New York

the Whitney Biennial film/video program

By and large, the Whitney Biennial’s cinematic program, a Whitman’s Sampler of film and video work, represents all that is or has been fashionable within the last three years; quality runs a distant second. The curators have gathered up an impressive bouquet of almost-clichés from the fertile no-man’s-land between the art world, the commercial fringe of Indiedom, and the avant-garde: the enshrinement of the outsider (Harmony Korine, Gummo, 1998; Errol Morris, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, 1997; Yvonne Welbon, Living with Pride, 1999), the inherent abnormality of the supposedly normal (Rolf Belgum, Driver 23, 1998; Les LeVeque, 2 Spellbound, 1999), the ephemeral as the ultimate repository of truth (Nathaniel Dorsky, Variations, 1992-98; Jem Cohen, Instrument, 1999; Walid Ra’ad, The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs, 1998), the surface as point of historical entry (Elisabeth Subrin, Shulie, 1997; Jill Godmilow, What Farocki Taught, 1998) or veil over the indefinable (Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, The History of Glamour, 1998), film as therapeutic tool (Ruth Leitman, Alma, 1998; Rebecca Baron, okay bye-bye, 1998; Anne Makepeace, Baby, It’s You, 1998), and those golden oldies that never seem to fade away, “gender” and “the body” (Sadie Benning, Flat Is Beautiful, 1998; Mandy Morrison, Desperado, 1997). These thoroughly chewed-over ideas get revitalized in the best work, of course, but the selection is so dispiriting that even the two incontestable triumphs—Dorsky’s silent 18-fps image poem and Benning’s tough-as-nails mapping of her own childhood—get a little lost, normalized.

Arguably the only two genuine visionaries in the program, Dorsky and Benning are deeply immersed in their own materials, both psychic and artistic. Of the two, Dorsky is less au courant, more private. In a sense, he has no agenda other than beauty—more specifically, the way we apprehend beauty. Unlike the current vogue for catching reality/beauty/truth on the fly, Dorsky’s carefully collected pieces of time suggest a nineteenth-century naturalist combing the woods for new species of fauna. The montage is supremely elastic: Sometimes a narrative link is suggested, sometimes there’s a link through color or movement, sometimes there’s a shift in perspective (gentle here, dramatic there), and sometimes we’re dropped into a completely new framework, from which the associations start building up again. This mental ebbing and flowing always feels very lifelike. Dorsky is a consistently breathtaking artist, and Variations is a film that pulses with serenity.

The cunningly strategized and tenderly realized Flat Is Beautiful is anything but serene. You don’t have to see parallels between the landscape of Benning’s childhood and your own to grasp the utter rightness of her insight: a child's tendency to flatten emotions, budding desires, objects of fascination, relationships, and physical surroundings into one poetically uniform surface. Benning puts her performers in paper masks, which gives every mundane action a haunting aftereffect, at the same time imparting an impressively hard through-line to the entire film. Benning shoots all the scenes inside her alter ego Taylor’s cramped Milwaukee house in Pixelvision, accentuating both the flatness and the close quartered-ness, and everything outdoors (playground, street, dilapidated storefronts around town) in a grayish black-and-white Super 8. By turns funny, frightening, and oddly lyrical, Flat Is Beautiful is directly plugged into the wonderful world of puberty.

Among the other selections, Instrument, Cohen’s portrait of the DC band Fugazi, is very nice, occasionally exciting, getting at its subject from multiple angles. There's a special thrill to the off-the-cuff portraits of Trenton/Knoxville/New York ticketholders, which catch a wonderful mix of desperation, vanity, and resentment. Subrin’s Shulie is the most conceptually gutsy work in the show, a pitch-perfect copy of a 1967 documentary on then-budding feminist author Shulamith Firestone. Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught goes down a similar path (a copy of Harun Farocki’s 1968 Inextinguishable Fire), but in both cases the excitement is in the inevitable discordances that crop up as two historical periods clash. Craig Baldwin’s Spectres of the Spectrum, 1999, and LeVeque’s 2 Spellbound are good, corny show-off movies, the former a lesser work but a characteristically dazzling immersion in information overload nonetheless, the latter a sleek fast-forward run through Hitchcock’s Spellbound with the image mirrored against itself. T. Kim-Trang Tran’s ocularis, 1998, a methodical exploration of America’s dark romance with surveillance, might be the most disciplined work in the program, a fluid video cousin to the films of Hollis Frampton.

Although it’s unimaginably minor, Belgum’s Driver 23 manages to get a funny momentum going through his subject’s compulsive activity. The what-the-hell-is-this-doing-here award goes to Makepeace’s Baby, It’s You, a record of her failed attempts to have a baby with her husband: interesting to the filmmaker . . . and perhaps a few devoted fans of the Lifetime channel. As for the “mainstream” films, Morris’s lightweight, aptly named Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Korine’s supremely calculated Gummo both immediately prompt long lists of more deserving candidates. But it may have been a good move to include Korine, a talented guy with a mercenary soul; of all the artists on display here, he’s probably the most likely to scramble to the top of the media-culture mountain.

Kent Jones is a critic and film programmer who lives in New York.