Saturday, June 13, 2009

Passion Flower

A Reminder

The word "documentary" has taken on unpleasant connotations around its relation to a general cinema, no matter how inclusive, that must and will always define its force only by its own relation to the aesthetics of certain ontological givens. So let's not talk about Jarrod Whaley's 20-minute film from 2008, Passion Flower, with any more reliance on the term "documentary" (no 'readership'-taxonomies) than we would, say, for talking about Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room — although we note the two films represent the work of wholly different personalities. Beyond the shudder of constructing a lazy lede, let's just say "documentary" really falls away in Passion Flower because the relationship between the movie-apparatus and its subject is like a membrane so permeable that inside and outside become indistinguishable, irrelevant even, all to the extent the idea of cellular-anything — in the case of the film, "the filmed" itself — dissipates in the second before becoming metaphor.

The film was made (is made) with a middle-aged woman who, in her recent past, had undergone procedures for a double-mastectomy on account of breast cancer. At the time of shooting she has arrived at a Chattanooga tattoo parlor for the application across her upper chest of the image of a sprawling and intricate flower.

Now I'll pull back to describe a wider interplay: the film (as though by osmosis) comes to take on the same qualities as the tattooing itself — a surface beauty; a formidable complexity; an openness to the act of exchange. The woman, or the "subject" (in documentary parlance), is 'without' the camera, that is, she's completely one with her own monologue as she relates to the tattoo artist, to the women at the business, to the film crew, the story of her self-process. There's a relentlessness in her speaking, but such is the presence-in-the-moment — of both the woman, and of the film itself — that, despite the focus on "writing," the viewer never feels exposed to a d(en)omination of the id. Her story is her story. And Whaley proceeds with artistry — forget "sensitivity," filmmaker and subject are, in Passion Flower, equals at last — as he homes in on the details of the parlor environment itself (in place of needling inks, he photographs colors like de Staël's), and arranges, via camera-angles and cuts masterfully spaced and unobtrusive, the woman's body in alternately foreshortened and elongated compositions as though it were being 'dressed' (in place of oils, he makes montage like Holbein) — and thus acknowledges, in tandem with this Woman-as-Body and this Woman-as-Voice, the ever-present vicinity of death to life. For the future's never known, just as every moment of the past dwells also in the here-and-now: and Whaley-and-subject tease the 'doubling' motif out most explicitly in the implicit echo of the prone, tattooed body with that same body once laid flat on the operating table (unseen, unfilmed, 'in the past') undergoing amputation. The buzz of the tattoo gun even has its own correlatives as it saws and dips beneath the woman's speech. One of which, to gauge from the shots where the blue cable of the machine crosses the frame (the gun's correlatives exist in opposition), appears strictly umbilical. A sign, then, a mark, of intercessory calm — in a film essentially as beautiful as Utamarô.

But enough about the 'cinema' of the piece. Passion Flower (a film without a score) makes an appeal above aesthetics. That is, all tribal trappings aside, don't let yourself be fooled by the shaman who says that happiness comes only from within. These cells are transitory and delicate: cherish the women that you love and hold dear, and take nothing of them for granted, — as this present's a gift.

Passion Flower by Jarrod Whaley, 2008:


Friday, June 05, 2009


les Larmes n'Ont pas du Lait

Joe Swanberg's second feature, sickly sweet as a liqueur, warrants many more words than what shows in this space — and at least as many as I gave to his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth [2005], written about here. The problem is that 'now' is not the time, 'here' is not the place, for any elaboration of my thoughts about LOL [2006]. It's a very good movie, underrated a lot, would connect with a wide audience. Let's leave it both at that, and at a passage I wrote in a notebook after watching the movie again a couple weeks ago. I apologize in advance if this makes no sense except to (if even then) the handful who've seen the film — but maybe others will look at it anyway (the film), as it's almost certain to entertain you better than the new Transformers thing, which'll be a hundred percent sucker-punch lemon-drop gadzooks.


Something amazing happens whereby the film seems to endorse the — via its form, by way of its relentless excerpts from these — insipid synthetic a cappella collages contributed by the characters' 'community of friends'. These segments — composed of cutaways to a miniDV + cellphone-cam + etc. patchwork — are clever and charming, make no mistake. (Okay, their accumulation eventually wears out their welcome, though this compounding coincides exactly with the gradual malignization of the Bewersdorf lead. Skip a few words ahead.) But LOL is unique in the fact that one's innate suspicions that the character Alex/Bewersdorf is a facile, vacuous prick whose 'identity' and appeal (as they were) come to be constructed only by his noodling-'artistic' pastime (cf. Kevin Pittman in Kissing on the Mouth), are confirmed full-bore in the film's second half, once the cutaways to Alex's After Effects-driven audiovisual work go away completely, and we're left to witness only the narcissism, the self-deception, and the pathos of an individual I'm (personally) tempted to label, from my own encounters in life, a total archetype. "Look at my artisticness; be spellbound." The total jagoff fraud-charlatan, finished by 42.

The 'foil' for said prick's meltdown comes in the form of net-gal "Tessa," portrayed by Kissing on the Mouth's Kate Winterich — she of the looking in the mirror and acknowledging she won't have the same body forever ambient-fame. That she performs this 'role' in the film, driving the close of the picture (all the way to the pathetic and unsentimental and honest last shot), is the 'reveal' which, on the first-viewing and up to the 50-minute mark or so, struck me as gratuitous and faux-provocative. Of course, first impressions are worthless, especially when the film's not close to over.

LOL is something to see, restitutive and all in spite of its own design, like the graveyard where our grandparents are buried.

LOL by Joe Swanberg, 2006:


Social Olympics from Craig Keller on Vimeo.


Hissy Fits

and Giggles

A short video-film at seven minutes forty-two seconds, — a sketch, really — and included on the Benten DVD for LOL as a kind of study for the main feature, Hissy Fits doesn't impress on a pictorial level, but provokes admiration for the economy in its development of a single idea.

Hissy Fits by Joe Swanberg, 2005:


"Not genuinely poor or an exploited worker, / Not sick with an incurable disease, / Not thirsty for justice, or a cavalry officer, / Not, in short, within any of those social categories depicted by novelists / Who pour themselves out on paper because they have good reasons for shedding tears / And who rebel against society because their good reasons make them think they're rebels. // .... // And I don't have the excuse of being socially concerned. / I have no excuse at all: I'm lucid. // Don't try to persuade me otherwise: I'm lucid. / It's like I said: I'm lucid. / Don't talk to me about aesthetics with a heart: I'm lucid. / Shit! I'm lucid."
—from "We crossed paths on a downtown Lisbon street" by Álvaro de Campos, c. 1930. From a translation from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith.


Social Olympics from Craig Keller on Vimeo.