she left it unspoken. She ran away but not far enough, not to America or Argentina, remaining in Belgium and waiting, caught and sent back, to the camp. The past cannot be retrieved; yet it is never to be escaped. It hangs in the drapery and sheets drying on the balcony; it resides in the gagged inability to swallow food. Natalia chastises Chantal for subsisting only on one banana a day as a child. Chantal explains this was sufficient, that she was petrified of her grandmother and could never swallow again after choking on a meatball in her chicken soup. Later Natalia sits eating with Sylviane and begins to cough and choke; her younger daughter admonishes her to sit up and be more alert: “Eat. Breathe.” It’s unbearable, this carrying on, this living, this loving.

Chantal Akerman has been sending us clues all along—the preface to the 40-volume suicide note was written as a series of fragments when she was still a teenager, a child whose mother kept her indoors for fear of what might happen to her beautiful Jewish daughter who excelled in Hebrew school. But her father yanked her from that world of God and thus she spent her days staring out windows at the street life of Brussels. Those windows recur throughout No Home Movie—behind the chair where her mother naps, on the computer where the two speak words of love over Skype, between the camera and the kitchen, the panes reflecting Chantal and refracting Natalia, in the final gesture of Chantal closing the blinds in her room after she ties her shoes. Ties her shoes, even after her mother remembers her coming home from school disheveled from playground fights, with shoelaces undone.

Many critics, including Adrian Searle in The Guardian , have remarked that Akerman’s suicide has changed their perception of this film, and of her earlier work as well. But I see it differently; she’s been contemplating death and the body from the beginning, scattering the breadcrumbs for us to follow. Her work, like life lived in the shadow of violence, is an art of endurance. And this time, this time spent, is love.

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Chantal Akerman in Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015. Photo courtesy Icarus Films

“Unseeable” Cinema: Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss Discuss Containment

Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss have a nose for the contemporary world’s most difficult questions. Following their 2008 documentary Secrecy, which endeavored to shine a light into the obscure world of classified government secrets, Galison and Moss’s new film, Containment, about nuclear waste storage, may set itself an even more ambitious task. With a hundred million […]

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015. Photo courtesy filmmakers.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015

Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss have a nose for the contemporary world’s most difficult questions. Following their 2008 documentary Secrecy, which endeavored to shine a light into the obscure world of classified government secrets, Galison and Moss’s new film, Containment, about nuclear waste storage, may set itself an even more ambitious task. With a hundred million gallons of radioactive waste remaining from the Cold War arms race, and more being generated every year, the unsolved problem of safely storing these materials will have ramifications that stretch tens—and even hundreds—of millennia into the future. Splitting time between nuclear production and storage sites in South Carolina and New Mexico, and the regions surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan (which suffered a meltdown in 2011), Containment explores the problems—both practical and ethical—presented by the storage of hazardous waste. Approaching the topic from scientific, political, and civilian perspectives, Containment couples expert analysis with on-the-ground footage from the world’s nuclear hot spots to show both the gargantuan logistical challenges and moral urgency of this difficult issue.

Galison and Moss spoke with Crosscuts about collaborative filmmaking, “crazed future historians,” and their shared love of conceptual self-sabotage. Containment screens in the Walker Cinema on Thursday, March 17, as part of the Cinema of Urgency series.

What can you tell us about Containment’s inception? What originally drew you to this story?

Peter L. Galison: Robb and I had been collaborating for a decade—first, in teaching a course, bringing student filmmakers into scientific laboratories to think about the way the real work of technology, medicine, and science could be put on film. Then, finishing in 2008, we co-directed Secrecy, a feature documentary about the the moral, political, and technological controversies surrounding national security secrecy. Containment grew first out of work I was doing (in print) on the strange new lands that are at once our wild, biodiverse landscapes, and at the same time some of our most radiologically contaminated. I was utterly taken aback by the Department of Energy’s drive to mark one of these sites to warn the future against digging—for a period of 10,000 years. Robb and I began our discussions around this extraordinary, tragic, imaginative project.

Robb Moss: For me, the sheer fun of teaching with Peter led me to want to make a film with him, and we made Secrecy. Secrecy, of course, is a terrible idea for a film; there is almost nothing to see, and no one wants to talk to you. Filmmakers often start with a visual idea, something you can point the camera at, but in Secrecy there was almost no in-the-world material for the camera to see. As a way of imagining this secret world, we thought we might want to include animation into the mix and began working with the wonderful animator, Ruth Lingford. Secrecy premiered at Sundance early in 2008 and showed at the Walker later that year. We returned to use animation in a more extensive way in Containment.

Containment splits its focus between the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, and the area surrounding the former Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. What led you to choose these three locations?

Galison: We began with our focus squarely on the WIPP site. It was the only open, licensed, deep underground nuclear repository, and it was for that burial ground that the far-future markers had been designed. Then we thought the story really had to take into account the source of this waste: the detritus of nuclear weapons production that had taken place over decades at places like the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Japan’s triple disaster—earthquake, tsunami, meltdowns—hit in March 2011, while we were already filming. Soon after that, we realized we had to confront the massive loss of nuclear containment that ensued, but it took two years or so before we were in a position to travel to Fukushima. But then we saw a way to finish the film around these three sites: the production of nuclear materials, the burial of this waste, and the catastrophic release, in the Japanese accident, of materials that left waste strewn over the land.

Moss: It was incredibly difficult to gain access to these three sites, but it was extraordinary to be at each of them. Being underground at WIPP was both beautiful and chilling: underground tunnels filled with miners excavating caverns in the salt (the location of the WIPP site was chosen because the salt was still intact—and therefore perhaps stable—after having been deposited some 250 million years ago). We filmed huge barrels of nuclear waste as they were emplaced in these caverns. Utterly sci-fi. At SRS, we walked over huge mounds of underground containers, called tank farms, consisting of 51 one-million gallon tanks filled with 39 million gallons of nuclear waste.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015. Photo courtesy filmmakers.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015

In addition to policymakers and experts in various nuclear fields, the film is peppered with interview subjects who bring more of a layperson’s sensibility to the topics at hand. How did you go about finding voices in the communities affected by these issues? What kinds of stories were you looking for?

Galison: From early on we wanted the film to get at the lives people lived around the waste. We wanted to know not only what the waste was and how it was managed, but also what life was like for someone who lived and worked with these materials on his or her mind. We talked and wandered with preachers and miners, cattlemen and politicians, housewives and scientists. We were less interested in polemics for or against nuclear power and more focused on people who lived and worked in and around these sites.

Moss: In particular, we were interested in the experiences of those who had lived around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants before the radioactive releases. Watching them move about in their former, now radioactive homes, was both sad and unnerving.

You come from very different backgrounds academically—Peter, as an expert on the history of science, and Robb, with more experience as a filmmaker. Describe the collaborative process on this project. Did you find yourselves occupying distinctive roles, or was there quite a bit of overlap?

