Mark Lewis

The films of Mark Lewis are earnest, disarming, and seditious. In construction they couldn’t be more straightforward: Each of the two films shown here unfolds in real time, and each is exactly four minutes long. They open-handedly mimic the conventions of film (suspense, narrative, tracking camerawork, etc.) yet turn those conventions in on themselves. The wall-size digital video projection North Circular, 2000, takes its name from the highway that fringes London, the city Lewis calls home. The first two minutes of the silent film consist of a single view of an abandoned office building from across an abandoned office building from across a rainswept parking lot. As gray clouds mass and the occasional bird flies by, Lewis’s camera stays fixed on this ravaged shell of modern commerce, whose broken windows and savaged interior suggest a kind of ruthless late-capitalist cannibalism. Then, suddenly and surprisingly, the camera starts to move, slowly accelerating toward the building in a tracking shot, the stable composition now becoming fluid and dramatic, the grounded point of view rising to the level of the second story of the building. What had been dimly perceptible as activity within the building now becomes a central focus, as the camera steadily and inexorably pans upward and inward toward the window of one room. in which three teenage boys are engaged in relatively benign juvenile delinquency—tossing stuff about, lighting a cigarette, goofing with skateboards, shattering already broken windows, and so on. One boy spins a top on the window ledge, and the camera tightly frames the spinning toy for the last few seconds of the film. That these kids are actors somehow orchestrated by Lewis adds to the collapse of the cinematic cues he has provided. What began as pushing the buttons of cinema verité, uncovering urban decay using silence and stillness to cajole reflection, takes on pulse and drama the moment it adopts the trappings of fiction. Both contemplation and engagement are revealed as Pavlovian responses to strategies of filmic manipulation, the indeterminate quality of this film becoming its final subject.

The Pitch, 1998, is filmed in what appears to be the central concourse of a train station in a large city. Shown here on a standard-size TV monitor placed on a plain modem table, it begins kith a head shot of a man (the artist) reading rapidly from a text and glancing upward to a camera sited some distance away. His text is about “extras,” their unappreciated and anonymous role in the history of film, and constitutes a proposal to make a film about them. As he reads, the camera slowly pulls back, revealing a stream of humanity around him. Most of the passersby ignore him, wrapped up in their personal journeys. A few brush up against him or look with amusement or annoyance at the man talking loudly to himself. They are the extras in his film, in the role of vacant attendant figures that he is simultaneously describing and trying somehow to ennoble. One’s (erroneous) suspicion that these people really are extras, hired by Lewis to mill about in another collapsing of the “true” and the “false,” finally makes his point. (We have seen the extras, and they are us.) Real life and reel life glide into and apart from each other, neither as stable and grounded as they are commonly perceived to be, with Lewis’s exquisite construction and scrupulous technique a tender autopsy of their frailties and pretensions.

James Yood