New York

Oliver Payne and Nick Relph

GBE (Modern)

Creating a modest, more charming, and less tabloid-hungry brand of sensation with a series of short films they’ve made with friends and each other over the past couple of years, Londoners Oliver Payne and Nick Relph are the unanimously hailed first new kids of the post-YBA moment. In productions like Driftwood, 1999, and Mixtape, 2002, stylish, intimate, music-driven portraits of a generation under siege by youth culture intuit ways of being in a city (and on camera) where escape routes from corporate time and space seem less and less navigable. Their latest production, Gentlemen, 2003, inhabits the terminal stages of Carnaby Street, a once-fashionable and distinctively local district that recently gave up the ghost to Starbucks and the Gap. The film mourns this passing but in a perversely fascinated way: Payne and Relph want to live this death as a new sense of possibility and a sense of humor, leaving sentiments such as regret and nostalgia to Prince Charles and the longhairs. In the same way that the dandy poets of nineteenth-century Paris embraced the prostitute and the flaneur as living-dead life-forms adequate to the hypnotic shopping arcades and bourgeois boulevards of their city, Payne and Relph seek states of grace in the latte-sipping, distracted lifestyles of a homogenized, pasteurized, and tourist-friendly London at Christmastime.

Matching handheld, blatantly unfocused DV shots to the sharp-tongued, mannered phrasings of a rant on commodification and cancer (voiced by writer and curator Ian White), Gentlemen flirts with the look and feel of ’60s underground cinema. Seeming to take formal cues both from early Situationist cine-tracts and postbeatnik Super-8 diaries, it updates the small, personal art film as cool entertainment for viewers raised on MTV. Shooting street lamps through fluttering tinsel, neon reflected in rain puddles, extreme close-ups of urinal water and window displays, mandala-like patterns of blinking Christmas lights, etc., the camera transforms banal, everyday surfaces into abstract, often psychedelic rhythms of light, motion, and color. Aestheticizing “bad” shots and mining the urban desert for fleeting moments of visual poetry, this is the first Payne and Relph production that doesn’t rely on young bodies for content. Optical distortion is one way of negating the new city’s (and the urban body’s) insidious powers of suggestion and communication, its hyperlegibility and screenlike functions. As Gentlemen trips out on the metastatic “mall or nothing” gentrification and factory-made, mutant youth trash of Carnaby Street, its freewheeling, wisecracking voice-over seems to channel Baudelaire’s opiated eye on the instant ruins and cadaverous seductions of early modernity. Meanwhile, signaling through this flood of words and visuals, an instrumental track of free-jazz drums and bleeping Morse code transmits a more cryptic message—between the lines or from a sinking ship.

There is a kind of affirmative nihilism in Payne and Relph’s passionate embrace of a life-destroying environment, but they know the patient is too far gone for a surgical cure. Viral and cellular metaphors abound in this video manifesto, whose optimist-miserablist authors hope to build immunity by learning to carry the new poison inside them. As their favorite songs are remixed for advertising jingles and their subculture is replayed on cheap T-shirts, they want to be as hyperresilient and “staggeringly modern” as what outmodes them. Shooting a knockoff underground film in a Starbucks bathroom is not the same as burning it down, but, for well-mannered punks like Payne and Relph, taking back the streets is first of all an aesthetic problem, and must begin with reappropriating the image, the very absence, of the streets themselves.

John Kelsey