Galison: From the very beginning of our collaboration, we have worked to avoid separating roles. We both think about the big ideas of the film, we both get into the details of transitions, silences, music, animation, archives. We are both in the field at every shoot. Essential, truly essential, to the whole of our work is a third member of our team: our editor Chyld King. Many hours each week—over the many years of these two films (Secrecy and Containment)—we have shared an edit room: experimenting with different cuts, looking for ways to elicit the particularity of characters and places. It is one of the great privileges of my life that I’ve been able to work with Robb and Chyld over these last years.

You’ve talked about how on both Containment and Secrecy you set out to, in a sense, film the “unfilmable”—classified information in Secrecy and both invisible radioactive contamination and an unknowable future in Containment. What have these projects taught you about representing intangibles on film?

Galison: We have worked so hard to bring the invisible into visibility because we are convinced that unseeable abstractions are easy to let slide. If secrecy is unimaginable, if nuclear waste is so utterly out of our perceptual range, they vanish from our national awareness. This aim has brought us to unexpected places in our filmmaking: to deepening use of animation and graphic novel sequences, for example; to the use of artworks integrated into film; to back and forth between observational, site-specific filming with soundstage recording of interviews. I should say we both hugely enjoy the challenge of finding ways to put the imperceptible onto the screen.

Moss: In both films we dug ourselves into very deep conceptual holes that we had to dig our way out of. This meant years of trial and error as we found our way through the material. This is both the fun and agony of filmmaking.

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Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015

Do you each have a favorite futurist scenario from your research into the WIPP site long-term nuclear waste warning plans? Some of them get pretty zany.

Galison: The scenarios sure did get zany—the futurists themselves were so astounded by the difficulty of their 10,000-year task that they slid into the absurd. One particular scenario that didn’t make it into the film in any detail involved a cult called “the Markuhnians” (a cross between Herbert Marcuse and Thomas S. Kuhn). The idea that crazed future historians of science—ignoring absolute scientific truth and hunting for lost mystic scrolls—might be responsible for the catastrophic release of nuclear materials particularly warmed my historian of science soul.

Moss: I am still partial to the Nickey Nuke scenario: a nuclear waste theme park that has families coming to see Nickey Nuke for 10,000 years, one that through endless fun, continuously transmits the warning not to dig into the waste. Amazing.

Ultimately, your film seems to raise a lot more questions than it answers. How optimistic are you about our future as it relates to the containment of nuclear waste? What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

Moss: In some ways our film functions like the warning markers that we discuss in the film, and will probably fail for similar reasons. Perhaps we can raise some awareness of these issues in the present, and perhaps that is all we can do.

Galison: Is there hope? In a way I think the film, even the long-shot hope that we can warn the far-distant future, is an act of extraordinary hopefulness. True, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, there are some tasks that are both necessary and impossible. Try to speak to a time nearly twice as far from us [in the future] as Stonehenge is in the past? How remarkable. We—who can barely plan beyond a fiscal quarter or a two-, four-, or six-year election cycle—trying for once to think about our planet in the long run. Do I think this or that particular scheme is a surefire method? Of course not. But pressured to think beyond the tiny radius of our individual lives, we might just create a precedent for caring about the planet that will mean something for those who follow.

Navigating Fact and Fiction: Chloé Zhao on Songs My Brothers Taught Me

For her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the beautiful but impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Anchored by two young leads (Jashaun St. John and John Reddy) who bring to life a tender brother-sister relationship, Zhao’s cast was largely culled from within Pine Ridge, blurring […]

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Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, 2015. Photo courtesy artist

For her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the beautiful but impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Anchored by two young leads (Jashaun St. John and John Reddy) who bring to life a tender brother-sister relationship, Zhao’s cast was largely culled from within Pine Ridge, blurring the line between character and actor. Deploying an experimental, collaborative writing approach that drew heavily on the lives and personalities of the cast members, Zhao’s semi-improvised shoot yielded 100 hours of footage, which the director condensed and organized around the story of a young Oglala Lakota man’s plans to leave the reservation. Patient and respectful, even in its unflinching depiction of the crime and alcoholism that plague the community, this evocative, lyrical film explores the complicated relationships its subjects have with their troubled home.

In her interview with Crosscuts, Zhao talks about her DIY approach to the shoot, screening the film on Pine Ridge, and how to practice responsible filmmaking as a cultural outsider. Songs My Brothers Taught Me will screen in the Walker Cinema March 11–13.

I understand your first introduction to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation came through your course work as a political science student at Mount Holyoke College. This is obviously a place with a very potent political and cultural history. What expectations did you have when you first went to Pine Ridge, and what did you find when you got there?

I learned very little about Pine Ridge when I was in college studying politics. I was curious about Pine Ridge, about reservation life, and about the American West. So I went, and I really only learned about the place once I spent time there. I had no idea what to expect, but I found a world very different than my life back in New York City. I knew I desperately wanted to learn more about it.

As late as the summer of 2013, you had a polished, full-length script for a film set on Pine Ridge called Lee. But when financial realities made it impossible to proceed with the project until the following year, you decided to ditch the script and start shooting immediately, working on a much smaller budget with only a film treatment. Beyond obvious things like plot and character, how would this project have been different if funding hadn’t been a problem?

It would be a more traditional narrative story, more fast-paced, but it wouldn’t be as authentic. Even before funding fell through, I was feeling trapped by the script. Once we had nothing—no money, no pressure, almost no crew—we had to go with truth in front of the camera. Because truth was all we could afford. My job was to capture authentic moments Pine Ridge and my cast were giving me and try to navigate a story around it.

I’ve read that you mined your actors’ real lives to construct the film’s narrative, such as in the scene where Jashaun returns to the site of her father’s death, filmed at the actress’s actual home, which had unexpectedly burned down during production. You’ve said John Reddy even considers his character to be about 80 percent actually him. How did this deliberate blending of fiction and biography change the stakes of the film for you? Would you use this strategy again on your next film?

This was an important method specifically for Songs. One, because we had no money to do anything else. Two, because, by staying close to real life, I can help myself, an outsider, to make a film from inside. I’ll definitely use what I’ve learned for my future projects.

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Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, 2015. Photo courtesy artist

I’m intrigued by Eléonore Hendricks’s character, Angie. If I’m reading her correctly, she’s one of the story’s only characters not originally from Pine Ridge; when we first meet her, she’s pointing a camera at your co-lead, Johnny Winters. Was your own position as an outsider to Pine Ridge something you consciously chose to explore in this film? Was Angie a locus of this kind of thematic work?

Yes. Angie was, like myself, one of the many photographers, filmmakers, and journalists who pointed their lens towards the reservation. The lucky ones ended up learning something about themselves along the way. She left in the end, like all of us did. It was those who remained [that] we celebrate in this film.

