2/15/12

TERRIBLE? or JUST TERRIBLE?: "After Last Season" dir. Mark Region, 2009


For those of who have already sought out (or stumbled haplessly into) Mark Region's After Last Season (2009) and recognized it as a cinematic offering worthy of inclusion among the pantheon of the unquestionably inept and utterly compelling cinema of Claudio Fragasso (Troll 2),Tommy Wiseau (The Room), and James Nguyen (Birdemic: Shock and Terror), the answer to my ongoing query at ECSTATIC is clear:  it's truly Terrible.  For those of you who have yet to see After Last Season and either aren't given to the pleasure of movies so bad they're irresistible, or are without interest in the academic confluences of Primtive Art and Avant-Grade cinema, then the case may be a bit more difficult to make.  To try and describe the unique qualities of Region's first attempt at movie making and the way in which it is distinctly different from the aforementioned New Guard of midnight movie-dom is a task that, as anyone who has tried surely agrees, will most likely dissolve quickly into an exhausted plea to "just see it!"  With that said, I will in no way make an attempt to try and unpack this "thriller" through Aristotelian notions of Plot, Character, Diction, and so on; to do so would no doubt compromise the integrity of Region's work.  And, as Donald Fagen once said of Steely Dan's earliest attempts at making music:  "Even shit has a certain kind of integrity...and we didn't have that."

Donald Fagen
As for this debut film by Region--a pseudonym that reportedly belongs to a film maker of Asian descent (and is not an invented moniker of accomplished film maker and "Jackass" collaborator Spike Jonze, as rumored here)--how it all holds together is a mystery.  It is extremely compelling, while simultaneously being an assault on all basic cognitive processes.  After Last Season is only for those with a certain degree of synaptic fortitude.  Structurally, though the film posts many signs, the path is remarkably unclear.  In fact, the film is literally littered with shots of signs, arrows, and various cheaply printed copy.  In many cases, scenes include shots of paper that have nothing on them pinned to walls and doors, as in one particularly baffling (and recurring) cutaway shot of a symmetrical row of blank pieces of paper taped to the outside of a house.  When we finally return from any one of these various enigmatic cutaways to check back in on the characters, their reactions are invariably and defiantly more perplexed than any potential reaction an audience could muster.

After Last Season - "Craig?"
In terms of exposition and dialogue, to say that After Last Season has a tendency toward narrative meandering is like saying The Tree of Life jumps around in time a bit.  After Last Season is a grand dare of comprehension that works so aggressively on ones taken-for-granted ability to piece together narrative that it can't help but beg the question of whether or not it is a "hoax" of some sort.  The repeated cutaways to arrows pointing in different directions and signs guiding us cryptically to "Rooms A-B" or "Rooms C-D" may lead one to conclude that an individual possessing some rare combination of Brechtian obsession and autistic brilliance may be putting us on, indeed.  Read as a revision of a certain type of commercial sci-fi thriller--one involving elements like psychology students, large corporations, thought transference, and a rash of local stabbings--conceived by someone who has a distinctly altered or damaged neurological make-up, After Last Season hints at having been a deliberate, and perhaps even competent, attempt at joining the ranks of success occupied by the likes of Wiseau.

Tommy Wiseau       
Although the film has only made small ripples in the bad movie blog world since it's release in 2009, and it seems as if the buzz generated by the initial trailer has died down a bit, it is not clear whether or not it will emerge in the same way that Wiseau has, spurring repeat interactive midnight screenings across the country.  For one thing, After Last Season isn't appealing as a "Terrible" movie in quite the same way as The Room, or even Troll 2, and one of the reasons is that those movies both present a higher level of competence in relation to their respective genres.  The narrative hiccups of The Room make up nearly the entire modus operandi of After Last Season.  Also, the overall affect of After Last Season is certainly more maddening, with its disjointed discussions of nearby towns and markets, its mind numbing use of computer graphics that make the Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing" video from 1986 seem groundbreaking, and set design that would suggest the entire production was cobbled together through a series of abandoned homes.  Added to that, the soundtrack is plagued by a recurring background noise that is a combination between digitally suppressed traffic noises and supernatural intestinal feedback.  One of the most difficult aspects of the production to wrap your brain around is the inclusion of an MRI machine that appears in the first scene, is supposedly integral to the plot, and is clearly constructed out of taped together pieces of paper.

