The Cinema Effect

By Patrick Ellis

king-kong-merian-c-cooper-ernest-b-schoedsack.jpgKing Kong, 1933

Illusion, reality and the moving image were under the lens in Washington DC this year

This spring, just out of earshot of the White House, Fay Wray screamed for some 700 hours. The occasion was a loop of Christoph Girardet’s masterpiece Suspension (1996), a cut-up rendition of Wray’s squirms and howls from King Kong (1933), given a giant projection at the Hirshhorn Museum on the Washington Mall. It’s a demanding piece, edited to move from indecipherable snippets to lucid chunks, and back again. The emotion of Wray’s character wavers between the amused and the disturbed, the aroused and the horrified. Suspension fairly bulges with kinetic energy; it is grotesque, carnal, and loud. Viewers at the Hirshhorn seemed nonplussed, perhaps annoyed. Few stayed in the screening room for more than thirty seconds; many didn’t even pause on their way through. This is a typical response to work of this potency, but the audience seemed exceptionally resistant.

A recent poll suggests that the Hirshhorn – probably due to its location on the Mall and its historically conservative curation – draws more first-time visitors than New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In other words, many visitors to the Hirshhorn are DC tourists who wander in due to the museum’s proximity to national monuments and the Smithsonian, of which the Hirshhorn is a branch (that the Hirshhorn is free while MoMA costs $20 to enter may also have something to do with it). Putting Girardet at the Hirshhorn, then, is about as audacious as ABC’s decision to put Twin Peaks on during evening programming. Bold choices such as this coincide with the posting of Kerry Brougher as acting director of the Hirshhorn. Responsible for introducing many people to Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, which showed at Modern Art Oxford when he was curator there, Brougher organised the exhibition of which Girardet was the centre.

The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image was presented in two instalments: Dreams, and its implicit response, Realisms. In focus and design, Dreams was nigh unprecedented for a mainstream, institutional museum. Apart from early nods to the old guard – guards from different watches, at that – Warhol’s Sleep (1963), Bruce Connor’s Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977) – much of Dreams was drawn from contemporary experimental film, video art and new media.

Unlike those many exhibits that keep film and video sequestered in narrow, low-ceilinged chambers – the broom closets of art – Dreams gave almost all of its 21 pieces considerable projection space. Most of the rooms and hallways were unlit, too. It was like breaking into the museum at night and finding a multiplex. As a result, and because the viewer entered one room after another with films already screening within, the physical projection of the films grew conspicuous and often became a part of the show. Rodney Graham had his mammoth Victorian projector (ubiquitous of late; a duplicate presently stands at MoMA) in the middle of a room, projecting images of an old typewriter: a wake by the antiquated for the superannuated, named for the models involved, Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003). Meanwhile, Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal (2005) charmed the kids in attendance in inverse proportion to Girardet’s Suspension. The sole components of You and I are a projector and a vapour machine, but with them McCall makes tunnels and planes out of haze, and silhouettes out of the viewers, viewers who necessarily become performers as well, making the piece, despite its simplicity of means, something more than smoke and mirrors.

Graham’s and McCall’s installations did not speak to the logic of the show – nominally, dreams, and their collusion with cinema – as vividly as Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades (1995), which ended the exhibit. Farocki’s piece is as simple as looped excerpts from documentaries and feature films from over the past century, each accommodated by its own screen, each documenting the proletariat at the gates. Motley in its grouping (Lumière to von Trier, among the features excised), Workers is a tribute to the remarkable history of cinema; and with its indiscriminate selection of fiction and non-fiction film, no doubt the curators hope us to understand that, from this late-capitalist vantage point, the dream factory and real life reach the same terminus.

In fact, the curators’ understanding of their own show, despite its success on the ground, is muddled. In the catalogue that accompanies The Cinema Effect, the curators put forth various arguments about Dreams, many of which are too particularised for an exhibit of this size. Brougher aims to connect the pieces to art history, makes tenuous remarks about early film (using references only from Wikipedia, for which, one must guess, he has a rationale), and incorporates theory magpie-like – here Baudrillard, there Žižek. Are the movies like dreams, or are dreams like the movies? Is the ‘experimental’ spectacle of the exhibit meant to show up the society of the spectacle, or is it merely distraction, too? The contradictions, if they are intentional, are not especially provocative. The catalogue at least contains redeemably pithy glosses on the filmmakers and their works by associate curator Kelly Gordon.

