Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn Challenge Empirical Truths Employed by Contemporary Cinema

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are products of the pop culture that surrounds us. Our daily lives are infiltrated with advertisements and media that on some (often subconscious) level create a comfortable day-by-day formula for us to follow. Art critic Arthur Danto writes “Coca-Cola is who we are … Man is what mat eats. We are soft drinks, canned soup, hamburgers, potato chips, sweet pickles, ice-cream cones. We are Pop. We are not paint.”[1] In other words, we are reflective of our pop culture - not vice versa.

Within this umbrella of pop culture identity are various expectations. We expect sex in our advertisements, violence on our television, and boundary pushing avant garde postmodernism as a form of cultural progression in our music, film, art, and fashion. We expect the next level, but we don’t expect it to be entirely revolutionary – only a slight forward movement from the previous level. For instance, a film like Saw pushes the horror genre in a direction that yearns for more gore, creating various sub-genres of torture films such as Hostel and Martyrs to emerge. With this evolution to the horror genre occurring, there is far less room for psychological thrillers such as The Strangers or Funny Games to have the same cultural impact due to the genre’s contemporary climate and fixation on blood.

Such is the similar dilemma facing filmmakers Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn. They use this standard of postmodernism as being a marker of progression by radically making something brand new out of something that has already been culturally established. Their work may not be as widely received or appreciated as mainstream Hollywood cinema, but it revolutionizes its counterparts by commenting on the way we as both an audience and society choose to view them. Dodge and Kahn subvert the mediums and tools of today’s films to shed new light on them. Instead of using these predisposed forms of movies as foundations to create a new form of mainstream film making, they draw attention to the conventions our society of movie watching pop culture junkies have become accustomed to, and use them to create a commentary on what it is we expect from and think we know about video art.

Dodge and Kahn showing us how contorted our expectations of film are by commenting on how people are willing to accept that anything shot with a video camera is truth. “All camera-generated images, be they photographic, cinematic, or electronic (video or computer-generated), bear the cultural legacy of still photography, which historically has been regarded as a more objective practice than, say, painting or drawing. This combination of the subjective and the objective is a central tension in camera-generated images. Photography was developed in Europe in the early nineteenth century, when concepts of positivist science held sway. Positivism involves the believe that empirical truths can be established through visual evidence.”[2] In other words, we are willing to believe or at least accept what is shown to us on screen, simply because the images we are seeing were captured with a video camera.

In a 2008 interview with New York Times correspondent Jori Finkel, Dodge stated that she has always been fascinated with how videos are used today, as well as the impact they have on society. “We always look at who is taking video, and ask ourselves why. And one function is the citizen watch, the idea that you can shoot something like the Rodney King video and change the world,” she said.[3] This interest in what people are looking to achieve by shooting video became a commentary on the perceptions of truths these videos depict.

In Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out, for example, there is a scene where the camera films only the landscape of a Los Angeles street, in which there is no action except for the cars driving by. When the woman in the film sees that the camera is on, she creates a spectacle, and moves to the center of the screen, adding both herself and an element of action into the shot. As an audience, we accept this spectacle to be truthful because we saw it occur on screen. We do not, however, take into consideration the possibility that this spectacle would have occurred had the camera not been on. We prefer to think that what we see on screen is accurate documented footage of people in their prime elements. We do not (or at least choose not to) take into account that what we are seeing is in fact not the truth, but rather a performance for the camera, because this would strip us of our illusions of disbelief that everything we see with our own two eyes is factual.

One of the primary ways in which Dodge and Kahn bring attention to our blind acceptance of “truths” through our expectations of cinema, is the abundant usage of “real time” in their work. More often than not, films tend to either abridge or sometimes not even display tasks, conversations, or daily routines that don’t carry enough action to be presented on screen without seeming boring or mundane. We, as an audience, expect directors, actors, and editors to keep us interested, so rather than showing a character wash dishes, for instance, we expect simply one quick shot of the dishes be done in which we can assume that the entire pile seen in the sink will be cleaned. If we were to watch every individual dish get washed and dried, we would come to the same conclusion that the dishes were done, but our attention span would not have had the tolerance to watch what we can just assume. However, unless we do in fact watch all these dishes get washed, how do we know for a fact that they were all done?

