London

Stuart Croft

Rhodes & Mann

An Irishman, an Australian, and an American walk into a bar. That’s the setup—not for a joke, but for Stuart Croft’s single-screen DVD projection Hit, 2003, a nourish “celluloid” narrative twisted into the shape of a Möbius strip. The bar, doused in soft magenta light and helmed by an expert mixologist, is that of London’s plush Great Eastern Hotel—and it’s dead, apart from two drinkers. Some quick-and-dirty expository dialogue confirms that this pair has a history, possibly sexual: “This is really fucking rude, you know? Given what happened—what you did,” gripes the first, adding, a few moments later, “So you’ve ditched celibacy then?” First person subsequently tries to interest second person in joining a betting ring, to which nineteen people are currently signed up and for which twenty are needed. After a bit of mutual aggression, second person expresses an interest. First person orders up a cocktail—a Big Nowhere—at which point second person says, “Ha-ha, I was just kidding.” End of script.

So far, so modishly inconclusive; but thankfully Croft is more ambitious than that. Halfway through Hit’s cat-and-mouse act, the images and sound track start being shadowed by others, involving a different pair in the same setting, who gradually come to obscure the original protagonists. These new characters follow the same text at the same time, so the story line continues seamlessly. Say we start with the Australian woman trying to persuade the (Northern) Irishman to sign up (the twenty-one-minute film is on a loop). Another enactment of the deal presently fades in, with the Australian woman playing the mark and an American man making the hit; they take up the two-hander, bring it to its end, and begin again. Seen against the first version, this variant flirts with flashback—perhaps this was how the woman got involved?—but refutes it by using identical dialogue. And when, at the midpoint of their version of the script, a third and final version blooms up in which the Northern Irishman sells the idea to the American, it becomes clear that these three scenes can’t exist in the same universe. The serpent has conclusively swallowed its own tail.

Much of Hit’s considerable punch is retroactive. As the cycle repeats, the film’s tone shifts inevitably from naturalism to mannerism, foregrounding the actors’ discrepant nuancing of the dialogue and shortcomings such as the theater training that surfaces in the American’s exaggerated facial expressions. With further repetition, the narrative devolves into a pageant of illicit trimmings (dodgy deals, simmering violence, modulating sexual tension) that tempts you to consort with what is basically a multitiered formalist exercise—a cinematic work piggybacking on video art’s imperative of looping in order to generate endless involutions, each one moving you a fraction further from that initial semblance of reality. Yet during that first run-through, before Croft has revealed his filmic devices as neatly analogous to elements of a confidence trick, you do fall for it. After a few minutes, you say you’re interested. The film proceeds pointedly to order up a Big Nowhere, and you cover for yourself by saying, Ha-ha, I was just kidding. You’ve already handed over some capital, but if you’re smart you’ll leave before losing any more. Probably you’re not that smart, though.

As I was saying, an Irishman, an Australian, and an American walk into a bar . . .

Martin Herbert