Realisms, the second instalment of the exhibit, fares better in its catalogue treatment, but the authors are helped by an astonishing unity of preoccupation – or, less charitably, a thematic homogenization – among the artists of the show. The point of Realisms was that (surprise!) the ‘real’ is largely unreal, onscreen and off. This was illustrated by many, many transparent adaptations of documentary material rendered in video: a young artist hires actresses to portray her everyday life; interviewed actors outside of the legendary Rome film studio Cinecittà have their cinematic preferences filmed; the real-life bank robber upon whom Dog Day Afternoon (1975) was based walks around a recreation of the bank, making his own version of the movie.

There were less routine examples of the same theme. Corinna Schnitt’s Living a Beautiful Life (2003) takes dialogue from interviews with Los Angeles adolescents about their aspirations and puts it into the mouths of glossy adult actors, set in run-of-the-mansion locations. They deliver the lines – unembarrassed admissions of greed and positive self-affirmations, mostly – with blunt self-satisfaction: “I am the best fighter pilot”, “I have a cute husband”, “I think our lives are perfect.” The parameters of adolescent desire are as small as ever, Beautiful Life reminds us, and admit something about the base ambitions of adults. Likewise, New York, New York, New York, New York (2004), Mungo Thomson’s four-screen projection consisting of shots of Hollywood sets dressed to look like New York City, suggests just how reducible and reproducible this cinematic city can be. Take some brownstone, some graffiti, some litter, a general dinginess, and voila. One viewer at the show was overheard to say, “It even smells like New York.”

The finest piece in Realisms elaborates on the thematic collage for which Christoph Girardet, unsurprisingly, provides the unparalleled model, work such as the justly lauded Manual (2002, with Matthais Müller) or the less-seen Fiction Artists (2004, with Volker Schreiner) – wherein, in a series of well-chosen clips, the limited palette of cinematic representations of painters is revealed: misogynist, crazed, and, to a man, given to ripping up canvases. Out of step with Realisms, and much more ambitious, Candice Breitz’s Mother + Father (2005) is just as revelatory as Girardet’s finest films. Breitz devotes one room to mothers, the next to fathers; in each, a six-screen apparatus excerpts heads and torsos of famous actors and sets them against a black background. The effort put into the screening is matched by the rigor of Breitz’s method. She remixes the lines and monologues the actors offer into cluttered conversations about parenthood and married life, drawing from only one film and actor per screen – Donald Sutherland in Ordinary People (1980), Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer (1975), Steve Martin in Father of the Bride (1991), and so on. Given the Hollywood origin, the vocabulary of the characters is surprisingly diverse. Breitz, in editing the dialogue into conversation, polemicises more than does Girardet in similar work, but she also creates a stunning conversation between the films, one that occasionally tips into a cacophony of parental anxiety.

In the main, however, and perhaps because of semantic diktat, Realisms was less adventurous than Dreams. Its screenings were not merely thematically of a piece: they were almost all shot on video; the most elderly piece was from 1999; and many dabbled in spoof (and were as shallow as that form of parody allows). In medium, age, and genre, they were constant. These similarities did not allow for intriguing exhibition design, whereas in Dreams witty placements were possible. The entrance to the latter, for instance, combined with its first artwork: Douglas Gordon’s Off Screen (1998). Like Olafur Eliasson, whose recent MoMA show had several pieces that were to do only with illumination, Gordon gets the most out of light bulbs. An exposed, high-wattage lamp sits behind a red curtain that also functioned as a door to the exhibit; stepping behind the curtain, the light makes involuntary shadow performers of the viewers, their silhouettes enlarged to giant stature on the front of the curtain. The price of admission, seemingly, was to play Maurice Chevalier in Love Me Tonight (1932).

Find out more about The Cinema Effect.

Patrick Ellis lives in Brooklyn, NY and works in publishing.