Narratives Down the Rabbit Hole

The works I've selected for the month of February are all "experimental narratives". There's a story, somewhere, in each of them--a girl looking for her brother, a boy trying to save his parents from being killed--but the path from beginning to end, if there is a beginning or end, is a murky one, twisting and turning back in on itself. Or maybe the story itself is buried, or a sort of scaffolding for unchained histrionics or formal experimentation. These works eschew what the filmmaker Raúl Ruiz termed "central conflict theory", an ideology of narrative (toxic and hegemonic, in his view) which posits that for a story to be a story, a central conflict and resolution must exist, a linear payoff in which a problem is posed at point A and tied up neatly at point B. These works open up the possibilities of what a narrative can be. Within them exist wild constellations of people, places, words, and sounds, audiovisual environments to traverse in myriad ways beyond one foot following the other on clearly demarcated paths. And, contrary to common wisdom about narrative (as pitted against experimental, documentary, or whatever other meaningless signifier you can throw out there) cinema, they don't require a big budget--or any budget--at all. Countless mainstream films in recent years have toyed with narrative experimentation, so I'm focusing here on the underground, unknown, underappreciated, and, per curatorial guidelines, available for free online. Enjoy!

Reflections of Evil, Damon Packard, 2002

It's not too often you can say, truthfully, that you just saw something unlike anything else you've ever seen, but this was the case the first time I watched this terrifying and hilarious handmade masterpiece from 2002. An obese watch salesman (played by Packard himself, with a ton of pillows stuffed under his clothes) roams the streets of Los Angeles, attempting to sell his wares to a perpetually agitated, screaming public, while his sister, who died of a drug overdose in the 1970s, searches for him across time and space. As in Jacques Rivette or Jackass, part of the fascination of the film comes from it’s permit-less, almost documentary-like focus on the city setting colliding with the performative antics and fantasy world of the story. Through ingenious, crisp and upfront sound design and a barrage of Final Cut post-production and editing effects, Packard sends the "real" world hurtling into that of the fiction, yielding a deeply frightening, sad yet uproariously funny portrait of post-9/11 American hysteria and paranoia. This film gave me a remarkable feeling in the pit of my stomach, on the precipice between joyful pain from uncontrollable laughter and wrenching terror and dread. A truly mind-altering and haptic work of art.

Manoel on the Island of Wonders, Raúl Ruiz, 1984

Raúl Ruiz is without a doubt one of my favorite filmmakers, and this, originally aired as a "for children" three-part TV miniseries, might be my favorite thing I've seen by him yet. It is the tale of a young boy, Manoel, traveling through time and encountering fantastical situations, through which he is often presented with an opportunity to change the outcome of his life (though, in a blackly comic touch, things turn out rather bleakly for Manoel no matter his choices). As is expected of Ruiz, narrative conventions are completely thrown out the window. Though there is a central character, there is no central story for him to lock into. Instead, the film is comprised of myriad interwoven tales, places and situations, simply allowed to exist, spinning and floating before you as the cinematic ball of yarn that it is. Watching it, I thought of a cinematic board game without an end--a character moves three spaces forward, but then needs to shoot nine back, at which point he is then transported to another space, and so on.

Narrative progression and the particular type of audience satisfaction which comes from it are eschewed for conjuring what Ruiz described as "specifically cinematic emotions". This is when formal characteristics unique to the cinema, such as sound/image combinations, shot compositions, or camera movements, produce novel emotional responses in the viewer, aesthetic rushes of feeling, unachievable in other art forms. Our thrill comes not from the emotional development of a character, or the resolution of a mystery in the narrative, but from the way a camera can achieve unseen new perspectives of people and places and engender a sense of aesthetic feeling unique to film. There is a moment where Manoel's head detaches from his body and takes the form of a ball being passed between two people. No special effects are used, only cutting from shots of the ball to Manoel's head filmed on the edge of a boat with running water underneath, a smile full of childhood wonder on his face. It is a sequence of overwhelming beauty, and sitting on my couch at home I felt a rush of joy radiating through my body--a pure example of the emotional power of form.