Following stops at Sundance and Cannes, Songs My Brothers Taught Me made its premiere on Pine Ridge this past summer. What kinds of reactions did you get from members of that community?

A lot more laughter. They got the jokes more. People generally really enjoyed it. I had parents coming up to me to say that it was hard for them to watch at some point, because it reminded them that they need to take more care of their young ones. There were good conversations afterwards. I can’t wait for DVD/VOD, so everyone on the reservation can see it.

You’ve said you’d like to make your next film in the Midwest, as well. Do you have any ideas about the direction that project might take? What did you learn making Songs that you expect to apply to your work in the future?

I have two films in development, both set in the Midwest and also the West. I live in Colorado now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Songs is to follow my curiosity. Because it usually leads me to the right people and places.

A Yard, a Tank, a Whale: The Conditions of Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering

Uri Aran’s new video, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; Aran’s work responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976). They said to us Thou shalt not kill […]

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran’s new video, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; Aran’s work responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976).

They said to us

Thou shalt not kill and they

deserved to die themselves.

Thou shalt love Thy neighbor.

 

They drew rafters

inside the A’s and on top of the T’s

They made images

They told us we were children,

They kept us from reading the texts,

since there is not a line which does not condemn them.

Belles lettres

plugs the eyes,

they filled my language with Jazz and jazz

is cotton stuffing. Silence! Silence!

Children and fishes

they will throw us into the sea

they will throw us into prison

They have lost their faces.

—Marcel Broodthaers, Untitled Poem (translated by Paul Schmidt)

Uri Aran’s new video work, Two Things About Suffering (2016), features an early scene in which two men walk side by side. The space in which they walk is curious. Enclosed but cavernous, natural light yet high brick walls, it resembles the bowels of an industrial ruin—a little too tall, a little too narrow. As the pair of men pace together, the more verbose of the two speculates grimly about “the conditions in which we are expected to act.” His roguish companion, without warning or much care for what has been said, takes the other’s fist and pretends to have the latter punch himself. The scene cuts before the action is completed, leaving the viewer to consider the conundrum central to Two Things About Suffering: the ways in which one is conditioned—through environment, language, and intervention.

At first glance, these conditions in which the characters are expected to act appear binary: the men perform two monologues that refuse to enter into dialogue, yet are spoken in parallel; they play out a minute Beckettian drama, switching a small work light on and off as if to refer to themselves passing in and out of character; there is a day scene, there is a night scene; there is a performance scene, there is a downtime scene. So too does the title refer to the duality of the work. “I wanted the title to sound like a lesson. Maybe these figures are two forms of suffering,” ventures Aran. “They ‘walk the yard.’ They are two fish in a tank. The space is so deep and so high they could be two men inside the belly of a whale.”

A yard, a tank, a whale. Such an allegorical impulse has been a defining feature throughout this New York–based artist’s body of work. Aran’s practice repeatedly trades on the uncanny combinations of things—of surrogates and substitutions, as well as the ability to say two things at once. His exhibition By Foot, By Car, By Bus (2012), for example, included a video of a man telling a story into a studio microphone. Each time he came to the end of the story, he reformulated his tale from the beginning, creating imperfect iterations anew. Much like Aran’s Two Things About Suffering, the video was a double-tongued piece—a recursive serpentine loop that reveals itself through repetitions and revisions both familiar and unfamiliar.

The casting of Two Things About Suffering operates out of a similar engagement with the notion of “familiarity” and the structures of acquaintance. Aran uses his identical twin brother—jazz musician, Dan Aran—as an analog or shorthand for gestures the artist recognizes as his own, while drawing the rest of the cast from musicians with whom his brother regularly works. The configuration of these people is a nesting of prior relations both social and professional, while the content of the work seeks to penetrate the conditions through which individuals participate in the collaborative act of drama. Although it aggressively resists a narrative impulse, Two Things About Suffering can be described as the sum performance of competing powers between familiars: of ambition, mimicry, ability, the desire to stop, and failure to do so. “Familiarity” is, after all, not just a principle that that describes conditions of intimacy. It is about technique, mastery, even the supernatural.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Formally trained as a typographer in Israel prior to studying art in New York, Aran is well-versed in the containment of meaning, how it might be laid out aesthetically, as well as how phrases, styles, might leak into one another. “The infinite possibilities of producing meaning through the interplay of sign and signifier—I address this aspect of language through repetition, re-organization, and quotation,” says Aran. “English is the language of the West and of Pop—you can’t escape it. The way it’s received is so mediated that it feels quoted.”

Aran’s Walker Moving Image Commission has its own quotations, not just within its circular dialogue and repeated gestures, but also within its script and the material of performance. The script is drawn from two sources: Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons: Documents from the American Laboratory Theatre (1933) and Aran’s own antagonistic and highly critical notes he jotted down in the margins while reading the book. The video material, meanwhile, is documentation of an earlier performance he presented in Rome as part of the artist’s exhibition project, Multicolored Blue (2015). Aran treated it as if it were found footage, disregarding the original intentions of the initial live performance and the documentation it produced, and instead tackled its current container: video.

Two Things About Suffering inquisitively probes the frame, using comic pans and zooms to capture the actors’ glances straight to camera. The minor technical movements form the basic punctuation or rhythm of the scene; a nod, a tick, an error or an intervention creates its own patterns and events within a score of semi-rehearsed, semi-improvised actions. Aran also challenges the appropriateness of the “outtake” as valid material, where the “in-between” of performance becomes an event itself, tipping the genre of the sober chamber play into that of a slapstick comedy. “I wanted to use the material again, to deal with its inadequacies—to use these figures, the work, the actions to kick it back into the light.” But Aran’s “light” is not necessarily the space of clarity. It is purely an effect or quality that might better reveal that which is already present.

Two Things About Suffering is, in many ways, a conscious undoing of material. The video plays out in three sections: walking the yard; a “downtime” scene, where the actors sit and light matches in the artists’ studio (“I wanted them to play with fire, to have something bigger than themselves in the scene”); and the final ballroom scene, which initially plays out as if a dream but is interrupted, obscured, and cancelled by the digitally overlaid stock image of a roast chicken. Invoking the comic desires of cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, the wholesome sentimentality of an American chicken dinner, or the abject image of a dead animal, this absurd image forcefully rejects any kind of unconscious meaning of the performance. Flattening out the screen with an incongruously hovering chicken, Aran makes it clear there is no psychology to be understood “underneath” this performance, or apart from it. There are simply two things that exist within the same container: a performance and its intervention; two trapped men and a dead animal; inappropriate actions and unexpected ones. Aran’s surrealist gambit is a terminal gesture that forces the performance towards a conclusion, and yet persists for one final comic turn: the retinal burn of a chicken appearing in the dark glow of the cinematic fade out.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

With its circular gestures, goofy interventions, and melancholic self-consciousness, Two Things About Suffering recalls Marcel Broodthaers’s declaration that art “is a prisoner of its phantasms and its function as magic.” The Belgian artist added, “I choose to consider Art as a useless labor, apolitical and of little moral significance […] Urged on by some base inspiration, I confess I would experience a kind of pleasure at being proved wrong. A guilty pleasure, since it would be at the expense of the victims, those who thought I was right.” Doomed unto itself, art will continue to perform the conditions of its own entrapment, always hoping for something outside of itself. It seeks and fails to connect with political power, and is reduced simply to a performance of certainties, hopes and doubts. “In this video, I wanted these two characters to act as if there was meaning,” says Aran. The subjects pass time, play to camera, and wait for the artist’s permission for the period of performance to stop, while being caught up in the absurdity of such an impossibility. Recalling his source material, Aran notes that “the funny thing about ‘method acting,’ and even the idea of the ‘Actor’s Studio,’ is that it acts as if there is something outside.”

