Comedy of Errors

Kevin McGarry on Jim Finn

Jim Finn, The Juche Idea, 2008, still from a color film, 62 minutes.

THE FILMMAKER JIM FINN is best known for the subtle wit of his quasi-documentaries, which appropriate traditional documentary filmmaking techniques to explore socialist/communist ideologies and to parody totalitarian regimes. On Monday, February 1, Finn’s most recent feature, The Juche Idea (2008), will screen as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Mondays series spotlighting contemporary film artists. The Juche Idea, written by Kim Jong-il, is North Korea’s official doctrine on philosophy, theology, and art; it expounds on self-reliance, a trait to which any North Korean filmmaker must aspire if they want to be considered a good artist and an effective arm of the state. (For Kim, these two qualities are indissociable.) The Juche Idea turns its namesake dogma on its absolutist head, mixing scenes that revolve loosely around a South Korean woman’s artist residency outside Pyongyang and that collectively explore Finn’s signature territory of wooden documentary fantasy.

Finn will also present two recent shorts, Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell (2009) and la loteria (2004–05). The former uses images of children skating on a frozen (and thawing) river to allegorize the collapse of constitutional liberties traceable to the eponymous ex-VP. For la loteria, Finn, a militant romantic, created a medley of seventeen mini–music videos mixing home movies (often featuring the filmmaker) with television footage of subversive political figures (Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Donald Rumsfeld, etc.) and imperialist spectacles (Major League Baseball, episodes of The OC), which he then matches with songs that alternate between sweet, near-mythical desire and unruly, pan-American folksiness.

As Finn says of Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell, “Impunity is not just the stuff of autocratic dictatorships in the third world.” Likewise, the filmmaker’s “utopian comedies,” as they have been called, reveal as much about the savage follies of democratic societies as they do the despotic governments they claim as subjects. Even if it is more obvious to a public enlightened by the Bush years that democracies and dictatorships share at least one foundational attribute—a vulnerability to systemic abuse of power—Finn’s work (made during that enervating era) plumbs ideology for absurdity, elevating concerned cynicism to a form of philosophical activism.

“Utopian Comedies: The Films of Jim Finn” runs May 27–June 2, 2010 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.