What Dodge and Kahn are doing by filming things in real time, although that may seem arduous to some, is commenting on how we as an audience are too willing to accept what we are told or meant to infer as the truth on screen. They are bringing to our attention that our expectations of film are not to present a full or accurate reality, but rather a skewed one that censors us from the meat of the plot. As an audience, we want our movies to focus on intense drama or action for entertainment value purposes that create worlds that distract us from our own. Thereby, the use of real time, while at first may seem laborious to watch, draws attention to the fact that we are less interested in what makes the characters we watch human, because we are simply willing to accept that they are in favor of some sort of gritty narrative.

The strongest example of this in Dodge and Kahn’s work is in their film Whacker. In this short piece, there is no dialogue, only footage of Kahn outside doing garden work. “As cars pass by on the highway below and Elvis’s ‘In The Ghetto’ fades in and out, Kahn seems hell-bent on completing and repeating this Sisyphean task for her very survival.”[4]

The piece is shot in real time, meaning we watch her every move as she does her chores. We watch her wipe the sweat off her brow, whack weeds, and follow her gaze when she briefly takes pauses to look off into the distance, as if in anticipation for something. As an audience, we watch this film thinking “when is something going to happen?”. When the woman on screen looks in the distance for something, we follow her line of vision to look too, curious to see who or what she is looking for. We are waiting for someone to arrive or something to happen to break the repetitious frame of her just doing her yard work. We want action to occur.

When the camera pans out to give a wider frame of visual reference in the mise-en-scene, our focus drifts from the woman doing her work to scanning for some sort of potential action. We are no longer interested in the woman as we are willing to accept that she has done her yard work, and are looking for something or someone else to enter the frame and complicate the film’s narrative. Dodge’s camera work is brilliant in this sense, because by panning out in this way, she knows that she is tricking her audience into believing that by looking somewhere else, they will see something that was not there before, which in turn might provide some conventional form of action.

In a mainstream Hollywood film, the type of labor depicted in Whacker would not be shown in this medium. If it was something relevant to the action or drama of the film, the labor would be mentioned or referenced, but it would certainly not be depicted in this type of meticulous detail with the focal point of the film being only this work. Thereby, Whacker demonstrates that film audiences are so used to be constantly excited and wowed by what’s on screen, that they become impatient and potentially annoyed when actually accurate images of reality are presented. The lack of words combined with the film’s camera work bring center stage the notion that audiences rely too heavily on movies for purely entertainment value. It is as though Dodge and Kahn are using this piece to make us aware of the fact that we don’t want our art to imitate life, but rather prefer our art to alter it in an attempt to feed our hunger for adventure and excitement. By making us constantly search for more in this film, Dodge and Kahn are bringing to the forefront the idea that culturally, we are too used to our art manipulating and subverting truths, and that when it fails to do so, we are left feeling either cheated, disappointed, or wanting more. This in turn begs the question: what do these expectations say about our contemporary society if we rely so heavily on pop culture to distract us from reality?

Time is not the only film convention Dodge and Kahn challenge. To further exploit how audiences blindly accept truths presented to them on screen, Dodge and Kahn play with film making techniques such as editing. In Let The Good Times Rule, for example, Dodge and Kahn choose not to edit out the loud and harsh sound of wind which makes it hard to hear what the actress on screen is saying. Where in mainstream cinema this wind would be edited out and the audience would accept that the desert setting of the film is in fact quiet, Dodge and Kahn keep it in to showcase just how many specific details are often left out from film to create finessed realities.