An obsessive assemblagist dedicated to exposing the operations through which meaning could be applied as well as nullified, Broodthaers often put his things into what curator Dieter Schwarz describes as “conditions of equivalence.” His work puts objects, symbols,  and text together in order to expose their structural qualities and values that were, for him, both economic and cultural, though not necessarily truthful. “This equivalence does not work toward an aesthetic or logical condition of tautology. Rather, it addresses the mutual insufficiency of both the written and the visual presentation,” argues Schwarz. Referring to his “egg paintings,” for example, Broodthaers declared his work thus: “I return to matter. I rediscover the tradition of the primitives. Painting with eggs. Painting with eggs.” The artist’s statement, the objects displayed, and the environment in which the statement and object come together allude to the use of yolk in painting pigment, as well as the history of folk art. Here, the order and the repetitions of words which appear to operate with meaning both place and displace Broodthaers’s references and influences. “Painting with eggs” does and does not equal “painting with eggs.” In such transparent deceptions Broodthaers hints at another subject: the performance of dependencies of meaning. His medium is neither object nor text but rather, as Schwarz describes, “a rhetoric that will deprive us of our certainty of being ably to verify a statement’s truth.”

Aran’s prankish relationship with physical theater and its perverse interventions into the scripted word directly emerges from this cultural inheritance, specifically the latter’s summation of art as captive to its own illusions. Two Things About Suffering perfectly demonstrates such a paradox as a mise en abyme—a space of absolute recursion. It is at once hopeless and hopeful. Just as the first two words that open the video are a miniature drama of the title itself—“Please help”—Aran’s work doesn’t seek authenticity. It desires to simultaneously show a story and its difference—the inconstant glimmer of revision in process.

Figure and Wound: The Human Body in Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers. In 1983, when feminist scholar […]

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers.

In 1983, when feminist scholar Donna Haraway began writing “A Cyborg Manifesto,” her landmark essay that would come to redefine forms of gender classification and the conditions of what it is to be human, she speculated upon describing the limits of physicality. “Why should our bodies end at the skin?” Haraway’s question was not an attempt to create a definition but an extension. Rather than articulate a body’s limit, this was a provocation to imagine an array of new possibilities—possibilities that would dilate the idea of the body beyond the purely descriptive notion of flesh and bone, and reposition physicality within a discussion of power and identity. Three decades on, her provocation remains integral to considering how one’s most absolute form—one’s own body—is presently described through culture and aesthetics, subjected to law, and conditioned by access to and use of technology.

Reflecting upon what the “ideal body” might look like in the 21st century, artist Shahryar Nashat’s new Walker Moving Image Commission, Present Sore (2016), engages Haraway’s question by constructing a moving image of a human form whose mobility, physicality, and sensuality are comprehensively mediated by a series of objects and technologies that Nashat loosely groups under the term “prosthetics.” Clothes, exfoliants, lubricants, artificial limbs, money, medication—these are contemporary industrially made objects that are displayed upon, attached to, or ingested into the body on a metabolic level. Akin to the ways in which classical painting would seek to augment the persona of a human figure with attributes, emblems, or allegorical objects, the human form in Present Sore is so completely embedded (and occasionally obscured) within this array of objects that it surfaces only through its interaction with the synthetic; the artificial is ingested into or presented as an extension of the human form.

sn present sore 2

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

“I don’t think Greco-Roman, muscular, or athletic qualities represents the body that is in any way ideal, but rather the body that demonstrates itself through its dependencies and vulnerabilities,” says Nashat of the work. “I’m interested in how expressions of injury, difficulty, and dependency expose certain qualities and values of contemporary life.” Present Sore thus seeks to articulate elements that might constitute a body’s “aliveness.” It supposes that the body can never be fully described in perfect isolation, but rather through a composite of objects that signify discomfort and pleasure, as well as attempts to control such experiences. Starting at the feet and ending at the head, the human figure in Present Sore is, in the artist’s words, “gentrified”—an active participant in the replacement and displacement of values within a given site, which is, in this case, the cultural body.

“We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do,” write theoreticians Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their 1980 essay “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible.” “What its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.” Here, the composition of the human figure is not a container of an individual’s agency, but rather something externally constructed and enabled. Capacity is thus determined from the outside; the body is governed by the force of others, their violence or tenderness, and by rules about what it can be or should do.

It is significant that Nashat’s video was commissioned in response to the ongoing legacies of Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976). Throughout his work, Broodthaers’s repeatedly used the term “figure” (which he commonly abbreviated “fig.”) to indicate the double role of an object, calling attention to the difference of an object observed and an object as an image.

Marcel Broodthaers 'Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes de Charles Baudelaire', 1973

Marcel Broodthaers, Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes de Charles Baudelaire, 1973

He would often deploy his own adaptations of friend and artist René Magritte’s notorious painting The Treachery of Images (1928–1929) and its depiction of a pipe next to the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Broodthaers was not so much interested in an expression of lack between meaning and symbol but rather sought to foreground the infidelity of and impossibility of embodied meaning. Curator and art historian Dirk Snauwaert’s definition of “figure” provides a useful parallel to thinking about Present Sore’s representation of the contemporary human body—its resistances to interpretation, as well as its vulnerabilities. Snauwaert describes “figure” as:

the stage of observation when things are on the point of being named, when the object is about to be connected with a concept. Figure thus implies seeing, observing, but not yet explaining. Unlike the symbol, which is recognized and defined within a discourse, the figure is open and unconstructed. In this respect it corresponds to a work of art, which is open and ambiguous as well, and operates by evading definition. Figure cannot be reduced to a single meaning.

Where Broodthaers assembled a sophisticated rebus of a practice constituted through poetry, graphics and film—one engaged in exposing the indiscriminate and varied attachment of meaning to images and words—Nashat’s relationship to image-making calls attention to the similarly promiscuous and often queer relations between the desire for a body and desire for the image of a body. The latter’s art presents an often contrarian space, where sensuality is both performed and interrupted, displayed, and redacted. In its complex editorial structure, for example, Present Sore’s rapidly switching screen wipes and composite images of the human body paradoxically pushes the eye away from the subject it seeks to comprehend. The combination of the lingering camera and the restless cut work to simultaneously animate and suppress visual cognition of the figure. No longer caressing the body with a subjective gaze, even the viewer’s eye is reduced to the mechanism of scan, running into the black margins of the image. Thus the represented body remains plural and inexplicably embedded within objects and moving parts.

