Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Big Picture 59

Years ago I curated an exhibition of new queer video work for a gallery in New Brunswick, and from that humble non-event I learned a valuable lesson – when assembling a collection of short films for the public’s delectation, don’t imagine that you’ll please everyone.

Watching films is an intensely subjective experience that we nevertheless engage in as a group. Most of watch films daily, via the cheap medium of television, and are therefore far more comfortable acting as critics of film-based art than we are of painting, sculpture, or dance. We are familiar with film, steeped in its strategies, practices and language. If everyone who looks at art is a critic, everyone who looks at film is Pauline Kael.

Pity Paul Wong, the curator behind Vtape’s intriguing but uneven new exhibition Split Decisions. After a months-long curatorial residency at Vtape, Wong has assembled a collection of works that come from, he states, a “place of two minds – tapes that examine conflict both exterior and from within the deep recesses of the human psyche”. I’ve done some vault-diving at Vtape myself, and the above description could easily be applied to every single video in the joint. Why didn’t he just try to push a streetcar up Bathurst street instead? It would be less demanding.

For the most part, Wong pulls it off. Split Decisions is a lively collection of recent short films that amply explores Wong’s curatorial agenda but also offers some unique variations. No two works feel the same in this exhibition, despite their thematic similarities, and Wong has not made the perennial curator’s mistake of selecting works from within a single, narrow tonal range. There’s everything in this show from pop music video takeoffs to serious short narratives to non-linear experimental oddities. Some of Wong’s choices would not be my choices - but as I noted earlier, that’s par for the course. If I liked everything I saw, I’d take it as a sign of my own personal End Times.

Of the dozen works on display, my favourites begin with Nelson Henricks’s Satellite, a campy reworking of vintage education films into a nihilistic music video. The film doesn’t really amount to much - the cranky text plastered over the stock footage is comprised mainly of empty aphorisms and, overall, the work is more a triumph of clever sampling than a true re-contextualization of the borrowed materials - but Satellite is still enormously fun to watch and the punchy score is dementedly cheerful. Fun is always appreciated, especially in the context of short film anthologies, which tend to be rather dour when they aim to illuminate serious topics.

Equally fun, and beautiful to look at, is Deirdre Logue’s succinct, aptly titled short That Beauty. The film opens with a screen full of brilliant sparkles and fades into a heavily shadowed shot of an unidentified person (Logue, I suspect) dancing in his/her kitchen. As the figure rocks out to a looped beat and repeated, upbeat refrain, her/his body grows increasingly covered in the bright speckles of light, until the dancer looks like Tinkerbell on an ecstasy high. This film is so joyous, and so neatly self-contained, that it deserves to be viewed twice, if for nothing more than the giddy high it induces. Logue’s films have always had a playful bent, despite her reputation for making meditative, introspective work, but That Beauty is her Flashdance.

For pure silliness, turn to John Beagles and Graham Ramsay’s Trilogy – the funniest films I’ve seen all year. The concept at work here is simple enough: find two shabby looking British geeks (perhaps Beagles and Ramsay themselves?), place them in an even shabbier looking British hovel, and then ask them to give deadpan recitations of upbeat pop song lyrics, without music.

In the first film, the two men sit on a ratty chesterfield while one of them recites the lyrics to Prince and Sheena Easton’s dirty hit “U Got the Look”. The performer might as well be reading a vacuum cleaner instruction manual for all the sex he puts into his delivery. The next two works feature archetypal Madonna songs, first the power ballad “Borderline” followed by the especially strident “Express Yourself”. “Borderline” is recited from a bathtub, with one sad sack sitting pants-around-ankles on the toilet while the other talk-sings. In “Express Yourself”, the songbirds share a damp looking bed, covers pulled up to their chins like frightened children, while one man incongruously recites Madonna’s anthem to courageous self-determination.

The conflation of the men’s pathetic, run down lives and the glamorous pop lyrics is hilarious, but also acts as a sharp critique of the gulf between the fantasies pop music sells and the realities lived, or endured, by its millions of buyers.

Who are Beagles and Ramsay, and where can I get their album?

Split Decisions
Curated by Paul Wong
Vtape 401 Richmond Street, Suite 452 Until January 13