Still from You Were an Amazement When You Were Born

The cinematic world of video makers Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby is defined by live-action footage interspersed with rudimentary animations, simple musical compositions juxtaposed with pop hits, and narrated passages laced with existential wonder. The pair, who’ve been creating singularly playful yet somberly reflective experimental videos over the past 25 years, present “Amazements: Videos by Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby,” a program of their latest and past works, at the Block Museum of Art on Thursday, November 21.

A running theme throughout Duke and Battersby’s work is the paradox of comedy and tragedy as the perpetual conditions of existence. The engrossing You Were an Amazement on the Day You Were Born (2019) portrays the nearly 70-year-long life of a fictional woman named Lenore starting in the early 1970s and going up to the 2040s. Backed by a soundtrack of contemporaneous pop hits, the film uses a series of narrators spanning the ages nine to 69 to describe the pain, joy, loneliness suffered, and connections created in a life dedicated to the question “What does it mean to be a self?” The stories told are darkly comic, bitterly sweet, and often joyfully redemptive, as Lenore reflects back on her life to realize that, despite its devastating tribulations, “I’ve loved all of this so much more than I’ve hated it.”

The earliest of the works, Being F***ed Up (2000), shows some of the foundational stages of the duo’s practice. In it, a series of vignettes presents us with monologues reflecting on the “irreducibility of being alone” and the “fleeting triumphs leading to disillusionment” found in our interactions with those around us. It’s the sometimes illicit methods we use to cope with such disappointments that give the work its title.

Beauty Plus Pity (2009), in contrast, is a vibrant work of animation and live-action footage, though laced with the question of how to achieve virtue in a chaotic and painful existence. We’re led through the work by a band of animal “spirit guides” and a lonely hunter driven to find the beauty of closeness to other creatures through the only means he knows: killing them. (It’s he who explains the title’s allusion to Nabokov’s statement that “Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die.”) Our guides relay a vision of world inhabited by a senile God who stumbles about the world derelict in his duties as he grants all the wrong prayers and is spurned for his instability. Yet even in his absence the film suggests, the potential for achieving redemption, forgiveness, and meaningful connection remains.

With “Amazements” Duke and Battersby provide a largely engrossing and refreshing view of some of the fundamental questions of human existence, and even manage to have a bit of a laugh while doing it.  v