Incorporating mediums of sculpture, photography, installation and moving image, Nashat’s work of the past decade has singularly committed itself to looking at the human body, asking: what are the cultural trappings that make a body desirable, heroic, pornographic, or vulnerable? What are the modes of access, regulation, conditioning between an eye and the body it comprehends? In his later videos especially, Nashat’s camera probes forms both organic and man-made for attributes that could be described as hominal—the texture that might resemble skin, the bend and flex of a substance that appears animate, a gesture that appears human and is not or, inversely, a human gesture that appears mechanical.

Frequently, his works use representations of visual pleasure as a substitute for the other senses of the body. Short video works like One More Time With James (2009) depict two men in a high-end perfumery performing a transaction that is, in essence, denied to the viewer (purchasing a fragrance) but rendered instead as a glassy dreamscape, while Hustle in the Hand (2014) comprises the theatrical presentation of a grazed arm to the camera, where the act of injury is suppressed in favor of a fixation on the aesthetics of a human wound. In each of Nashat’s works, physical theater is uneasily presented as high artifice, consciously and sometimes painfully aware of how its sensuality is fetishized for the camera. Diegetic sounds of human action are eliminated to make way for the feigned authenticity of foley effects, while human movement is exaggerated to the point that chance gestures are repeatedly looped to appear premeditated or inevitable, recalling the abstracted advertising imagery of conceptual artist and filmmaker Peter Roehr (1944–1968).

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Present Sore is the most aggressively constituted image of Nashat’s work to date. It is a conglomeration of hard wipes, a dissonant database of sounds, and a forensic image of a single body that has in fact been rendered from many individuals (including stunt men, actors, sex workers) whose different skin tones and ethnic heritages appear graded into a uniform median color. “Organic, digital, mediated, injured, veteran,” lists Nashat, “any kind of body is now available for representation.”

Even intimacy is shown as an effect produced via camera. What might in isolation be considered archetypal expressions of emotional closeness in film—a close-up of the body, discreet hand gestures and touching, over-the-shoulder camera positions—are mechanized through loops and discordant foley. And on a structural level, physical intimacy with the viewer is fabricated through the 90-degree rotation of the widescreen aspect ratio into 9:16, a format most commonly experienced through hand-held mobile devices. Not simply the primary portrait format of the 21st century, Present Sore’s aspect ratio is a frame optimized for holding the image in proximity to one’s own body. It is the ubiquitous yet private “user” view for most moving images today.

Despite these aggressive technological interventions upon the human body, at the very center of Present Sore lies not an archetype or composite, but a found object: Paul Thek’s 1965 sculpture, Hippopotamus from Technological Reliquaries, which is housed in the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection. Presented as an interlude from the juddering mechanics of the composite body, this dream sequence imagines an interior altogether different from the body scenes that bookend it. The symbolism of this dream space escapes contemporary mechanisms, and imports a different time into Present Sore—the period of the Thek work itself, one that is notably pre-AIDS but concurrent with another humanitarian crisis: the Vietnam War.

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Thek’s Hippopotamus consists of a lump of flesh placed within the sanitizing and museological conditions of a transparent vitrine. Made in direct response to the political campaigns that supported American military intervention in Vietnam, Thek noted of the work:

I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene—where the name of the game seemed to be “how cool you can be” and “how refined.” Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it.

With Nashat’s highly selective camera positions and macro shots of Hippopotamus, this “interior” scene is not an escape from the pressures exerted upon the contemporary body, but an indication of the wound beneath. The negative and unseen space that Thek rendered in order to provoke the unspoken horror of war is here shown to persist within the contemporary body. This is an atrophied cultural wound that, like the term of the “figure,” remains open and unreconstructed—the present sore.

Moving Image Commissions #2: Marcel Broodthaers

Marcel Broodthaers, Pipe et Formes Academiques, 1969–70 The second installment of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions launch February 17 with premieres of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore and  Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering in the Walker Cinema. Both works will be presented on the Walker Channel February 18 through March 18, 2016.  “I am not a filmmaker,” Marcel […]

Marcel Broodthaers, Pipe et Formes Academiques,1969-70

Marcel Broodthaers, Pipe et Formes Academiques, 1969–70

The second installment of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions launch February 17 with premieres of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore and  Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering in the Walker Cinema. Both works will be presented on the Walker Channel February 18 through March 18, 2016. 

“I am not a filmmaker,” Marcel Broodthaers once declared. “For me, film is simply an extension of language. I began with poetry, moved on to three-dimensional works, finally to film, which combines several artistic elements. That is, it is writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film). The great difficulty lies, of course, in finding a harmony among these three elements.”

With works that span the mediums of installation, text, sculpture and 16mm film, the practice of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976) is willfully resistant to singular categorization. Descriptions of his work demand either complete specificity to materials (one can refer to his assemblages of eggshells and mussels) or inconclusive platitudes (he is variously described as a “conceptual artist,” “assemblagist,” and “collagist,” though none of them seem to quite fit). So maybe it’s more useful to think of his work, as Broodthaers suggests, simply in terms of language—its translations, opacities, and symbolic power.

Acutely aware that the matter and the meaning of language were completely different, Broodthaers sought to expose the false affinities between the ways in which words attach to images. His work destabilized its sources through punning substitutions and witty redactions in order to reveal the contingencies and structures through which meaning is produced.

Broodthaers didn’t claim to be an artist until he was 40 years old, but throughout his twelve-year career as an artist he repeatedly used of the term “figure.” A word that can also casually stand in for “knowing” or “thinking” (“go figure”), he would often abbreviate the word into “fig.,” the indexical trope of user manuals, encyclopedias, and other forms of informational printed matter. Aware that “fig.” was a traditional means of exemplifying knowledge, he repurposed the term to call attention to the double role of an object—to show the difference of an object observed and an object as an image.

Marcel Broodthaers, Bateau Tableau, 1973

Marcel Broodthaers, Bateau Tableau, 1973. T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1997

Broodthaers was not interested expressing the lack between meaning and symbol, but rather he sought to foreground the infidelity of and impossibility of embodied meaning. He would often deploy his own adaptations of friend and artist René Magritte’s notorious painting The Treachery of Images (1928–29) and its depiction of a pipe next to the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). His works, and his films especially, are exercises in reading—not just reading carefully but becoming aware of the conditions under which one believes themselves able to read at all. As the artist said of his work, it is “something you have to want to figure out.”

