Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Golden Age of Deconstruction

"Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bear the purely abstract?" - Vasily Kandinsky (1911)
"All electronic music is sampled. The synthesizers are all coming from some source." - Gregg Gillis (2012)
This week, I'll be discussing the following (none of which really lend themselves to "spoilers" by their nature, but be forewarned all the same):
As always here, what follows is less a review than a ramble, in this case inspired by what I think is a Golden Age of contemporary culture that is catching up with the deep and wide potential of the Remix.  This may be the Golden Age of Deconstruction, by which I mean that we are seeing the first generation that grew up with unlimited access to recorded video and music learn to take apart and reassemble those clips with abandon until their core essence has risen to the surface.

Hey Kids, What Time Is It?

I think I found the perfect way to ring in reality's defeat over psuedo-Mayan fear mongering -- also known as New Year's Day 2013 -- when a friend convinced me to stop by the all-night presentation of The Clock exhibit at the MoMA.  The exhibit features a 24-hour film loop directed and edited by the visual artist and composer, Christian Marclay, who -- as explained in a New Yorker profile -- created "one of the first video mashups ... a decade before the genre became ubiquitous on YouTube."

As ubiquitous as mashups are on YouTube, nothing I've seen touches on the mad ambition of this film.  Cobbling together clips from the past century and around the globe (I spotted clips from French, German and Indian cinema, and that's surely just the tip of the iceberg), the film matches the time of day with scenes that feature or allude to that same time of day.  So, for example, when I entered the exhibit around 2:18 am on New Year's Day, every clip showed a scene set at 2:18 am, as shown on a clock in the background or on someone's wrist watch.

Adding to the complexity, Marclay did more than simply shuffling these images together based on time of day alone.  Rather, the clips are edited in a manner that connects each scene to the next in ways that are simultaneously obvious and baffling.  Dialogue and music cues bleed from one scene into the next.  For example, I recall seeing a scene of men wandering the desert (perhaps from Lawrence of Arabia) transition directly to Baron Munchausen and the Grand Turk looking out across the sands from a desert palace courtyard.  A phone call placed by a suburban housewife in a modern day comedy will ring in the office of a hard nosed detective in a black and white French crime drama.

This monster of a project took the work of six interns combing through hundreds of films for any scenes that showed a clock or, through dialogue or other means, alluded to the time of day.  Half of the fun of watching the exhibit is the "Where's Waldo?" factor of searching for the timepiece in each scene, whether it be a watch visible on an extra's arm, a clock tower in the background, or a speaker at a train station announcing the departure of the 5:15 to Newark.

As noted above, the first time I sat in on The Clock was between 2 am and 3 am on New Year's Day.  To complement the experience, I stopped by the MoMA again on a Saturday afternoon to see the exhibit between 5 pm and 6 pm.  Both times, I was struck by how the montage of clips maintains a sort of narrative, despite its intrinsically chaotic structure.  Unsurprisingly, the nighttime clips centered on themes of exhaustion, anxiety, criminal plots coming together or unraveling, and so on, whereas the late-afternoon clips featured a lot of offices winding down the work day, 1950s housewives preparing dinner, and crowds rushing to make the next train home.  Regardless of the time of day, other more generic storytelling tropes also stuck out.  A flurry of activity would occur at the top of every hour, whereas any time an actor mentioned a non-quarter of the hour out loud (say, "2:34" or "5:07") it was to point out that someone was late, or early, or growing impatient.  The net effect, I would say, is to show that certain recurring themes can transcend time and place, that in whatever country or era we tell our stories, we have more in common than we might think.

All that headiness aside, though, what I enjoyed most was seeing the Pavlovian responses these clips evoked from myself and others in the audience.  Just seeing Napoleon Dynamite impatiently check his watch waiting for Uncle Rico to pick him up got a laugh from the audience, while the sight of Humphrey Bogart doing nothing but walk across the room in a fine suit and hat left me admiring the man's screen presence.  That said, there's at least one famous time-specific scene that I wish I had been at the exhibit to see ....

... because come on, he had to use that clip, right?

This Is The Remix

After seeing the exhibit for the second time, I had Girl Talk on my mind and knew I had to see the feature-length music video to his All Day album as soon as possible.  For anyone who's unfamiliar with Girl Talk (a/k/a Gregg Gilis), he's a mashup artist who assembles whole albums based almost entirely on samples from other artists.  In other words, he's the musical equivalent of The Clock.  Here's one of my favorite tracks from his All Day album:

To really understand what's going on in that track, you may be better off checking out this website for a visualization of just how much went in to putting that one segment of music together.  With as many as six songs or more overlaid on top of each other, Girl Talk is doing far more than syncing up random songs together to match up beats.

The feature-length Girl Walk // All Day creates a loose narrative in which a free-spirited dancer makes her way from one borough of New York City to the next on a mission to get as many fellow New Yorkers as possible to dance with her.  Along the way, she's pursued by a vaguely threatening dancer known as The Creep, while crossing paths periodically with a heroically presented dancer known as The Gentleman.  It's less a "movie" than a showcase for these dancers' considerable skills (as well as a kind of video tour of New York's various urban landscapes), but that didn't stop critics like Devindra Hardawar citing the video as "one of the most joyous things" he saw in 2012 in the "Best of 2012" episode of the podcast /Filmcast.

