New York

Roger Deutsch, Dead People and Jews

Collective for Living Cinema

Before the widespread use of photography, painting (and, to a lesser extent, drawing and sculpture) was the means by which people recorded their appearance for both “now” and later. These documentations swelled the ranks of the portraiture genre and coupled the vanity of the present with a necrophilic regard for the future. Gloating in their jewels and fine tailoring, the dead stare out at us, highlights bouncing off the tips of their noses, peach light caressing their plump cheeks. But deterring us from our fascination with their subsequent rot and disappearance are the institutionalized esthetic strategies of painting and the formal rigor it imposes on its subjects. Morbid curiosity is submerged in the formal accomplishments of the painting itself—by the prowess of the forearm.

But with photography, all this has changed. This is not to say that photographic activity isn’t contained by its own visual virtuosities and stylistic precedents but merely to suggest that the replicative skills of the newer technologies of film and video seduce us into a realm of simulation in which the processes of construction are not foregrounded—where labor seems to dematerialize in the “face” of the material. Freed from the need to focus on craft, we abandon ourselves to "reality’ to lives and deaths, and to memory and its legitimation as history.

All this comes to mind when viewing the recent films of Roger Deutsch, works that hover over the issues of memory and disappearance and that cannily keep nostalgia at a distance while seeming to be drowning in it. In Dead People (completed in 1984, this was its first public screening), Deutsch tells a fictionalized history of “Frank,” an elderly black man whom he actually befriended. But since the notion of friendship suggests a certain reciprocity, perhaps it would be more accurate to call Frank an object of fascination, a ”found object“ upon which Deutsch could project his own stereotypes. Deutsch tells us that Frank’s favorite drink was Four Roses, his favorite food Spam, and his favorite TV show ”To Tell the Truth“; that he liked to tell stories about ”dead people and crazy people“; that he called his own life’s story ”My Obituary“ Voice-over (Deutsch): ”To me it was charming. . . . He invented puns and tongue twisters and I invented him. . . . I’ll give him dignity . . . I’ll make a film about him. . . . Then I left town and never finished the film.”

This kind of self-betraying candor is all over Dead People, and it functions not as apologetic bluster but as incisive self-critique. Deutsch’s adoration of “otherness” and its relegation to the position of temporary fancy expose not only the subtler varieties of racism but also shows how time altered his original perspective on this project. (The footage was gathered many years before the film’s completion.) Dead People is marked by memorable moments filtered through a kind of foggy chiaroscuro. Shots of rambling highways, desolate main streets, and a “dead” Frank being shaved for his funeral encircle the film with a black-and-whiteness that functions both literally and metaphorically. It is a melancholy exposition of race, life, and death in economically depressed small-town America.

In Jews, 1984, Deutsch again engages the “found object” as he strings together a collection of old home movies (which he did not shoot) that tell the episodic story of a well-to-do Jewish-American family between the mid ’20s and the mid ’40s. Relatives frolic in summer camps, on cruises, and at various celebrations. Children do cartwheels and babies reach peskily for their daddies’ necks. Sporting titles like “Allan’s First Picture, 1929; ”Eagle River, 1931,” and "Marcia’s 16th Birthday,” these moving snapshots rove between black-and-white and color, recalling not only family and world histories but also the history of film technology. The first color sequence in the film appears in 1932, and with it comes the shock of alteration, of a change from the binary structure of black-and-white to the purported verisimilitudes of color and its attendant simulative capabilities.

Another issue these compelling home movies bring to mind is the degree of objectification that constitutes any representation. How does Hollywood-style objectification differ from that of the home movie? And if there is a difference, does it pivot around the familiar points of use and exchange—around the representation’s use as an archival record circulated within the family, as opposed to the commodification and exchange of commercial movies? Within the frame of world history, we are forced to consider how the fates of these smiling people would have been altered had their lives been lived out in the Germany of 1939 rather than in the safe confines of the Chicago suburbs.

Deutsch’s illuminating picturings push close to film’s ability to reactivate the feel of that which has disappeared; but rather than lolling in the shelter of the simulative, both of these films subtly question their characters’ relation to history and to their own deaths. They are portraits that remind us that these characters are done, through with, no more; yet at the same time, they bring them "to life.” They question cinema’s ability to formalize, to resuscitate, and to re-represent the past.

Barbara Kruger