Despite an artistic career that lasted just over a decade, the impact of Broodthaers’s complex and diverse legacy is still being figured out, not least in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective. His examination of the social and economic conditions under which art is (or isn’t) constituted and valued has produced a rich cultural inheritance for contemporary artists working in the 21st century, especially those for whom the repurposing and transactions between language and object is key.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Last year, the Walker Art Center’s Moving Image department invited two artists to consider Broodthaers’ conceptual legacy: Shahryar Nashat (b. 1975) and Uri Aran (b. 1977). Like Broodthaers, both work across mediums of installation, sculpture, photography, and moving image. Their work is invested in exploring modes of translation through found and repurposed objects, images and sound. But while Nashat’s work has examined how the human body interacts with and is represented through material culture­—using stand-in figures, prosthetic technologies, and appropriated objects to expose the dependencies of the contemporary body—Aran’s work explores the discord and substitutions that occur between meaning and memory. The latter’s meticulous and intimate assemblages—which often include repurposed objects, appropriated narratives, and customized display structures—lay bare the idiosyncratic systems of personal and cultural knowledge.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Nashat and Aran were commissioned to make moving image works that would premiere at the Walker Cinema before streaming online for free over one month, starting February 18, 2016. Part of the ongoing series of Walker Moving Image Commissions—launched last year with artists Moyra Davey and James Richards considering the inspirations of British filmmaker Derek Jarman—Nashat and Aran have produced works that operate less out of an explicit legacy of Broodthaers and more within the spirit of his cultural influence on today’s aesthetics.

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes) is a composite portrait of the 21st-century body—a synthetic form whose sensuality is both constituted and mediated by inorganic substances: clothes, prosthetic technologies, pharmaceuticals, and money. Recalling Broodthaers’s notion of “figure” as something that might expose the contingencies between symbol and object, Nashat’s video combines rapid editing techniques, a discordant soundtrack composed of myriad digitized sources, and a video presented in 9:16 format—the now ubiquitous portrait format for all handheld devices.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Meanwhile, Uri Aran’s new work, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), draws from the artists’ previous productions. Working with his own recent performance documentation as if it were found footage, Aran manipulates his large cache of video material to create a new technical vocabulary replete with recursive loops, an operatic score, and improvised “outtakes.” Teetering between melancholia and slapstick comedy, Aran’s cyclical video echoes Broodthaers’ short films, particularly the black and white 1969 film La Pluie (Projet Pour Un Texte), where Broodthaers attempts to write with an ink pen in the rain. Two Things About Suffering is an absurdist and occasionally nihilistic attempt to perform the moment before language.

Marcel Broodthaers, La Pluie (Projet Pour Un Texte), 1969

Marcel Broodthaers, La Pluie (Projet Pour Un Texte), 1969. Walker Ruben/Benston Moving Image Collection

On Acid and Death: The Psychedelic Love Story of Ram Dass and Timothy Leary

Nearly two decades in the making, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began with a single conversation. After Leary announced, in the mid-1990s, that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, filmmaker Gay Dillingham organized a reunion between the writer and ’60s cultural icon and Ram Dass, author of the New Age […]

Gay Dillingham’s Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary. 2014 ©Dying to Know

Nearly two decades in the making, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began with a single conversation. After Leary announced, in the mid-1990s, that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, filmmaker Gay Dillingham organized a reunion between the writer and ’60s cultural icon and Ram Dass, author of the New Age spiritual tome Be Here Now (and Leary’s one-time partner), in a pioneering set of Harvard experiments on the psychological benefits of LSD. Dillingham filmed the ensuing conversation, which served as a platform for the two men to share the lessons of their disparate life journeys and discuss what awaited Leary at the end of his own. Following Leary’s death in 1996, Dillingham spent much of the subsequent 18 years researching and crafting a documentary that simultaneously serves as comprehensive biography and a bifurcated manifesto for two leading voices of the 20th century counterculture.

Dillingham spoke with us about  liminal states, her inspiration in conceiving the film, and the dichotomous quality of Ram Dass and Leary’s ideas. Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary will screen in the Walker Cinema at 2 pm on Saturday, February 13, as part of the Walker’s Winter of Love celebration.

Filming for what would become Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began in 1995, yet the project wasn’t completed until nearly 20 years later. Did you have any idea the form the film would take when you organized that initial conversation between Ram Dass and Leary?

I had no idea I would spend 20 years of my life marinating on this story that covers 80 years of footage. Some things we begin with enthusiasm, but they don’t hold our interest, and some things/stories will not let us go. This project literally haunted me over time until I finished it. I knew these two characters were seminal figures in history and I was interested in their perspective on expanded consciousness and death. My original instinct as a director was guided by their idea of “set and setting.” I wanted to create an atmosphere for two old friends and psychedelic warriors to get together in a relaxed, loving setting to reminisce on the past and contemplate the eternal future, as Leary was facing the end of his life, shedding the mortal coil as his spacesuit wore out.

What made this story one that you would return to over such a long period of time?

It kept drawing me back because it spoke to the bigger questions I consistently ponder and has contemporary relevance. Deeper conversations about taboos like death and drugs interest me. Death has been an important doorway to me since I lost my bother when I was 17. I began to see how upside down we were as a culture and that it has been our undoing. Spending time in cultures that see themselves in the cycle of nature and hold life preciously because it has an end, I felt [they] did a better job at caring for each other and the earth.

Gay Dillingham’s Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary 2014 ©Dying to Know

Gay Dillingham’s Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary. 2014 ©Dying to Know

How familiar were you with Ram Dass and Leary prior to beginning this film? In what ways has your understanding of these men and their ideas changed over the course of the project?

I’d seen Leary in the ’80s on his lecture circuit in his cyber-tech manifestation, promoting LSD (Leary Software Design). I was not all that impressed at the time, as I experienced Leary, the showman, not the man. I also remembered my brother, whom I adored, getting in trouble for driving 2 hours to the City one school night in 1978 to see a guy named Timothy Leary. I would later realize why he took that risk. In college, like many others, I had read Be Here Now, the so-called hippie bible written by Ram Dass.

Like most of us, I knew these men as caricatures that my media culture had fed me. So this film was largely a process of my reconciling those caricatures with the truly interesting, intelligent, humorous, loving men I met: Leary on his deathbed and Ram Dass, who is alive today, and, I’m grateful to say, my friend and teacher. Diving into all the archival footage, interviewing people about him, and knowing him personally for 20 years, I’ve witnessed the remarkable arch of his life. As John Perry Barlow says in the film, Ram Dass “is a truly wise man.” After a lifetime of practice, I witness him resting in a place of unconditional love.

In 1964, Leary, Ram Dass (then known as Richard Alpert), and Ralph Metzner published The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an informative guide to psychedelic drug use based on Tibetan religious beliefs about the passage from one incarnation to the next. What parallels did Leary and Ram Dass see between tripping and the death process?

