Mouths Wide Shut

James Fotopoulos, There, 2014, HD video, color, 103 minutes.

BEWARE OF MOVIES in which actresses spend most of their time in eyelet-trimmed white cotton nightdresses, as does Sophie Traub in James Fotopoulos’s The Given (2015). According to the filmmaker, The Given is about “acting, performance, and abuse.” Fair enough. It is indeed about those things, but in the negative—how not to act, perform, or attempt to deal with abuse, given or received. One wonders if that was Fotopoulos and Traub’s intent. If so, the bad acting, staging, and psychodrama text could have had a bit more satiric bite.

In any case, Fotopoulos is a notably talented, prolific, and obsessive filmmaker. Formerly based in Chicago, he created a stir in 2000 with Migrating Forms, a celluloid eruption of unconscious horror and disgust more nauseating than David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Many feature-length and short films followed. I have a deep bookshelf entirely devoted to Fotopoulos’s homemade VHS and DVD screeners. His short movies are sometimes witty, sometimes lyrical, sometimes borderline abstract but nearly always insistently personal, though his early features paled compared to Migrating Forms.

With Alice in Wonderland (2010), Fotopoulos moved into more complex intellectual terrain, finding the roots of twentieth-century modernism in nineteenth-century paracinema photography and pre-Freudian dreamscape revelations of the unconscious. The film was projected as an installation titled Alice at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery in 2011. A meditation on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by way of Henry Savile Clarke and Walter Slaughter’s 1886 musical Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children, Fotopoulos’s Alice is at once dense and ephemeral. Like a mandala, it focuses on a medium close-up of Alice, or rather of two different depictions of Alice. In part one, she resembles Carroll’s photographs of the dark-haired Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for the Alice books. In part two, she suggests the blonde Alice of John Tenniel’s illustrations for both Wonderland and Looking Glass.

Swirling around her, as if emanating from or impinging on her psyche, are hundreds of drawings—bits of body parts, strange animals, featureless faces—as well as single words and short phrases. More than a muse or a vehicle for Carroll, this Alice is her own woman, her thoughts and desires responsive to the transformations of art and science in the late nineteenth century. Sarah Evans, who embodies Alice, was not a professional actor, but the camera loves her face, which conveys, with almost no conventionally expressive movements—no smiles, grimaces, or eye-widening—a mercurial array of feelings and thoughts. But perhaps she is thinking and feeling nothing at all and our reading is the result of the images with which Fotopoulos surrounds her.

In his two recent features There (2014) and The Given, Fotopoulos employs some professional actors, with mixed results. The former, by far the more interesting of the two, achieves an enveloping paranoia within a controlled, minimalist mise-en-scène. Xander O’Connor plays a war veteran with PTSD who becomes a homeland terrorist. At least one of the women in his life also suffers PTSD, the result of sexual abuse. To indicate their unresolved traumas, both characters speak in short bursts as if they were highly resistant psychotherapy patients. While O’Connor, a forceful presence, clamps his lips shut after every four- or five-word phrase, Sarah Brooks, as the abused woman, repeatedly gasps midsentence through widely parted lips, as if repeatedly horrified by her memories.

I’m not sure if Fotopoulos draws a gender distinction regarding the open- or closed-lip defense against buried trauma, but Traub, the star of The Given, spends most of the film with her mouth open and her arms undulating around her head like an expressionist dancer playing a sleepwalker. Actually, sleepwalking figures in the scenario, which also concerns an actress who goes to uncomfortable places to prepare for an audition, pondering her memories of abuse in long incantatory speeches. I would like to let Traub off the hook—once you agree to work for a director in a film, you abdicate control over what will end up on the screen—but since The Given is largely a showcase for an actress playing an actress, I suspect she was highly complicit in the result. Fotopoulos and Traub might speak to this issue when they appear in dialogue at Microscope on Monday, March 23, at 7 PM.

James Fotopoulos’s installation The Given is on view at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn through March 23. There will screen at Microscope on March 20 at 7 PM.