by Sheryl Mousley, Walker film/video Curator
Sam Green on Utopia in Four Movements “With this film, you have to be there. It’s almost a performance or dance piece. Watching something about utopia, and doing it all together with a lot of people in the same room, creates an energy. It’s inspiring. . . . The more I thought of it, the more I realized utopia was a collective experience.”
The Walker’s Expanding the Frame series not only highlights changes in ways that artists are working with film, but also shows how the medium itself is being reframed in the 21st century. The works presented bring together artists who are literally going beyond the cinema’s rectangular projection of light to incorporate live performance into their film-based work.
A number of artists are currently reviving the theatricality of the cinema experience, so the notion of the “movie theater”—what it once meant, and what it means today—became a touchstone in organizing this year’s program. Sam Green, Brent Green, and Berlin (Bart Baele and Yves Degryse) may not be interested in re-creating the heyday of the movie palace, but their work does have threads going back to those decades when people treated going out to the movies as an event. On some level, they recognize that the experience of the theater itself, at once commonplace and communal, has gotten lost with the personalization of films and the ways we see them. Not only are movies more numerous than ever, but they are ubiquitous: available everywhere, on demand, and in multiple platforms ranging from DVDs and cable TV to smart phones and laptops.
Sam Green’s and Dave Cerf’s Utopia in Four Movements, Brent Green’s Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, and Berlin’s Bonanza—A Documentary for Five Screens all operate, albeit in different ways, around the idea of creating a new kind of theatrical experience. Each presentation is a unique event, one that can only be experienced on the artist’s terms, and words from their titles—utopia, bonanza, gravity—evoke the artists’ sizable aspiration to present bold ideas.
Each looks at the roots of idealism as well as the common human traits—greed, ambition, ego, competitiveness, despair— that almost always subvert it.
Utopia in Four Movements is in some ways an homage to early cinema, but it’s colored by Green’s point of view as a maker of documentary films, probably the least theatrical of any film genre. He creates a “live documentary” with musical accompaniment by Cerf, who mixes a soundtrack along with the Quavers’ live score. The audience, meanwhile, watches Green narrate as he sifts images from the history of utopian impulses and searches for insights about building a vision of the future based on humankind’s noblest impulses. Bonanza is another kind of live documentary, but one without onstage performers. Its title is borrowed from its setting: a remote, once-booming mining town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, whose seven remaining citizens have lost trust in each other and basically cannot get along. Baele and Degryse view this hamlet as a microcosm of the disarray in the larger world, including people’s inability to communicate and govern themselves. In a magnificent mountain setting, this is, in a sense, another account of a utopia gone awry. The complexity of the citizens’ problems is conveyed by five separate projections on five screens, through which the artists shape both the story and our vantage point. The result is a multidimensional view of a community with no single linear narrative thread.
Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then is a narrative about love and faith, but also, in a sense, a theatrical document. Based on a true story and reimagined by animator Green, known for his folkloric tales with handcrafted characters, it explores undying love as a young man attempts to save his terminally ill wife by building a house around her. Green visited the actual structure in Kentucky and later rebuilt a version of it in rural Pennsylvania. By using it as a set for two actors, he took another step away from documenting reality in order to bring it into the world of theater. To then create a live, onstage event, Green invites musicians from various indie bands to accompany the film. Mix this score with live, Foley-style sound effects, and the couple’s oddly fairy tale–like story comes to life.
This trio of events comprises the fourth annual Expanding the Frame series, but of course, the Walker’s history with cutting-edge cinema goes back much further. The Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection includes dozens of works from the 1950s to the ’80s by experimental filmmakers such as Paul Sharits, Stan Brakhage, and Ernie Gehr, who homed in on the formal concerns of light, motion, and sound, or treated the material itself as a physical object to be scratched or marked, all as a way to distinguish film as an art form, separating it from conventional narrative cinema. Beginning in the late ’50s, when Happenings erupted as planned or spontaneous actions, another strand of performance filmmaking took shape as documentation of these events. Though these films weren’t originally considered experimental art, or art of any kind, they are now among the only surviving elements of these ephemeral events (along with sets and props, many examples of which are part of the Walker’s collection). So these films and objects are increasingly being presented as art or in artistic contexts—as with Peter oore’s Stockhausen’s Originale, part of the recent exhibition 1964; or the stage set from Ron Vawter’s 1992 performance piece Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, currently on view in the exhibition Event Horizon.
The notion of expanding the frame reaches back to very early forms of cinema: the optical tricks of the zoopraxiscope, linear zoetrope, or the magic lantern that were promoted at expositions in the 19th century. The magic lantern, in particular, resonates with artists today who are striving to conjure new forms of cinematic magic. But it’s an effort that is perhaps paradoxically difficult: in an era when technology offers us everything at our fingertips, including movies, the magic dissipates; film-watching becomes more akin to reading e-mail. Convenience and demand have supplanted the thrill of exploring together concepts such as the lost utopia, the failure of gravity, or trouble in paradise. As artists reclaim these ideas in new ways and through new art forms, the magical experience of film almost becomes a utopian ideal in itself.