FILM IS DYING, and it might not be alone in that.
The film program of the 2012 Whitney Biennial begins with 16mm marvels by cult legend Luther Price (2004 – 2012, playing Thu Mar 1 – Sun Mar 4). Price makes stridently fragile found-footage whatzits and direct animations, letting film stock decay and painting directly onto it to create biomorphic patterns that do their dance, die, and are gone. Price doesn’t strike prints, which is a fancy way of saying: his films exist as unique physical objects; they have physical edits and when the film wears out and the edits break, his movies will be done for.
His protest against the siren’s call of immortality is poignant in an era defined by the fascism of fame and the bizarre logic of digital personhood. These mutable movies screw you into the present. Purposefully marginal, Price becomes, paradoxically, important. These films are often punctuated with grating noise scratched directly onto the optical soundtrack, underscoring the often-lovely patterns on the screen and the silence that follows. While the movies can be painful, they’re beautiful; while impermanent, meaningful. They suggest that maybe the same is true of life.
The Weather Diaries (1986 – 1990) plays Wed Apr 18 – Sun Apr 22
If Price represents an embrace of film’s inevitable demise, the recently deceased George Kuchar does a good job representing its after-life. Kuchar was a pioneer, with his brother Mike, of a genre J. Hoberman called “the ironic spectacle, in which the visionary ambition of the filmmaker is continually underscored by the paucity of his or her means.” The Kuchar’s early films were the precursors of the YouTube living room remake, of “sweding” and Star Wars Uncut. In the 80s, George broke ground on another form, the video diary. In The Weather Diaries, of which parts 1, 3, 5, and 6 will be playing at the Biennial, Kuchar portrayed his humdrum existence with a sense of jagged, syncopated rhythm, finding an editing style to approximate a mind distracted, always leaping to the next thought. This style eventually became the standard editing scheme for what’s now known as vlogging, although most vlogs are more talky and less environmental than Kuchar. Weather Diary-esque editing rose to prominence with Ze Frank’s epochal pre-YouTube sensation The Show, and, for better or worse, it’s the standard way people now approach the video confessional.
Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) plays Wed Apr 4 – Sat Apr 7
Kuchar isn’t the only Biennialist to demonstrate prescience. Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself looks forward to such internet phenomena as supercuts and conspiracy-theory film criticism. Andersen essay offers a history of Los Angeles in the movies, as both setting and shooting location. Individual scenes stitch together various uses of the Bradbury Building or the Ennis House, showing how they’ve been used differently throughout genres and periods. Beyond its formal strategies, Andersen’s film has spiritual resonance with the contemporary online gestalt. As an attempt to reclaim the life of a city colonized by cinema, it reminds one the many strange YouTube videos that seem attempts, often misguided, to reclaim lives colonized by television.
Putty Hill (2010) plays Wed May 2 – Sun May 6
While Andersen’s film explores a topography suffering from overexposure, Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill, looks at one dealing with quite the opposite fate. Shot on the outskirts of Baltimore, Hill is an improvised blend of fiction and documentary that follows around various persons as they prepare for and attend the funeral of a young man who overdosed on heroin. Porterfield’s is a film of lingering unease, his characters stunted and dispossessed. The adolescents betray an alienation both casual and profound, the older folks seem softened only by grief. The topics for discussion are death, drugs, prison, and, for the most hopeful characters, moving away.
Wendy and Lucy (2008) plays Wed Apr 25 – Sun Apr 29
Hill has obvious affinities with Kelly Reichart’s tale of youth and poverty, Wendy and Lucy, which is even bolder in trying to be The Grapes of Wrath of the Great Recession. A neo-neo-realist portrait that’s doesn’t shy away from melodrama, Wendy and Lucy is anchored by Michelle Williams’ Gena Rowlands’ performance as an increasingly dissociated young woman confronting a system rigged to against her. The movie tips its hand when the young clerk embodying the uncaring Other insists his boss call the police on our heroine for stealing, saying, “The rules apply to everyone equally.” If only everyone was so equal before those rules were applied.
The Oath (2010) plays Wed May 30 – Sun Jun 3
Laying claim to a very different kind of relevance is Laura Poitras’ The Oath, a documentary about two men, one a presence, the other an absence. The presence is Abu Jandal, a Yemeni taxi driver who was once Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and is now some sort of self-appointed spokesman for Jihad. The absence is Jandal’s brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, who was Osama Bin Laden’s personal driver and who for most of The Oath is locked in solitary confinement in Guantanamo Bay, waiting to stand trial in as the first of many defendants in the U.S. military tribunals that have travestied the travesty of the “War on Terror.”