After Last Season - the MRI scene
Alas, a bit of searching reveals that "Region" is, in fact, the real deal.  But in considering otherwise, the thought occurred to me that someone out there is most likely attempting to create a film intended to cause the ultimate effect of a Wiseau, a Fragasso, or a Region without actually being a Wiseau, a Fragasso, or a Region.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the person attempting this is a funded film-school brat of the hipster variety who has spent more time pointing and laughing at films like The Room than they have actually trying to create anything of their own.  The popular response to these films seems to be riding a wave of mass derision, one maintained by those whose primary entertainment mode has less and less to do with the aspirations of art, and increasingly more to do with an all-too-easy "point-and-laugh" mentality.  One disturbing aspect of this mass derision is the fact that these film makers are being exploited publicly by primarily young, white college students, while many of the film makers themselves are foreign.  In fact, much of the humor that arises from these films comes from line readings and storytelling generated by a severe language and culture gap.  Stir into this mix a constant diet of Tosh.0, the continually declining humor of shows like The Soup, the gradual rise of reality exploitation from The Gong Show to American Idol to The Jersey Shore, and the current trend of publicly gathering to denigrate these unskilled auteurs with uniform chanting and en mass gestures of mockery comes off as less than admirable (if I'm misreading the recent Midnight Madness scene, someone with more experience please let me know otherwise).

Chuck Barris
Daniel Tosh
As for After Last Season, although it may seem like a ridiculous claim to some, I think the appropriate response is reverence, rather than disdain.  Of course, I'm aware that much of the audience for these films show a lot of reverence for these film makers and their unique body of work, and for all the right reasons.  All intents and abilities aside, After Last Season is a thing of difficult beauty that generates more moments of surprise, mystery, and humor than the deadly boring excesses of current Hollywood fare.  The primitive nature and lingering effect of the film is such that it deserves to be used like the Dada-esque tool of destruction that it is. It should inspire joyous public screenings...but without parading the poor director out and throwing printer cartridges at him in the wee hours of your local art house.  I'm all for a performance-based engagement with film (and the world in general), but just a bit concerned about exactly why we're laughing.


For more information on obtaining a copy, visit the website.
And, for more information on the bizarre life of this film, 
visit the Facebook page of star Jason Kulas.


      

2/7/12

"Video 50" - Video Installation by Robert Wilson, 1978

There is no denying that Robert Wilson's "Video 50" is a pure piece of Surrealism, created on video in the late 1970's, but entirely in line with the defining cries of Andre Breton in his surrealist manifesto of the early 20's:
"(Surrealismtends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life."
In Wilson's video sketchbook the "principal problems of life" are filtered primarily through advertising and television imagery, the likes of which were only beginning their incubation in the time of the original surrealists.  The traditions of the surrealist technique are otherwise intact, as "Video 50" repeatedly estranges the mundane gesture from it's mechanized routine:  a man wipes the sweat from his forehead;  a champagne flute is placed on a table;  a phone rings in an undefined space;  a door creaks shut.  Many of the images in "Video 50" are centered around the world of mundane objects, though the physical response to these objects is often drawn in a different scale, subverting what we expect, creating those psychic fissures from whence Surrealism feeds.  The man wiping his forehead dabs only one small spot repeatedly, though his entire head and neck are drenched hopelessly in sweat; the phone is answered slowly by the black talon claw of a furry beast;  the quack of a duck heard in an earlier frame is transformed into a comedic television interview.


