Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Jerusalem (James Fotopoulos, 2003)

Evocative of the primordial waters of a video abyss, Fotopoulos's 2003 feature begins in static. Out of tracked VHS static, a voice begins speaking, and for the first of many times we encounter cyclic & nearly inaccessible dialogue (reputedly a mere 11 page script forms the entire feature film), endlessly repeated by different voices and inflections throughout the work. After a few minutes of emptiness, we glimpse a figure on screen, alone in a bland room. Penetrating the void of a static night.

To describe the film is to say almost nothing of it, to deliver nothing of what the film actually manages to do, and this inherent contradiction lends itself perfectly to the idea that cinema must be cinemathe tautology speaks to an idea of totality rather than of mere translation or representation.

But, to consider, these are the disparate elements that make up Fotopoulos's film:

  • the blank screen; used both as punctuation and as vital, near-corporeal breathing space
  • the dialogue; recorded without the aid noise-reduction, the same dialogue recorded over and over again with different voices, spoken by both men and women, recasting meaning by both inflection and gender, later being spoken by machines and devoid of human affect (instead introducing an artificial, mechanized affect)the dialog is never in sync with the figures on screen, often the same loops of dialogue overlap each other, starting earlier on the right channel, and then starting again later on the left channel. Speech becomes spatially disoriented & disorienting.
  • the figures, bodies; at first one woman, then one man and one woman, then one man and several women, then several women, and then two women. Most of the time the figures are nude.
  • the space; the space both of the video itself (often looking like it was re-filmed off of a screen or monitor, imposing even further distance from the viewer to the space of the film) and the space, meaning the room, the figures find themselves in. The rooms are strangely empty. The space is not decorated as to seem bleak, but rather absent of any signifying matter: the room is simply a room, empty save for the figures inside of it
  • the soundtrack; aside from the dialogue, tones and oscillations haunt the soundtrack. Sometimes subtly, sometimes with a hyper-presence. Sometimes this lends an aura of anxiety to the proceedings, other times it merely serves to dampen the noise of the recorded dialogue.

Listing all of these elements, even noting how they work individually, does very little to articulate how the film itself works. This list reveals a difficulty, but what is perhaps most difficult about this work is that to watch the film without being willing to take it seriously, without being willing to let the film unfold on its own terms, would be to find the film as nothing but an exercise in frustration. This is, of course, true of all of Fotopoulos's most rewarding films. They are films that require work. They are films that, if you refuse the work, can easily be dismissed as bullshit. It's as if the films' true power is hidden, and one must be actively open to the films in order to gain access to them.

But, what I would insist here is that this is neither an obscurant nor an elitist position to have your film take. Rather, it's an honest one. Consider the hegemonic mode of filmmaking: if you have grown up in the English speaking world you have literally been raised on a specific brand of narrative development. The hegemonic mode of filmmaking requires no work to understand. I want to qualify here that the hegemonic mode of filmmaking, of delivering narrative, does not exclude the possibility of difficult content; it is extremely possible to encounter content (or ideas) that requires work that is delivered in an effortless fashion, a mode that does not require work. Most of the time this is the kind of "art house" film one encounters. Difficult ideas packaged in digestible forms. This is fine. Often this is didactic, but it is at least a push for something less passive than normal.

Before I continue here I want to qualify that I'm not trying to draw a negative equivalence between "thinking this movie is good" and "being open to non-hegemonic filmmaking." I don't believe in binary suppositions, and I also don't believe that there is any such thing as art that literally everyone in the world can respond to equally if they were only to open themselves up to said work. I've said it before and I'll say it again: no matter what lengths you go to to try to quantify the experience of a work of art, you can literally never account for every single individual's subjective response. With this said, I'll point out again that there seems to be a cache of Fotopoulos's work that play specifically to a tone, an experience, that I personally respond extremely well to. I've also noticed that this tone is only accessible to me if I watch the film in a particular environment: alone and tired at night, in as close to pitch blackness as possible. This is one of the things that has slowed down my journey through Fotopoulos's body of work. All of his narrative films require this interstitial space between being awake and asleep; I've tried to start a few films outside of this position and found that the films refuse my entrance. Knowing this, I'm happier to wait, to watch the films when this preferred setting is available to me, as it has repeatedly made my reactions to the films far stronger. As with all experiences I've encountered throughout life, I'm always happy waiting for said experience if it means that when I finally get access the experience is far more intense than it would be otherwise.

In the same way that Esophagus manages to capture a sort of depressive despair, pointing toward an inability to overcome stasis, Jerusalem manages to perfectly capture a sort of perpetual anxiety and terror, drawing its initial power from abstracted speech that seems to be an eyewitness account of a UFO sighting and potential alien abduction (this is not made explicit, rather it references this idea without naming it; realistically it really just introduces an encounter with something other). The inflection said message is delivered with ranges from dead-pan to truly anxious, interrupted by noise or staccato fragmented repetitions: we cycle around this conversation multiple times, each time picking up further details. This serves to inherently "other" a conversation that already seems to be about something irreconcilably other. A doubling that forces a viewer to feel as if they're witness to something impossible. As more details are revealed, what you understand of being said becomes more uncanny and terrifying.

The images expand this insistent discomfort. Without any obvious connection to the words being spoken, the film begins by showing nothing but fragments of bodies and occasional glimpses of banalized architectural details (i.e., the edge of a built-in bookcase; a ceiling fan). Later, a man and a woman stand uncomfortably naked next to each other against a blank wall. Further along, the man gets his hair cut. Near the end of the film, two women silently speak to each other and use their bodies to inhabit various spaces of the room they inhabit. And later still, the same women perform an uncomfortable and seemingly improvised dance.

Using narrative elements, Fotopoulos successfully fashions a film that transgresses the mere idea of plot, which is clearly irrelevant here. The film is instead a meditation on anxiety and terror. A true horror film, one that operates on an entirely separate level than what one normally expects in the genre, but this is true of most of Fotopoulos's work.

A masterpiece in its own right, Jerusalem is the opening film in a nearly 10 hours long tetralogy that I look forward to further exploring.

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