Possibly in Michigan, Cecilia Condit, 1983

Who would have thought it took a friend all the way from Greece to tip me off to the amazing Cecilia Condit, professor at around-the-corner (I lived in Chicago at the time) University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee? What he sent along was just a portion of her 1983 video, Possibly in Michigan, and I was instantly hooked on its early video art meets suburban horror film aesthetic and tense, jerky Casio score. I finally saw the whole thing at a screening some friends of mine curated at Chicago microcinema the Nightingale, centered around works that focus on and take place in the Midwest.

In the video, two women named Sharon and Janice stroll an empty shopping mall, trying on perfume and melodically delivering morose, deadpan dialog about "mother's crazy sister Kate" who "put her poodle in the microwave". They're being followed by a man in a suit named Alfred, who shares in common with the two women a proclivity towards violence and a fondness for perfume. He follows them back to their house, where he alternates between a variety of animal masks, before transforming into a "Prince Charming" and invading the home through a broken window. He physically assaults Sharon before being shot dead by Janice. The two women cook him, eat him and throw away his bones.

The video is a sort of mini New Wave horror musical, with lots of formal experimentation and editing that careens between various video textures, green screen play and dissolves of the women transforming into leathery corpses. Alternately playful and menacing, the work deconstructs and reclaims "revenge" tropes common to horror cinema and the traumas of domestic violence. Witty, catchy, surreal and disturbing narrative art video at its finest.

Buy This Car, Carlos Gonzalez, 2017

" Tarkovsky has been channeled through the Kuchar Brothes and thrown up on a public-access station." -Matthew Thurber in The Comics Journal reflecting on Carlos Gonzalez's videos

This week's entry is Buy This Car by the prolific Providence, RI-based artist Carlos Gonzalez, whose singular vision spans the worlds of underground music, comics and filmmaking (or "home videos", in his words). Crude, hypnotic and hilarious, they make contact with the world in a slow, precious trickle, distributed on dubbed over VHS tapes on his music tours (as Russian Tsarlag), often not even for sale but just handed out to some friends who might seem interested. In this regard, they comprise perhaps the most obscure facet of his already firmly sub-underground practice. While clear markets exist for his music and comics, his videos have an even more mythic, esoteric allure. You catch what you can, when you can--perhaps you got your hands on a dubbed over copy of Money Train including three of his most recent shorts, or you've acquired one of his many astounding forays into feature-length filmmaking (the pinnacle of which is 2016's psychodrama epic Forgotten World, released as a limited edition VHS and streaming combo by the DIY imprint Pleasure Editions), depending on where and when you catch him on tour, and if he happens to have a copy. But behind the green door these works shine bright, and folks are taking notice. Last year saw Carlos present a selection of videos at Anthology Film Archives and Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York, and I'll never forget randomly cracking open an issue of Artforum and seeing his name right there on one of those "listicles" of a hot artist's favorite new shit.

I programmed some of his shorts for a screening a friend and I put together at Chicago's Nightingale Cinema of moving image work by underground artists from Rhode Island and Florida who might more commonly be known as musicians or comics artists (I like to think of these three mediums as a sort of holy underground art triangle, something which definitely comes across when you look at Carlos' work as a whole--the same vision and feeling is present be it a new tape, comic or video). I digitized the two videos we showed from a VHS Carlos mailed me, and now, a couple years later and with Carlos' permission, I've put them on my Vimeo page.

The one I've decided to showcase here is Buy This Car. Like most of Carlos' videos, the set up and method of production is rather simple. Take some "characters", often simply defined by a profession--in this case a dying car salesman, a doctor and his hotline psychic girlfriend--and create a situation, some sort of narrative arc. It's all just a big canvas for Carlos' unique brand of trash poetry, his incredible, sharp insight to the horror and humor underlying the most common of things and situations, his Fassbinder-caliber curation of bright-shining freakers comprising an evolving "acting company", his own quick wit and sense of rhythm as a formidable improviser, and not least his totally lo-fi, genuine cinematic ingenuity. Like Godard of recent years, the editing is done entirely on two VHS decks and a primitive video mixer with effects. Buy This Car boasts split screen, image distortion, slowed down sound, and an unforgettable deep-frame composition of a telephone conversation between a man and a woman on TV. In my eyes, a million times more power and poetry on display here than in any given bloated narrative film at the multiplex, so save your money and get lost in Buy This Car (and if you dig a little deeper on my page, Cafe Banana while you're at it).