San Francisco

Emily Wardill

Emily Wardill’s Game Keepers Without Game, 2009, cribs from La Vida es Sueño (Life Is a Dream), a seventeenth-century Spanish play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, but the source is nearly unrecognizable. Whereas Calderón’s play revolves around the life of a Polish king who imprisons his son at birth, Wardill’s adaptation, set in contemporary Britain, recounts the tale of a mixed-race girl put up for adoption by her family and her father’s dubious attempt, many years later, to bring her back into the family fold. Although the plot is linear, Wardill complicates its telling with an exaggeratedly slick, glossy stylization—the entire piece is shot against a stark white backdrop that casts everything into specimen-like relief—and a glacial pace. Furthermore, she incorporates varied acting styles, multiple narrators (some reading appropriated texts), and seemingly nonsensical shots of commercial objects (a Nicorette package, a DVD case, a key); for a brief Brechtian moment, the artist is heard instructing an actress to speak like “a fake girl.”

An additional battery of distancing strategies amplifies the characters’ alienation—and challenges the viewer to stick around. At the opening of the film, the characters are introduced by way of an extended exposition. One by one, they stand solemnly against the white background, and a voice-over coldly lists their names, ages, occupations, and relationships to the others. When the actors do finally interact, the scenes are staged to emphasize their estrangement from one another. As two teen girls fleece a drunk American early in the film, the beginning of the scene is shot from above—an awkward, abstracting angle that leaves most gestures and facial expressions unseen. Then the camera shifts perspective. The girls’ heads are entirely cropped from the frame, and only their bodies and voices carry the action. In Game Keepers’s central sequence, the novelist father engages his estranged prostitute daughter (who, not recognizing him, believes he is a john), but Wardill refrigerates this hot-button confrontation. The actors avoid eye contact, and when the daughter begins to disrobe, the camera pans to the father in a manner that seems to move him farther from her in space. She is unseen as he coughs nervously, alone in the frame. Other conflicts transpire offscreen or are avoided altogether. For example, an incident of incest between brother and sister is represented only by an explicit description in voice-over, accompanied by shots of a cell phone and a ticking wristwatch.

In an interview, Wardill noted that the word melodrama conjoins “melody” and “drama,” “whereby the musical element communicates to you in a way that somehow bypasses cerebral understanding.” Here, the film is set to a drum score. Jazzy and seemingly improvised, the rhythm (not a melody) is erratic, often overpowering the narration and dialogue. The inconsistent sound track echoes the dramatic pacing, which lurches between outbursts of violence and near didacticism, as well as the visual grammar, which alternates between flashes of colorful objects—a steaming mug of borscht is deliciously lingered over—and logy emptiness.

Extending this sort of work to seventy-six minutes is risky business, especially for an artist so painfully effective at alienating the viewer. But when Wardill does allow audiences to identify with the characters—say, in the wordless, extended shots of the father and daughter showering, lost in their own confused thoughts and physicality—the richness of her vision becomes more readily apparent, its challenges worth taking on.

Glen Helfand