In the film Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out, the main character of the film is constantly in conversation with the camera, yet the setting she is in is consistently changing. We see her in various locations such as a hospital, farm, department store, freeway, river bank, and even a hilltop covered in snow. As an audience, however, we are more concerned with what she is saying, that we don’t tend to focus on where she is. We don’t care how she traveled from place to place, we just accept that she has. It is not our primary concern that when she is on the street or just walking around outside that the weather is sunny and nice, but when she is on top of a hill it is covered in snow. Her conversation with the camera does not stop and because the snow is not acknowledged, we accept this shift in setting simply because it is shown to us. The editing is cut in a way that creates a linear narrative between takes, bringing into focus the notion that we accept what we see as long as that narrative is consistent and cohesive.

Later in the film, the character is seen going to a doughnut shop and placing an order. After she sits down, she continues her conversation with the camera, yet every few sentences, she is holding a blatantly different doughnut. Whether it be the color of the frosting or how much of it is eaten, the doughnut is a commentary on how audiences are either blind to these types of inaccuracies or are so willing to accept what they see on film as truthful, that they choose not to be concerned with the details that may alter their skewed realities for them.

The editing does not leave room for a full doughnut to be eaten and a new one picked up, rather it allows for different ones to appear every few seconds while the woman continues to speak. Between doughnuts, the sentences are not broken up and instead flow in a fluid motion, weaving together these countless takes of the same scene to pin point how audiences are less concerned with supporting detail than they are with getting on to more action. In other words, our expectations of film don’t care that the doughnut is changing in her hand if what she is saying is building up to some sort of plot twist or is she is about to reveal something juicy, because that is a reality we are willing to accept as it moves the story of the film forward.

In Whacker, Kahn’s character does not fit the image most people think of when they think of garden workers. Rather than wearing clothes typically associated with this type of physical labor, she wears a short, shoulder-less dress and high heels. Her hair is done up in a big, trendy way, and her eyes are covered by giant aviator sunglasses as she chews heavily on a piece of gum. Throughout the film, the camera often times zooms in and focuses on these details, bringing attention to the sexualization of the character. The frame changes from a shot of the work she is doing to a close up of her leg glimmering in the sunlight as if posing for a photo, or her seductively brushing her hair off of her shoulder and letting it freely blow in the wind.

What this accomplishes is comment on how in mainstream films, women are almost always shown in some sort of sexual light. If a woman is to be a central character in a film, she most likely must be made up in a way that adheres to some sort of predisposed chauvinistic or social ideals of what beauty is. In this film, it is almost as though the glamorization of Kahn’s character is meant to serve as a distraction from the lack of action occurring, giving those viewers who are watching the video for entertainment purposes a reason to keep watching. In actuality, however, transforming Kahn into an ornamented starlet figure becomes a much deeper commentary on gender roles in film, as well as how we as a society choose to limit our definitions of what is beautiful to fit a very specific type. Because these manipulations of truth and reality are what we are used to seeing in Hollywood, however, they are what we expect and unfortunately often times strive to attain ourselves.

As products of the pop culture surrounding us, we rely heavily on art to define our society. Kanya said that “our identities are constructed on where we go online, which products we plug into. It seems like we have no power left because capital has figured out how to move with out every physical potential.”[5] We expect art to follow specific formulas to show us what we choose to believe as empirical truths, which we in turn apply to our daily lives. Filmmakers Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn use their video art as a platform to speak out on how these expectations in fact are often damaging to our culture as they only create perceptions of truth rather than accurate depictions of it. Consequentially, these preconceived truths cause our senses of reality to be skewed and manipulated into tightly packaged dogmas with little to no room for growth. Their works serve as sociopolitical statements on what our contemporary society is in demand for, and brings the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of these expectations and needs into focus. Whether it be through editing, dialogue (or the lack thereof), the space/time continuum, or notions of beauty, Dodge and Kahn’s work raises a heightened sense of awareness that our culture prefers their art to be representative of ideaological desires rather than reflective of realism.

[1] “The Abstract Expressionist Coca-Cola Bottle” by Arthur Danto

[2] Practices Of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture by Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright (page 16)

[3] “Unsettling, In A Funny Sort of Way” by Jori Finkel. New York Times. March 2, 2008.

[4] “Bad Connection” by Melissa Anderson. Art Forum. November 9, 2009.

[5] “Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn” by Michael Smith. Bomb Magazine. Summer 2009.