But "Video 50" certainly doesn't follow any easily reduced pattern.  The more comedic moments burst forth in surprise, and just when you think you've found the connective tissue between the images in terms of hands, feet, or faces, the entire sense of expectation is subverted by something like an elderly man sitting in bed who slowly transforms through a primitive video fade into a purple hued cosmic landscape.  Of course expectations are designed to be unmet in works of this sort, and the way in which Wilson fully embraces "the absence of control exercised by reason" (as Breton, once again, would have it) is cautiously put on display here;  cautiously, because while the unexpected is around every corner, potential in each flip of the video page, the rhythm is hypnotic and deliberate, and the recurring images are consistently presented in thoughtful variation.  One image that emerges as a centerpiece of "Video 50" is that of a thin wooden chair floating against a pink and orange sunset backdrop.  Though very simple in it's design, this obsession with elevating and altering the design of every day objects such as chairs is a technique that echoes Dada/Surrealist intent from the early teens, evoking the earliest "Readymades" of Marcel Duchamp.  Wilson's work with furniture and architecture, often recognizable by clean, sparse lines and color, is central to his body of work.

"Stalin Chairs" - Robert Wilson, 1977
"Bicycle Wheel" and Marcel Duchamp, 1913
Wilson is probably most known for his work in the theater, collaborating with some of the finest Americans minds in music and literature in the last 60 years, namely Phillip Glass, William Burroughs, and Tom Waits.  There is a particular sadness for me in even mentioning these works:  Einstein on the Beach and The Black Rider were both crucial in transforming the way I listen to music, and The Black Rider in particular is one of those albums that is nestled deeply in the crevices of my psyche.  But, sadly, I have never had the opportunity to see these works staged, which is of course where Wilson comes in.  Occasionally I would glimpse a still of the designs for these productions, but it was always in competition with the rich visual conjuring of my own imagination, rarely sparked by music to such an extreme as with those two works.  Seeing "Video 50" now seems like an all-too-fleeting glimpse into the mind of an artist that I want to develop an affair with, comparable to those I had with Glass and Waits in the past.

Einstein on the Beach - Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass, 1976
The Black Rider - Robert Wilson, Tom Waits,
and William S. Burroughs - 1990
It seems that across Wilson's design work--whether it be with furniture, theater, or mis-en-scene--there is a commitment to minimalism, and an ongoing negotiation between movement and stillness.  Many of the background images in "Video 50" are frozen, though the subjects in front of them are active in some way, as with another central image of the piece that begins and ends the 51 minute and 40 second running time of "Video 50," a suited man with a briefcase teetering like a German expressionist performer on the edge of a petrified waterfall.  The rush of the water is heard faintly in the background, and with each return to this drastically artificial moment of peril the man's gestures involve even more of his body, the "teetering edge" stretched into a Keaton-esque k-hole.


One of the goals of Wilson in this work was to point out that "the still life is no longer still," but one can't help but question the urgency and relevancy of that goal, and the goals of Surrealism in general, from a "Superbowl Weekend 2012" vantage point.  As the gallery visitors wandered in and out over the duration of the piece, some staying put for 30 or 40 minute periods, others not lasting 30 seconds, it became clear that the type of engagement that "Video 50" establishes was not only interesting in terms of the images it presents, but in the visible negotiation of it's spectators.  The mostly kinetic play of communication that occurred while I was in the gallery seemed the perfect compliment to Wilson's images, as spectators expressed everything from mild curiosity to outright bafflement.  In a world whose consciousness is on the precipice of having the new Superbowl advertisements revealed to them, the image of a puzzled parrot against a New York skyline perhaps seem pointless, sending them quickly tittering out of the gallery space:  "What the hell was that?!"

  
Well, it might be hard to explain, but, in context, the image was funny...joyful even, at least for me.  But, the difference between the delight and humor of a "Video 50" and a Superbowl Ad is a crucial one.  Wilson shows us now that we have, in some way, succumb to the surreal, and maybe in all the wrong ways;  always the violent and derisive in drastic juxtaposition with facile humor and sickening sentimentality, all wrapped in a commercial package that serves no purpose beyond its own self-interest.  "Video 50" is a sort of psychic palette cleanser, or maybe a third eye squeegee, that, offered the patience of an investigative detective, may allow a cluttered world of images to emerge a bit more clearly.  Ultimately, it reinforced for me a rather important notion:  if we continue to conflate advertising, art, and entertainment we will only find ourselves more deeply entwined with the crises of education and economy that we have been experiencing of late.


Robert Wilson's "Video 50" is currently on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor until the end of April.  Wilson and Phillip Glass have recently revised their production of "Einstein on the Beach," and Nonesuch Records have re-released the music.