New York

George Landow

Collective for Living Cinema

When George Landow says that he wants a film sequence to contain moments of “compressed energy,” I can’t help but think of a zealous chemist mixing highly explosive substances, thrilled by the danger of the risk and the uncertainty of the end: Landow revels in the potency of his subject matter and the ambiguity of his messages. The energy of his latest short film, The Marriage Broker as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, or Can the Avant-Garde Artist be Wholed? is as undisciplined as its title, and in the end, despite its outstanding moments, just as puzzling. Its subject matter is a stream-of-consciousness blend of satirical racist and sexist sentiments; the humor is persistently double-edged. Both a unifying theme and a divisive strategy, Landow’s humor is as seriously calculated as it is slapstick. The filmmaker (who says that he thinks film watching is a contemplative experience) is not just a skilled comic; he is a man consistently, here and in earlier films, preoccupied with the seriousness of ideology.

Marriage Broker is a series of very loosely linked vignettes all playing on the idea of being “taken for a ride,” and pivoting around the subjects of faith and mysticism, irreligion and the pursuit of physical pleasure. The “joke,” as it is weakly drawn in one of the vignettes, is that a young man (Japanese) is promised a beautiful bride by a marriage broker, only to see her at the altar for a moment before she is whisked away from him to be replaced by her ugly old mother, the real bride. Although the “joke” never quite works, the idea of deception is constant. The groom is duped by a pander, the pun of which, in a couple of truly clever sequences, manifests itself: men in panda bears’ costumes pose as the avant-garde filmmakers promising to make a film, filmmakers pose as the bears commenting on the pretense of avant-garde film, etc. The screen is occupied by a steady stream of unrelated hucksters, some of whom aren’t nearly as silly (or as successful) as the panda bears—like the Puritanical preacher reciting a text about mysticism, or the black transvestite, Diminutive Dick, leering into the camera. But the edge grows sharper when Landow presents a stereotypical Japanese businessman trying earnestly in his heavy accent to decide how to package salted plums for maximum profit, it is hard to decide whether the bigger joke is on him or on us. As he deliberates over what variety of jar sizes will most entice the public into buying his plums, and how many plums Will fit into each of the Jars in question, the Pop-Freudian symbolism is good for a chuckle, but the primary subject of what seems like a layered satire is not so easy to pinpoint. The handling of religious dogma is a bit more heavy-handed: a text (Biblical?) about loving Jesus fills the screen as we hear the sounds of a woman having an orgasm.

Despite fast-paced sequencing, Landow’s camera focuses ponderously on dramatically composed, still, dreamlike images. His camerawork has the immediacy of theatrical performance, but the camera as a perpetual intrusion contributes to the effectiveness of his characters. The stereotypes of businessman, pimp and minister are for the most part achieved by head-on, close-range shots set up with simple, staged backgrounds; one image reinforces the next while the “offensive” cast psychologically invades the viewer’s sight to incite a mildly claustrophobic but mesmerized response. Like life on the tube, their unreal quality has surprising authority. Some of these images remain witty icons in memory, particularly the panda bear posing for the camera on the set of a Rousseau-like painting. Others, such as a horrifically made-up face masquerading as Liberace’s, are really without humor. Smoke rises around the grotesque head as if it is a vision of hell, but the vision s relatively short life on the screen just seems to drag.

When Landow comes close to losing his humor it is because he has fixated both camera and intellect on an abstract only to pull away without committing himself. Landow is intrigued by humor as the cover-up for hostility. The hostility with which he is concerned covers a labyrinth of empty ideologies and promises—not really the concerns of an ordinary comic. His creations range from the brilliantly inventive to the facile. So the more carefully constructed moments of ingenious satire make the more simplistic moments look like fillers for material that might have been too probing, too seriously disruptive, even for an “avant-garde” audience. Landow’s more serious concerns, the issue of media manipulations in a commercial and competitive society, and the related issue of psychological manipulation are cut short by the more accessible side of his wit. Still, the kind of “compressed energy” with which Landow has chosen to communicate makes for provocative material, even amid the confusion. If he has yet to decisively answer the question of the “wholeness” of the avant-garde artist, he has an impressive idea of the burden implicit in the question.

Joan Casademont