Hamdan’s story is haunting; Jandal offers the camera something more along the lines of unnerving. He’s a probable sociopath who exudes such innocence and charisma and seems so genuinely confused so often that it becomes difficult to accuse him of acting in bad faith.
There’s interesting dialectical tension between Putty Hill and Wendy and Lucy on the one hand and The Oath on the other. Here, an America that’s battered its most vulnerable citizens beyond repair; there, an America defending itself through strategies that only weaken it further.
The Power of Nightmares (2004) plays Wed Feb 29 & Fri Mar 2 at e-flux
Incidentally, this very dialectic is the subject a film that’s also playing in Manhattan during the Whitney Biennial. Adam Curtis’ 2004 serial documentary The Power of Nightmares traces the intricate and counter-intuitive parallel histories of neo-conservatism and Radical Islam. Curtis’ movie is playing as part of a complete retrospective at e-flux curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Curtis has helmed a set of elaborately theoretical histories documenting what he sees as the roots of contemporary politics. In his introduction to the show, Obrist says, “Adam Curtis is not an artist, but a television journalist. Over the last decade, many artists have become interested in his work.” There’s an important film playing as part of the Biennial that can help explain why this is the case.
Victory Over the Sun (2007) plays Wed Mar 7 – Sun Mar 11
Michael Robinson’s Victory Over the Sun begins by pondering structures from past World’s Fairs. Gaudy with their ambition and futurism, the buildings are obvious subjects for ridicule until Robinson’s film turns psychedelic. “The Universe I power!,” intones a super-villain sampled from some Saturday morning cartoon, “pure, unstoppable power.” Robinson cuts down Modernism’s utopian dreams to level of comic book mythology, and then raises comic book mythology to the level of a blissed-out supernal trip. The subject of Robinson’s film is, roughly speaking, the Postmodern Condition, which is defined by an insurmountable skepticism of “Grand Narratives.” Part of what the 2012 Biennial has ended up marking, in ways both planned and unplanned, is the culture’s casting off the last vestiges of that condition. Grand narratives, like those of Adam Curtis, are back in a big way.
The great new grand narrative is of course really a very old grand narrative that’s been given a catchy new name—the 1% vs. the 99—and a compelling new movement—Occupy!
It was into the fold of this grand narrative that the 2012 Biennial found itself drawn when a subset of Occupy Wall Street, Arts & Labor, sent out an open letter to Whitney, saying, among other things:
We object to the biennial in its current form because it upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers. The biennial perpetuates the myth that art functions like other professional careers and that selection and participation in the exhibition, for which artists themselves are not compensated, will secure a sustainable vocation.
The Whitney Museum, with its system of wealthy trustees and ties to the real estate industry perpetuates a model in which culture enhances the city and benefits the 1% of our society while driving others into financial distress. This is embodied both in the biennial’s sponsorship – represented most egregiously in its sponsorship by Sotheby’s, which has locked out its unionized art handlers – and the museum’s imminent move to the Meat Packing District, a neighborhood where artists once lived and worked which is now a gentrified tourist destination that serves the interests of the real estate industry.
The Biennial found itself further bound to this grand narrative when someone set up a fake website for the Biennial and claimed that the Whitney was returning corporate funds from Sotheby’s and others to make an ethical statement:
The Whitney is proud to be able to redistribute resources from major corporate donors and super-wealthy individuals to deserving artists, especially within a political and economic system that concentrates wealth for a tiny minority while the majority grows poorer, suffers without healthcare, is forced from their homes, or goes without food. However, the Whitney also recognizes that some donors and sponsors may seek to use their partnership with the Museum to whitewash their image and to hide the social costs of unchecked capital accumulation behind a façade of charity.
Even if the issue of corporate funding for cultural organizations seems very complicated, the general unresponsiveness of art-world higher-ups with regards to the day’s most pressing issues is alarming. If the people in charge at the Whitney can’t be bothered to notice the protesters standing outside the Biennial, they should check out the Luther Price films upstairs, as to reminded of an important fact about which they seem oblivious: nothing lasts forever.
Tom McCormack is Justin Beiber for Alt Screen.
Whitney Biennial 2012 is playing at Whitney Museum of American Art Mar 1 – Jun 10.