PRINT May 2012

Amy Taubin

Charles Atlas, Ocean, 2011, still from a color HD video, 100 minutes. Emma Desjardins and Silas Riener.

THERE WERE, FOR ME, TWO REVELATIONS in the 2012 Whitney Biennial: Robert Gober’s installation of Forrest Bess’s paintings (outside my purview here) and the first—and, sadly, last—feature-length documentaries by the late Mike Kelley, part of his characteristically poignant yet mordant unfinished Mobile Homestead project, 2010–. Indeed, there are more than half a dozen stunning movies in the Biennial’s film and video program, which has been ambitiously (if somewhat perversely) organized by Ed Halter and Thomas Beard, founders of the lively Brooklyn microcinema Light Industry, in consultation with the exhibition’s chief curators, Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders.

Halter and Beard cast their net wide, hauling in movies from the three basic food groups as they appear on grant applications: Narrative, Documentary, and Experimental. Commercial movies—or, perhaps better, those designed for the purpose of turning a profit—were excluded, which is one way to define the relation between movies and art. Each of the fifteen film- and video makers selected has been assigned her or his own week of screenings during the run of the exhibition, and in most cases, the final Sunday-afternoon show is to be followed by a “dialogue” between the artist and a curator, critic, or fellow filmmaker. No doubt every one of the artists in the film and video program is worthy of inclusion, but even after one reads the curators’ conversation in the catalogue and the various catalogue texts related to individual filmmakers, why these fifteen artists were chosen rather than fifteen others remains largely a mystery.

A screening followed by an engaging dialogue with the filmmaker is a terrific idea in theory. But interesting as it might have been, for example, to hear J. Hoberman discuss with Thom Andersen the latter’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) on Easter Sunday, I can’t imagine why anyone would give up 169 minutes of a Biennial visit to sit in the Whitney’s second-floor viewing room (terrible sight lines, uncomfortable chairs, the distraction of people constantly walking in and out) to watch a documentary about Hollywood (largely a clip job with a debatable thesis hammered home in wall-to-wall voice-over) that is nearly ten years old and has been at least intermittently available on DVD and Netflix, not to mention YouTube. Perhaps the movie offered the curators a way to bring Hollywood in through the back door, given that Christian Marclay would never have allowed The Clock, 2010, to be shown under these circumstances. (Comparing the installation of Marclay’s time piece at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York last year with the viewing conditions at the Whitney suggests what these dedicated moving-image curators were up against and why this museum has never become a destination for cinephiles.)

Andersen’s sharper and shorter (thirty-five-minute) Los Angeles ode, Get Out of the Car (2010), was on the same program as the filmmaker’s collaged epic, but it would have looked better on its own or with the program of experimental LA short films that Andersen guest-curated (and screened once at the Whitney, also on Easter). Similarly, Boxing Gym (2010; June 6–10), the strongest and most engaging film that the master documentarian Frederick Wiseman has made in a decade, could be better viewed elsewhere, as could Laura Poitras’s documentary The Oath (2010; May 30–June 3), in which the unreliable narrator who once was Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard proves too slippery for the filmmaker to handle, and Kelly Reichardt’s three narrative features, Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Meek’s Cutoff (2010). (The films screened April 25–29; I was tapped to do the dialogue with Reichardt, on the twenty-ninth.) On paper, these movies suggest the scope of American noncommercial cinema, but experientially, they’re out of place in the Biennial.

Matt Porterfield’s hybrid Putty Hill (2011; May 2–6), an affecting fiction feature posing as documentary and a convincing piece of regional realism—it was shot in Maryland with nonprofessional actors—has more in common aesthetically with many of the photographic and installation pieces in the show than do the movies mentioned above. Wu Tsang’s brashly artless Wildness (2012; May 9–13), which documents a queer, culturally diverse weekly performance party at the legendary LA gay bar the Silver Platter, is also a component of the artist’s popular fourth-floor installation, Green Room, 2012. Similarly, Charles Atlas’s gorgeous Ocean (2011), which documents the 2008 staging of Merce Cunningham’s 1994 dance of the same name at the bottom of Minnesota’s Rainbow Granite Quarry, was projected, appropriately, in the fourth-floor performance space that, a week later, would house Atlas’s live audiovisual improvisation piece created with William Basinski and Johanna Constantine. Dance films are a genre of their own, and Ocean, Atlas’s final collaboration with the now-disbanded Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is, even at one hundred minutes, a sleek, vigorous, meditative, and exhilarating work in its own right.