This is one of the main reasons I was attracted to these men. Their book and their work was meant to help people practice ego death or rather to sense that we are more than our bodies, which helps relieve much of the anxiety around death.

You have described the film as an “archetypal conversation” between the heart and the mind (as epitomized by Ram Dass and Leary, respectively). While their relationship is clearly a loving one, their conversation seems to at times border on argument. Do you understand the two men’s ideas to be at odds or complementary?

I have to say both, which is why I chose the symbol of the yin yang. It’s used to describe two primal, opposing, but complementary, forces found in all things in the universe. As complementary, interdependent opposites, neither man could have impacted the culture as profoundly without the other. Each can transform into the other, and contains a seed of the other within it—hence Ram Dass has a keen mind and Leary had a big heart. I’ve experienced that life happens in relationship and we tend to forget that in the Age of the Individual. Neither of these men were as interesting to me individually as they were together. Yin and yang consume and support each other. I think that will make more sense after someone has watched the film.

“A Minimalism of the Frame”: Filming the Female Face in Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015)

In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a […]

Todd Haynes’s Carol 2015 Photo: courtesy The Weinstein Company

Todd Haynes’s Carol, 2015 Photo: Weinstein Company

In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a table for two, where a blonde woman whose face we can see looks intently at a brunette whose back is turned to us. “Therese!” calls Jack, and the brunette (Rooney Mara) turns to the camera. “I thought that was you!” Jack bellows good-naturedly, and he approaches the two women. Once he arrives, the camera descends to the eye level of the seated women, and during the ensuing dialogue the camera is trained exclusively on their faces. Jack babbles away, animated and oblivious, but his face literally does not make the cut. We can see his body up to his mouth, but no higher. We hear his speech, but our attention is directed by the camera’s gaze to the women’s faces. There, we witness a play of emotions, one often at odds with Jack’s cheery tone. Therese looks startled and disoriented, Carol (Cate Blanchett) intent and melancholy. Jack, by contrast, is so bold, so confident in his own goodwill and that of the world, so sure that it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt these women at their meal, which has obviously been tense and intimate.

Everything about Jack is wrong for this scene, and so Haynes removes him from it as much as possible. The audience needs nothing of Jack save his dialogue. He is irrelevant to the proceedings except as a stimulus for the tacit drama he does not notice in Therese’s eyes and Carol’s passive-aggression. This all transpires less then three minutes into the film, and the audience has scarcely been introduced to these women when already we find ourselves wanting to be alone with them, disgruntled at his intrusion, thinking: Jack, just go away. It’s important to make special note of two facts here. First, the POV shot where Jack glimpses Therese across the restaurant is the only shot from a male character’s perspective in the entire film. Second, this same scene is repeated again near the end of Carol, and when it is, Jack’s POV shot is replaced with a close-up of Therese at the moment he calls her name.

In the Carol clip shown during this winter’s Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Series: Todd Haynes: 20 Years of Killer Films, you’ll notice that as the director cuts between over-the-shoulder shots of Therese and Carol, the waiter is, like Jack in that first scene, cropped at the upper lip. Except for the essential bits of dialogue and the hands that deliver the martinis and creamed spinach, the waiter is for all other intents and purposes not there. Later, Therese fights with her would-be fiancé, Richard (Jake Lacy) over the course of one long roving shot, and Haynes’s camera tracks them through her apartment in such a manner that Richard’s face is almost never visible—and, when it is, it’s out of focus. In fact, Haynes goes to great lengths to avoid featuring men’s faces directly in Carol. Dialogues between men and women visually favor the women, and men are sometimes refused reaction shots altogether, an editing bias that amounts to a major disruption of standard cinematic grammar. The only reason this isn’t immediately jarring for the viewer is the fact that there are plenty of conventionally edited dialogues in Carol – it’s just that those scenes, by and large, consist of women speaking with women.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company

These decisions are, of course, not accidents. In the Walker Dialogue, Haynes discusses his early fascination with what he terms a “minimalism of the frame” in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), mentioning in particular a remarkable shot from that film’s graduation party episode. As Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock moves distractedly through his own party, Nichols keeps the camera trained tightly on his face. Hands reach from out of frame to pinch his cheeks; faces pulls themselves in to kiss Benjamin; conversations are had with people outside of or just within the camera’s field of vision. Nichols uses the shot to effectively communicate Benjamin’s feelings of social isolation and emotional claustrophobia, demonstrating that visual exclusion has emotional and narrative consequences. Haynes’s filmography evinces a second lesson: to tell a story on film, all one really needs to show is a human face.

Haynes says in the Walker Dialogue that “the spectator has these extraordinary powers of desire to enter the story, and fill it in emotionally, and to make it come alive. … All of the emotion that we think the movie is giving us, we’re giving the movie.” In his work, the human face is the site of this special cinematic identification. Sometimes, he admits, he has “interrupted that process [and] set up boundaries to identifying with a character,” as in 1995’s Safe, where Julianne Moore’s Carol is constantly situated at the dead center of the frame and yet remains chillingly vacant, “hard to find, locate.” However, Safe’s extreme efforts to subvert the audience-character relationship only belies its centrality to Haynes’s instincts and ethos as a filmmaker. Safe also reminds us that Haynes’s Nichols-esque “minimalism of the frame” is no mere directorial tenet. Rather, it is a principle of collaboration between actor and director. Haynes states that his actors are a major reason for his career’s longevity, and this is evident in Safe, whose success depends on Moore’s uncanny performance as much as the director’s compositional genius.

Carol is the positive to Safe’s negative (coincidentally, their major characters share a name). It likewise puts immense pressure on the faces of its female stars, but unlike the passive Carol of Safe, who is overwhelmed and eventually consumed pathogenically, visually, and narratively by her own environment, Carol’s protagonists make themselves exceptionally available to the audience. Haynes’s camera colludes with Mara and Blanchett to ensure that the audience is dependent on this opening-up, this invitation to connection. We look to their prominently displayed faces over and over so that we can know how to understand what’s going on. Haynes’s compositions admit men only insofar as they are relevant to that story, and the definitive interpretation of events always falls to Therese or Carol (or, in one scene, Sarah Paulson’s Abby). Carol is a housewife subject to legal coercion and intimidation by her husband, and Therese is only 19, and in one memorable double entendre claims she doesn’t “even know what to order for lunch.” They are not necessarily prepared for these narrative responsibilities, but they learn on the go, in order to resist mounting pressure from the men around them to tell a particular story in a particular way.

