Flat Affect

James Glisson on Stephanie Barber

Left: Stephanie Barber, letters, notes, 2000, still from a film in 16mm, 4 minutes 30 seconds. Right: Stephanie Barber, dwarfs the sea, 2007, still from a video, 7 minutes.

THOUGH EXTREMELY VARIED, the films of Stephanie Barber engage universal themes—time, death, memory, forgetting, frustration. Barber’s films also consider the impossibility of directly engaging these same themes in a media-saturated culture in which our deepest emotional reserves have been tapped by marketing and advertising.

Even in her films with characters, she avoids facial expressions, bodily gestures, the intonation of a human voice, and the graphic expressivity of handwriting. In a way, Barber is a modernist artist fashioning, from the detritus of mass culture, appealing and opaque documents that speak to our emotional lives in a mechanized, distant, even cold manner.

Through a computerized voice and typographic lettering, Barber scrubs away traces of the human subject in the process of telling stories about people. In dwarfs the sea (2008) and letters, notes (1997), shots of blurry portrait photographs and postcards form a cast of ersatz actors, who, frozen and out of focus, cannot ruin a scene with bad acting. In dwarfs the sea, black-and-white photographs of crew members appear and the digital narrator gives snippets of their lives: “Oh him, he had problems sleeping,” or, regarding a ship’s navigator, “Barely awake, he would begin an internal dialogue of failure.” Holding saccharine melodrama at bay, the affectless and antiseptic tone paradoxically grants each photograph and story a tinge of emotional identification.

In a different vein, the animated shipfilm (1998) takes the choppy rhythm of a film played too slowly and matches it with the roll of ocean waves. A Flying Dutchman ghost ship flickers on the horizon, its tremulous presence tied to the irregular syncopation. Appearing and disappearing as if conjured by the same chaotic force that created the waves, the lost vessel rides the oceans forever.

A screening of films by Stephanie Barber will run on July 31 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. The first program, “A Sides,” will run at 6:30 PM; the second program, “B Sides,” will run at 8:30 PM. For more details, click here.