"Joyous" may be the best adjective to describe a Girl Talk album, and the Pavlovian reaction I described above with regard to familiar film clips is multiplied a thousandfold here.  Every few seconds of a Girl Talk track will introduce another familiar guitar riff, drum beat or lyric (sometimes all of the above at once, each from different source material) that will take you back.  Yet, in the same vein as The Clock, the remixing of such distinct and disparate artists as Black Sabbath and Ludacris (among hundreds others) on top of each other not only produces a new, killer dance track, it arguably says something profound at the same time.  That 70s metal and 90s hip-hop may have something essential in common, along with 80s new wave, 60s rock & roll, swing and whatever else Girl Talk can mashup on his next album.

Eyes Without A Face

The combined experience of seeing The Clock on the same day that I saw Girl Walk // All Day not only underscored the skill on display by these artists, but it's also led me to believe that this genre of "mashup" art is maturing before our eyes in a way that previous technologies couldn't have allowed.  Granted, the New Yorker article on The Clock mentions the 1958 film collage "A MOVIE", featuring a similar conceit to The Clock, as an influence on Marclay.  Likewise, Gregg Gillis gives due credit to the rap pioneers of the 1980s and 90s who took "sampling" from an after-school hobby to a major music industry.  But in both instances, those early artists could only work with the tools at their disposal.  Mashing up clips in the 1950s was the province of those with access to celluloid reels and expensive editing equipment, whereas early hip hop artists were dependent on manipulating analog sources to create music loops and other sampling effects.  Above all, it is the ubiquity of digital media and editing tools that has allowed the mashup genre to flourish and produce artwork of a sophistication seen in the works discussed above.

There's another element at play here, besides the technological advancements that made digital mashups merely possible.  On our way to the new digital era, those of us currently entering middle age were also the first generation to grow up with home video.  I can remember waiting anxiously for one of the three TV networks to air Star Wars (you know, "Episode IV") on prime time ... edited for TV ... pan-and-scan ... with commercial interruptions.  The arrival of the VCR meant for the first time, you didn't need to work for a Hollywood studio to re-watch film reels at your leisure.  The opportunity to rewind Flash Gordon a thousand times until the film was worn through and every line of dialogue was committed to memory was a sea change.

Flash forward twenty years, and the effects of re-watchable home video is unmistakable.  Quintin Tarantino famously worked as a video store clerk, soaking in decades of Spaghetti Westerns, Blaxploitation and martial arts films that he would weave into every one of his films.  Likewise, the works of Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, Diablo Cody and Seth McFarland (along with the bottom feeding spoof films of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer) could hardly have found an audience if we hadn't already committed to memory all the pop culture references that comprise the majority of their dialogue.

But again, I don't believe it's just sheer familiarity at play here.  Maybe this is where I take a giant leap with my theory, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I watched Holy Motors around the same time I saw the other two works discussed above.  But I see the same underlying themes at work in all three of these pieces -- recurring storytelling motifs, riffing off the fact that we're familiar with these motifs and using that familiarity to dig at the truths that lie underneath the surface.

(Really, at this point, if you haven't seen Holy Motors, it will be hard to discuss how this movie fits into the discussion.  I can't provide a complete plot synopsis, nor would I try even if you don't personally care about spoilers.)




That said, here's the takeaway:  From the opening scenes of Holy Motors, it's clear that the film is taking us through the screen like Alice through the Looking Glass, literally stepping beyond the theater walls into a kind of quasi-reality in which the main character "M. Oscar" is driven around by limo from one assignment to another.  Each assignment requires that Oscar assume a new role (including costume changes, make-up and even prosthetics) and step into a scene already in progress, shot by unseen cameras and involving bystanders who may or may not understand that they've become part of the show as well.

On the surface, based on the synopsis I just provided, you may be wondering what this has to do at all with The Clock or Girl Talk.  As it happens, Holy Motors is itself rife with pop culture references, leading one writer to comment that it "invites a cinephile game of spot-the-allusion."  If you're like me and didn't spot the allusions on first viewing, it may shed some light on the film's message to let you know that -- for example -- the actress who played the chauffeur, Edith Scob, who dons the odd face mask in her final scene also starred in the French classic from 1960, wherein she wore the same mask.

Whether or not you're familiar with these particular references, the film operates in the same manner as The Clock and Girl Talk.  Oscar as "important businessman" blurs into Oscar as sewer urchin, who in turn blurs into Oscar as gangster, Oscar as forlorn lover, as suburban family man.  Wildly divergent genres overlap, united by a common player, playing his part through familiar scenes juxtaposed to highlight their common underlying humanity.  These are scenes we've seen before, roles remixed and recontextualized, forcing us the audience to reconsider how we tell our stories and why we tell them.  And again, the filmmaker clearly assumes you've seen these scenes before (even if we haven't brushed up on our 1960s French cinema).  There's a dialogue happening here, spoken in the language of home video, digital streaming and YouTube mashups.  At the same time, Holy Motors (like The Clock, like Girl Walk // All Day) is a new piece of art onto itself, with solid performances by everyone involved and enough film making skill on display to land the film on an impressive array of "Best of 2012" lists.

All of this is to say that it's a good time to be a fan of deconstruction in art, and that's without discussing Cabin in the Woods, Seven Psychopaths or a dozen other examples from the past year alone.  And with filmmakers coming of age in video stores, and with MP3s and video clips available at historically unprecedented levels to anyone with a broadband connection, I believe we've hit the sweet spot when a new genre comes into its own for the first time and the first true "classics" of the genre -- quality artwork that has something to say -- may be recognized

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