CAROL

Todd Haynes with Cate Blanchett on the set of Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company

Therese is trying to become a photographer, so we get numerous shots of Therese taking photographs, many of them of Carol, and sometimes we see from the perspective of Therese’s camera itself. To underscore the metaphorical implication—Therese as filmmaker, discovering her vision, sexuality, and agency all at once—Haynes also includes, as he points out in the interview, “all of these shots … through glass, and reflections, and windows, where the act, and it’s almost the lens itself, the act of looking is foregrounded, because it’s all about desire and who’s on what side of that looking.” It for this reason that the man who poses the greatest direct threat to Therese and Carol as they embark on their westward road trip is not Carol’s domineering husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) but the private detective Harge hires to track them, Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith). Tommy’s glasses and tape recorder also figure him as a filmmaker, positioning him as someone with the power to combat or even eliminate Therese and Carol’s agency as women. When she discovers Tommy, Carol aims a revolver at him, and in this moment only Haynes brutally crops her out of the image, so that all we can see of her is that arm and hand holding the weapon. We cannot see her face, and the narrative slips out of her control in this moment. “There’s nothing you can do,” Tommy says within this same shot, and it’s true. The gun is unloaded. The Iowa town where this confrontation takes place is called Waterloo. “Isn’t that awful?” Carol says, and it is.

It could be said that Carol is, on one level at least, a film about men trying to get the last word. Richard tells Therese repeatedly that he loves her, though she never reciprocates, and talks incessantly about a trip to Paris to which she has not agreed, as though he could speak their romance into reality. Harge more literally attempts to have the final say by suing for custody of Carol’s young daughter. As Abby cuttingly observes, he’s “spent the last ten years trying to make sure [Carol’s] only point of reference is himself.” But most films are about men trying to get the last word, and most of the time, they’re successful; in fact, they’re successful here, since Harge does win his custody suit. However, despite this, and despite the film’s conventional surface appearances, it remains the work of a founder of the 1990s’ New Queer Cinema whose films have never been anything short of socially and formally challenging: here, Haynes mobilizes Nichols’s “minimalism of the frame” to undo Harge’s success, to “speak … separately or parallel to” that other story (as he says in a different context). In Carol, a visual work in ethos as well as form, images trump words, even the coveted last word. Demonstrating his trademark trust in his cast’s artistry, Haynes zeroes in once more on the female face as the locus of emotive communication between movie and moviegoer. “May I speak?” asks Carol caustically in the climactic showdown with Harge and his lawyers. Although the men technically oblige, they persist in interrupting her, shouting over her, and even suggesting that her testimony be stricken from the court record. That’s all right, because Haynes and Blanchett give Carol something better than the opportunity tell her story: she has the power to show it.

So it is that Carol concludes with Therese and Carol looking at one another, not speaking, a series of emotions flickering across each of their faces. The crowd of men with whom Carol is dining chatter away inaudibly. It’s a fitting summary of the film’s quiet rebellion.

Todd Haynes’s Carol screens January 19 as part of the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards Screenings.

 

2015: The Year According to Tala Hadid

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh to designer Na Kim, playwright Sibyl Kempson to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to     […]

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To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh to designer Na Kim, playwright Sibyl Kempson to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                 .

“I’m a London-born, US-educated woman of Moroccan and Iraqi descent,” says Tala Hadid. “Sometimes I feel that I have a foot in both/all worlds. This hybrid existence, though sometimes complicated, is also a space of freedom that allows a particular way of seeing—to belong to all, and yet to none.” A filmmaker and photographer who trained as a painter, Hadid is the director of several award-winning short films including Your Dark Hair Ihsan (Tes Cheveux Noirs Ihsan) (2004) as well as the feature-length film Narrow Frame of Midnight (2014). In 2010/2011  she worked on an independent project entitled Heterotopia, a series of photographs documenting life a New York City brothel. Her most recent work, House in the Fields, a documentary film project depicting rural life in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, was screened at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival; it won a Final Cut Award at the Venice Film Market.

2015-01

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Judith Butler

A return to the work of Judith Butler this year has brought with it a wiser view on the difficult and dangerous world in which we live and the spaces that we share. Two works in particular have been profoundly enlightening: Frames of War and Precarious Life. In her words, a speech given at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm:

We live together because we have no choice, and yet we must struggle to affirm the ultimate value of that unchosen social world, and that struggle makes itself known and felt precisely when we exercise freedom in a way that is necessarily committed to the equal value of lives. We can be alive or dead to the suffering of others, – they can dead or alive to us, depending on how they appear, and whether they appear at all; but only when we understand that what happens there also happens here, and that “here” is already an elsewhere, and necessarily so, that we stand a chance of grasping the difficult and shifting global connections in which we live.

2015-02

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Marrakech

I’ve spent this past year in Marrakech, returning with joy to this glorious city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in between travels across the world for screenings of my last film. It is a city of enormous energy, An African City, Berber and Arab, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, under a strong sun and lit by the most beautiful and lucid of light, where the line between private and public space is constantly shifting, a city of the global South, of artisans and musicians, of young people and old, a mix of different classes and peoples living in close proximity in that fine balance of what can be called peaceful co-habitation.

2015-03

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Stephen F. Cohen

I’ve been listening  this past year to a weekly conversation on a podcast, between Stephen F. Cohen, a scholar of Russian and Soviet political history since 1917, Professor of Russian Studies and History Emeritus at NYU, and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University, and John Batchelor, who hosts the radio news magazine The John Batchelor Show. It has been, and continues to be, a highly informative and intelligent conversation and analysis of world events and relations with Russia.

2015-04

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Archipelago Books

This year has been another important one exploring the beautiful books and translations from Brooklyn based not-for-profit press Archipelago Books.

2015-05

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New Directions

In the words of Roberto Bolaño: the cowardly don’t publish the brave. Long live New Directions.

2015-06

Bouchra Ouizgen

I was lucky to have been introduced to the Moroccan choreographer, Bouchra Ouizgen, and to her wonderful work and her troupe of dancers and collaborators. Here is dance filled with the élan of life, a fusion of the best of Moroccan tradition and a modernity that transcends easy labeling.
Full video of the last show at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris here.

2015-07

At the Bayamo suburb of órgano Manzanillo, Cuba,1963. Photograph: Agnès Varda

At the Bayamo suburb of órgano Manzanillo, Cuba,1963. Photograph: Agnès Varda

Agnes Varda/Cuba

In 1963, filmmaker Agnes Varda took thousands of photographs of Cuba. She hid them in a box and now, years later, they have been uncovered and are on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris until early next year. A joy to discover!

2015-08

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The Wind in High Places

One word for The Wind in High Places by John Luther Adams: sublime. Listen and you can feel the cold bite of the air, the breath of wind on the skin, the vastness of  the open sky and of nature unfolding eternally.

2015-09

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The Third Man

Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man was lovingly and rigorously restored and re-released this year. A joy to behold.

2015-10

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Paris Climate Agreement

On December 12, at 12:00 pm, more than 10,000 people took over Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris to unfurl long red lines to honor the victims of climate disasters and show their commitment to keep up the fight for climate justice. This year has ended, among other things, with the historic Paris Climate accord.

In the words of Bill McKibben:

Every government seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry. This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.

And lastly, in memoriam: Chantal Akerman.

 

 

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