Matt Porterfield, Putty Hill, 2011, color HD video, 87 minutes. Production still.

Duration is also central—aesthetically and politically—to Kevin Jerome Everson’s Quality Control (2011; May 23–27), a seventy-minute document of an Alabama dry-cleaning plant. Shot in 16-mm black-and-white with an old-fashioned sync-sound camera that accommodates eleven-and-a-half-minute film rolls (the appropriate instrument with which to depict a small business that seems not to have been modernized in half a century), Quality Control is largely assembled from seven extended shots, each one depicting a different stage of the backbreaking, foot-swelling, mind-deadening labor that other people, most of them unseen, perform between the moment you drop your dirty clothes at the cleaners and the moment you pick them up, fresh and ready to wear. Everson is one of a very few African-American experimental filmmakers; Quality Control, like most of his films, focuses on the daily lives of African Americans, mostly in the South and the Midwest. Compared with the conditions revealed on the screen, the Whitney’s primitive black-box cinema seems a luxury—as does our freedom to walk out of a movie when we’re bored or we’re irritated by its repetitiveness. The subjects of Everson’s camera have no such recourse.

Easily the most visually ravishing films in the Biennial were those of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, lifelong partners whose devotion to 16 mm shot with handheld silent cameras has resulted in movies revealing an intensity of vision that is marvelously specific to each of them. Dorsky was represented by three recent films, Compline (2010), Aubade (2010), and The Return (2011). Each was shot on a different stock, and Dorsky’s meticulous attention to the expressive qualities of, respectively, Kodachrome, Eastman, and Fuji 16 mm—the first already discontinued, the latter two no doubt in their last days—results in the most alive and also elegiac work of his career. Hiler, whose practice for many decades has been to show his edited 16-mm camera original only to friends, has experimented, for the sake of multiple screenings, with transferring his Words of Mercury (2011) to HD video. Inasmuch as I never saw the film projected in 16 mm, I can’t compare the two versions: As it was shown at the Whitney in March, the movie was dazzling, the aleatory superimpositions (all of them created in camera) the visual correlative of the aural strategies of John Cage.

Still, no other film in the Biennial had the complexity and gravity of Kelley’s Mobile Homestead movies. The artist’s final work (still in progress when he died) was to be a full-scale replica of the working-class Detroit suburban home that he grew up in. In a savage riposte to the grandiosity of the nearby Henry Ford Museum’s “village” of eighty-three re-created historical sites (from Noah Webster’s home to the Wright brothers’ workshop to Menlo Park), Kelley intended his family home to be permanently installed on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. But only the detachable facade (or, more accurately, the front third) of the Mobile Homestead was completed. Kelley loaded it onto a flatbed truck, and its ceremonial launch and maiden excursions were documented in a trilogy of movies to be shown as a single program in the Biennial (May 16–20), Mobile Homestead Christening Ceremony and Launch, September 25, 2010; Going West on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland; and Going East on Michigan Avenue from Westland to Downtown Detroit (all 2010–11). The first of these is merely the setup for the second and third, which depict the journey of the Mobile Homestead along a route that takes it through the diverse neighborhoods of Detroit and the small towns on the city’s periphery. Along the way, there are many stop-offs at bars and restaurants; churches, schools, and hospitals; strip clubs and thrift shops; motels and front stoops. At each location, Kelley interviewed a proprietor, a customer, a worker, or a resident. The interviews were seamlessly edited into monologues, each a portrait of a person and a history of the effects on individual lives of shifts in wealth and in the ethnicity of the populations that make up the various enclaves along fabled Michigan Avenue. The movies are a study of depression economics and of a nearly stereotypical midwestern resilience in the face of loss. They are also landscape, cityscape, and skyscape movies, amazing to behold. Kelley intended the Mobile Homestead to be not merely a traveling public artwork but a means of bringing social services to communities in need. As he wrote in his heartbreakingly pessimistic essay for the Biennial catalogue, however, he never expected that there would be sufficient funding to support the social aspects of the project or even the operating cost of the vehicle. “The work could become just another ruin in a city full of ruins. . . . Turning my childhood home into an ‘art gallery/community center’ was simply a sign of social concern, performed in bad faith.” There is no evidence of bad faith in this clear-sighted moving-picture trilogy, guaranteed to triumph in any of the circumstances in which it has and, one hopes, will again appear.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.